The Holocaust memorial in Athens

The Holocaust memorial in Athens in the shape of a broken Star of David


It has taken nearly 70 years, but tomorrow, as the sun sets over Athens , a monument to honour Greece's Holocaust victims will finally be unveiled.

Athens is the last EU capital to commemorate those who perished at the hands of Nazi forces.


"To get here has been difficult but now it is done the message is simple. We have not forgotten and we will not forget," said Benjamin Albalas, president of the Jewish community in Athens.


Greece lost more of its Jewish population in the Final Solution, proportionately, than almost any other country in Europe during the second world war. Around 65,000 men, women and children were dispatched to their deaths in Auschwitz between 1941 and 1944.


An estimated 1,000 Athenian Jews were packed off to the concentration camp in April 1944 after thousands fled or went underground. Arriving there after a two- week train journey, they were met by Dr Josef Mengele. "He selected 320 men and 328 women for his own 'research,'" writes the historian, Mark Mazower, in his book Inside Hitler's Greece . "The others were immediately gassed and burned in crematoria."


What remains of the country's Jewish community today had campaigned long and hard for the memorial to be erected. The quest began in earnest last year when the municipality of Athens donated a prime piece of real estate, overlooking the ornate cemetery where Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration in honour of the Athenians killed during the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC. Few areas resonate as much with the ideals of freedom, equality and democracy.


More symbolically, the site is also close to the synagogue in Melidoni street where, under a ruse of food hand-outs, the Jews of Athens were trapped and captured by the Germans.


The acclaimed Greek-American artist DeAnna Maganias conveyed what the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel describes as "man's inhumanity to man" in a plaque on the site. Carved in the form of the Star of David acting like as compass, the sculpture points to the cities and villages across Greece from where tens of thousands of Jews were gathered and deported. The community chose it on the basis of its "simplicity" and "ingenious design".

"In keeping with the Jewish tradition it symbolised death and the memory of death in a quiet and calm way," said a committee member who oversaw an international competition for the memorial. But the marble monument, which is set in a herb garden, is also about healing. While six of the work's pieces are triangular, conjuring broken-off pieces of the star, the central piece, a massive hexagon block, remains intact and is reminiscent of rejuvenation and survival.


"The herbal garden is a symbol of healing and place," said Maganias. "The idea is that people walk around the monument. The orientation of the star, engraved with the names of cities and towns from which victims were deported and the smell from the herbs aim to act as a catalyst of memory."

The unveiling of the monument comes against a backdrop of growing attacks against Jewish targets in Greece . In January Crete 's historic synagogue was firebombed twice following the vandalism of cemeteries nationwide. Constantine Plevris, a prominent neo-Nazi accused of inciting racial violence with a book glorifying Hitler, was also acquitted by the supreme court.


"Incidents of antisemitism are definitely on the rise and our fear is they will increase with the economic crisis afflicting Greece ," said David Saltiel, who heads the Central Jewish Council representing the country's 7000 strong community.


"We feel especially depressed by the decision of the supreme court. This monument, which as a community we dedicate to this city, is a reminder of what can happen when a society loses its tolerance for people who are different."


Mary Michalidou, an expert on monuments in Greece , agrees that Athens ' Holocaust memorial is long overdue. "But," she says, "while it should have happened earlier, its location aesthetically and symbolically couldn't be better. It will now rank among Europe 's best Holocaust monuments.


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