Holocaust remembrance highlights Greek Jews

Jane Elias lights a candle with her mother,

Jane Elias lights a candle with her mother, Varda Elias, a Greek-Jewish Holocaust survivor, during a program commemorating Greek Holocaust survivors, rescuers, and victims at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County in Glen Cove. (April 7, 2013) (Credit: Barry Sloan)

Jane Elias, born of an Israeli mother and Greek father, faced the question growing up in Long Beach: What is it like in a mixed-religion family?

"No, no, my parents are both Jews," Elias, 39, of Brooklyn, recalled saying. "I'd get this sort of bewildered look. 'Greek Jew?' "

It is a story not uncommon for Jews of Greek ancestry -- whose decimation at the hands of the Nazis has been seemingly excepted from the story of the Holocaust, religious scholars say.

Sunday's Holocaust remembrance, or Yom Hashoah in Hebrew, at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County in Glen Cove sought to highlight Greek Jewry, of which about 70,000 were killed in the Holocaust.

More than 500 people attended the prayer service and candle lighting at the memorial, which is hosting a special exhibit until mid-August titled "Portraits of Our Past: Sephardic Communities of Greece and the Holocaust."

The exhibit's photos and artifacts were provided by the Kehila Kedosha Janina synagogue and museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture.

Greek Jews, according to Marcia Ikonomopoulos, director of Kehila Kedosha Janina, are the "orphan child of Holocaust studies" -- "a footnote, an afterthought," mostly because what happened to Jews in Greece is overshadowed by places such as Poland, where more than half of 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

Greek Jews, descendants of Spanish Jews who fled Spain and Portugal in 1492, settled in Greek cities such as Salonica and Kastoria, she said.

Just 5,000 Jews live in Greece today -- about 3,000 in Athens, which is home to two synagogues -- said Arye Mekel, Israeli ambassador to Greece, who spoke at the event.

He told the "unusual and touching" story of Zakynthos, a Greek island, home to 275 Jews before the Holocaust.

A German general demanded a list of Jewish residents. The island's mayor, conflicted, consulted a bishop.

When the general got the list, it had only the names of the mayor and the bishop. The two men, along with the island's Jews, escaped on boats.

"The Jews have a long memory," Mekel said. "We don't forgot those who hurt us and we don't forget those who helped us either."

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