News story prompts re­union be­tween Ger­man jour­nal­ist and Holo­caust sur­vivor from Greece

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY LINA GIANNAROU

News­pa­per old-timers have a point when they say that the most beau­ti­ful sto­ries can of­ten be found in read­ers’ let­ters to the ed­i­tors, and a fine ex­am­ple landed on the doorstep at Kathimerini re­cently, hand­writ­ten in a some­what old-fash­ioned hand and sprin­kled with just a few spell­ing mis­takes.

“I apol­o­gize for any er­rors in Greek; I taught my­self the lan­guage,” said the writer, 77-year-old Gizela Kalar­iti from Ulm in Ger­many. The sur­name comes from her late Greek hus­band but her knowl­edge of the lan­guage is all her own, learned long be­fore she met him thanks to a deep love of all things Greek from a young age. Her at­trac­tion was in­ex­pli­ca­ble. In fact, her fa­ther asked her one day: “What is it about the coun­try that draws you so strongly? Per­haps we have some dis­tant re­la­tion?” Ex­ten­sive re­search into the fam­ily’s ge­neal­ogy failed to turn up a link. Be­fore re­tir­ing, Kalar­iti worked as a jour­nal­ist in a lo­cal news­pa­per, in which she had pub­lished a plethora of pieces on Greece.

But why was she writ­ing to Kathimerini now? It all started last April when she read an edi­tion of the pa­per dated March 15, “with some de­lay,” she ad­mits. A faith­ful reader for the past 25 years, Kalar­iti has her lo­cal newsagent save her copies of the Sun­day edi­tions of Kathimerini, Ta Nea and Efimerida ton Syn­tak­ton.

“But I had been busy and didn’t get my hands on the pa­per un­til some days later,” she wrote. As she eventu-

Pally leafed through it her at­ten­tion was drawn by a pho­to­graph with a story by Sakis Ioan­ni­dis on 87-yearold Heinz Kounio, one of the last sur­vivors of the Holo­caust, a Jew who had boarded the first train to leave Thes­sa­loniki 70 years ago for Auschwitz. The sight of the pho­to­graph took Kalar­iti back 30 years.

“I grew more and more rest­less as the days passed. I kept think­ing that I had to do some­thing. But what? For me it was an incredible story,” she wrote to Kathimerini.

Kalar­iti has vis­ited Thes­sa­loniki in 1984 to re­search a story on the city’s Jews, over 90 per­cent of whom were ex­ter­mi­nated in the Nazi death camps. As she wan­dered around the city, she hap­pened on Kounio’s pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio. They spent sev­eral hours talk­ing.

“That is when I got his book, ‘I Sur­vived Death,’ which I’ve read three or four times. He had taken most of the pho­to­graphs in the book. He told me that when the camp was lib­er­ated – he was just 35 ki­los by then – the Amer­i­cans asked him his pro­fes­sion. He told them he was a pho­tog­ra­pher and they gave him a cam­era. That is why we have so many orig­i­nal pho­to­graphs from that event,” said Kalar­iti.

In 1988 Kalar­iti met Kounio’s sis­ter Erica, but as the years passed, they even­tu­ally lost touch.

“But I didn’t for­get them,” said Kalar­iti. “I didn’t know whether they were alive or dead un­til I read that Kathimerini pa­per.”

The story got her think­ing. “I spent a week pac­ing around my apart­ment (left), 77, and 87year-old Heinz Kounio (third from left), ac­com­pa­nied by his daugh­ter, are seen dur­ing the event held in Ulm, Ger­many. Kounio, a Greek Jew who had been put on the first train to leave Thes­sa­loniki for Auschwitz 70 years ago, spoke of his ex­pe­ri­ence at the SS camps. think­ing of what I could do,” she said. She started by call­ing a friend who taught at the Univer­sity of Ulm and pitched the idea of or­ga­niz­ing a se­ries of events on Greece.

“For so many years the Ger­man press has been in­sult­ing the Greeks, writ­ing about their mis­takes, that they are lazy; it’s not right. It’s not right to tar an en­tire peo­ple with the same brush.”

Her friend agreed with alacrity and she pro­posed a screen­ing of Gior­gos Avgeropou­los’s doc­u­men­tary on the Greek cri­sis, “Agora,” a talk by writer Pet­ros Markaris on the last book of his tril­ogy on the cri­sis, “End Ti­tles,” as well as pre­sen­ta­tions by Greek Holo­caust sur­vivors Ar­gyris Sfoun­touris from Dis­tomo, and, of course, Kounio.

Kalar­iti was con­cerned about whether Kounio would agree to travel.

“I looked through all my old ad­dress books, 30 years’ worth, and found his home phone num­ber. I was ner­vous but told my­self, ‘Be brave.’” Kounio, like the other three guests, ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion at once and spoke at the univer­sity on Septem­ber 30.

“When he ar­rived I spent three or four hours with him at his ho­tel; we spoke a lot. It was such a lovely at­mos­phere, as though we were neigh­bors,” wrote Kalar­iti. “The event was a big suc­cess; you could hear a pin drop. De­spite his years, he spoke for an hourand-a-half about what he went through in the SS camps. His daugh­ter, who had ac­com­pa­nied him, would help him when he choked up. It was amaz­ing team­work. I’m so happy it could all hap­pen.”

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