Dr. Peter Stavrianidis, in Manhattan, Lectures on the History of Greek Jews
Published in The National Herald, March 7-13, 2015 Issue
Authored by Constantine S. Sirigos, TNH Staff Writer
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NEW YORK – The history of Greece’s Jewish citizens was the topic of a lecture presented by Dr. Peter Stavrianidis at the historic Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue in Lower Manhattan on March 1.
Marcia Ikonomopoulos, the director of the museum of the synagogue that was established in 1927 by Jews from Ioannnina who arrived in New York at the turn of the 20th century, welcomed the guests who filled the community hall on a snowy day.
Stavrianidis began by talking about the origins of Greece’s Jewish community. There are remains of synagogues on Aegina and Delos but the population accelerated under Roman rule, when they become known as Romaniotes.
He also pointed out that the people who lived in Greece and Asia Minor called themselves not Byzantines, but Romaioi.
The Jewish population of Ioannina once reached 4000 and the 1895 census of Thessaloniki revealed the great city had 22,000 Turks, 24,000 Greeks but 67,000 Jews.
Indeed Thessaloniki had become one of the great centers of world Jewry and was known as “Salonika the city and mother of Israel.”
After the 1912 liberation of Thessaloniki – known in Jewish history as Salonika – the Jewish population declined, partly as a result of the fire of 1917 in the heart of the city that wiped out half its synagogues and businesses.
Guests also learned about the community made a remarkable compromise.
After centuries in the Ottoman’s state, which saved them from the Spanish inquisition by inviting them to the Balkans but relegated them to second class status, the Jews of Thessaloniki agreed to alter their Sabbath observances in exchange for finally being given first class citizenship in the Greek state.
Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos personally persuaded them to keep their shops open on Saturdays – the community dominated the city’s economic life = to facilitate the region’s commerce.
That was just one example of their integration into the City’s Greek life whose late date is believed by scholars to have contributed to their horrific fate.
The Jews of Thessaloniki were largely Sephardic. Although their business leaders developed friendships with their Greek counterparts, few spoke Greek, and centuries of cultural autonomy made it very easy for nazi authorities to pick them out. 94 percent of the community perished in or on their way to the death camps.
Stavrianidis and Ikonomopoulos both spoke about the Jewish holocaust, elaborating on the possible reasons for the tragic contrast between the virtual extermination of Thessaloniki’s Jews and conditions in the rest of Greece that saw many Jews saved by the intervention of humble citizens and men at the pinnacle of Greek society, including government officials and Orthodox Christian clergy.
Nevertheless, Greece lost 87 percent of its Jews.
The speaker and the host put to rest the myth of Bulgarian humanitarianism towards Jews.
During their brutal occupation of Eastern Macedonia, when they perpetrated genocidal killings, especially in Greek villages that refused to send their children to learn Bulgarian. Bulgarians sent thousands of Greek Jews to the death camps.
By the time WWII broke out, Stavrianidis said, the younger generations of Sephardim were Greek speakers and 13,000 fought valiantly for Greece on the Albanian front, where 513 died.
Groups of Jewish resistance fighters were observed dying while singing the Greek national anthem. It was noted that Greeks today, especially in light of the Golden Dawn phenomenon, need to be made more aware of that history, and Ikonomopoulos said “we must acknowledge and never forget the stories of righteous Greeks” that saved Jews.
In a moving moment, she asked those who were saved of whose parents’ were saved by Greeks to rise. Professor Asher Mattathias of St. John’s University also pointed out that is past time for the Greek government to formally rescind its 1948 UN vote against the new Jewish State.
Stavrianidis examined anti-Semitism in Greece and brought up the recent Anti-Defamation League survey of anti-Semitism around the world which lists Greece with the high rate of 69 percent.
He made a distinction, however, between attitudes, which all agreed must also be challenged, and behaviors.
He suggested the survey’s value is diminished by failing to make such distinctions, which one guest labelled prejudice and hatred that justifies violence.
Ikonomopoulos noted that only 252 Greeks out of 10 million were surveyed.
It was also pointed out that the Anglo-American committee that examined what happened to Greece’s Jews found little anti-Semitism compared with Northern Europe.
When the discussion turned to contemporary challenges, Stavrianidis went over elements contributing to anti-Semitism in Greece, including religion – while the Orthodox Churches official position condemns it, individual hierarchs can be vicious; politics and the media – Greek Jewish politicians still have their Greekness impugned; the Arab-Israeli conflict that generates pro-Palestinian sentiment that often has an ugly side, and the economic crisis which revives ancient canards about economic actors.
Among the positive notes is the fact that support for Golden Dawn has leveled off around six percent – its third place finish on January 25 is more a reflection on the collapse of establishment parties.
Stavrianidis also shared some of the findings in the research study he has undertaken of the Jews of Greece.