Emily Isaacs Udler visited Greece in order to re-discover her Jewish roots. Below is what she found out during her trip.
I have just returned from 10 days in Greece . The idea for the trip arose out of a conversation with a dear couple of former-Brazilian friends from Rehovot as we sipped our afternoon coffees at Cup O’Joe. They slowly organized a small group and I found an experienced guide so that all in all our group consisted of 5 former-Brazilians (4 of whom were from Porto Alegre and were friends of Avi’s, and a former-Brazilian woman from Sao Paolo), a former-Hungarian doctor and myself. The languages spoken in the van were Hebrew, Portuguese, Yiddish and English, and outside the van – lots of Greek. So we had many jokes in Yiddish, a lot of laughs, lots of translations and even some misunderstandings.
Our main route was from Athens towards the northwest to Delphi, to high snow-covered mountains where we had a snowball fight, up towards Metzovo a village settled by Romanians, to Ioannina, Zagoria, Kastoria, Meteora (the hanging monasteries), Thessaloniki , Larissa and back to Athens – close to 2000 kilometers .
Ostensibly this was to have been a relaxing sight-seeing vacation. In actuality, it was a vacation, sometimes relaxing and full of beautiful sights, but for me the shadow of the Jewish Greek Holocaust loomed large. Pre-WWII there were 77,102 Jews, and afterwards 9,951 (87% of the communities were annihilated).
As most of you know, I was born in Ioannina, and coming back was filled with excitement and anxiety. The Jewish community is one of the oldest, dating back over 1500 years. In pre-WWII the community numbered 1850; only 163 survived.
Upon arriving on Friday at noon, I was eager to go to the ancient cemetery. Unfortunately, the tombstones are covered with a thick layer of foliage which, when removed, revealed illegible engraving. I was not able to find the grave of my Uncle Menachem Bessos (d. 1938), my paternal grandfather’s brother who died before the war, nor the grave of my aunt Tica Bessos (d. 1951), my mother’s eldest brother’s wife who died after the war. In 1990, I had been able to locate them. There is no listing of those buried or their location. There is a monument for the entire community, at which I was able to light a memorial candle.
We then went to the beautiful synagogue, inside the Castro (the Turkish walls), and a lovely local woman gave us a thorough explanation about the synagogue and the customs. The names of all those that died in Auschwitz were painstakingly engraved on the walls of the synagogue. And there I found the names of my family:
Michael Bessos – my maternal Grandfather
Annetta Bessos – my maternal Grandmother
Reveka Bessos – my Aunt, my Grandmother’s sister
Haim Yitzhak – my paternal Grandfather
Mazal Tov Yitzhak – my paternal Grandmother for who I am named
Anna Yitzhak – my Father’s sister – died in Auschwitz one day before the liberation
Avraham Yitzhak – my Father’s brother
It is difficult for me to describe my feelings, seeing the names of the people I had heard so much about during my childhood, engraved on these walls.
The community now numbers 30 – most of whose children are in Israel . Every day the community office manager calls each and every one of the households to see if they have gotten up and are alright. They really try to look after each other. Sadly despite the four men in our group, there was no Minyan for Friday night Tefila.
From there we went to the hotel. I dressed for Shabbat and took my candles to light at the home of a lady who had been in Auschwitz with my Mother. It was very moving. We spoke for hours, and afterwards a former American with roots in Ioannina who recently moved back to Ioannina and is making a film on the community, came to visit me and take me for a walk. It was very interesting to hear of his work recording the details of Jewish Romaniote life.
I enjoyed walking around town speaking Greek, and was thrilled to hear that my spoken Greek is excellent. However, having left Greece at 2 years and 3 months old, I never learned how to read or write. So before going on the trip, I pulled a Greek alphabet off the Internet and thus was able to read most of the signs – as soon as I read them, I understood them!! But it was really exhausting, and I felt that I had an information overload. I had to close my eyes periodically because if they were open, I would try to read.
Standing on the shores of Lake Pamvotis I imagined seeing the huddles masses – 1,950 cold and frightened Jews waiting to be transported – most never to return. Leaving Ioannina on March 25th 2012 , 68 years to the day after the entire Jewish community was deported, was very poignant for me.
The next city with a Jewish presence was Kastoria which numbered 900 pre-WWII and afterwards only 45. I did not meet anyone from the community here.
Arriving in Thessaloniki we went to the Tobacco Hotel. I was astounded to see a Mezzuzah on the doorpost and subsequently found out that it was owned by a Jewish family. Coincidentally or not, it was the nicest hotel of all that we stayed at. Thessaloniki was the largest Jewish community, numbering 56,000 pre-WWII and 1,950 afterwards. Today there are 800-900 people, and they have an active community. We met an architect who guided us through parts of the Jewish city. He told us something that none of us knew. He said that the Germans had given the Jews certificates of ownership of plots of land in Poland in order to trick the Jews into thinking they would be going to a good place. After so many years he still said it with an expression of pain. But today the community is active and he sings in the Jewish community’s chorus and invited us to a rehearsal which was incredibly uplifting.
.I took a taxi back to the hotel, and it was my only opportunity to speak to a taxi driver. I love to speak to taxi drivers all over the world as they give it to you straight – no holds barred He told me the economy is finished; the politicians have cheated and stolen and the people are having trouble making a modest living. He further said that Greece should not have entered the EU. He said there is a tremendous brain-drain and there will be no more Greece in 20 years.
On we went to Larissa, which is where the Jews of Ioannina were transported in trucks to await the trains for Auschwitz . Larissa’s Jewish community numbered 1,120 pre-WWII and 726 afterwards. Now they are 235.
I was to meet a cousin of my Aunt’s whom I did not know. Greeks, as you know, are emotional, so we hugged and kissed as if we did know each other. She and a sister-in-law of hers took me around the town and showed me how vibrant the center is and how many stores were owned by Jews. The community is apparently well off and active, but they fear for their children’s future.. They have no problem with a Minyan and have a Friday night Kiddush every Friday night and community related activities.
In Volos the story is a bit better. The rabbi at the time told everyone to head for the mountains and so, of the Jewish community 872 predated-WWII, 640 returned – a much better percentage. This phenomenon is familiar to us from the rest of the European communities.
And back we went to Athens . We went to the Corinthian Straits, which were very impressive, and the ride was altogether scenic. During the entire ten days, we enjoyed the very best of sunny cool weather.
I was eager to return home. After seeing the Jewish communities, I am filled with thanksgiving that the State of Israel exists and despite all our many problems, I remind myself The People of Israel Live.