Heroes and survivors: Stories from Salonika
‘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]
HEROES: JACO MAESTRO.
(FROM LEFT) Producer Yigal Pomerantz; director and editor Tim Barkay; film poster.