As a 6-year-old in Greece, Sacramento developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos said, he watched his aunt dig her own grave before she was executed by the Nazis during World War II. Tsakopoulos, whose father served in the Greek resistance, said Greek villagers put up a fierce fight against the Nazi invasion, and often tried to protect their Jewish neighbors. Tens of thousands paid with their lives.
Now Tsakopoulos and former state treasurer Phil Angelides – two of the most influential Greek Americans in the nation – are raising alarms about the rise of Golden Dawn, a far-right party that’s gained a foothold in the Greek Parliament and hopes to win several seats in the European parliamentary elections later this month. Human rights groups describe Golden Dawn as a neo-Nazi group.
Last week, the Greek Supreme Court said Golden Dawn could participate in elections for European Parliament despite the fact that its leaders have been jailed on charges that they’re running a criminal organization, according to news reports.
Tsakopoulos and Angelides have joined a chorus of Greek American leaders and elected officials in denouncing Golden Dawn, whose adherents have been accused of brutally beating immigrants and Jews. Golden Dawn is part of a wave of extremist groups that have come to life in Hungary, Germany and other European nations, fueled by the economic crisis that depressed economies across Europe, Angelides said. He likened the rise of these groups to that of the Nazis in the 1920s and 30s.
“People are looking for a scapegoat, which is right out of the Nazi playbook,” Angelides said.
Angelides said he and Tsakopoulos are trying to raise awareness and are urging the Greek government to make “every legal effort” to isolate Golden Dawn and prevent its participation in the political system.
Golden Dawn got 7 percent of the vote and secured 18 seats in the Greek Parliament in 2012. Its slogans included “so we can rid this land of filth” and “revenge against the system,” according to a report released last year by the World Jewish Congress.
In December, nearly 50 people, including the leader of Golden Dawn, two police officers and five members of Parliament were arrested and charged with murder, blackmail, explosions and other crimes, Amnesty International reported. “In the past three years, there has been a dramatic escalation in hate attacks against refugees and migrants,” the human rights organization said. “Hate crimes have also been recorded against the Roma (gypsy) community and the LGBT community.”
The Golden Dawn website declares that amid the economic crisis, “the need of REAL Socialism and solidarity between the members of our Race becomes critical. In a country that has 25 percent unemployment ... Golden Dawn strengthens the unemployed, the sick, the poor, the big families.”
Tsakopoulos, 78, said when he saw the Golden Dawn flag resembling a swastika, “the first thing that flashed through my mind was when the Nazis hung 18 people in a town a half-mile away from mine.” He said the lynching was payback for a Nazi soldier shot during a surprise inspection of homes in the town.
Both Tsakopoulos and Angelides have a history of championing Jewish causes. Tsakopoulos said he pressed Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to sign agreements with Israel in 2013. Angelides worked with the Clinton administration to obtain $5.2 billion in restitution from German firms that forced Jews and others into slave labor during World War II.
Tsakopoulos said Golden Dawn’s condemnation of immigrants hits home with him in part because of his own experience. Tsakopoulos arrived in California at 15, got a job shining shoes, learned to farm and waited tables. At every turn, he said, teachers, farmers and customers went out of their way to help the newcomer, including one diner who taught him how to go into real estate. He subsequently amassed a fortune and become one of the region’s largest private landowners.
Approximately a million immigrants have come to Greece in recent years, including Bulgarians, Serbians, Albanians and Afghans, Tsakopoulos said. While Golden Dawn got its foothold blaming immigrants for the loss of jobs, “the cause of their problems is not the immigrants or the Gypsies or the Jews.”
Angelides said the dire economic situation in Greece is to blame, a situation exacerbated by austerity measures imposed by more prosperous European nations as a condition for providing an economic bailout. “In Greece today, they are in desperate times, and there is no prospect of it getting better,” Angelides said. “We ought to be urging the European nations to stop this senseless policy of austerity that’s driving these countries down.”
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Pete Basofin contributed to this report.