Volume 73, Number 48 | March 31 - April 6, 2004

Descendents of Greek Jews honor Holocaust victims

By Albert Amateau

Sixty years after the Jewish community in the Greek town of Janina was rounded up and sent to Nazi death camps, an exhibit commemorating the event is opening at Kehila Kedosha Janina, the synagogue built by Greek-speaking Jews who emigrated from the town at the turn of the 20th century and settled on the Lower East Side.

Members of the congregation, Greek consular officials and Lower East neighbors will gather at 1 p.m. on Sun. April 4 at the newly restored synagogue at 280 Broome St. for the opening of “Out of the Ashes,” honoring the lost community, its survivors and descendants and the Righteous Among Nations — Christians and Muslims — who sheltered survivors from the Holocaust.

“The Jews of Janina were rounded up on March 25, 1944. It was Greek Independence Day and the eve of Passover,” said Marcia Hadad Ikonomopoulos, director of the Kehila Kedosha Janina museum and president of the Association of Friends of Greek Jewry.

One long panel of the exhibit is a reproduction of a marble strip in the synagogue that still exists in Janina inscribed with the names of almost all the 1,851 Jews who perished.

“About 1,000 escaped,” said Ikonomopoulos. “Some were hidden by Greek families in Athens and some who fled across the border to Albania were helped by Muslim families.”

In conjunction with the exhibit, the Friends of Greek Jewry is publishing “Yannina, a Journey to the Past,” by Eftihia Nachmias Nachman, born in Janina and a resident of Athens with her family. (The Greek name of the town is spelled variously in the Roman alphabet as Janina, Yannina and Ioannina.) The author tells her own story of fleeing as a child with her family in 1943 from Janina to Athens where Christian friends hid them.

The book, written in Greek in 1994 and translated recently into English, includes recollections of the Jewish way of life in Janina during the occupation and eyewitness accounts of survivors of the 1944 deportation. The author plans to come to New York to attend the celebration at Kehila Kedosha Janina.

The exhibit also includes a written and illustrated narration by Louis Levy, who was a member of Kehila Kedosha Janina and a signalman with the U.S. Navy during World War II. While on liberty after his ship docked in Corinth, Greece, soon after the war in 1946, Levy made his way north from town to town along the western part of Greece and was the first American to reach Janina since the war.

Last week, Ikonomopoulos and Isaac Dostis, a member of the Janina congregation who now lives in New Jersey, and Dostis’s wife, Diana, were completing the mounting of the exhibit

“My father came here in 1913 and went back to Janina a few years later to marry my mother — it was an arranged marriage,” said Dostis, who, with his wife, is a member of an acting company that presents programs about moral courage to community groups and schools. Dostis is also a documentary filmmaker and currently working on a film about the Jewish community on Rhodes, a Greek island in the Aegean.

The Kehila Kedosha Janina exhibit opening ceremony begins at 1 p.m. on Sun. April 4 and lasts until 4 p.m. It will be open to the public every Sunday thereafter.

“The last time I was in Janina for a visit, in 2000, there were about 50 Jewish families left,” said Hymen Genee, 81, president of the Lower East Side congregation, who was born and raised on the Lower East Side where he still lives. “A lot of Jews left Janina around 1912 when the Greeks and Turks went to war. Depending on where they lived, they had to go into the Greek or Turkish Army. My father came earlier, in 1907 and my mother came a year later They were married here in 1910, it was arranged by the families — like most of them at the time,” Genee said.

The community of Greek-speaking Jews, known as Romaniotes, traces its ancestry in Greece back to 70 A.D. — and even earlier.

“One tradition says that a group of Jews were being transported to Rome as slaves after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem around 70 A.D. when their ship sank in the Ionian Sea,” said Genee. “Instead of letting them go down with the ship, the captain let them make their way ashore. Another story says there were Jewish settlements in Greece as far back as 300 B.C. or so, after Alexander the Great conquered Israel. In the seventh century, Benjamin of Trudella, a Jewish historian from Spain, wrote about a Jewish presence in Greece,” said Genee, adding. “I’m not an authority on this.”

Authority or no, Genee is an enthusiastic supporter of the Janina synagogue, which was built in 1927 when there were more than 250 Romaniote families on the Lower East Side. But the community began to leave the Lower East Side soon after — some moving first to Williamsburg and Harlem and then to the Bronx, Genee said. For a time, there were satellite Janina synagogues in Harlem and the Bronx, but they are long gone.

But many “Yanniniotes” return for services on Saturday mornings to the building on Broome St. just west of Allen St., said Genee.

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