Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Holocaust Memorial Day

Following a post by a drunk trot here, in which Holocaust Memorial Day, is mentioned by remembering the Jews of Greece who perished at the hand of the Nazis, I thought I might talk a bit about my father-in-law. He is ninety years old and lives in Yehud, a town near Tel Aviv. "Yehud", ironically enough, used to be an Arab village, abandoned in 1948. The irony is in the name of the place, of course. Yehud, which replaced the Arab Yehudiyya (in literal Arabic: "place of the Jews").

My father-in-law was the eldest son in a family of ten. He had parents, three brothers and four sisters. They all lived in Salonika, Greece. The mother was either a Bulgarian Jew or a convert to Judaism, upon her marriage to my husband's grandfather. This detail is not quite clear. She had blond hair and very blue eyes, which my father in law inherited from her. My father-in-law , as a young man of eighteen, was conscripted into the Greek army and sent to the front with Italy. He was due to be released in a few days when war broke out, and he was taken prisoner of war by the Italian army. Along with other Jewish soldiers. Two years in an Italian prison camp and then when the Germans invaded Italy, his Italian guards released all the Jewish prisoners, fearful that the Germans would transport them to concentration camps. They advised them to head into the countryside rather than into the cities. My father-in-law attended this advice. He roamed the Italian countryside for four years, working on farms, anywhere he could find some shelter. He spent a year in the basement of a monastery. Some of those who gave him shelter knew he was Jewish, some did not. When the war was over, he headed back to Greece, to Salonika. He found one sister, who had converted to Christianity and married a policeman. She was saved because her husband's family concealed her identity. The rest of the family had been transported to Auschwitz, and that's the last that was known of them.

He boarded a Jewish Agency ship, which was clandestinely taking Jewish refugees from Europe to British Mandate Palestine. Again he had to put on a soldier's uniform and continue to fight. He was not an educated man, and worked wherever he could find someone to employ him. As a cobbler, a gardener, an unskilled worker, even a shepherd, for a time. He always voted for his economic interests. Whichever party offered him to keep a larger part of his meagre earnings, would have his vote. His two sons were named after his father and one brother. He has six grandchildren.

His memory is as sharp as his eyesight. Only in more recent years has he started talking about his family with strange frequency, taking out and showing whatever faded photos he had salvaged from his old house in Salonika. The surviving sister had two sons who immigrated to Venezuella. The two surviving branches of the family have not kept in touch.

In the post that triggered this little history, the author offers a traditional Sephardic romance by way of a tribute to a vanished community. But my father-in-law, who speaks Ladino, Hebrew, Greek, Turkish, Italian and some French, prefers to listen to rebetico, the music of the Greek urban working class. As do many of the Israeli Sepharadim, such as my parents.

Yehuda Poliker is an Israeli singer of Greek origin, son of Holocaust survivors. One of his first critically-acclaimed musical efforts was a recreation of rebetico in Hebrew. Here he sings "Apple of my eye", a love song, translated and adapted from the Greek.

When I met my husband at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he introduced me to Mikis Theodorakis' "Mauthausen cyclus", a composition describing in music the horrors of the German camp in Austria during WW2.

The ballad of Mauthausen is based on the experiences of the Greek/Jewish playwright Iakovos Kambanellis. He wrote four poems that Theodorakis set to music.

I mention Theodorakis in conclusion to this post and to this day, because it is fitting to do so, because in recent years he went from the gifted and cherished artist who created something beautiful that expressed profound sadness for Jewish fate, to making proclamations of this type:

We are two nations without brothers in the world, us [Greeks] and the Jews, but they have fanaticism and are forceful
Today we can say that this small nation [i.e., the Jews--not Israel] is the root of evil, not of good....

Talking of cycles.


At 10:31 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The oldest Jewish community in Europe was in the island of Rhodes, where it had existed continuously for over 2000 years.

Greek Jewish men were known for their toughness, while the women were natural aristocrats, famous for their exquisite manners and royal demeanour.

Few Greek Jews survived the Holocaust. One of the organizers of the deportations and murder was Alois Brunner, who after the war sought and received refuge in Syria, where he trained the Syrian Muhabarat.


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