Updated: Jul 18
Wherever you are reading this, one thing is almost certain. Be”H, at some point this virus will be behind us and life will restart.
Will life be the same as it was until very recently? Will there be a new reality, a new order of priorities? Will we be softer, gentler, more giving, less taking? One can always hope….
So I’d like to encourage everyone to dream of what they would like to do… afterwards. Many of you love to travel.
If the airlines can get their planes flying and there are still people around who can afford to fly, maybe this story will inspire you.
Jewish history has taken us through innumerable periods of intense suffering. We hear stories of bravery and of self-sacrifice, of understanding that our legacy is always what we did, not what we had.
This photo is the gorgeous view from, not of, a Jewish cemetery. In these times, we are swamped with pictures of cemeteries, so we don’t need any more. This cemetery, on the island of Zakynthos (or Zante) to the West of the Greek mainland, plays a key role in a story you may have heard on one of our trips. Or… you may have read the story written for the Jerusalem Post over a decade ago, syndicated in dozens of journals, Jewish and general, throughout the world. It was written by our daughter Leora (then) Goldberg, now B”H Leora Landesman.
(As an aside, and before we start, Leora got into hot water over this story. The story actually took place at the end of the 1990’s but when she was an intern at the JP she was asked to write a story for and about Chanukah. The story takes place in Greece, so she felt this was appropriate. She asked my permission to change one detail: could she make herself the protagonist when it was really me!! Mea culpa… I agreed. Why did she get into trouble? Read on….)
Before the internet existed, before the euro existed, before Naomi Boutique Kosher Tours existed, before the 21st century had begun, in 199?, I asked Naomi where she would like to go for our summer vacation. Tuscany was (and is) our second home, but perhaps, for a change…??
“How about the Greek islands??!!” She suggested.
Our vacation “model” was always the same.
1. Find a destination we like the look of
2. Find a villa to stay
3. Take a starter pack of basic foodstuffs
4. Travel as close to the weekend as possible so as to bring our first Shabbat meals and challot with us
5. Pack some basic cooking equipment and …. off we would go!!
Normally, since Naomi Catering was in full swing already B”H, we would travel for 3 weeks, during the “3 weeks”, as no-one was making S’machot, the kids were off school and the weather was pretty much guaranteed.
We found a villa through the travel pages of the Sunday Times (London) which in those days was available in the library of the British Council here in Baka. It was on an island in Greece. It had the accommodations and facilities we wanted. Had we heard of the island? No. Couldn’t even pronounce it!! Z.A.K.Y.N.T.H.O.S. Then we had to phone, yes phone, at exorbitant cost, to chutz la’aretz!! The lady answering spoke French, a language we Brits all learned at school, and the deal was done. What sold us on the villa?? It came with a motorbike!! Free!!
Off we go. On arrival, our hostess meets us at the door. “Bonjour, ca va?” and a quick tour of the villa follows. Coming to the kitchen, she begins to open all the drawers and cupboards. Pointing to my kippa, tzitzit and one particular suitcase I explain “Nous sommes Juifs” and explain our self-sufficiency in the kitchen department. “Aha, tres bien, Juifs!! Come outside to the garden!!” We follow her into the garden.
The villa was on top of a hill. In one direction was the expanse of sea, glistening in the setting sun, that we had crossed to reach the island. But she pointed in another direction, across a valley to another hill, seemingly uninhabited.
“Do you see?” she asks. “No” we all say. “There on the hill. White dots!!” “OK” we concede, “there are white dots….” “That” she declared proudly “That is our Jewish cemetery”.
And from that moment, our lives literally changed. Obviously, the context of the vacation changed, but we discovered what we always knew intuitively… traveling as a visibly observant Jew is one of the most enriching things you can do. Wow- the stories you come back with: you can travel virtually, but it ain’t the same.
“Jewish cemetery??!!” I didn’t know which question word to use next. Why? When? Who? I just had the “where?” and immediately, without stopping to think, four of us squeezed onto the waiting motorbike (yes, yes, we know…) and set off on a journey which still continues to this very day!!
And there it was. The ubiquitous black iron gates with the Magen David which you see in a thousand places around the world. A beautifully maintained cemetery with a magnificent view. Who could have imagined…. Graves from the 16th century until …1953.
We HAD to get the story. Anyone knowing any of the tragic history of Greece in the Shoah knows that in 1943 most of the Greek Jews were sent off to Auschwitz and Treblinka never to return. Salonika has the dubious “honour” of the highest percentage massacre of its Jewish population anywhere – 96%. So how come they were burying people here in 1953? The plot thickens and the curiosity is piqued…
Unbelievably, there was a “shomer” living in the middle of the cemetery. Zakynthos was once Zante, occupied by Venice for 300 years and Italian is still their second language and we were able to converse. He was the third generation of shomrim in the cemetery!! He tells us there are still those who visit from Athens and Israel and leave stones on the graves. He tells us the last Jew died in 1982. And then he blew us away with “Have you been to where the Synagogue was? In the ghetto? The Jews worked in the port and that’s where they lived.”
We still hadn’t unpacked and night was rapidly approaching. Our program for the next day was a no-brainer!!
Heading down to town we find the streets the shomer had indicated. A local approached us and asked if we were looking for the synagogue. “Yes…” we stammered. (No googlemaps!!)
And then we saw what we’ll never forget.
The open book stone plaque tells us: “Holy site of “Shalom” Synagogue. Here, in 1953, during the earthquake, ancient Torah Scrolls that were written before the community was established were destroyed by the fire.” How long ago was the community founded? About 1500!! The island was the closest island in Greece to Spain or Italy during the flight from the Inquisition in those countries.
And the two scrolls in the courtyard? These were the two men who made our story a “happy” one. In 1943, when the Nazis arrived, these two men saved the Jews. Mayor Karrer and the Bishop Chrystostemos.
Nowadays you can google all the names in this article and find out the whole history….and more. I hope you will, as I will just give you the short version. In those days, we had to visit city hall to find the missing pieces to this story…
In 1943 the Nazi navy visited the island. The Mayor was summoned. He was asked for a list of all the Jews. He told the ship’s commander that all the citizens of the islands were Greeks. The captain instructed him to bring the list of Jews by the next morning. The Mayor went to consult with the Bishop. The next morning they returned to the commander with a paper. “Here is our list” they said. The commander looked at the paper.
- Bishop Chrystostemos
- Mayor Karrer
The Nazi captain sailed away. All the 275 Jews, who were hiding in the villages, were saved.
Just as now, people who survived Hitler are succumbing to coronavirus, the community of Zakynthos survived Hitler but was destroyed by the HUGE earthquake which destroyed so much of the region in 1953. Only 4 buildings were left standing. The synagogue wasn’t one of them. The Jews who left before the earthquake with 3 days’ warning, never returned.
On the last day of our stay, we had to pay the villa owners. Naomi went into a bank to change money. (As we found out later, the bank building was one of the 4 buildings that survived the earthquake.) The teller, busy with her boyfriend and her lunch, mistook 100 $10 bills for 100 $100 bills and gave Naomi the equivalent in drachma. When we discovered the mistake we called to tell the bank their error and that we were coming back. In those days there was no paper trail. They had NO IDEA who we were. But despite the huge temptation and complete lack of wrongdoing on our part, there was NO WAY we could leave with the money after all we’d learned on and about Zakynthos. On arrival at the bank, we were ushered into the Manager’s office, even though we had spoken by phone to the ForEx dept. Deciding this was a good time to promote our agenda of Kiddush Hashem and Or LaGoyim I had put on my LONGEST “arba canfos” (as the grandmothers used to say), my biggest Kippa and my softest voice…. no mean feat. I felt like Esther in front of Achashverosh. “If it pleases you….. I would like to return something you gave me by mistake. I won’t comment on how you run your bank, but I will tell you that if your people saved my people 60 years ago, there is NO WAY we can benefit now from your clerk’s error.” Excusing himself to the two gentlemen with whom he was sitting when we entered, the manager couldn’t find the words or the way to express his gratitude. “Never” he began “has ANYONE, EVER returned money to this bank. Please let us take you out for dinner.” Swirling the tzitzit and pointing at the kippah, I explained the impossibility of accepting his kind offer. “So tell me your address” he insisted “so we can send you some crates of the finest Zakynthos wine”. Ditto. “No gift needed. Your island has given us the greatest gift: friendship to the Jewish people in their time of need.” “So maybe I can give you something” interjected one of the people who had been sitting with the manager when we entered. “I will give you something to end this story, whenever you relate it. Tell people that you met with someone whom you have truly moved. I am the grandson of the man who saved the Jews, Mayor Karrer!!”
(The photo is from the website of the #1 Jewish Guide in Greece, Haim Ishakis.) The memorial above, in the grounds of the Jewish cemetery in Athens, lists all the communities that perished in the holocaust. It gives the number of Jews in 1941, the number of Jews in 1945 and the percentage lost. The percentages range from 61% to 96%.
Except one – the 8th on the list. Zakynthos, 1941 - 275 ; 1945 – 275 Perished – 0. Why? Many theories. Who knows. That’s what had to be…
In 2009 when the JP published Leora’s story it went viral. The grandson of Mayor Karrer, living in Athens, saw it. A friend of his read it in an English language paper from Zakynthos and forwarded it to him. He immediately contacted the JP to say he had no recollection of meeting the young lady in the bank!! Leora thought her career as a journalist was over, but when we spoke to the grandson in Athens, he was overjoyed to be reminded of that day in Zakynthos, many years earlier, when he had met a man… who had a daughter … and $9000-worth of extra drachma.
Our researches into Zakynthos continued after our return. We discovered for example that there is a shul in Tel Aviv founded by the Jews of Zakynthos who made Aliya. We also learned that in 1953, when the earthquake struck, a “MAY-DAY” signal went out from the island. The first boat to respond was a boat from the fledgling Israeli navy that was in the area. When the Israeli captain was asked how they had arrived so quickly, the captain answered that as soon as they heard it was Zakynthos, they sailed full speed ahead to help the island which had saved its Jews!! Other navies arrived, but Israel led the rescue. Here’s an article
https://www.pappaspost.com/august-12-1953-great-ionian-earthquake/ Israel was and is in the forefront of so many humanitarian rescue operations in the face of natural disasters all over the world irrespective of the politics of the governments of the countries whose citizens are suffering.
May the selfless acts of our people protect us in these dark times. May we all, as individuals, act in ways that will spread the word that we represent all that is good in our wonderful world.
אַחֵינוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל הַנְּתוּנִים בַּצָּרָה וּבַשִּׁבְיָה הָעוֹמְדִים בֵּין בַּיָּם וּבֵין בַּיַּבָּשָׁה הַמָּקוֹם יְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם וְיוֹצִיאֵם מִצָּרָה לִרְוָחָה וּמֵאֲפֵלָה לְאוֹרָה וּמִשִּׁעְבּוּד לִגְאֻלָּה הָשָׁתָא בַּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן