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!


Sarah ( said...

First I'd like to say that I'm shocked after reading this interview, I was born in Israel, as to my parents and their family they're from Republic of Georgia (Which is also an orthodox Christian country, actually it was the first orthodox Christian nation)
I currently reside in Tbilisi-Georgia, as part of my medical studies, and I must note that I've never experienced any antisemitism towards me or Israel, on the contrary, the people of Georgia admire the jewish nation,
Unfortunately as to Greece, It's hard to say whether it's a matter of religious views, or ancient prejudice thoughts, I guess it's a combination of both.
I'm sad for my jewish people who choose to stay and live in Greece and "compromise"
Our home is Israel, you should never forget that!

Happy Hanukkah.

Ha-historion said...

Happy Chanukah and thank you for your comment.

Yes, I am aware that anti-Semitism is rare to non-existent in Georgia, I have heard several reasons why.

Ha-historion said...

It's sad that a country with no anti-Semitism raises shows how pervasive this pernicious form of hate is.

goyisherebbe said...

I am located in Israel (Kochav Hashachar -- Jerusalem area). I would like to make contact with R. Mordechai Frizis and invite him to speak in our lecture series at the Israel Center. Contact:

green said...

This comment is for Mordechai Frizis, HaShem gave the Torah, pnly once- at Mount Sinai- and it was His intention that the Torah He gave at that time be passed on throughout all future generations(see Devarim6:19). Torah can be perpetuated in this way only if each individual and each family takes on the responsibility of transmitting the Torah to their offspring, so that they in-turn will keep the mitzvot and pass them onto their offspring after them.
This goes as well for the Greek Jewish communities that are lacking religious leadership. There is an ever-increasing amount of intermarriage as secularism is the top priority and religious teachings are completely ignored.
I am not to dictate to you but your talents are better served if you returned to Greece where the youth could really use your help desparately. In Israel there are plenty to assist in Greece the rabbis are ill-equipped and need some fresh blood to revive what once was. Even Israel is happy that you are there but Jewish Greece hungers for your Jewish talents.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I lived in Nahalot, Jerusalem for a bit and went to the Romaniot synagogue for Jews from Ioanina in the hope of catching a Romaniot service. The Synagogue was still there but it didn't have Romaniot Siddurim and the service was the standard Mizrahi-Yerushalmi. Chaval.
Anyways, I really like your blog.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with you. I am an Orthodox Christian(Greek-Jew) who lives in Greece.I have a Jewish Grandmother(British) and am married to a British raised Frangosyrianos (Catholic Greek for many centuries). My family and grandmother experienced no problems here.I have no problems, my husband has none either. We live in Greece for years and do not hide Jewish and Catholic roots. My grandmother knows many of the Greek Jewish community since the late 1950's. I have heard none of what you are mentioning. I feel so sorry for you that you feel your "grandfather fell for a foreign land". As he was a romaniot jew I am sure he felt Greece was his land. I have read about your grandfather in Kathimerini newspaper,mentioning him with great respect. I am sure he was not only a hero, but a man with a strong sense of duty, it is a pity that you take something away from him that is his and not yours, the honour of dying to protect his country. I would not want my Catholic husband dying for Greece and then in a few generations a descendant of Catholic faith who lives in Italy saying that he had not died for his country, as he was a Catholic Greek(you know how few Catholic greeks are). Please consider that you belong to the post second world war generation and don't understand what was before then and how people felt proud to defend their homeland from invasion,protect their family homes and roots. I am at peace here. Please I also ask you - don't tell me off for being Greek-Jewish orthodox christian, that is what I was baptised as,but I am simply Greek and Jewish and do not believe in God. So I probably don't follow the culture of anybody in Greece. And nobody bothers me nor my family and children

Anika said...

Thanks for writing this.

tracy said...

That is just so very sad and horrible, the kind of anti-semitism this young man went through "in this day and age". i guess it takes an interview such as this to bring me out of my naieve little world. i am what you might call a "free-floating" Christian (is there such a thing??), however, i have been interested in, no, in reality, been a "fascinated bystander" of Judahism since i was very young. i love learning all about the spitituality, beliefs, customs, Holy Days, holidays, music,Isreal etc.

Thank you so much for pointing me towards your blog, it is excellent,
kindest regards,

Yitzchak Kerem said...

Unfortunately, Rabbi Frezis had to leave Greece, because the community was not ready for a deep-rooted Jew to be rabbi; especially for one who speaks the national language. The Jewish community of Thessaloniki covered up Rabbi Frezi being mugged at the train station in Thessaloniki (Salonika). Greece and the Jews have a 2300 year history of harmony and disharmony. The Greek(Orthodox) incited the Jews for
generations, but the also admired the Zionist movement, were active in Jewish illegal immigration to PAlestine (especially during the Holocaust), and rescued some 10,000Jews in WWII in the regions of Thessaly, Athens, Evia, and beyond. The Greek-Orthodox diaspora in Asia Minor and Egypt in the 19th and 20th century was extremely hostile toward the Jews and varreid out over 50 blood libels against the Jews (mainly in the latter part of the 19th century).
The Jews played a key role in Greece pushing back the invading Italians in 1940-41 and Colonel Mordechai Frezis was one of the architects of this campaign. Due to resentment of him being Jewish, he was only recognized as a national war hero in the 1970s and statues were erected in his honor in Kalpaki and Chalkis in the late 70s.
Please see my article about him in the Encyclopaedia Judaica. The statue of Colonel Frezis appears in my film "Ioannina, Athens, Jerusalem" aired on Israeli TV in 1989.


Prof. Yitzchak Kerem

Julie said...

I am a Greek Orthodox Christian who has a fascination with Judaism and Jewish history and this commentary saddens me. I'm not denying there hasn't been anti-semitism in Greece but doesn't the rabbi remember how during the Holocaust Archbishop Demetrios of Athens protested the deportation of the Jews by writing a letter to the local paper and was threatened with death but continued to defy the German authorities by telling priests in his archdiocese to issue baptismal certificates to Jews who requested them? Also what about the Greek isle of Zakynthos where Mayor Loukas Carrer was ordered at gunpoint to hand over a list of the Jews of the isle and Bishop Chrysotomos gave a list with two names. The bishop's and the mayor's! And the bishop told the Germans that those were the Jews and that if the Germans were to deport them they would take the bishop and he would share their fate. So while there's been anti-semitism what about the Greek Christians who saved Jews?

Julie said...

In my last comment I made an error about the name of the archbishop of Athens during World War II. I meant to say Archbishop Damaskinos. Also, about the isle of Zakynthos the mayor and bishops' actions along with the people of the isle hiding the Jews saved everyone of the isle's Jewish population.

Ha-historion said...

I would first like to thank Dr. Kerem for his excellent comment and pointing us towards some excellent resources. I couldn't agree more with his characterization of the relationships between Jews and Greeks as being one of harmony and disharmony. This is still being played out today to some extent, as Israel sends massive aid to conmbat Greek wildfires and Greece puts a noted anti-Semitic writer on trial.

Ha-historion said...

Julie, I may be a little biased here beacuse I've always entertained a strong admiration for the Greek nation and culture. We both after all share a long proud history of -like Professor Kerem write here- harmony and also disharmony. Relationships tend to to have their ups and downs. I think that the vast majority of Jews in Israel (and elsewhere) have no ill feelings towards Greeks and Greece and in fact would love to see stronger ties between the 2 communities and countries.

You rightly pointed out the rescue efforts made by prominent members of the Orthodox Church durng the Holocaust. If you go to Israel (and you are always welcome) and visit the Yad Vashem, especially the section on "Righteous of the Nations" you will see the names and likenesses of of all those noble man who risked their lives to rescue innocents.

Anonymous said...

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I've been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

Thumbs up, and keep it going!


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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.