A Greek Tragedy (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Sephardi Holocaust survivors from Salonica want their pain to be remembered On a hazy morning in early March, a small group of men, all Greek Holocaust survivors, gather in the headquarters of the grimly named Organization for Survivors of Extermination Camps from Greece, located in a rundown building in the seedy neighborhood near Tel Aviv's central bus station. Up a dingy flight of stairs, past an apartment crowded with Asian women migrant workers eating breakfast, they sit in silence on white plastic chairs. Bonded by tragedy, faces etched in sorrow, they convene weekly to discuss bureaucratic matters, such as how to fill out forms for the latest restitution scheme or to socialize, speaking Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) over cigarettes and coffee. Among today's topics: how to pay the organization's bills and a proposed mid-May first-ever Sephardi heritage roots trip to the Greek port city of Salonica, which had a pre-World War II population of 56,000 Jews, and the Polish extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 98 percent of their pre-WWII community perished from gassing, forced labor, starvation and disease. Some 11,000 Greek Jews, out of a bustling pre-war population of 77,000, survived the Holocaust, a figure that includes the approximately 1,100 who returned from the death camps. About 250 death camps survivors currently live in Israel and belong to the Holocaust organization. Salonica's Jews were at once at the heart of the city's cultural and intellectual life and the most prolific Sephardi cultural and religious center. The extent of their annihilation and the community's destruction is comparable only to that of Poland's Jewish community. The travel plans to Salonica and Auschwitz are on hold, because a sponsor can't be found. The survivors grumble that it's more proof that the Holocaust has been "hijacked" by the Ashkenazi establishment, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe that has marginalized their experience. "With all the millions in Holocaust restitution funds, nobody wants to help," says maverick Sephardi historian-activist Prof.Yitzchak Kerem, 51, who is trying to organize the trip and whose quest for funding has so far been rejected by at least half a dozen philanthropic organizations. Kerem is so desperate to line up financing that he's even turned to some organizations whose agenda is not Holocaust-related; they've turned him down, too. According to Kerem, the term "Sephardi" refers to all Jews who follow the traditions of the Jews who were expelled from Spain and fanned out across northern Europe, the Middle East and the Orient. Though many who lived under the Nazi yoke suffered similar fates as their Ashkenazi co-religionists, Kerem notes, they have "different stories, with specific nuances." Kerem, who is an American-born Ashkenazi from Cleveland, Ohio, and has no blood connection to Greek Jews, shares the belief, widespread among Greek Holocaust survivors, that the Sephardi Holocaust experience has been treated as an afterthought by academics and in Yad Vashem memorial and remembrance projects, and that books, monuments and museums on the deportations and extermination of Salonican Jewry during World War II have only begun to appear in recent years. Nor has the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), given Greek Jews a fair shake, Kerem asserts. He does, however, acknowledge that the Conference provided a small grant to assist with the publication in 2005 of "The Shoah in the Sephardic Communities," an educational manual he helped write, which was published by the Sephardic Educational Center in Jerusalem, a Jerusalem teaching institute. Agreeing with Kerem, 82-year-old Auschwitz survivor Jacko Maestro, originally from Salonica, a retired mechanic who now lives in Bat Yam, says that much as they assumed leadership positions in the nascent days of the Jewish state, "so the Ashkenazim grabbed control and decided what would be remembered from the Holocaust." Yad Vashem spokeswoman Estee Ya'ari disputes the accusations of discrimination. "This is a completely distorted description of the reality today," she says and supplies a long list of projects on Greek Jews at Yad Vashem, including exhibits in the Holocaust History Museum of "photographs, artifacts, testimonies, deportation lists, Judaica and music." She notes there are 15 Righteous Among the Nations - gentiles who helped Jews - from Greece; there have been torch lighters on Holocaust Remembrance Day from Kavala, Corfu, Rhodes, and Salonica; that Greece is "very much represented in the Valley of the Communities exhibit; and that their history is taught in educational programs and films." And Hillary Kessler-Godin, director of communications for the Claims Conference provides The Report with a list of (relatively recent) initiatives on behalf of Greek survivors. She says the Conference has been approached by Kerem to sponsor the trip "but he has not submitted a formal application." But the survivors stand by Kerem and say that what they perceive as the churlish attitude towards their experience echoes their treatment in the camps over 60 years ago, where they felt doubly alienated." When we got to Auschwitz, we didn't know what hit us. We were not used to the Polish winter and could not speak Yiddish, Polish or German," says Maestro, who was 15 years old when he was deported to the death camp and, atypically, had managed to develop some fluency in German before the war. "Some Ashkenazim didn't even believe we were Jews." Bar-Ilan professor of Judeo-Spanish studies Shmuel Refael, who heads BIU's Center for Ladino Studies, dismisses talk of an Ashkenazi "conspiracy" to ignore Sephardi Holocaust suffering and says the reasons for the phenomenon are more complex. Between 1984 and 1988, Refael conducted over 300 survivor testimonies for the Greek survivor community's memorial anthology entitled "Routes of Hell: Greek Jewry in the Holocaust" and published by the Greek survivor organization in Tel Aviv. And his most recent book, "Judeo-Spanish Poetry in the Holocaust" is being brought out later this year in Spain by Tirocinio Press. Refael says that survivors are reacting as they are because of traumatic experiences suffered in Auschwitz where Greeks Jews did suffer uniquely, and were in German eyes, "the lowest of the low," he says. "They were Mediterranean Jews thrust into the icy Polish winter. They could not communicate, could not tolerate the weather, and they had a different physiognomy." But "sadly and wrongly," he goes on, the survivor community in Israel has transplanted the social structure of the camp, in which they were "the B class of the C class Jews" to the post-war period. He points to other reasons which contributed to the initial marginalization of the Greek Holocaust saga after the war: Greek survivor infighting; the contention that Holocaust scholars had to first concentrate on the destruction of many "larger" Ashkenazi European Jewish communities; and the prevalent - perhaps somewhat misguided - view in Israel that most Sephardim were unaffected by the Holocaust, or that the bulk of the community survived. Not surprisingly, Kerem, who tells The Report that he "has no special reason" to explain his lifelong professional passion for Sephardi Jewry, disagrees with positions such as Yad Vashem's or the Claim's Conference's and scholars such as Rafael. Salonica, he points out, had a Judeo-Spanish theater, press, secular literature, and music. With its destruction, the "very heart of the Sephardi world was ripped out." And whereas there's a tremendous focus on the Ashkenazi prewar shtetl, Kerem goes on, "nobody remembers" the destroyed Sephardi Spanish-Judeo culture of prewar Salonica. Kerem assigns equal blame to influential Sephardi Jews for the marginalization. The secular Sephardi establishment, both in Israel and around the world, has largely ignored the issue in education and memorial projects, he says, and the religiously-oriented organizations, such as the Shas Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, rarely draw attention to Sephardi Holocaust losses and view the Jews from North Africa as their constituency. Kerem initiated the idea of the trip to Salonica and Auschwitz late last year after learning about modest efforts, some successful, to bring Sephardi Israelis on memorial journeys to Auschwitz. One group involved ex-convicts from the Haifa area; another group consisted of high school students from the Beit She'an valley in northern Israel. So far, he says, some 80 survivors and their children have signed up for the weeklong trip for the Jews from Salonica, which will cost about $2,500 per participant for the two stops. Few participants can afford the trip, he says, and without sponsorship it probably won't take place. He admits that he's unsure whether Ashkenazi commemorative trips to extermination camps made by adults have been subsidized by Jewish philanthropies (generally they are not), but says the Greeks are different. Besides the devastation of Judeo-Spanish culture, the Holocaust "decimated the Salonica Jewish community, which was never rebuilt. Greek survivors, unlike their Ashkenazi counterparts, are generally not wealthy. They did not rise up from the ashes," says Kerem. Indeed, by 2005, the Jewish population of Salonica numbered 1,100 and 2,800 in Athens. Greece's Jewish community council, based in Athens, maintains "friendly ties" with the Greek survivor group in Tel Aviv, says survivor Maestro, but does little more than that. In his acclaimed 2005 book on Salonica, "City of Ghosts" (Alfred A. Knopf), Columbia University Prof. Mark Mazower writes that Jews "dominated the life of the city for many centuries. As late as 1912 they were the largest ethnic group and the docks stood silent on the Jewish Sabbath." In 1917, a great fire ravaged much of Salonica, leaving the Jewish community fragmented and impoverished; in 1923, with the advent of Greek nationalism, Muslims were resettled in Turkey and Orthodox Christians in Greece. Wary of Greek Christian anti-Semitism and accused of having an "Ottoman mentality," Jews felt caught in the middle. Mazower estimates that some 20,000 to 25,000 Salonican Jews left the city before the outbreak of the Second World War, but only about a quarter of those went to Mandate Palestine; the others left for France and the United States. The question of Jewish patriotism in Hellenized Greece weighed on Salonican Jews during the period between the two World Wars, which saw periodic outbursts of anti-Semitism, such as the translation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion into Greek, in 1928. In April 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Greece, King George II fled Athens, a pro-Axis puppet regime was installed and the country was divided into three different zones. Athens and certain islands fell under Italian control; eastern Macedonia, which included Thrace, was allocated to the Bulgarians; and the German army controlled Salonica. Third Reich officials were largely unfamiliar with Greek Jews. Mazower notes that Hitler's ideological commissar, Alfred Rosenberg, who was busy setting up a research center in Frankfurt for the study of world Jewry and wanted to know Salonican Jewry better, plundered the city's Jewish libraries and clubs, seizing "tens of thousands of books, archives, manuscripts and rare objects" to send back to Germany, shortly after the German occupation in April 1941. "To men more habituated to the world of East European Jewry, Salonica was unfamiliar territory," Mazower writes. Indeed, Mazower explains that Greeks and Jews were shocked by the Nazi regime's racial anti-Semitism, which included ghettoization, the wearing of the yellow star, frightening public spectacles of humiliation of Jews and, ultimately, genocide. But he also explains that economic rivalry and lingering religious anti-Semitism influenced a change in Greek attitudes. By the time the deportations started in March 1943, many among the local non-Jewish population found it economically and politically expedient to remove the Jews and seize their property. "Greek non-Jews were more than happy to get rid of us," recalls survivor Maestro. Bitterness toward Ashkenazim may be traced back to another source, admits Maestro: deeply negative views of Salonica's controversial chief rabbi Zvi Koretz, an Ashkenazi who was ordained in Vienna and held a doctorate in Arabic and medieval Islamic philosophy from the Hamburg Institute for Oriental Studies and was later accused by Greek survivors of being a collaborator (though archival documentation which turned up in the Joint Distribution Committee's New York office disputes this). Extract of an article in Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.