Thursday, November 22, 2007

An interview with the grandson of a Romaniote Greek-Jewish war hero

Rabbi Mordechai Frizis (pictured, top) is the Grandson -as well as namesake- of a famous Greek- Jewish war hero (pictured, bottom).

Born and raised in Athens , he served for a time as the Rabbi of Salonika (once known as the 'Jerusalem of the Balkans') before making aliya. He currently resides with his wife and daughter in Israel.

What was it like growing up Jewish in Greece? did you experience allot of anti-Semitism? if yes, was it mostly racially or religiously motivated?

Growing up in Greece as a Jew, is not so easy, either physically or spritually but mainly spiritually. I was raised in the Jewish community of Athens untill the age of 18. Me and my family were very involved in the life of the community (Synagogue, Jewish primary school etc.) My father and I were also elected members of the community's board.
Greek society is a very traditional Orthodox Christian society, with little tolerance of anyone who is different.Of course there is anti-Semitism in Greece. The motives are many:

a) Religious motives: First of all, the Jews are the 'killers' of Jesus, servants of Satan & the anti-Christ, some people believe until today that we drink Christian blood on Pesach, and that we are subhuman. When I was in High School, one of my classmates-upon finding out that I was Jewish- was incredulous, where were my horns and tail she asked. Many Christians believe that Israel is Satan's work & that Jews and Zionists rule over all the governments of the world. For them we are the Enemy number one, more than Turkey. They believe that the Freemasons, and even the Catholic Pope, are our spies in our total war against Orthodox Christianity and the 'holy' Greek nation...The word 'Jew' means 'Judas', traitor. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion & other anti-Semitic books are legal & best-sellers in Greece.

b) Racial & nationalistic motives: The religious anti-Semites many times collaborate with neo-Nazi and neo-fascist groups but there is a difference between them. Some neo-Nazis preach against everything Jewish, even against Jesus and Christianity. Some prominent professors at the University have similar ideas and they preach for a new pagan Greece free from all Jewish influence.Most of the Nazis and fascists (they are legal in Greece) continue to have good relations with the Orthodox Christian Church and they preach for a bigger Greece (see Byzantine empire), sans immigrants and of course Jews. Today in Greece there is a big fascist\orthodox Christian and anti-Semitic party inside the Greek parliament (L.A.O.S).Some Nazis admire openly the Holocaust, but most of them deny it altogether as a Jewish-Zionist conspiracy.There is a lot of anti-Semitic graffiti in public places and also many times Nazis vandalize Jewish cemeteries.

c) Political\leftist\anti-Zionist motives: In Greece there are also a big number of anti-Zionist\anti-American Socialists and Communists. In theory they are against racism and anti-Semitism, but when they speak against Israel and Zionism, there are no practical differences between them and the Nazis. Most of the media speak like this; We are the 'killers' of Arab babies, imperialists, racists, fascists, the real enemies of all healthy humanity, the bosses of the US and Bush...Very often there are huge pro-'Palestinian' rallies in Greece. They openly support Hamas, Hezbollah, Sadam-'the martyr' and Al-Qaeda!When the Twin Towers were attacked, many Greeks were happy...Some said that it was a heavenly 'punishment' or another Jewish conspiracy...Personally, when I went to a public high school (in Greece we do not have a Jewish one) I met all of these kinds of anti-Semites first hand. For many classmates and even for the teachers I was an alien, not a real Greek!

Many times a found my desk vandalized with Nazi, anti-Semitic and pro-Arab graffiti, and sometimes I had physical fights with some anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi bullies. In those years ('94-'95) I started to publish articles in some prominent newspapers about the problem of anti-Semitism in Greece.Also some prominent TV programs invited me to speak about the situation, after a violent attack of neo-Nazis against a female high-school student.The central Jewish Greek committee didn't like that. For them, everything had to be ok, For them there was never any anti-Semitism in Greece...Many times they tried to prevent me from speaking or writing in public about the manner. For some of them I was an 'extremist'...Unfortunately, many Jews didn’t exactly admire their Jewishness, some are also ashamed of it, either because they didn’t want to be the 'alien' or the 'enemy', or because of fear (this is also one of the main reasons for the high rate of assimilation in Greece). When I became Rabbi of the Jewish community of Salonika, 4 years ago, I didn't see any difference in the situation.Let's hope that with G-d's will, the Jewish youth will give a chance to Judaism, Zionism & Aliyah to Israel, rather than assimilation & 'compromise' with the situation, because we don't know what will be in the future (this year in a formal gallop poll 25% of the Greeks vote that they don't want to have Jewish neighbors living next door to them)!

You are named after your grandfather who was a Greek war hero, do you feel a strong connection to the man?

About my grandfather, yes I can say that I have a strong connection with his image. I grew with all these stories about him. Unfortunately, for many decades his name and actions were not known to the public, because of his Jewishness. After many efforts on the part of my father, the truth about his heroism, started to be revealed at last in a part of the Greek society.He (Mordechai) loved Greece, as he loved Judaism. Even though he was a major officer in the army, he was a traditional Jew and also a Zionist (for a period he was the president of the Zionist organization of the Jewish community of Halkida).The merit of his heroism saved his family during the days of the German occupation.

When the Nazis demanded that every Jew of the area of Athens had to go to the offices of the community and give all their information to be written in catalogues, my grandmother took my father anf his two older sisters and went there. They chose a line and when their turn arrived, my grandmother started to give information. When the clerk, who was a Greek Christian non-Nazi veteran soldier, heard our family name, he immediately asked if she had any connections with the general Frizis. My grandmother said that she was his widow. He stopped writing, and quietly said: 'I was one of his soldiers. Listen to me-I will not write your name down. Take your children and don't come back here, never!'...Today, as a religious Jew, I think that it was a pity that he gave his life for a foreign land (it wasn't easy for him to become a major, because of his Jewishness), but I respect his heroism and his willingness to sacrifice for a cause that he believed in.

You are a Romaniote Jew, many Jews (let alone regular people) are completely ignorant of this community and their unique customs. Many Jews tend to lump all Greek Jews together and label them conveniently Sephardim. Also, the study of Greek Jews and their experiences during the Holocaust is woefully inadequate. What do you think is a good solution to mend this problem?

Unfortunately, the special customs of the ancient communities of the Romaniote Jews today are almost forgotten. The biggest Romaniote community of Yannina, before World War II, was almost completely destroyed during the Holocaust.The Jews of modern Greece, are mostly not religious. Some of them are simply traditional. About the customs of the elders (both Romaniote & Sepharadi), there is a big confusion in the minds of the younger generations.Also about the Holocaust, Jews from Greece are astonished when they find other Jews that know nothing about their tragedy.The last years, here in Israel, there are efforts to teach about the Holocaust, as not only an Ashkenazi tragedy.On the other hand, many Jews are surprised to find out, that Jews exist in Greece altogether. It seems that generally we have a lack of education.

You have since relocated to Israel, may I ask what motivated you to do so and would you recommend it to others?

I had two basic motives for my Aliyah:
A) One positive: I grew in a very traditional & Zionist family. Israel always was our spiritual homeland.
B) One negative: The anti-Semitism in school, made me feel more Jewish & Zionist than before.
I remember myself at the age of 14, drawing Israeli flags in my textbook in high school...Ideologically, I believe that there will and must be an end to all Jewish 'Diaspora', exile & 'galut', not only in small communities like Greece, but also in the big ones, like US, France, Argentina, etc.I recommend Aliyah, even if it is not an easy step, at all. Life in Israel is not simple at all, but only here, even with all the problems, we have a special destiny & real hope as a nation!
Is there a Greek Jewish community in Israel and are you involved in it?

There were Jewish Greek communities in Israel, before and after World War II, like in Jaffa, Haifa, Tel-Aviv & Jerusalem.Today the children of these Greek Jews are totally Israeli in culture.There is also a Kibbutz, but most of the 'real' Greeks there are elders.There is a very tiny Aliyah of young Jews from Greece today and we are in contact with most of them.
I know this is a sensitive topic to many but I would love to know your views on the relationship between different sectors of Israeli Jewish society. There are tensions often between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews as well as religious and non-religious. There are also tensions often between the Charedi community and the Dati Leumi one. What do you think is the solution for this?

Unfortunately, these tensions are not healthy at all for our nation.The tensions between Ashkenazi & Sepharadi, today is not as strong as it was in the beginning of the state. In any case, how can we want the Redemption, when we are not ready to become ONE people, with ONE united Halacha for every Jew! The tensions between religious and non-religious, are most of time, products of extreme elements, specifically, small leftist anti-religious groups. The leftist Israeli media often blows it way out of proportion in order to turn the majority of non-religious(but not anti) or traditional Israelis, against the 'dangerous' religious Jews. We have to be clever and explain our points of view with respect to the others, but we need not be apologetic. The tensions between Haredi & Dati Leumi Jews are also a knife in the back of Judaism. Let's just say that in Israel today these tensions are not so endemic and as strong as it was in the past the reason is the quite and parve 'zionisation' and 'israelisation' of a large number of young charedi Jews. We have to be more united and look at what connects us rather than what separates us.We have to remember that if we will not be united in a peaceful manner, our enemies, G-d forbid, will do it for us...because an Arab butcher-terrorist or a neo-Nazi skinhead doesn't differentiate between us when he hurts us. For him, Ashkenazi or Sepharadi, religious or non-religious, Zionist or anti-Zionist, rightwing or leftwing, Haredi or Dati Leumi, Israeli or Diaspora Jew, all of us are targets for him!

Thank you so much for your time!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Greek Romaniote Jews in NY. A visit to a rare Jewish community

This is a spot that I have long wanted to visit but never had a chance to do so. Today I had the opportunity to personally meet with Marcia Hadad Ikonomopoulous- the director of the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum- who was gracious enough to give me a private tour of the place as well as provide me with some of her great written publications on the history of the community. The Janina community is truly a fascinating one. Many people aren't aware of its existence- how its traditions differ from both the Ashkenazic as well as the Sephardic one.

I also met and chatted with a long-time member of the Synagogue, a dignified gentleman by the name of Ilias Hadjis who arrived in the USA in 1955. Mr. Hadjis, was born in Athens in 1937, and spent the occupation hiding in the Pilion Mountains and Athens. Here Mr. Hadjis speaks about the history of the Synagogue and its members:

Here Mr. Hadjis talks about how his family survived the Holocaust-which took a horrific toll upon Greek Jewry. He first asked me if I had several hours to spare, but we somehow managed to condense it into several minutes:

The Synagogue is currently undergoing restoration. A grant from the city is enabling a moderate scale expansion and renovation. In the plans are: a multimedia room with videos and computers that would tell the history of the community, a large library and a cafe. All in all, it was a charming and pleasant visit, I strongly urge everyone to hop over for a visit, you won't be sorry.

About Me

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I am an independent research historian and genealogist and currently working on my first book that will explore the Sephardic origin of many Eastern European Jews. I hope to correspond on this blog with like minded individuals and learn more about the subjects being discussed as well as impart some of my own knowledge to others. Please be considerate and give proper credits when reproducing anything from this site. Thank you.