He­roes and sur­vivors: Sto­ries from Salonika

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By CARL HOFFMAN

‘Iwanted to sur­vive so I could tell the world what we went through,” says Sevy Dario. Heinz Kounio adds, “The more I suf­fered, the more I took an oath that I have to tell ev­ery­thing if I was ever saved and lib­er­ated.”

These two el­derly men, now per­haps near the end of their long and event­ful lives, join sev­eral other Holo­caust sur­vivors, rem­nants of the once large and vi­brant Jewish com­mu­nity of Salonika, Greece. They share their grim mem­o­ries in a riv­et­ing new doc­u­men­tary film, He­roes of Salonika, which tells the lit­tle-known story of the de­struc­tion of the Jews of Salonika by the Ger­mans dur­ing World War II.

The film was cre­ated in an un­usual way, the re­sult of a sud­den flash of cu­rios­ity in the mind of a man who had never be­fore pro­duced a film. Yi­gal Pomer­antz, 49, grew up in the Bait Ve­gan neigh­bor­hood of Jerusalem, the son a “very Zion­is­tic” rabbi from the Bronx. The fam­ily moved to Is­rael in 1972, ac­cord­ing to Pomer­antz, “as part of the big awak­en­ing of Amer­i­can Jews af­ter the Six Day War.” Af­ter at­tend­ing reli­gious el­e­men­tary schools and yeshivas, fol­lowed by army ser­vice, Pomer­antz re­turned to the US for a while, re­ceived a mas­ter’s de­gree in psy­chol­ogy from Brook­lyn Col­lege, worked as a de­signer of Ju­daica art, and re­turned to Is­rael where he has taught English for the past 11 years.

Through­out all that time, both in Is­rael and the United States, Pomer­antz was ob­sessed with films – watch­ing them, an­a­lyz­ing them, and fan­ta­siz­ing about be­ing var­i­ously a film critic, screen writer and film di­rec­tor. “I never re­al­ized that any of those dreams could ma­te­ri­al­ize and come into be­ing dur­ing this life­time, in the real world, but it ac­tu­ally hap­pened, and it knocked me off my feet.”

The rea­son it hap­pened was his dis­cov­ery of the story of the Jews of Salonika dur­ing the Holo­caust.

Jewish life in Salonika dates back to an­cient times, but it be­gan to flour­ish at the end of the 15th cen­tury, when the city’s small com­mu­nity was joined by hun­dreds of Jews newly ex­pelled from Spain and Por­tu­gal. This mostly Ladino-speak­ing Sephardi com­mu­nity

con­tin­ued to grow and pros­per, often as the majority of the city’s pop­u­la­tion. Prom­i­nent so­cially, cul­tur­ally and eco­nom­i­cally, the Jewish com­mu­nity’s bright days ended with the ar­rival of the Ger­mans to Greece in 1941. The Ger­mans wasted lit­tle time in be­gin­ning to sys­tem­at­i­cally per­se­cute the Jews, with new racial laws, pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion and vi­o­lence. In 1943, they forced the Jews into a ghetto near the rail­road, and started de­port­ing them to con­cen­tra­tion camps, mostly to Auschwitz.

The first train­loads of Jews de­parted on March 15, 1943, with each train car­ry­ing as many as 4,000 Jews. The Jewish pop­u­la­tion of Salonika was so large that the de­por­ta­tion took sev­eral months to com­plete. Of the roughly 60,000 Jews de­ported from Salonika, only 1,200 re­turned. The story of one of those who re­turned even­tu­ally pro­vided the spark that ig­nited Pomer­antz’s pas­sion­ate fix­a­tion on these peo­ple’s sto­ries.

He re­calls, “Over four years ago, I came across an ar­ti­cle about Jac­ito Mae­stro, a fel­low from Saloniki who passed away three years ago, and who res­cued many hun­dreds of Jews at Auschwitz. He was Jewish, a pris­oner. He ar­rived on March 15, 1943, on the first trans­port from Saloniki. He was 16 years old. He was the only one who got off the train who knew Ger­man. The com­man­der was an­gry, yelling at the Jews, scream­ing, “Does any­one speak Ger­man?”

An older rel­a­tive pushed Mae­stro for­ward and said, “You know Ger­man. Go!” He knew Ger­man be­cause since 1941 he’d been trad­ing with Ger­man sol­diers in the Saloniki train sta­tion, and had picked up the lan­guage. He was a street­wise kid who dealt with the Ger­man sol­diers to bring food home to his fam­ily.”

AF­TER BE­ING made a trans­la­tor, Mae­stro soon found him­self placed in the camp’s la­bor of­fice, which con­tained files on each pris­oner, and where la­bor as­sign­ments were made. Mae­stro soon re­al­ized that he was able to help, pro­tect and save the lives of many of his fel­low in­mates.

Pomer­antz re­calls, “I said to my­self that it can’t be that we still have some­one like that alive. I called the guy up, I told him I’m a teacher and wanted to in­ter­view him, and he said, ‘Fine, come.’ So I went for my first in­ter­view with him, and I saw that it’s very se­ri­ous. The story is very real, ac­cu­rate, can be sub­stan­ti­ated. So I asked to meet him a sec­ond time. Af­ter that, I was al­ready think­ing of mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary film, not just a recorded in­ter­view.”

So Pomer­antz then be­gan dis­cus­sions with Mae­stro about mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary film about him and his ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing the Holo­caust. “I knew that there were still a num­ber of sur­vivors alive that he aided and saved. I wanted to put them on cam­era as well, to build the story. So many years af­ter the Holo­caust, it seemed fan­tas­tic to me that I would be able to do that.”

Af­ter a sec­ond meet­ing, how­ever, Mae­stro rejected the idea of a doc­u­men­tary film about him alone. But Pomer­antz was un­de­terred.

“At first I was dis­ap­pointed and I re­ally didn’t know what to do when that hap­pened, but I said to my­self, ‘Con­tinue the search in this area and some­thing good will come up.’ Be­cause the story of Saloniki is not well known. Even the Sephardim in Is­rael and the US don’t know about it. So I re­al­ized that aside from Mae­stro’s story, the story of the com­mu­nity is very in­ter­est­ing and should be well-known. So that’s how the film was born.”

Hav­ing never stud­ied film­mak­ing, Pomer­antz none­the­less knew two things: that he needed money for the film, and that he needed pro­fes­sional film peo­ple to make it. “So that’s what I did. I went out and started to con­tact po­ten­tial sources of fund­ing, and I went around shop­ping for sup­port for the film. When I had that, it was enough for me to get started.”

So, with ma­jor fund­ing from the Salonika and Greece Jewry Her­itage Cen­ter at the Beth Avot Leon Re­ca­nati in Pe­tah Tikva, Pomer­antz gath­ered a crew, con­sist­ing mostly of a di­rec­tor and film edi­tor, Tom Barkay; a cam­era­man, Yochai Rosenberg; a mu­sic com­poser, Boaz Schory; and a fi­nan­cial con­sul­tant and co-pro­ducer, Sol Levy. Those de­tails taken care of, Pomer­antz be­gan his in­ter­views.

Of the six sur­vivors we meet in the film, five were in­ter­viewed in Is­rael. Says Pomer­antz, “Un­for­tu­nately, and per­haps un­der­stand­ably, some of those that came back to Saloniki from the camps lost their in­ter­est com­pletely in Jewish­ness. Some in­ter­mar­ried, dis

tanced them­selves from the Jewish com­mu­nity and as­sim­i­lated. And some, now very old, con­tinue to go to the two re­main­ing ac­tive syn­a­gogues there.”

The sur­vivor nar­ra­tives are emo­tional and very com­pelling, span­ning the time from the ar­rival of the Ger­mans to even­tual lib­er­a­tion and free­dom. We hear them de­scribe, in grim de­tail, the im­po­si­tion of harsh racial laws and the tight­en­ing of the noose around their com­mu­nity. We see sur­vivor Moshe Hae­lion stand in the sy­n­a­gogue in which chief rabbi and Ju­den­rat of­fi­cial Zvi Koretz urged ev­ery­one to re­main calm, re­main in Salonika, and obey the new rules. We hear Sevi Dario and Benico Djahon ex­plain why even when able to run away dur­ing their time on work gangs, and when in­vited by par­ti­sans to join them in the moun­tains, they chose not to flee and aban­don their fam­i­lies in Salonika.

THEY ALL de­scribe in har­row­ing de­tail the night­mar­ish train ride to Poland, and their ar­rival at Auschwitz. We hear Sevy Dario de­scribe be­ing sep­a­rated from his older brother by Dr. Josef Men­gele, on the ar­rival plat­form at Auschwitz, and then sneak­ing over to the line his brother was in – to life on a work gang in­stead of im­me­di­ate death in a gas cham­ber. Oth­ers, like Yavonne Ra­zon, re­call rel­a­tives be­ing wrenched away from them by SS guards and be­ing pulled to­ward the lines head for the gas cham­bers. We hear them all de­scribe their be­ing tat­tooed, while see­ing smoke ris­ing from the cre­ma­to­ria chim­neys and flakes of burnt flesh fall­ing from the sky.

A cu­ri­ous fea­ture of their stay at Auschwitz men­tioned by some of the sur­vivors was the fact that most of the camp pop­u­la­tion – Ashke­nazi Jews, and speak­ers of Yid­dish, Ger­man and Pol­ish – looked down on the Sephardi Ladino and Greek-speak­ing Jews of Salonika, even to the point of doubt­ing they were Jewish. And yet, the Ger­mans made all of their lives a liv­ing hell, with­out dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Some, like Yavonne Ra­zon and Sevy Dario, lost their re­li­gion at Auschwitz and be­came averse to the very idea of God. Both an­grily ask in the film what kind of a God could per­mit the slaugh­ter of chil­dren and the mur­der of fam­ily mem­bers right be­fore their eyes. They de­mand to know what they could pos­si­bly have done wrong to bring this hor­ror upon them.

And through­out the film we hear of the quiet hero­ism of Jac­ito Mae­stro. He tells us, “Do you know what we call a neigh­bor­hood? A place were one helps the other. That’s what I con­tin­ued do­ing in the camp. Like that’s how it’s sup­posed to be. Like that’s how it’s nor­mal. If I had thought about it, maybe I wouldn’t have done any­thing. They might have killed me for the things I did.”

These “things he did” in­cluded tak­ing valu­ables brought to him from the part of Auschwitz the pris­on­ers called “Canada,” where the clothes of mur­dered Jews were sorted and sent to Ger­many to be used by “Aryans.” Mae­stro would use these pieces of gold and jew­elry, some­times found hid­den among the clothes, to buy the co­op­er­a­tion of camp guards and of­fi­cials.

As the Rus­sians ad­vanced from the East, the Ger­mans brought the pris­on­ers west­ward. In au­tumn 1943, sev­eral hundred pris­on­ers from Salonika were sent to the Gen­shovka work camp, lo­cated on the ru­ins of the War­saw Ghetto, and were forced to clear the rub­ble of the de­stroyed ghetto. As the Red Army ap­proached, the Greek pris­on­ers were taken far­ther west to con­cen­tra­tion and work camps in Ger­many.

When the war ended and they were lib­er­ated, some, like Heinz Kounio, re­turned to Salonika and at­tempted to re­build their lives there. Most, how­ever, came here to Is­rael, just in time for the War of In­de­pen­dence and the es­tab­lish­ment of the state.

The doc­u­men­tary con­cludes with the words of sur­vivor Kounio, who says, “When­ever I can speak about the Holo­caust, I speak. Un­for­tu­nately, those Jews that re­turned from the camps, the worst thing was they did not want to speak. And I told them you must speak. How will the world know what hap­pened to you? You have to speak.”

And in­deed a few do, quite dra­mat­i­cally, in this im­por­tant new film.

He­roes of Salonika was shown on the Keshet Chan­nel on Holo­caust Re­mem­brance Day. For fur­ther in­for­ma­tion about the film, the Jews of Salonika dur­ing the Holo­caust and how to sup­port con­tin­u­ing re­search:

heroe­sof­sa­lonika.com, heroe­sof­sa­[email protected]

(Pho­tos: Yochai Rosenberg)

HE­ROES: JACO MAE­STRO.

BENICO DJAHON.

HEINZ KOUNIO.

MOSHE HAE­LION.

(Pho­tos: Courtesy)

(FROM LEFT) Pro­ducer Yi­gal Pomer­antz; di­rec­tor and edi­tor Tim Barkay; film poster.

YAVONNE RA­ZON.

SEVY DARIO.

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