Monday, March 19, 2018

Poignant "Never Again" Remembrances in Thessaloniki (aka Salonika)

A bad cold prevented me from traveling to Thessaloniki yesterday for the 6th Annual silent march from downtown Liberty Square to the Old Train Station -- under the banner of  “Never Again: 75 years since the first train departed for the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps” and led by 92-year-old Holocaust survivor Moshe Aelion in his wheel chair.  Marchers laid flowers on the tracks, lit candles and wrote messages on the old train carriages. I was there in spirit.

(Photo Credit:
The Jewish people have been an important part of this corner of the world for centuries, but the German Occupation changed everything. Imagine the horror facing Greek Jews who could not escape deportation. Or that of non-Jews forced to bear witness, some who intervened however they could. When I worked at the American Farm School circa 1968-78, I knew both Jews who had been hidden and those who had hidden them.  Nevertheless, 48,533 (mostly Sephardic) Jews left Salonika for Auschwitz on those trains between March 20 and August 18, 1943. Others arrived to Treblinka and other camps for a total of 54,000. In all, 65,000 Greek Jews perished in the Holocaust.

A series of annual events has been established to pay respect to both the Jews who perished and Salonika's  rich Jewish  heritage.  Two years ago,  children from six primary schools in the neighborhoods of that train station were asked to imagine the journey of children who got on those trains, resulting in amazing heart-breaking creations that were later exhibited.  In the words of Mayor Ioannis Boutaris: “The story of the Jewish matter had been swept under the carpet. We decided to gradually showcase the city’s Jewish identity. You cannot build the future if you don’t know the past."

The future will include a Holocaust Museum (to be built over the train station), a metropolitan park with an olive tree planted for every Thessaloniki Jew who perished, and potentially a Jewish School to support the current 1300-4500 member (depending on who's counting) Jewish Community.  Unfortunately this wave of goodwill was marred this past January by the defacing of Thessaloniki's Holocaust Memorial in the name of the ultra-right party Golden Dawn, a group embodying the populist movements sweeping Europe in response to the Syrian refugee crisis and emboldened by the hardships on the Greek people due to the financial crisis. (Should I mention that there are currently 65,000 refugees trapped in Greece?)

The good news is that some Salonika Jews returned home after the war to rebuild their lives --  like the family of Heinz Kounio, owners of a camera store founded 100 years ago. They managed to survive because they spoke German and were put to work in several locations before being rescued in Austria by US forces led by General George Patton. Kounio's is the oldest camera shop in Greece and a tribute to Jewish resilience -- a beautiful and amazing story recently profiled in the Forward.

That must-read story rang familiar to me on several levels, as I had once met Flora Lazar Schneider (mother: last name Kounio) whose parents managed to leave Thessaloniki before the two weeks ago I went to 24 Komninon Street. Speaking with Heinz Kounio's granddaughter Nora and looking at the graphics on the wall outlining the store's history, it became evident that this was the place that I had all my Kodak Instamatic photos developed more than 40 years ago. And it was just blocks away from the renowned Molho's Bookstore -- which, unfortunately, no longer exists -- where I picked up a copy of the International Herald Tribune every Saturday. They were simply the best camera store and bookstore in town -- and are now part of a lasting Jewish legacy in Thessaloniki,  aka Salonika.

NOTE: There is an excellent and relatively new Jewish Museum in downtown Thessaloniki at Agiou Mina 13 and another excellent Jewish Museum in downtown Athens at Nikis 39. Closed Saturdays!  

Friday, March 9, 2018

International Women's Day, then contest.

It's not like Greece is way behind on the issue of equal rights. There is a whole government program in place for that. The "dowry" system was abolished by the Socialist government in 1982, when another law also allowed women to keep their maiden names. And last October I viewed an extensive ‎exhibit dedicated to feminist activity 1974-1990 at the Parliament Foundation building in Athens where books, posters, demo memorabilia, etc. looked  amazingly familiar...
So I was rather shocked to‎ hear that a Girls School grad's husband would not allow her to have lunch with us in Thessaloniki on the occasion of International Women's Day (March 8th). She has attended other get-togethers, no problem. And the day is actually acknowledged in Greece where women do get together to party even in villages. So what was up with that?

Well! Seems like some men get crankily insecure around here at the thought of a day dedicated to the advancement of women's rights, undermining the notion that women may be at least somewhat liberated. It looks like a pretty modern society, however, it is not...on several levels. Sure, you can sometimes fold old-fashioned habits into the cultural landscape and say no problem.‎ Other times, when you are confronted with clear-cut male entitlement issues, it is not so easy. Women may have some legal entitlements complete with outspoken political views (finally!), and also look modern in dress or hanging out/going on trips with their friends. But when push comes to shove you better provide and literally put food on the table every single day, run around 24/7 caring for grandchildren (my pet peeve!), and generally play the part of Greek wife/mother with all of its tasks/constraints. Yes, looks can indeed be rather deceiving...
And now, here comes Easter. While we may be familiar with certain rituals and preparations -- like Friday night services, fried cod on March 25th, dying eggs red on Good Thursday, and procuring/cleaning entrails for maghiritsa soup -- there is one set of chores not so well-know in the States: cleaning the whole house from stem to stern (think mandatory Spring Cleaning on steroids), typically involving taking down/washing/ironing all the curtains and washing all the rugs -- thank God for washing machines! Not to mention, mostly in the villages, the whitewashing of inner walls and outside walkways, etc. All of this is done by the women except for some whitewashing and help with heavy objects, transport needs and the like. Oh, and don't you dare ask your son to help with these chores as he will probably be too busy hanging out with his friends when not working. Thus, all Greeks are simply not created equal.

The Easter season in Greece, however, is something to behold -- especially Holy Week. Two years ago, I spent Easter in my Papou's village of Kyparissi, Lakonias, and joined the many visiting Greeks who ate fabulous maghiritsa at the Trocadero restaurant after church -- and by reservation, no less. Last year, I went to Corfu, with dueling epitafia on Friday and red crockery of all sizes thrown from balconies on Saturday. This year I will spend Easter in Naousa for the first time.
Kalo Pascha, Happy Easter!
NOTE: Must mention that the financial crisis in Greece might have abated on paper and in some news stories -- but still NO trickle down effect to the everyday, austerity-bitten consumer living on pensions cut many times with increased fees/taxes and 22% unemployment. Greece has the lowest consumer sentiment index in the European Union, no surprise there. Let's see how many people actually roast whole lambs on Easter Sunday...

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Picture worth a thousand words...

News of Mary Theocharides leaving us this week was hard to swallow on several levels.

The Theocharides family was an important part of the Stockton St. Basil's Greek Community for many years before moving to Thessaloniki and the American Farm School circa 1960. There were many good (verging on crazy) times in the days when the church really was the center of our lives. Harry, Mary, Terry and Nico were part of the Xanttopoulos/Sarris families, too. And to make a very long story short, our ties -- from Stockton, to Thessaloniki (where I was for 10 years at the School) and back again -- run deep.

 Evgenia Sarris, Mary Theocharides, Liberty Sarris and Harry's mother.

Terry and Nico will surely have many great stories to tell after their mother's funeral at St. Basil's on Friday at 10 am.  But this isn't just about memories and stories. It's really about an entire and in many ways heroic generation -- along with their belief system and work ethic -- having left us one-by-one. And that is VERY hard to swallow.

May dear Mary's memory -- and those of all our parents/relatives -- be eternal. Zoi se mas.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Naousean skier will carry the Greek flag at the Olympic Games!

As I prepare to return to my father's hometown of Naousa for my fourth 3-month stay, I am really looking forward to Apokries. This is a super special time in Naousa, where the Carnival tradition is nothing like we see on TV from other parts of Greece or Rio or New Orleans. In Naousa it is all about the proud tradition of the "Yenitsari and Boules," which dates back centuries -- even during the dark 400 years of the Ottoman Empire, when money collected during the celebrations was hidden under the skirt of the Boules (men) to buy food and supplies for the Macedonian Freedom Fighters. Each year the entire city follows a specific program of preparation, procession route ("dromemo"), and songs/dances that NEVER changes. Greeks come from all over to see this amazing, historic spectacle.

By "Tsiknopempti" (Thursday, February 8th), preparations will be at a fever pitch. But this year there will be something extra in the mix: the opening that day of the XXIII Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. And as we learned a few months ago, Sophia Rally from Naousa will carry the Greek flag in the opening ceremonies. Wow!

On October 28th, the Olympic Flame came to Naousa on its way to The Games. Sophia proudly ran it into Platia Karanatsou and lit the cauldron for the poignant ceremonies. We were reminded that  Naousa -- being located in the foothills of Mt. Vermion with access to the ski areas of 3-5 Pigadia and Seli -- has a rich winter Olympic tradition dating back to 1956. The names of all Naouseans who have skied in the Games were read aloud, and the Odeio Choir braved the cold to serenade our Korean visitors as did the young "Naousa Glee" singers. Beautiful!

Sophia will actually be competing in her third Olympic Games along with a few other local skiers. And when she marches into the stadium holding that flag on "Tsiknopempti", all Naouseans will be very proud -- and some will even raise a glass or two of Naousa's renown Xinomavro wine* in her honor...It will be quite a party, wherever you are!

*Wine lovers should be on the lookout for Episode #106 of My Greek Table with Diane Kochilas (PBS.) "A Bite of Greek Red Wine' is about the production of Naousa's Xinomavro -- double opa!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Inspiration from an 89-year-old Naousa Facebooker!

Sometimes a writer needs inspiration, especially when wondering if a book in my head will ever make it to the printed page...I recently got a big dose  of that in my Greek hometown of Naousa when getting to know more about  Manolis Valsamides, a legendary local historian who has written 23 books. His latest, Psifidhes  Istorika Vol. 6, was unveiled at a packed public event  that not only inspired me, but gave me new insight into the Naousa psyche.
"The Heroic Town of Naousa" is a fascinating place located just below the ski line and bifurcated by the ever-downward-rushing Arapitsa River. The town was officially designated  "Heroic" by King Paul in 1955 in recognition of all-out efforts to gain independence from the Turks in 1822 -- an uprising that resulted in Naousa being burned to the ground, but which also taxed Turkish forces so much as to facilitate the independence of Greece in the Peloponnesus. Only the small Profit Ilias church and three people survived that watershed event. Then, the rebuild from scratch.
For a town of only 23,000 people, Naousa is surprisingly flush with activity: an indoor and outdoor theater, a first class ski venue with its history of local winter Olympians, lectures/seminars/book readings, an indoor swimming facility adjacent to the renown St. Nicholas Grove (with its tennis courts), music events of all shapes/sizes, a large movie theater, numerous traditional organizations/dance groups, and the historic Carnival tradition which lasts about 2 weeks...not to mention being ground zero for the fabled Xinomavro grape and 19 area wineries.
But Naousa also seems to have a few chips on her august shoulders.
This I understood better when presenters for the Valsamides book emphasized the detailed recounting of Naousa's "heroic" times as information that some had not been totally aware of. They expressed wonder at Mr. Manolis' prodigious output, but focused on the fact that this chunk of Naousa history has not been written about as much as the stories of the independence movement/heroes from southern Greece -- where, in fact, some of the Naousa freedom-fighters escaped to in 1822 to became heroes yet again. Naousa simply didn't have chroniclers like Lord Byron and Kostis Palamas, so she was kind of left out of the historical narrative. That had been deemed an "injustice."
Valsamides' newest book helps right that wrong. He described his book as both "a product and a dialogue." For the grand finale he shared the news that in 1932 a journalist had interviewed a nun purported to be the 110-year-old daughter of Naousa freedom-fighter Dimitrios Tsamis Karatasou. The crowd was stunned...but no more stunned than I upon hearing that "Kyrios Manolis" at 89 is Internet savvy with a Facebook page. I immediately ran home and friended him. Very soon thereafter he both accepted and answered my questions on the nun story!
About 10 days later, Manolis Valsamides posted a lengthy and rather urgent request for help researching the above matter -- for people to look for various Thessaloniki newspaper articles for the period 1931-1940. "This is a difficult topic," he wrote. "It needs deep research, so we can find facts that can be cross-checked...Every bit of help is welcome. Search!" This from a historian who was not going off half-cocked because he was on to something. He will be satisfied only when he has proven facts worthy of his next book.
Now, that's inspiration.