Written by Jane Lawrence Friday, 19 April 2013 00:00
The tragedy that befell Jews living in Greece during World War II was poignantly told to about 600 people gathered at the Nassau County Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in Glen Cove on April 7, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, museum director of Kehila Kedosha Janina in New York City, who gave an historical overview of the story that has not been widely told, said that although the Jews of Greece have the distinction of being the longest Jewish presence in the European Diaspora, going back 2,300 years, they also have the unfortunate distinction of having the greatest percentage of Jews lost in any officially occupied country during WWII.
Greek Jews had had a good life. They were prosperous, well-educated, integrated members of Greek society. During the occupation that began in April 1941 there was an “illusion of safety,” said Ikonomopoulos. ”Families were close and wanted to stay together, opportunities to escape were not taken.” It was not until late in the war, March of 1943, that the deportations began. In a short period of time, eighty-seven percent of all Greek Jews had perished, primarily at Auschwitz-Birkenau. From Thrace, in the Bulgarian Occupation Zone, the number was over 98 percent.
“Today, there are about 5,000 Jews living in Greece, primarily in Athens or Salonica,” noted the Arye Mekel, Israeli ambassador to Greece, who flew in from Greece to mark the occasion. In his keynote speech, Mekel cautioned that in times of severe economic crisis, such as the case currently in Greece, there is a tendency for politics to lean radically to the left or right. During the past elections, 18 members of the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn, a party with neo-Nazi roots, were elected to the Greek Parliament. Despite this, Greek-Israeli relations continue to improve as the two countries are partnering together in such areas as defense and tourism.
In his welcoming remarks, Steven Markowitz, Chairman of the Board, described one of the missions of the center. “Our job is to honor the victims, honor the survivors, honor the rescuers and honor the stories,” he said, “and to tell the stories that haven’t been widely told.” State Assemblyman Charles Lavine remarked, “We solemnly gather today in strength to speak for those who cannot speak anymore. Our voices are their voices.”
The Holocaust Center is currently running a special exhibit, Portraits of Our Past: Greek Jews and the Holocaust. The exhibit of photography and artifacts documenting Jewish life in Greece before, during and after the Holocaust is provided by the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture and the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum. The exhibit will be on display at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, 100 Crescent Beach Road, Glen Cove, through August 15 and will challenge those who view it to never forget that which they might never have known. For further information, visit: www.holocaust-nassau.org.