Holocaust fallout, poor economy has decimated Greek Jewish culture

Holocaust fallout, poor economy has decimated Greek Jewish culture

Participants of the 10-day seminar in Greece traveled to many important archeological sites. (Photo by Yonatan Zaid)
Participants of the 10-day seminar in Greece traveled to many important archeological sites. (Photo by Yonatan Zaid)

Tsipy Gur, executive director and founder of Classrooms Without Borders, a nonprofit provider of “experiential, extended term professional development for teachers in the metropolitan Pittsburgh region,” has just returned from a 10-day seminar in Greece. Traveling with Gur and CWB were more than 30 area educators and students from several public and private schools, including Oakland Catholic High School, Pittsburgh Allderdice and the Ellis School.

The purpose of CWB’s Greek seminar was to explore Western origins, investigate regional Jewish life and consider challenges imposed by WWII and modern economics.

During the 10-day seminar, participants traveled throughout the country. In addition to visiting key archeological sites, including the Acropolis, Mycenae, Olympia, Delphi, Pella, Meteora and the Palace of Royal Tombs, the group met with Romaniotes (Jews whose Greek origins date back 2,000 years) and members of the Sephardic communities. During these meetings, participants learned about Greece’s rapidly diminishing Jewish population.

“It is very sad to hear what is happening to the Jewish community,” said Gur.

“The community has been there for thousands of years, now there are very few left. People are leaving because of the economic situation; the young people are leaving.”

Greece has been on the brink of a major default on its loans, and shut down its banks on Monday in advance of Tuesday’s bailout expiration.

“Basically the Greek Jewish culture is dying out,” said Caroline Benec, a rising junior at Shady Side Academy. Benec, who traveled with CWB to Greece, said that a major takeaway from the trip was seeing the Holocaust’s lasting effect on Greece.

“The Holocaust in Greece has had resonating effects. In the short term there’s an effect, and in the long term there’s an effect.”

Thessaloniki, a once flourishing Jewish community that boasted more than 50 synagogues, 20 Jewish schools and a Jewish population accounting for half of the city’s nearly 120,000 residents, now counts only 4,500 Jewish members.

“Greece is a very complicated story for the Jewish people because the majority from Salonika were sent to Auschwitz and were killed,” said Gur. “But there were also very heroic stories of neighbors who saved Jews who fled to the mountains,” she added. “We met Holocaust survivors that were saved by a righteous gentile, we met righteous gentiles who saved Jews.”

Interacting with Greeks and visiting the remaining Jewish communities left an impression on Benec.

“I saw how small the world is and how much we have in common, but I also felt how lucky we are to live in America. Our economy is miles and miles ahead.”

On the evening of the group’s departure, Gur and participants observed public demonstrations in Athens regarding Greece’s financial woes.  

In a letter to CWB board members, Gur claimed that the economic crisis was “evident everywhere.”

With this social awareness and an increased knowledge of Greece’s struggling Jewish heritage, Gur is working with participants to convey these lessons through best practices.

Throughout the summer efforts are being made for teacher collaboration. Ideas and curricula are being shared among participants and suggestions are being offered on how best to integrate these experiences into the classroom.

“I feel like I have this responsibility to share what I learned,” said Benec.

“The culture of the Greek Jew is dying out. I’m going to take this information and share it with as many people as I can. It’s easy to say never again, but I’m going to put it into action.”

Benec plans on visiting local Pittsburgh schools and presenting what she learned during the trip.

As a follow up in the fall, Gur has planned an event of “reflection and reunion.” Scheduled for Sept. 27 at the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland, the event will enable attendees to hear stories from the trip as well as learn more about Greece’s current situation. A detail not to be overlooked: Gur said that the reception will also feature Greek food.

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.

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