Book Review - the Jewish History of Greece

    May 2008            
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Book review - Jewish history of Greece


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Greece: A Jewish History
by K.E. Fleming
Princeton, NJ (Princeton University Press), 2008

Book Review by Jay Levinson

Greece is a modern country, carved in stages from the Ottoman Empire, and born in the Revolution of 1821. On the political side, Czarist Russia promoted rebellion against the Ottomans, who were seen as a threat to the Romanov monarchy. On the philosophic plane, the 19th century spirit of nationalism and the model of Latin American countries throwing off the yoke of Spanish rule inspired revolutionaries to take up arms.

The War of Independence was not only a fight against Ottoman rule; it was the struggle to forge a Greek identity. The common denominators of the new Greece soon became Greek Orthodox religion, in good part a reaction to Muslim rule, and the Greek language. Territory, however, was a problem. Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians were interspersed from Aegean islands to Asia Minor. There was no geographic continuity to the area dreamed of as Greater Greece.

Caught in the Greek wars were the Jews. There were those Romaniote Jews, said to be living in what is today's Greece since the Roman period, and the Sephardim, who found comfortable refuge particularly in Ottoman Salonika after the Inquisitions of the late 15th century in Spain and Portugal. These Jews were caught between combatants. On the one hand it was felt that only ill stood behind the Ottoman Tanzimat (reforms), but they also felt no part of the emerging Greek-speaking Christian country. They were also involved in melding their own community into a cohesive unit, a task which was ironically achieved after most of the Jews had been murdered by the Nazi.

This book is an excellent effort to explain the quandary of the Jews of Greece during the country's turbulent 200 year history. It is a history of divisiveness, with Jews taking different sides in wars they did not want. It is a history of localism, with anti-Semitism in some areas, but the "good life" in other places. It is the story of Salonika, a city with a majority of Ladino-speaking Jews who thrived in an atmosphere of commerce and Torah. And, it is a history of despair, as the Nazis occupied Greece and destroyed Jewish life.

Numerous questions arise while reading this book. As part of the Lausanne Agreement following World War I there was provision for massive population transfer, moving Greeks to Greece and Turks to Turkey. Several years later Greece invaded Asia Minor in a failed bid to conquer Izmir (Smyrna), which was considered a Greek area. To what extent is mandatory population transfer feasible to solve international problems? How are extra-territorial communities to be handle whilst drawing nation-state borders?

The author devotes a large segment to the destruction of Jewish life in Greece. The question lurching in the background is at what point is it better to leave, rather than nurturing the false hope that the situation cannot worsen. Twenty-twenty hindsight always has the best solution, but there was a point when Jews in Greece (and other countries as well) were blinded by material possessions when considering options.

Fleming spares the reader stories too gruesome to be retold, but she does shed light on what happened. While some Greek community leaders were naïve enough to believe Nazi promises of safety if they would turn over lists of Jews, one rabbi of a small town provides an inspiring model. When asked for a list of community members, he explained to the occupying Germans that he needed three days to get his records in order. He used that time to burn all files, and with his community he fled to the mountains, where they joined up with partisans.

Most Jews from Greece were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The stories from there are heart rendering --- for example two brothers so emaciated from famine that they did not recognize each other, and realized they were brothers only after conversing. The recollections are certainly ethno-centric, but one must remember that the book is the story of the Jews of Greece and not a study of German atrocities.

Post-war stories are harrowing. One person returned from the concentration camps and related what had happened; he was thought by neighbors to be hallucinating. Many came back, only to find their furniture to have been sold and their apartments impossible to regain. In the end half of the survivors left for Palestine, most often illegally; others found homes in other countries; only a small percentage remained in Greece --- the only Sephardic community virtually demolished by the Nazis.

To what extent were the non-Jewish Greeks to blame after the Germans were defeated? From their perspective living conditions under occupation were extremely difficult. They ate animals and anything that grew, just to survive. They sold what they could find to obtain money in an economy that teetered on collapse. Nothing was left. From the little news that filtered back to Greece, it was never thought that the Jews would return. Does this justify the lack of redress after the war (which was a time of civil war in Greece)?

Regarding Palestine the Greek government was in a particular dilemma. Allowing Jews to leave Greece solved the problem of non-Christians in the country and fewer people to feed in difficult times, but illegal voyages to Palestine brought Greece into conflict with the British.

Ironically, it was under German occupation and later in post-war Greece that the concept of a Greek Jew began to emerge. There was no longer the luxury of a Greek-speaking Romaniote or a Ladino-speaking Salonikan. They were Jews --- Greek Jews. And so, as the Greek Jewish community began to fade away, only then did it gain post-war recognition as a single entity.

This is not a "religious book" meant to inspire. It is the very well told story of a once flourish Jewish community whose history must never be forgotten.


from theMay 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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