New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
A Kaddish (Prayer to the Living G-d) delivered by Professor Asher J. Matathias, was one of the most moving moments of the 3rd Annual Holocaust Remembrance presented by the Greek-American association, the Argonauts Association of Magnesia (the Magnesia Prefecture in Greece) held at the Archdiocesan Cultural Center in Astoria on January 18.
The fresh snow that was falling that evening evoked both the snow that might have fallen when Professor Matathias was born on December 3, 1943, in a cave of Mt. Pelion, outside Volos, while hiding from the Nazis, as well as new hope for peace in a world in which, in the words of the Consul General of Cyprus, Andreas Panagiotou, a speaker at the event, “there is no possibility of another Auschwitz”. “The memory of the Holocaust is much more than a cult of death,” said Mr. Panagiotou, “it is a call to the living, because to build a world in which there is no possibility of another Auschwitz depends on each and every one of us.”
Held under the auspices of the Ambassador of Greece to the US, Alexander Mallias, this nonpolitical honored the Hidden Children of Greeceʼs Nazi occupation — especially those of Volos — commemorated our Jewish-Greek brethren who fell, in the Holocaust, (Shoa in Hebrew) under the Nazi extermination machine, while honoring those Greeks in the general society who, with dire risk to their safety, reached out to assist, hide, and otherwise strive to save them. 280 Greeks have been recognized by as Righteous Among the Nations, i.e. the honor given by the State of Israel at Yad Vashem for all those having acted heroically to save Jews.
The Greek-Jewish loss, an 87% loss of population — 62,573 people — was the largest percentage of any European country experiencing demonic occupation of the Nazis and their extermination of Jewish populations. Volos, where more than 800 Jews were saved, witnessed the second highest percentage of Jewish survival in all of Greece.
In addition to Professor Matathias and Andreas Panagiotou, the speakers, introduced by emcee Demetra Savelides of the Argonauts Association, included the main speaker, Dr. Stephen Bowman, author and Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati; Dr. Mary Marangos for US Representative Carolyn Maloney; Consul General of Greece in New York, Ambassador Aglaia Balta; the Very Reverend Sevastianos Skordalos for Archbishop Demetrios of America; and Apostolos Zoupaniotis, President of the Argonauts Association. (Ambassador Mallias, Archbishop Demetrios, and Carolyn Maloney were in Washington DC for the events of the Presidential Inauguration.)
After acknowledging the on-going support for this annual project by His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Church of North America, Professor Matathias said, “It is a testament of the Argonauts’ valuable work that more in the Greek community, and the greater society, are now aware that to be a Greek-Jew is not an oxymoron”.
Making a poetic allusion, Professor Matathias, a board member of the Argonauts Association and chairman of the event, said, “In the spirit of today’s snow, that conjures images of purity and innocence — in Washington, the Inauguration of a new Administration and revived hope — let it symbolize the nature of friendship that we share.”
Quoting Louis Untermeyer, Matathias said, “The quality of friendship, unlike that of mercy, is continually being strained. But it is the essence of friendship that it can stand the strain. Friendship is like love at its best; not blind but sympathetically all-seeing; a support which does not wait for understanding; an act of faith which does not need, but always has, reason.” The Stamos family, in his case, said Matathias, was central in preserving human lives.
Dr. Mary Marangos, standing in for US Representative Carolyn Maloney, presented a Certificate of Congressional Recognition to the Argonauts Association in commemoration of the Greek Jews who perished in the Holocaust and the Hellenes who saved countless lives in World War II.
Consul General of Cyprus, Andreas Panagiotou, said, “In the Jewish tradition, it is said, “he who saves a life is as if he saved the entire world”. In honoring the heroic people of Magnesia all the Greeks and non-Greeks all over Europe who contributed to the survival of the Jews are simultaneously honored, said Mr. Panagiotou, who noted the special relationship which still exists today between the people and governments of Israel and Cyprus following the special role played by the Cypriots who offered overwhelming support and assistance to 1800 detainees to escape to Israel.
Consul General of Greece Ambassador Aglaia Balta spoke first in Greek, saying that because the day was an emotional one for her she wished “to better express from the heart” her deep feelings about the horrific actions of the Nazis against the Jews. She announced the Greek government’s ambition to have completed a permanent exhibition of the presence of Greek Jews in Auschwitz, along with the publication of a book of photographs on the Greek Holocaust to be offered as part of the Consulate’s own commemorative program in early February. The International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the United Nations will be on January 27, the day in 1945 that Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz inmates.
The Very Reverend Sevastianos Skordalos, noting that the word “Adam” in Hebrew is translated as “human being”, said, “We are all brothers and sisters of one father, Adam, and we come together, whether we are Jews or Christians, Muslims or other religious groups, to celebrate human life. What makes a person great is not his wealth, professional career, or fame, which all can be lost. What really makes a person great is the greatness of a personʼs spirit”. He went on to say that, “St. Basil the Great, whose name day we celebrate on the first of January said, ʽno one can be saved unless his salvation goes through his neighbor.ʼ Our salvation depends on our neighbor. Never forget that.”
Dr. Steven Bowmanʼs highly informative talk evoked the contributions of Greek Jews in a myriad of fronts — economic, political, military, strategic intelligence, and resistance during the advent of the Italo-German occupation. Among many other points, he said that in the main, it was a struggle of survival tinged with heavy doses of idealism that was even transformed in some instances to the incipient insinuation of Communist ideology. Greek Jews fought with common heroism, and whether as martyrs, or captured and condemned to die in crematoria, singing the Greek National Anthem along with the Zionist Hatikvah, every Jew’s hope for redemption and a homeland. Indeed, some survivors, a decreasing number clinging to life, fled for permanent refuge in the fledgling State of Israel.
Dr. Bowman said that in 1943 131 of the nearly 900 Jews on Volos were captured by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz, there to find their deaths in exile from their homeland. The names of those deported can be found in the Biblio Mnimis issued by KIS in 1979. Dr. Bowman gave a breakdown of events and personalities in Volos, describing among others factors, the movements of the antartes and antartisses (guerilla fighters) and fascinating anecdotes about some key personalities among them.
“The tragedy of the destruction of the Jewish communities of Greece by the Nazis and their Bulgarian allies is sad, and so the commemoration on January 27 is a proper memorial to them that we honor today. But Jews were Greeks as well and fought for and died as Greeks in the blood soaked camps of Europe and served, as well as died, in the mountain and plains of their patrida (homeland). That aspect of their wartime fate should be honored as well,” said Dr. Bowman.
In his concluding remarks, Apostolos Zoupaniotis, president of the Argonauts Association, noted that this event, which coincided with worldwide events honoring the Holocaust, is the only event independently organized in the Greek American Community, thanks to the great inspiration of Asher Matathias.
This nonpolitical commemoration carried a powerful message of brotherhood, friendship and reconciliation to every one, said Mr. Zoupaniotis. “And although there have been people questioning our decision to have the event while there was a war going on in Gaza, I think we did the right thing by proceeding because our message of peace and reconciliation applies there, too. The fact that a cease -fire began on the day of our event, I take as a message from God. And my only hope is that everybody will use the opportunity of the cease-fire for a permanent peace in the Holy Lands.”
Mr. Zoupaniotis stressed that every nation that has committed such crimes should take the step to recognize them and apologize to the victims. “Turkey is such an example and should immediately recognize the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians and the massacres and genocide of more than a million Greeks in Asia Minor.”
Ms Demetra Savvelidis was the eventʼs M.C..
At the end of the program Serapheim Lazos, a specialist of the entechno (Greek art song), performed Theodorakisʼs Ballad of Matthausen, whose heartbreakingly sad lyric poems, The Song of Songs, Andonis, and The Fugitive, by renowned Greek poet, Iakovos Kampanellis, himself a survivor of the Matthausen concentration camp.
The group were then invited to the lower level of the Center for a buffet supper and the traditional cutting of the New Yearʼs Vasilopita.
Among the distinguished guests were Polyxeni Mastroperrou, Director of the Greek Press and Communication Office in New York; Maria Zoupanioti, Director of the Cyprus Press and Communication Office in New York; James Aldorado of the Office of the New York State Senator; Meta Kalamboka, member of the Argonauts Association; Paul Skotidas, Dr. Catherine Tsounis and Dr. John Siolas, both of St. John’s University; Rabbi Moses Birnbaum, immediate past president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis; Patricia Curran and James Li of the Catholic-Jewish Relations Council; Marvin Marcus, president of Kehila Kedosha Janina, the only Greek-speaking congregation extant in North America, and Jeffrey Wiesenfeld.
Professor Asher. J. Matathias, who arrived with his family in New York in 1956, is an adjunct professor of political science at St. John’s University and Supervisor of student teachers at Queens College-CUNY. He is affiliated with United Sephardim of Brooklyn (New Lots) and is a frequent public speaker on current events, American government and politics, and the Shoa.
Dr. Steven Bowman, the author of The Jews of Byzantium, Jewish Resistance in Wartime Greece, and The Agony of Greek Jewry During World War II, is a Miles Lerman Fellow at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. He teaches, travels, and lectures nationally and internationally on the Jews and Greeks as the double helix of western civilization. He instituted and is editor-in-chief of the Sephardic and Greek Holocaust Library.