By Catherine Tsounis
The winter of 2007 is providing culture to all. Exciting programs are presented to the community through the support of Greek-American societies. There is rebirth. This revival was enhanced by a unique Jewish Memorial organized by the Syllogos Nomou Magnisias “Argonaftes” on Saturday evening, January 20th, at the Stathakeion Cultural Center in Astoria, New York. A Commemoration program in honor of our Greek Jewish brethren, who lost their lives during the Holocaust, was shown to mainstream America. Dr. Asher J. Matathias, international educator/writer/journalist was the keynote speaker.
The occasion was sponsored by the Consulate General of Greece in New York, pursuant to Law 3218/2004 enacted sotto voce by the unicameral Parliament in Athens. The overwhelming success that attracted over two hundred persons was supported by the Press Office of Greece in Washington, D. C., who provided a documentary.
The Stathakeion cultural Center provided a projector and Vasilios Tentolouris of Mediterranean Food donated Vasilopitas for the annual celebration.
Prominent persons who attended included: His Eminence, archbishop Demetrios of America; Very Rev. Robert Stefanopoulos; Rev. Apostolos Koufallakis; Hon. Michel Gianaris, New York State Assemblyman; Hon. Carolyn Maloney, U.S. House of Representatives; Mr. John Catsimatidis, Chairman of the 2007 Greek Parade Committee; Mr. Dino Rallis, Public relations of the Federation of Greek Societies; Hon. Sophia Veve, Consul of Greece in New York and others.
A documentary entitled: “It Was Nothing…It was Everything”: Reflections on the Rescue of Jewish Fugitives in Greece During the Holocaust.” was shown.
Argonaftes Association President Apostolos Zoupaniotis carried out an outstanding evening that impressed all.
Closing remarks and the Cutting of the Vasilopita by Archbishop Demetrios ended this unforgettable night. Wine cheese, pastries and coffee were served to all. The Board of Directors of the Syllogos Nomou (Prefecture) Magnisias “Argonaftes” includes the following persons: Apostolos Zoupaniotis, president; Demetrios Kukurinis, vice-president; Alexandros Karpetis, treasurer, Alexandros Karpetis, treasurer; Alexandros Skotidas, secretary; Meta Kalabokas; Maria Kalogiros; Demetrios Lemonis; George Belegrinis; Stathis Natsis; and Socrates Savelides.
Apostolos Zoupaniotis refers to the keynote speaker as “my dear friend, Asher.” Professor Asher J. Matathias was born December 3, 1943 on a mountain cave outside Volos, Greece, while hiding from the Nazis. His family members perished in Salonikaʼs famed Sephardic community. He arrived with his family in New York on January 30, 1956, aboard the USS constitution, victim of shattering earthquakes. He is also affiliated with the United Sephardim of Brooklyn, New York. He holds a Bachelor of arts from Long island University, Master of Arts from the Graduate Faculty of the New School and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the New School. He served for more than three decades in the New York City public school system. He is an instructor at Manhattan College, a professor at St. Johnʼs University, supervisor of student teachers at Queens College/CUNY, a docent at the Holocaust Memorial $ Educational Center in Glen Cove and long serving president of L.I. Lodge #1353, BʼNai Bʼrith. He is married to Anna (Annoula), also from Volos since 1970, a father of three daughters and a grandfather.
No one expected such a positive, cheerful personality, who entertained us with his jokes and Greek songs. “I wanted to give my presentations mostly in Greek,” he said. “We are Greeks and have lived in Greece since the first century A. D. Our family is Romaniote Greeks and Sephardic-Spanish Jews who fled to Greece during the Inquisition of the Middle Ages.”
“This emotion-packed event is more meaningful because my Mother, Nina is here.” said the professor. “She is a true heroine of our times. In 1970, as a twenty-six year old bachelor, I had my first opportunity to return to my roots in Greece. I reflect upon the fateful moment when my heart and eyes met those of Anna on august 16th. She decided to leave Israel for the summer to visit her parents in Volos. Life has since taught us that love does not consist of gazing at each other—though we do that often, but of looking outward together in the same direction. We had a whirlwind romance- thirteen days from introduction to proposal and nuptials.”
I met Dr. Matathias in the halls of St. Johnʼs University speaking Greek and telling me “I am your Greek brother and ma more Greek than anyone.” I recall him as a young man during the Astoria of the 1970ʼs. He was running for the New York State Assembly in 1974. The late Rev. Dr. John Poulos brought him to St. Demetrios for a discussion. Anna (Annoula) recalls, “Asher had me knocking on doors with a one year old baby for his campaign.”
When Asher walks into a room, his positive, uplifting personality makes everyone smile. My late grandmother, Despina Pappas (Papantonakis) of Chios and Tseme, Asia Minor, was a survivor of the 1922 Greek Holocaust in turkey. All my life I would hear of the Megalh Katastrofh, ”The Great Catastrophe” that wiped out their ancient community. The memory of 1922 has been transmitted to every succeeding generation of our family that explains our devotion to the Greek orthodox Church and Hellenism. Despina Pappas, like Asher Matathias, loved music and had a positive, forceful personality. She would say, “if I do not sing I can not survive. I endured the trauma of losing my home and relatives, growing up as a refugee in Chios and immigrating to America.” Many of the Greeks in Macedonia and the Aegean islands are descendants of the Asia Minor refugees. They empathize with the Greek-Jewish community represented by Dr. Matathias.
“As for me, my personal saga began with my birth in a remote spot,” said the scholar. “Faith hope, love and always love, rising from the ashes of the Shoah. Despite the trauma of starting over, my parents embraced an uncertain future in the New World as immigrants who spoke no English. I praise G_d, inspired and humbled by the generosity of a land and its people worthy of the phrase ʽGod Bless America.” For more information, e-mail Dr. Asher J. Matathias at email@example.com.