Members of the region’s Jewish and Greek communities silently gathered at Carnegie Mellon University’s McConomy Auditorium last week to remember the resounding cry of “No!”
Exactly 74 years earlier, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini offered Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas an ultimatum: Either permit Axis forces to occupy Greece or face war. Allegedly, Metaxas replied “Ohi!” — Greek for “No!” — and his citizens flooded the streets to rally behind the cry. Since then, Oct. 28 has been celebrated as Ohi Day.
But the campus event this year went beyond simply commemorating the day. Coordinated by Classrooms Without Borders, it also remembered Greek victims of the Holocaust and paid tribute to the country’s righteous gentiles, who famously saved thousands of Jews during World War II. Yolanda Avram-Willis, a Greek survivor of the Holocaust, offered a historical account, as family photographs were projected above her on the auditorium’s stage. She related her family’s struggles to survive, the challenges of hiding, passing as a gentile and her return to Greece nearly 50 years after the war.
Within her remarks, she hailed the actions of Greece’s non-Jews, many of whom risked death to hide her family. In a telling moment, Avram-Willis’ voice shook as she questioned whether she would have been able to do the same. Throughout her presentation, Avram-Willis maintained that Greek culture possessed both the traits of “hospitality and loyalty,” and stated, “Humanity overrode everything else.”
For Classrooms Without Borders founder Zipporah Gur, Avram-Willis’ story struck a personal chord.
“As the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, I too owe my very existence to the everyday heroes who risked their lives to save my parents from the Nazis,” she said.
In welcoming Avram-Willis, Gur worked with members of both the Greek-American and Jewish communities of Western Pennsylvania. Dr. Nick Giannoukakis, an associate professor of pathology at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, helped organize the event and described the gathering’s significance.
“The importance of the program is sharing the untold story of Greek Christians saving Greek Jews,” he said. “The humanity of Greeks shined during WWII.”
The event was the first in a series of partner programs between the Greek-American and Jewish communities. Between Oct. 29 and Nov. 4, Rodef Shalom Congregation hosted a photo-testimonial exhibit titled, “The Triumph of Morality: A Tribute to the Righteous of Greece.” Additionally, in June 2015, CWB is offering a study seminar to Greece. Participants will explore the country and its national and Jewish heritage as well as visit classical sites and Jewish communities. Gur added, “We will be inspired by the stories of the righteous gentiles of Greece who fought the Nazis and worked tirelessly to save Jewish lives.”
Reflecting upon the newly cemented partnership, Giannoukakis stated, “The friendship is natural. We both have the same problems.”
Added the professor: “We have a lot of good ideas moving forward.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.