Thessalia Salina Shambos never planned to be a diplomat.
For as long as she can remember, she wanted to be a physician and actually completed four years of medical school in Scotland. But today, the 42-year-old Shambos is the first female ambassador of Cyprus to be stationed in Israel, since its embassy opened here in 1994.
After four years of medical studies, she began to question her decision and went to New York, where her father, Alexandros Shambos, a 40-year career diplomat, headed Cyprus’s permanent mission to the UN.
She interned with the UN and began working with human rights groups, through which she became friendly with Jews who had managed to get out of Russia.
She told her father that her intense interest in international affairs had caused her to reconsider what to do with her life.
He told her that he trusted her intelligence and knew that she would choose what was right for her.
Over lunch at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, Shabos said that she grew up with a feeling for Israel and for Jews. Her mother was born and raised on the Greek island of Zakynthos, where Jews had lived peacefully for centuries. Her mother had told her that there was such mutual respect between the Jews and the rest of the population that her grandfather would ask the children not to make noise on Saturdays, so as not to disturb their Jewish neighbors on their Sabbath.
Zakynthos’s Jewish community came to the attention of the Germans in the latter part of 1943, when they occupied the island. The Nazi commander asked mayor Loukas Karrer to provide him with a list of all the Jews. He consulted with the bishop, Chrysostomos, and they decided to send a letter to Hitler via the German commandant, saying they would not betray the Jews, who were their people like all the other Greeks on the island.
The commandant was unimpressed and continued to demand a list, which he sent to Berlin. Meanwhile, the Christian residents of the island took the Jews into their homes and hid them. The result was that, unlike the majority of Greek Jews, the 275 Jews of Zakynthos were not deported to Auschwitz.
The Nazis left the island October 1944, without having taken a single Jew into captivity.
Shambos recalled another story of the British detention camps, to which Holocaust survivors captured trying to reach the Land of Israel through the British blockade were sent by the British.
Several hundred babies were born in these camps prior to Israel’s independence, and one of them, Zahavit Blumenfeld of Ramat Gan, told the ambassador that she would like to see the place where she was born.
The problem was that it is now a military camp, which civilians are not permitted to enter.
Shambos contacted her country’s Ministry of Defense and last month Blumenfeld went to the base, received VIP treatment from the army, and enjoyed an experience that she will never forget.
WITH A political science degree from Pace University in New York and a master’s degree in political science from Stockholm University in Sweden, Shambos joined the Cyprus diplomatic service in September 1998. She initially served for four years in the home office, with a focus on issues such as human rights, the status of women, and global terrorism.
Her first overseas posting was in Athens, where she served as deputy head of mission, also covering Romania and Albania.
Her second overseas posting was to Italy, where she served as deputy head of mission and consul-general at the Cyprus Embassy in Rome. She was simultaneously accredited to Malta, the Swiss Confederation, and San Marino.
Two years later, in September 2008, she returned to Cyprus and was appointed deputy director of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of Bilateral Relations with European Union partners and neighboring countries.
She was also responsible for the Eastern Europe, Russian Federation, and Central Asian desks. A year later, she was promoted to head the department.
She held this position until July of this year, when she was notified of her appointment to Israel. Shambos had never been to the country before, although she knew a great deal about Israel’s history and Jewish customs.
Almost immediately after taking up her position, her first as ambassador, she published some of the joint history of Cyprus and Israel on the embassy’s website.
“Once again,” she wrote, “our two peoples and countries are in an age of rediscovery and bond building. It is a rediscovery, because the knowledge of one another had been there, and had been developing for many years. Cypriots have been coming to Israel for years and for many different reasons: religious, economic, medical, and family reasons, which today amounts to a veritable diaspora.
“Most touching, of course, are the cases of human suffering and solidarity. Over the decades hundreds of Cypriot families received medical help in Israel.
Many have been cured. But all were touched by the humanity, the genuine love and warmth that they received from people in Israel in their time of need.
These families, in their suffering and difficulties, became the best and most genuine ambassadors for Israel in Cyprus.
“During the last few years, political relations between our two countries flourished into an unprecedented partnership.”
Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades is scheduled to visit Israel on November 13. He has paid two visits recently, the most recent in June, followed by a visit to Cyprus six weeks later by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to Shambos, there is tremendous chemistry between Anastasiades and Netanyahu and the two like each other. She notes there is much to the bilateral relationship, such as tourism, trade, agriculture and hi-tech.
On weekends Shambos makes every effort to be a full-time wife and mother to her husband, geneticist Dr. Stavros Bashiarde, and their two sons, Phaedon, four and a half, and Alexandros, two and a half, and makes a point of reading bedtime stories to her sons in English.
Because of her own country’s struggle for survival and independence, she can easily identify with Jewish and Israeli aspirations and experience, adding that most Cypriots can, too.
“For us the Jewish people tried to make a homeland, and hopefully live in peace and security.
We all have a common enemy that creates a reason for regional cooperation. When you tackle security it is an important factor in creating a political horizon.”
The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference will take place on November 18 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Jerusalem.