By professor Asher Matathias
On this Shabbat Rosh Hodesh Shevat, beginning of a new month, Parasha Va’era, Anna and I joined worship services at Temple B’nai Sholom, Rockville Centre, NY. It was a pleasure to be with our friend and gifted spiritual leader Rabbi Barry Dov Schwartz (generous in his remarks of support for my public position on the recent divisive, still lingering, Five Towns Vaad controversy), and his wonderful congregation. (Further, I was honored with a Torah aliyah, Shlishi, and Anna with a passionate rendition, in English, of the traditional prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel.)
The occasion had an added dimension in hosting Bishop Robert Harris of Uniondale, retired from the detective ranks, and, with Rabbi Schwartz, fellow chaplain of the Nassau Police Department. With several of his church members in tow, Bishop Harris took the pulpit to share timely insights on the relationship between African-Americans and Jews, in yet another commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.
Rabbi Schwartz was a young rabbinic student on August 28, 1963 when his now late, sainted mother made arrangements and urged his presence in the March on Washington, the non-violent demonstration that brought more than a quarter of a million people to Lincoln Memorial to press Congress on civil rights, and a date with history as MLK delivered his immortal I Have a Dream speech!
Speaking without notes, from the heart, Bishop Harris repeatedly made the obvious connection of shared victim-hood between blacks and Jews through the ages; the needed emphasis he provided was to stress the inherent Jewish recognition that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere! No surprise, then, that the annals of the civil rights movement contain an inordinate number of Jews, a percentage above and beyond their meager numbers in the general population! Such truths need to be often repeated, especially by black leaders, when, sadly, the ugly scourge of black anti-Semitism makes an incipient appearance …
In the evening, under the aegis of the Greek Consulate, and pursuant of Law 3218 / 2004, enacted sotto voce by the unicameral Parliament in Athens, and sponsored by the Argonauts Association of Magnisias Prefecture (Volos, Greece), the annual commemoration of the victims of the Shoa was held at the Stathakion Center, Astoria, NY. With nearly 180 people present, a documentary It Was Nothing … It Was Everything, reflections on the rescue of Jewish fugitives in Greece during the Holocaust was shown, after a well-received talk by this writer: The Jews of Greece: A Long History With a Future. Ample refreshments followed.
This emotion-packed event was made the more meaningful for having my Mom Nina, a true heroine of the times, introduced to sustained applause, but also for the initiative taken by organizations and individuals, chief among the them the associationʼs President Apostolos Zoupaniotis, publisher and editor of Greek News, a bilingual, independent newspaper which periodically features my articles. Among the many distinguished personages were: His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America (who, in turn, was effusive in his praise of my efforts, and gallant toward fellow Thessalonikian compatriot Mother Nina and daughter-in-law Anna); Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (presenting me a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition); John A. Catsimatidis, chair, of the 2007 Greek Parade Committee;
Also, Consul Sophia Veve, representing Catherine Bouras, Greek Consul-General in New York (recently ailing but recovering and having earned a newly-minted Ph.D. in England); local NYS Assemblyman Michael Gianaris; Dinos Rallis, from the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York; president of Kehila Kedosha Janina, the only Greek-speaking Jewish congregation extant in North America at 280 Broome Street, NYC, Marvin Marcus; Prof. Susan Drucker of Hofstra University’s School of Communication; Patricia E. Curran of the Catholic-Jewish Relations Council; Alec Mally, counselor of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations; Gary Gumpert, president of the Urban Communication Foundation; media representatives Dimitrios Rhompotis of Aktina at 91.5 FM and Electra of www.greece365.us and distinguished St. John’s University colleagues Rev. Dr. Robert Stephanopoulos, along with the couple Catherine Tsounis and Dr. John G. Siolas, and many others.
Teasingly, addressing Assemblyman Gianaris, I mentioned my early work to pave the way for Astoria having today a representative of Greek descent, gaining in 1974 the Republican and Liberal nominations, but losing the election. Establishing the unquestioned presence of Jews in Greece for millennia, I touched both on the irony of our family’s surname being attached to the hero of the ancient Hanukkah, an early attempt to suppress Jewish existence through compulsion and assimilation. The contrast with the Greek hero Alexander the Great was emphasized, even to the extent of having his name accepted and given to newborn Jewish boys and girls!
The tragedy of the Greek Shoa was preceded with the Thessaloniki great fire of 1917 and the transfer of territory between combatants Turkey and Greece in the Balkan War of 1912. The Holocaust witnessed both 87% destruction of Greek Jewry and the salvation of a similar percentage of Jews in Volos, our hometown! The latter achievement was made possible through the tripartite collaboration of city Archbishop Ioakim, Chief Rabbi Moshe Simeon Pessah, and, curiously, German Consul Helmut Scheffel. The last disclosed his compatriots’ murderous plans, warning Jews to scatter.
The Christian leader provided false identification certificates, including baptismal documents, while the rabbinic shepherd urged his flock to seek refuge in hiding amongst their non-Jewish fellows in the Mt. Pelion’s 24 villages. It was in one such, Ayos Lavrentios, under the protective custody of the family Stamos, that my eyes first gazed the world. Their heroism, for they faced mortal danger if discovered hiding Jews, and the kindness of the head of a German patrol, who found us and could have ended our existence, then spared us ordering a final “rouse,” “out” to his followers, never to bother us, are testaments to the faith of our species redemptive possibility even in the midst of unmitigated evil.
Others who inscribed eternal chapters of humane actions were Mayors Nicholas Saratsis and Loukas Karrer, Ilias Agdiniotis and Angelos Evert, all of Volos and Zakynthos, respectively; Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens and Greece, Bishop Chrysostomos of Zakynthos, and just common folk. Still, many, many were the victims … Three nations stand unique in saving a sizable number of their Jewish citizens: Denmark, Bulgaria, and an Axis ally, Italy! Imagine, a staggering 85% of Italian Jews survived; though 7,600 perished, 45,000 survived!
There are lasting lessons galore to extrapolate. Indifference and inhumanity must be combated, especially to confront frontally the evil of Holocaust deniers and, amazingly, the continuing threat of a member of the United Nations to perpetrate another such ghastly genocide by wiping the State of Israel off the map. All decent people must oppose such madness. Let us teach tolerance, empathy, compassion in the spirit of live and let live, eschewing religious fanaticism there, yes, but here, too. And, let us engage in open dialogue.