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Friday
Aug192011

Greece and the Holocaust

Although other countries have more publicized and sensational deportation records during World War II, Greek Jews were decimated by the genocide.

Greece and the Jews have a long history together. The most peculiar example is the Jewish "Romaniotes" culture, centered on the island of Ioannina. The Romaniotes lived on this and surrounding islands for almost 2000 years. They were not Sephardim but indeed a distinct, separate, rather large, Jewish culture with its own language (Yevanic, a hybridization of Greek, Hebrew, and certain Turkish dialects) and rituals. Today, post-Holocaust, there are 35 Romaniotes left.

However, the Romaniotes were a remote sub-group, separate from the main flowering of Greek culture. The great cross-pollenization between Jewish and Greek civilizations occurred during the time of Alexander the Great and just thereafter--after he had conquered most of the Middle East. Jewish writers and thinkers in the hyper-Hellenic city of Alexandria, Egypt, began fusing Greek thought--particularly the writings of Plato as well as certain Greek mystics--with their own theology, translating Torah for the first time into Greek (the "Septuagint") and creating an Edenic garden of Jewish philosophy that flourished throughout the eastern Mediterranean and directly influenced the preaching styles and message rubrics of the writers of the Torah/Old Testament books of Daniel and Zechariah, as well as hundreds of rabbis, both established and itinerant, including Jesus. This Alexandrian strain of theology would later become the basis of Kabbalah.

Alexandrian Jewish writers were poet theologians, always seeing the mystical battle of angels and demons in every human event. They went so far that they become dualists of a sort, setting up competing powers of good and evil in the universe. Much of our current notion of "angels" arises from Hellenistic Jewish thought.

But you can see how such thought verges off into heresy for the orthodox. If God is all-powerful and all-good, there can be no struggle, period, by definition. If God must wrestle with evil, then God is either not all-powerful or not all-good. Either God cannot control evil fully--or doesn't want to.

These theological and philosophical musings even set up the early struggles in the Jewish splinter group called "the way"--or later, the Christian church. Most of the Gnostic gospels are also a direct outflow of Hellenistic Judaism: the strange mysticism, the kabbalistic-like pacing, the hyper-allegorical notions of reality where every stone, tree, and mountain represents not itself but some grand, universal node of the struggle between good and evil. In fact, St. Paul's New Testament letters can be read as a way to beat back the Alexandrian mysticism in favor of a colder, rational theology.

Certainly, Jakob's memories in FUGITIVE PIECES show the poetic underpinnings of Hellenistic Jewish thought. As the reviewer in Time Magazine put it, the narrative doesn't race, it "hovers." Jakob seems to paint the world in his memory, rather than recount a tale.

Jewish culture continued a long history in Greece until Germany and the Axis powers invaded the country in 1942. Thessoloniki had perhaps the largest population--about 53,000 Jews. They were rounded up in July but managed to pay an exorbitant ranson (2.5 million drachma) to maintain some sort of freedom until March of 1943 when almost all were deported to Auschwitz. About 1900 returned home after the war. Today, there are about 1400 Jews in Thessoliniki.

The one bright spot was the island of Zakynthos--where some of FUGITIVE PIECES takes place. The island had a small Jewish population--about 275 people. When the Nazis demanded that the powers-that-be hand over a list of all the Jews on the island, the mayor and the bishop handed over a list with exactly two names on it: their own. Almost all of the Jews on the island were hidden by the church and various families. Less than half a dozen who dared to be seen out in the open were shot on the spot; all who hid survived. When the island's buildings and infrastructure were almost destroyed by an earthquake in 1953, the first aid came from the state of Israel with a message that read "The Jews of Zakynthos have never forgotten their Mayor or their beloved Bishop and what they did for us."

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