Abravanel, the Blog

Jewish life and not only in Greece / Εβραϊκή ζωή και όχι μόνο στην Ελλάδα

Posts Tagged ‘books’

Book review: «Jewish Salonica» by Devin Naar

Posted by Abravanel, the Blog στο 27/02/2017

pid_25672Until 2004, when M.Mazower wrote his celebrated «City of Ghosts», the history of Salonica was relegated to a state-sponsored fable of an uninterrupted path between Alexander the Great to Venizelos. That a foreigner was to inform modern-day Salonicans on their city’s history was perhaps only fitting since the efforts of erasing Salonica’s history had been successful and Greek (Christian) historians appeared completely uninformed or unwilling to deal with it.

Since then only 12 years have passed but research has raced to fill in the void abruptly «discovered». In this efforts historians have struggled with three main obstacles:
1. the language. Various archives require knowledge of Ladino, Greek, French and Hebrew; an arduous obstacle indeed.

2. the lack of bibliography. The archives need not only translation but interpretation. Given the lack of research, each historian founds himself in a terra incognita forcing him to build interpretation models from scratch with the unavoidable pitfalls which befell to pioneers.

3. a lack of will. History is intertwined with nationalism and this «new» history comes to clash with established truths, in which funding institutions have a vested interest.

Given these limitations which dwindle the pool of willing and capable historians, Devin Naar appears as a miracle. Of salonican descent, Naar is fluent in the languages of the salonicans – literally and figuratively – and this perspires in his new work «Jewish Salonica. Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece», published by Stanford University Press in 2016 and available here.

The book is divided in 5 chapters: Like a Municipality and a State: The Community – Who will Save a Sephardic Judaism? The Chief Rabbi – More Sacred than a Synagogue: The School – Paving the way for better days: The Historians – Stones that Speak: The Cemetery. It includes  an introduction on whether Salonica is Jewish and a concluding chapter of Jewish Salonica as a myth, a reality and a memory.

The unparalleled advantage of the book is its extensive use of Ladino sources, mainly newspapers and community archives. It effortlessly blends a staggering, for a book less than 300 pages, 1085 footnotes into a narrative which lets the subjects speak for themselves, without losing focus of a broader historical aspect. Tellingly Naar begins the first chapter with the sephardic saying Boz del puevlo, boz del sielo which means The Voice of the People is the Voice of the Heavens.

Each chapter allows us for a better understand of why Salonica is different and of how the Salonicans themselves managed to create a city which Palestine Post described in 1941, «was not unlike Tel Aviv is today». Of special interest is the description of the Jewish efforts to face the adversities that were stacked against them. It challenges the idea of an ever-declining community, showing how the Jews were not passive passengers of a lifeboat, victims to the swirls of the waves of history but instead illustrated agency and will. Concurrently it pierces the myth of an immutable Salonican nationality, showing Jews re-interpreting their identity as circumstances around them were changing.

Unfortunately this also acts as the Achilles Heel to the book. Although Naar aptly describes the efforts of the Community to the challenges, he often lacks to describe them in full. An example is how he treats the Sunday Closing Law, which he describes as «allegedly to level the economic playing field». Although in other articles he is fully aware of the Sunday Law being a rallying point around which coalesced the chauvinist elements of the freshly arrived Christian Greeks, he fails to describe the – surprisingly – homogeneous wall of hostility which the Community had to negotiate with.

But this should not imply that Naar is accommodating to appeasement. His chapter on the cemetery is damning and excruciatingly frank in detailing the efforts to destroy the biggest Jewish cemetery in Europe whose first tombs date from the Roman era. He details the efforts by the Christian elite, epitomized by the Chamber of Commerce and the Aristotle University, to destroy what was the largest visible obstacle to the hellenization of the newly conquered city. He illustrates their efforts which disregard alternatives, proving Jews as the real target and not «modernization» while at the same time describing the almost miraculous ability of the Community to fend the attacks.

Other commenters have said that the history of Jewish Salonica merits a magisterial work. They correctly assume that this book is not the 21st century equivalent of the Histoire des Israelites du Salonique. But I believe its unfair to judge it by this standard; objectively speaking we have not reached the critical mass of works necessary for a magnus opus to delve in, despite recent claims of other books who aspire to this title. «Jewish Salonica. Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece» is a book which aims to let the subjects speak for themselves and sheds light to areas in which the protagonists were pictured until today as supernumerary actors. Even its errors are valuable because they point to areas completely unknown to local historiography, eg the first work concerning the depiction of the Donme by Nehama came out a year after the book was concluded. As such it is indispensable to the erudite and layman alike and in all likelihood will prove itself resistant to the passing of time. Certainly it advances the study of the history of Salonica, it offers new information with which we can re-assess older sources and appears as a fresh breath of air.

And as far of the magnus opus of the history of Salonica? It is yet to be written but Devin Naar certainly puts himself as a favourite among the restricted group of scholars capable and willing to write it.

Posted in Books and stuff, greece | Με ετικέτα: , , | 1 Comment »

Greek History textbooks.

Posted by Abravanel, the Blog στο 06/03/2007

DeviousDiva has been very kind and has published a small article I wrote on the absence of the Shoah in the Greek History textbook used in the last class of greek highschools. I’m going to post it here later but for the time being you can read it & comment there; while being there I’d also suggest taking the time to read other posts and especially the Roma series. :)

Again a huge thanks to DeviousDiva! More here -> http://deviousdiva.com/2007/03/06/guest-blogger-2/

March 11th update – here’s the complete article.

Greek Textbooks

sxolika-vivlia.jpgOften when treating themes concerning human rights we often resort to the exhortation: Educate, educate and again educate (and here the emphasis classically is placed upon the “youths, the hope of our nation” as they’re so often described). Sometimes this concept is stressed so heavily that one could argue that it is a wicked and devious way to shift responsibilities from our shoulders and bestow them on the shoulders of the generations to come, sparing us from the responsibility to do something today. But this mischievous behavior doesn’t change the fact that indeed it is the only durable solution that really secures a future and a necessary premise for any initiative to counter racist behaviours in the society.

A core part of this process is played by the school, which together with the collective conscience and the family, are the ones who determine behaviour and in general the collective ideas of what’s acceptable or normal and what’s not. The importance of this institution is not to be diminished, a fact that state diplomacies take heavily into account.

Recently Germany and France agreed to have a common History textbook in an effort to highlight the things that unite rather than the things that separate them. To the same effect, the conference of the Balkan states agreed that a revision of the textbooks was in order in attempt to overcome a difficult past and promote a more peaceful approach between neighbours.

Greek readers also know that each new “generation” of textbooks reflects the current political sensitivities of the era. Still, a common denominator in all textbooks from all eras is the almost complete lack of any mentioning to the Greek Shoah and the extermination of 60.000 Greek Jews, 80% of the original population with peaks as 97.5% of Thessaloniki. In the post war years, one could argue that neither was the communist-led resistance during WW2 mentioned, (due to the civil war that followed and the anti-communist hysteria during the Cold War by the conservative parties that dominated the political scene), so it was just the “typical” anti-Semitic Right view of History. But there are no excuses for the modern textbooks, which were revised by the socialist party PASOK in the ‘80s, to mirror the nation’s unity against the Nazi-fascist invader, to promote National Reconciliation and to finally close the Civil War chapter by recognizing the importance of the communist-led Resistance.

In Greek textbooks WW2 is extensively studied in the last year of high school with two chapters covering WW2, the Greek involvement, the Resistance and the Greek casualties. In total, there are 53 pages in a 500 book pages, of which 20 are dedicated to the Resistance and the civil casualties due to famine or German executions. This includes both the main text which is obligatorily and the extra testimonies, and photos which are present but not mandatory to read and officially not among the material that a student can be examined on, (in Greek called πηγές/sources).

The Shoah from the whole WW2 takes a total of 8 lines in 3-column page for a staggering 1/6th of a page. The Greek Jews are not mentioned even once in the main text but qualify for a total of 3×4cm mention among the sources!

In detail, we see that in the non-obligatory sources pages the testimony of the commander of Auschwitz states that “more than 3.000.000 people died” and “Among the victims there were 100.000 German Jews and a large amount of Jews of the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Greece”. The casual reader figures that from the millions of dead in Auschwitz only a small fraction are Jews maybe as many as 200.000 in total since the largest group among them appears to be the 100.000 German Jews with the smaller populations following.

In the main text we find only a generic reference to “millions of dead in the concentration camps” without saying that 6 million of these were Jews though we must admit with great generosity, that it does refer to the hunt down of Jews as “genocide”; again it should be noted that no mention about Greek Jews is made.It is of relevance that these two small mentions to the Shoah are a part of the chapter that is occupied with the generic events of WW2 and not the second chapter referring to the Occupation of Greece as if these didn’t impact directly on the Greek human casualties.

While the executions of Greek civilians by the Italians, Bulgarians and Germans at the villages of Doxato, Kalavryta, Choriatis and other are minutely recorded both in the main text and in the extra material with photos and testimonies for pages and pages, there is absolutely no mention of the Greek Shoah. The author’s description of the events is detailed enough for us to learn the exact numbers of executions, a total of an 49.188 executions and estimated 300.000 deaths from famine; in addition we learn the numbers and detailed descriptions of the aforementioned massacres but still they fail to give any indication if any Greek Jews died and how many of them.

While heroic acts of the Resistance are told together with German and Bulgarian atrocities, there is no mentioning of the deportation of many of the Thessaloniki Jews into labor camps at Lagadas before the deportation to the death camps, where many of them died of malaria and hardships. Nor we find any mention to the proud answer of the Thracian Jews who denied acquiring Bulgarian citizenship and were deported and exterminated while the Bulgarian Jews were saved!

In the end no mention is made to the only revolt that was made in Auschwitz, which was organized, by Greek and Polish Jews (and some state they died singing the Greek national anthem!)

The reader should bear in mind that this isn’t “the usual Jewish whine” about the Shoah, (as many anti-Semites often remark), but an impressive omission of Greek heroic acts while the book is not stingy about referring them when treating non-Jews in its effort to install patriotism among the children. Even if we’d forget the objections that a liberal would make about this particular way of teaching History, even the most cynical, the most “patriotic” right wing reader would agree that some of the events mentioned before would be a source of pride for the Greek nation and an example of how a “real Greek” should behave and at the same time give international glory to Greece, something all nationalists covet.

Why then are these not mentioned? Brevity is not the reason since an entire chapter is dedicated to the Resistance and the Greek civilian casualties. Interestingly the word “Holocaust” is used but it’s reserved for the massacre of 165 Greeks at Metsovo.

How can one ask for Christian Greeks to consider their Jewish compatriots as true Greeks when they lack the most basic of knowledge about them or how they fulfilled their duty in WW2 only to find death in the crematories 3 years later? How can one ask the Thessaloniki Left movements, who marched and desecrated the Monument to the Shoah, to respect their city’s dead when nobody tells them they existed?

These students who today fail to learn anything from their school about a Greek tragedy like this one, (because unless we begin to consider this as a Greek tragedy and not a Jewish one, nothing will change), are the ones repeating their usual mantra. They say that the Shoah maybe indeed happen but is exaggerated in numbers, that the Jews should leave if they don’t like it in Greece, that after all they whine too much and it wasn’t something more terrible than the rest of the world had etc. And to top this they say that the Jews show no allegiance to the Greek state despite every time the Greek State has asked the Greek Jewish community to act, it has answered their call.

If one wishes to extend this line of thought, one can argue that even if today the textbooks changed, we would need two generations to have this history known because the teacher and the family who influence the children would simply not be convinced, partly nullifying the work done by the official school policy.

Are things as dramatic as I depict them? My experiences, as a Greek Jew, tell me they indeed are and the situation will not improve since no real effort is being made other than symbolic efforts to have something to present when international pressure is exerted on Greece. One example is the way the Shoah is presented in the new History textbook for 6th grade, and that’s the subject of my next installment.

Posted in greece, Shoah | Με ετικέτα: , , , | 1 Comment »

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