New York.- By Rebecca Papadopoulou
Bitter memories of the Jewish Holocaust revived during the 5th Holocaust Remembrance of the Argonauts Association of Magnesia, on Sunday, January 23rd, at the Stathakeion Center in Astoria, NY. The event’s main speaker and the son of a Holocaust survivor from Thessaloniki, Dr. Isaac Benmayor, gave a short account of his family’s Odyssey during the German Occupation of Greece. Dr Benmayor is the author of a book “The Holocaust in Salonica: Eyewitness Accounts”.
The event was under the aegis of the Ambassador of Greece to the United States, Vassilis Kaskarelis.
The main speaker gave a short description of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki – mostly Sephardic – after its liberation from the Turks in 1912.
When the German army invaded Greece, it was very easy for them to identify and separate the Jews of Thessaloniki from their other Greek neighbors, due to their accent and language. Mr. Benmayor emphasized that in the Thessloniki community the attachment to family life was most important, as a result it was difficult for young men to abandon their parents to escape from the Nazis, even when they were given the chance. He argued that the severe famine throughout the country during 1941 and 1942 also made it difficult to escape as not many people had the money to leave Greece.
Mr. Benmayor said history often generalized that the Jews were “led to the slaughter like sheep.” However he argued that in his view this was incorrect and gave several examples of resistance, such as the revolt by Greek Jews in the Birkenau camp in September of 1944, when they refused to perform their duties, and again in October of the same year it was Greek Jews who blew up the crematorium. He stressed that it was important to note that those who could, did resist and those who joined the Greek Army did fight against their oppressors.
He also addressed how the Greek civil war that followed World War II prohibited Holocaust survivors from rebuilding families at home. He gave the example of his Father who fought in the Second World War.
His father was taken to Auschwitz, and later was drafted into the Greek Army where he fought in the civil war against the Leftist Resistance (amongst them his brother), which ironically had worked during World War II to help Greek Jews escape the Nazis. Mr. Benmayor said that in his view, people today can only imagine what must have been going through the minds of the Greek Jews while they witnessed the destruction and decimation in the camps.
Archbishop Demetrios of America congratulated the “Aergonauts” for their effort and he recalled his own bitter memories of the German Occupation in his hometown Thessaloniki. Archbishop Demetrios pointed out the ages old Jewish presence in Thessaloniki described by Paul the Apostle.
“Jews are an integral part of Thessaloniki’s population and a 2.000 years old history cannot be erased”, he said.
Archbishop Demetrios pointed out the common heritage Judaism and Greek Orthodoxy share proving thus that despite the existence of some anti-Semitic elements, Greek Orthodox are not anti-Semites.
The president of the event’s organizing committee Professor Asher Matathias (a member of the Argonauts’ board of directors) spoke of the need to launch an “Affirmative Action” in order to advance Inter-Communal Education and Tolerance.
Professor Matathias was born in a cave of Mt. Pelion while his parents were hiding from the Nazis.
“For a fifth year, we gather in solemn convocation to remember Jewish compatriots of the increasingly-recognized Greek Shoa, while honoring non-Jews, both high-profiled and simply citizens, who found the courage to resist the Nazis and their collaborators by protecting and thus saving thousands. The names Chrysostomos, Damaskinos, Evert, Ioakim, Karrer, even the German Consul Scheffel, have long-entered the pantheon of Righteous Among the Nations; while Phroso and Yorgos Stamos, shepherding the newly-married Jacob and Nina Matathias to their Mt. Pelion refuge, have made possible this chair to now address you”, he said.
Professor Matahias condemned Anti-Semitic incidents in Greece, including the latest comments by Metropolitan Serafim of Piraeus and the vandalism of the Jewish Synagogue in Hania.
“We share in the homophonous phrase that NEVER AGAIN must we permit the prospect of another Holocaust. More, we shall neither be silent not indifferent — as the good Germans in the 1930’s were when their country’s cities were depopulated of Jews — and allow the reputation of our native land to be sullied by prejudice perpetrated in our name on immigrants, Moslems, and Jews. Let us unite to create a lasting environment where respect, friendship, and even love can thrive; to live and let live.”
Professor Matathias’ proposals included,
– The acknowledgement of major Jewish holidays in the Greek American Community
– Retire and resist anyone who continues to repeat the deicide charge (that Jews killed Jesus); when raising the decibel of discussion, calling it Χαβρα Ιουδαιων, a pejorative reference to the ostensible noise in a temple; and the impulse to ascribe to Jews blame for everything thusly,
– The blood libel, so carelessly voiced recently by a public figure must not be hurled towards Jews; it is an abomination to Clio, the Greek muse of history
– Comprehensive Holocaust studies programs are overdue in Greek parochial schools, and in curricula in Greece.
The event’s program was presented by Apostolos Zoupaniotis, Publisher of the “Greek News” and Vice President of the “Argonauts”. In his remarks he explained that these events are necessary to keep memories alive, because we should never forget the horrors of Holocaust.
Recalling the massacre of the Milians by the Athenians he said that under certain circumstances every nation is capable of genocide against another.
“But, when these crimes take place, not only the nations responsible ought to recognize them and apologize to the victims, but also make sure to never repeat them.”
Zoupaniotis praised the leadership of Chief Rabbi Moshe Pessah in Volos for leading his people to safety, while in Thessaloniki, Rabbi Korentz, called by his own people a traitor, provided German authorities with the list of all the Jews living in town.
The speaker presented the personal story of one of the unknown heroes of Volos. National Liberating Front’ Special Unit leader Kostas Beloyiannis, who created all the fake id cards used by the fleeing Jews of Volos. Beloyiannis – today 96 years old – was imprisoned after the liberation for his leftist ideas while his sister Eleftheria was executed.
“Mr Kostas Beloyiannis told me it made no difference to him that he was assisting non Christians. He was just doing his duty as a human being, helping Greek brothers and sisters who just happened to be of different religion. He has never regretted it and he would do it again today.”
The Vice President of the association expressed pride for “Argonauts” being the children and grandchildren of such great people and belonging to the Greek nation; “a nation always aligned with the forces of freedom, always aligned with the underprivileged. A nation that also fall victim of genocides and purges.”
He stated that the best way for combating anti-Semitism is through joint efforts by Jews and Christians to combat all kind of intolerances and persecutions.
“My vision is, following this event, along with Professor Matathias, the Panpontian Federation and the Hellenic Federation to start working together on the issue of the recognition of the Pontian Genocide. To sensitize Jewish American Community on this issue along with the religious freedom issues of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek Orthodox living under Turkish occupation in Cyprus.”
By doing that, he explained, “we will get stronger in fighting the few anti-Semitic elements in the Greek American community and the Greek Society in General.”
Discarding those who try to present Greece as an anti-Semitic Society he stressed that even when anti-Semitic incidents occur in Greece, they face strong condemnation such as in the case of recent comments by Metropolitan Serafim.
“Please, show me any other country, where the whole Hierarchy of the Church condemned with an official statement one of its own members, Metropolitan of Piraeus for his anti-Semitic comments. And of course similar statements were made by the Prime Minister and the government of Greece.”
The event started with a prayer offered by Archbishop Demetrios, followed by the prayer in the memory of the victims (Caddish) offered by Rabbi Bruce Ginsburg, from the Congregation Sons of Israel, Woodmere, NY.
Elias Tsekeridis President of the Federation of the Hellenic Societies in his remarks praised the Argonauts for remembering Holocaust and its victims and called on everyone to show the same sensitivity in the efforts to recognize the Genocides of the Greeks of Asia Minor, the Pontians and the Armenias.
The President of the Argonauts Association Demetra Savelidis greeted all present at the event in commemoration of the victims of Holocaust and to honor those who saved the majority of the Jewish Community of Volos.
New York State Assembly Member Araavella Simotas shared the impressions from her recent visit in Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum Yad Vashem.
NY State Senator Michael N. Gianaris in a written statement commended the Argonauts Association of Magnesia for continuing to organize an event that sends such strong messages against hate and intolerance.
“We must remember the importance of working together in order to achieve a greater understanding of one another, not only in our own community but in communities throughout the world.”
Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney in her message expressed support and admiration for the “Argonauts”.
“The Jews of Greece were among the most severely persecuted by the Nazi regime. It is heartening to know that Metropolitan Ioakim, Mayor Saratsis, the Greek Resistance, and other heroes made it possible for 80% of the Jews of Magnesia to survive the Holocaust.”
Consul of Greece in New York Evangelos Kyriakopoulos conveyed the greetings of Consul General Aghi Balta and read the message of Ambassador Kaskarelis to the event.
Please accept my heartfelt congratulations for continuing for the fifth consecutive year to honor and commemorate the loss of so many of our Jewish Greek brothers and sisters during the Nazi Holocaust.
“The Greek Jewish community has been an integral part of Greek history and culture for thousands of years. Despite their devastation during World War II, they continue to play a vital role in Greek life, as their members thrive within their broader communities.”
Kaskarelis pointed out that he has made his mission “to also reach out to the Jewish American community to establish open, frank and productive communication channels. I had the opportunity to emphasize to Jewish American organizations the mutual benefits of such a relationship, articulating precisely the same message to the Greek American community. We are currently witnessing a remarkable boost in relations between Greece and Israel.”
Consul General of Cyprus IN New York reminded the audience of Cyprus’ own contribution and assistance to the Jewish Refugees trying to reach Israel and have been held imprisoned in British Camps on the island.
She has also read the message of the Cypriot Ambassador to U.S. Pavlos Anastasiades who salutes the Argonauts Association of Magnesia for this commendable initiative.
“We come today within this commemoration with a promise that we will never forget and that we shall always remember the lessons learned from the Holocaust … the least we could do to do justice to their memory.”
The event was also attended by Marcia Haddad-Ikonomopoulos, Kehila Kedosha Janina Museum Director, Marvin Marcus, President of the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue, Oren Drori, Program Manager of B’nai B’rith’s Office for U.N. Affairs and Rabbi Moses A. Birnbaum of the Kew Gardens Hills Jewish Center.