Over one hundred people of Greek-American and/or Sephardic Jewish descent gathered together earlier in March to celebrate their rich, shared history at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).
The event, titled “The Jewish Community of Greece Before the Holocaust: A Multimedia Presentation“, was a collaborative effort by the Hellenic American Women’s Council (HAWC) with support from Sephardic Heritage International D.C.
The presentation enabled the audience to learn about what has been added into USHMM’s collection regarding the Jewish community of Greece prior to and during World War II, and after the Holocaust.
Vicki Georges, Youth Director for the HAWC and the Development Coordinator at USHMM, opened the program by briefly explaining why these discussions are important. She stated, “The Holocaust and genocide are topics that are relevant to learn about and to discuss to this day.
“However, it is equally important to talk about the victims of atrocities because they were once someone’s grandmother, son, mother; an active part of a thriving community. Their stories matter and deserve to be told… their oppressors did not truly win in the end,” Georges added.
When the Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 because of their faith, a great number came to the Ottoman Empire to rebuild their lives, where the “Romaniotes” Jewish community had been thriving since 70 AD.
The Sephardic Jewish community of Greece flourished for almost five hundred years, especially in the northern city of Thessaloniki, or “Salonika.” The city became a hub of Sephardic heritage, and their cultural and economic contributions gave it the nickname, “The Mother of Israel.”
The Jewish population of the city was approximately 50,000 at the time of the German occupation in 1942. Almost all the Jewish people transported in trains from Thessaloniki were murdered upon their arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau; this represented about 90 percent of the city’s total Jewish population.
In total, roughly 85 percent of Greece’s Jews perished out of the prewar population of 72,000. There are only about 6,000 individuals who identify as Jewish living in Greece today, with a little fewer than 2,000 living in Thessaloniki.
Jaime Monllor, International Outreach Officer at the Holocaust Museum, introduced the audience to the Museum’s new “Sephardic Initiative” which will build on their existing collection.
Leslie Swift, who is the head of the Film, Oral History, and Recorded Sound department of the Museum, displayed a selection of objects in the Museum’s collection which focus on Greece’s Jewish community, in Thessaloniki and Kastoria in particular.
A highlight of the presentation were time-edited film clips which were shot in Kastoria. This beautifully preserved film was made by Greek-born Jews who immigrated to America and visited there in 1936/1937.
Had this footage not been brought to America before the start of World War II, it likely would not have survived. From a pre-war population of almost 1,000, only 35 members of Kastoria’s Jewish community survived.
In addition to the film, Swift exhibited pictures of various objects which each told a unique story. Family photographs, a Sabbath dress made from a flour sack, and post-war documents discussing reimbursing survivors for their seized businesses were among the evocative items in the collection.
There was even a hand-drawn underground newspaper created by then-teenager George Ftikas of Thessaloniki. It is truly remarkable what the Museum has been able to acquire from Greece’s Jewish past. Swift also demonstrated how to view oral history testimonies (in Greek and English) on USHMM’s collection search portal.
The program ended with a lively Q&A session, sparking conversation and inquiry among the audience. Lynne Farbman, a Holocaust survivor, briefly told the group her story of how her mother was from Vilna [Vilnius], Lithuania and her father was from Thessaloniki.
Farbman’s parents met in a concentration camp, and she herself was born in the Muhldorf concentration camp, a subcamp of the infamous Dachau camp, in Germany in January, 1945. She is still trying to piece together the details of her birth and survival; in spite of the hatred surrounding her, she was somehow able to survive.
As part of developing its Sephardic Initiative, the Museum depends on its collection of artifacts, documents, photographs, film, music, and oral testimonies to help document the events of the Holocaust and understand the relevance of this history in our own time.
The Museum is still seeking original artifacts and testimonies from Sephardic Jews or their descendants from North Africa, Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and throughout Europe.
Anyone who suffered displacement, persecution, or discrimination under the rule of Nazi Germany and its Axis partners between 1938 and 1945 has a story that can be told at the United States Holocaust Museum.