Discovering Our Jewish Roots in Greece
History of the Jewish-Greek Community Needs to be Shared
Just 5,000 Jews remain in Greece, a small fraction of the 50,000 that lived there when the Nazis invaded during World War II and wiped out much of the population. In Katerini, 33 Jews fled to Mount Olympus ahead of the Nazis’ arrival, where they hid for more than two years, supported by the goodwill of gentiles in their community. One of those Jews was the grandfather of Ronna Schneider, who recently came face-to-face with many of her Greek family members during The Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership (NYL) Cabinet Mission to Greece.
“Nobody ever talks about the Sephardic story from the Holocaust,” said Schneider of Cincinnati. “I didn’t know this was my family’s story, and it was very eye-opening and emotional. This is the history of the Greek-Jewish community, and it needs to be shared and passed on to the next generation.”
The NYL Cabinet mission, which included 45 Cabinet members from 26 communities around North America, was chaired by Nancy Kansler of New York and Jeffrey Barrack of Philadelphia. The group visited a range of historic sites that told the story of so many Jews in Greece, from Thessaloniki, a vibrant city brimming with Jewish life before the Nazi occupation, to the freight station where Jews were shipped off in cattle cars to their deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In Athens, Cabinet members met with Rosina Asser Pardo, one of many Jews who were hidden as children during the Holocaust by non-Jews. Asser Pardo was concealed for 548 days, saved when a single soldier turned a blind eye to protect her and her family. “Rosina’s story was a profound reminder that each of us, individually, has the extraordinary power to impact many in ways we cannot even see or know, from simple acts of kindness,” said Kansler.
The Cabinet got an up-close and personal perspective on the devastating economic and political crisis in Greece. Like many across the country, the Jewish community in Athens, which numbers about 3,500, is struggling to maintain its synagogues, schools, museums and soup kitchens. Many are unemployed and living below the poverty line, and what was once a community committed to supporting Israel and Jewish philanthropy, is now on the recipient end of global Jewish aid.
NYL Cabinet members visited Athens’ Jewish institutions, including a synagogue and day school, and met with community members – from children to the elderly – that are receiving support from Jewish Federation partners. The Jewish Agency for Israel recently committed to providing $1 million, over two years, to enable communal institutions to continue their operations, and support programs to strengthen the community’s ties with Israel and facilitate aliyah. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has committed $330,000 for rent subsidies, food and scholarships in Athens.
“Visiting this fascinating, yet encumbered, community made it obvious that one cannot distinguish between local and overseas needs. When it comes to Jews of the world, everything is local – their problems are our problems,” said Jack Maizel of San Diego, a NYL Cabinet member on the mission. “The Greek-Jewish community contributed in the past to the needs of world Jewry, never imagining they would need help in the future. Therein lies a great lesson for us – that is, if mutual responsibility and tikkun olam are not reasons enough to help.”
The group met with U.S. Ambassador Daniel Smith, Israeli Ambassador Arye Mekel and leaders in Athens’ Jewish community. The mission also toured Athens’ Jewish Museum, filled with more than 10,000 rare items from Greek history, and visited the towns of Veria, where a Jewish community has flourished since the 1st century, and Vergina, which boasts the burial site of the kings of Macedon, including the tomb of Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great.
“From our unique vantage point on the ground during our visit, we could better understand the headlines about Greece,” said Barrack. “We learned about the thriving historical Romanoite and Sephardic communities, whose children and grandchildren are now part of a vibrant community struggling with the current economic crisis.”
In addition to interaction with the Greek community, the trip included time for Cabinet members to strengthen bonds and connect with each other. Two Cabinet members even wedded in Athens, in a Jewish ceremony that followed their secular one 17 years ago. “Being with members of Cabinet who are committed to their communities and to the Jewish people are the most inspiring times I have,” said Brian Seymour, a mission participant and Cabinet member from Palm Beach County.
“Is there a future for the Jewish community of Greece? After this week, I say yes,” Seymour added. “The people we have met are resolved. They will survive the economic crisis and they will bounce back. Much like our Cabinet members, the leaders of the Greek-Jewish community, current and future, give me hope for our future and inspire me.”