Saturday, October 19, 2013

Kisses to the Children (2011) and Judaism in Greece

There are shocking historical facts that sometimes fail to make an impression, probably due to the overwhelming amount of information we are fed and never quite digest. Sure, we've heard it all before,  but did we ever found the time to contemplate upon the true nature of facts and figures? There are atrocious topics shadowing the cities we love to live in, but we never had the time to properly address them. It is a pity that each one of us does not dedicate a thought for no more than a split second to acknowledge people who were massively and systematically eradicated with no obvious reason. Could any reason be solid enough to sustain such an unimaginable act, after all? History sometimes doesn't make sense.

The Holocaust was probably the most shivering paradigm of a time when history ceased making any sense. Thousands of people boarded ships and trains; little did they carry with them. They feared the worse, but what awaited them was out of the scope of anyone's imagination; that was a puzzling assumption to make upon hearing that nobody took seriously a Greek Jew who escaped from Auschwitz and went back to Thessaloniki to describe the atrocities that were taking place back there. Nobody took him seriously, they thought he has gone nuts; and that was a sane person's reaction.

Cine-Club Hellénique de Luxembourg or Greek Cine Club of Luxembourg held some days ago a screening of the Greek documentary Kisses to the Children (2011) by Vasilis Loules [together with the short film Los Bilbilikos, A Song from Thessaloniki (2011)] which describes the efforts of five Jewish families to save themselves and their children during the German Occupation. In essence, we are following the stories of five Greek Jews, children at the time, who managed to escape deportation with help from Christian families. Rosina, Sifis, Eftihia, Shelly and Marios come from different cities in Greece: Creta, Athens and Thessaloniki and revisit their haunting past in front of the camera: we witness their fear, their feelings, their thoughts at the time. We fail to fully grasp their adventures, because trying to put yourself in somebody else's shoes and empathise is one thing, but the experience of leading a life similar to Anna Frank (yes, one of the hiding girls was also keeping a diary) is another.

Surprisingly enough, that was the first time that the cruelty of numbers was thrown on my face; during that intense screening I learnt for the first time in my life that the vibrant and numerous Jewish community of Thessaloniki, a community that outnumbered by far any other in Greece and was one of the biggest in Europe was almost totally annihilated. Roughly from the 55.000 Jews living in Thessaloniki before the war, many of them with Sephardic origins, less than 2.000 came back. In other words, a shocking 96% of the Jewish Community and around 23% of the city's population was eradicated.

I was under a state of shock until the end of the film, because of the cruelty of the facts and the numbers, or so I thought. Only later on it hit me; the saddest thing of all, and the reason of my profound shock, was probably nor the facts, neither the numbers; after all, I've read enough on the Holocaust all over Europe, I even wrote a paper on how the Holocaust is depicted by certain documentaries, so I was not new to the horror. The saddest thing of all was the inability of local/national history to address such an enormous matter righteously and deliver it to coming generations. Not once during the years of my education in Greece -and that involves schools of all levels and universities alike- did I come across a chapter on the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki at any given time. The city's old nickname "Mother of Israel" was largely unknown to me. But Jews were always(sic) there, now I read, since the times of Alexander the Great, producing textiles, building schools and synagogues. They kept coming, having to flee from Spain or Russia; they were bringing along their music and traditions, they had their own newspapers and were a major part of the city's multicultural map. They were left homeless in big numbers by the city-wide fire, but got over the blow and continued to run their businesses and thrive. Then, after the war, there were gone. And quasi-forgotten from everyone else, apart from the very few survivors.

Nothing is more appalling than oblivion; while five "hiding children" were trying to resist it by recalling their memories in front of the camera, I was trying to cope with the shock and the shame of my very own ignorance. Lost years were those; I was walking down streets, past houses, through neighbourhoods -where families were leading happy lives before they disappear without leaving a trace- without paying silent tribute to such an unjust loss, not even with mere acknowledgement. I owe them some attention from now on, we all do. Especially through the prism of the rise of the extreme right, a rise the remaining Jews reportedly fear. The educational system in Greece owes them some attention, too; the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki deserves to be the topic of a History lesson in the curriculum.

* The trailer can give you an idea of the rich texture that Loules achieved in his film; revisiting the actual places where the stories unfolded, given a helping hand from a haunting soundtrack by Nikos Kypourgos, archive footage and additional material -thanks to the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki- he managed to make us feel uneasy for not being there to prevent disaster. For not being there. Still. 

** An interesting story that relates with the themes of children and Judaism in this post, is the one recently reported on "collaboration of Luxembourg authorities and the German occupiers" during the WWII. At least, that's how historian Denis Scuto explains that the existence of a list of 280 Jewish children, but jumping to conclusions was never the right thing to do.

No comments: