Memorial marking anniversary of deportation of Jews from Thessaloniki
Memorial marking anniversary of deportation of Jews from ThessalonikiReuters

2,000 people held a silent march in Greece's second city Thessaloniki on Sunday, marking the anniversary of the departure in 1943 of the first train taking members of its Jewish community to the Auschwitz death camp, AFP reports.

Participants held white balloons bearing the message "Never Again". They gathered at the city's old railway station where that train pulled out on March 15, 1943.

Among those present for the 76th anniversary commemoration was Jurgen Haus, grandson of a German soldier, who expressed his "deep regret" for the actions of his Nazi forebears.

"I am here to break the silence... I love Israel, I cannot remain silent in the face of antisemitism," he said in a speech, according to AFP.

Holocaust survivors Heinz Kounio and Achileas Koukovinos were honored during the commemorations.

Thessaloniki had a thriving 50,000-strong Jewish community before World War II but there now remains only around 1,000 Jews. About 96 percent of the city’s 50,000 Jews were murdered in Nazi camps.

Before the deportations started the community in the city, which mainly comprised Sephardic Jews chased out of Spain in 1492, had developed to the point where it earned the nickname the "Jerusalem of the Balkans".

In recent years, Thessaloniki has held commemorations in mid-March, initiated by mayor Yannis Boutaris, to remember the first of the convoys of Jews rounded up and sent off to the camps from Thessaloniki's railway station. Sunday's turnout was the biggest yet, noted AFP.

Before that the fate of Greek Jews had become something of a taboo subject.

It was only in 2004 that teaching about the Holocaust became compulsory in Greece and ten years later that a monument would be erected at the site of the former Jewish cemetery which the Germans razed and where the city university now stands.

There are also plans to build a Holocaust museum in the city, funded in part by Germany.

Last year, President Reuven Rivlin visited to lay the first stone of the 7,000 square meter (75,000 square feet) Holocaust Museum.

However, anti-Semitism showed its ugly face again in January when the Jewish Memorial Cemetery in Thessaloniki was vandalized two days before Holocaust Memorial Day. That marked the third time in half a year that the monument was vandalized.