Parallels
1:14 pm
Wed September 4, 2013

'We Are Next': Greek Jews Fear Rise Of Far-Right Party

Originally published on Tue September 10, 2013 5:22 pm

No one has ever doubted Mois Yussuroum's patriotism. As part of the Greek resistance during World War II, he fought Benito Mussolini's fascist army and then the Nazis.

"The other resistance fighters didn't know I was Jewish," he says, since he used the name "Yiorgos Gazis" in case he was captured. "But my superiors did know, and they gave me many responsibilities, including making me a garrison commander."

Now, more than 70 years after Yussuroum and other Greeks fought the German Nazis, Greece confronts the rise of the Golden Dawn Party, which espouses a far-right ideology. Its members use Nazi symbolism and slogans and blame "Jewish bankers" for the country's debt crisis. They say they're patriots, not fascists, a claim that makes Yussuroum, a retired dentist who's now 94, cringe.

"Their minds are sick," he says. "They say the Holocaust is a lie, and they don't believe the Germans killed Jews."

The propaganda is spreading, says Zanet Battinou, director of the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens.

"It is heard, it is read, it is written," she says. "So many more people hear this and read this, and are maybe wondering about it. What we are here to do is offer accurate information, which has been double-checked and historically substantiated."

The museum is running a special exhibit, Synagonistis (Comrade-in-Arms), on the 650 Greek Jews who fought in their country's anti-Nazi resistance.

More than 400,000 Greeks died during the Nazi occupation, among them more than 67,000 Greek Jews — 87 percent of the community.

A Long History

Jews have lived in Greece since the time of Alexander the Great. Before the war, most were Sephardim, descended from the Jews whom Spain expelled in the late 15th century. They lived in the northern city of Thessaloniki and became the city's most successful merchants, says Erika Perahia-Zemour, curator of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki.

Until the 1930s, they spoke Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, at home.

"It was very easy to recognize a Jew," Perahia-Zemour says. "Only young Jews spoke Greek, and the Greek they spoke kept a small accent."

Their accents gave them away to the Nazis, who deported them to die in concentration camps.

Some Greek-Jewish children survived by hiding in the homes of Greek Christians.

Rosina Asser-Pardo, a native of Thessaloniki, was a third-grader in pigtails when she hid with her family.

In the recent documentary Kisses to the Children, by Greek filmmaker Vassilis Loules, Asser-Pardo recalls emerging after 548 days and discovering Thessaloniki had become a city of ghosts.

"They counted us and there were only 70 Jews left, from a community of 55,000 people," she says, her voice breaking. "And there was this enormous feeling of loneliness."

Preserving A Legacy

The 1,500 Greek Jews who remain in Thessaloniki keep their traditions alive. The community's choir sings in Ladino, which parents stopped speaking to their children after the war.

The choir's CD features children from the local Jewish elementary school singing "Ocho Kandelas" (Eight Candles), a Hanukkah song. There's also a song called "La Djovenika En Lager" (The Girl at the Camp), dedicated to a Jewish girl who died in the Birkenau concentration camp.

But in Athens on July 24, another song was heard — a Greek version of a Horst Wessel song, a Nazi anthem. The Golden Dawn Party blasted it outside its headquarters while handing out free food to "Greeks only." Golden Dawn says it wants to "clean" Greece of foreigners. Its black-shirted supporters attack poor South Asian and African migrants, claiming they're all in Greece illegally.

The violence scares Orietta Treveza, a Greek-Jewish educator who has three young daughters.

"It's very scary because we think that we are next," she says. "It's not going to end with the immigrants."

Her 75-year-old father-in-law, Marios Sousis, says Golden Dawn dehumanizes immigrants in the same way Nazis dehumanized Jews.

He cites a recent documentary that aired on Britain's Channel 4 that showed a Golden Dawn parliamentary candidate joking about turning immigrants into soap.

"They talk about turning immigrants' teeth into worry beads," Sousis says. "They talk about turning their skin into lamps."

Sousis, a retired businessman, is descended from Romaniote Jews who have lived in Greece for more than 2,000 years. He was hidden during the war. His father is thought to have died at Auschwitz.

Sousis lives outside Athens, near the sea. He's spending the summer navigating his ancient rowboat with his granddaughters, Annita and Linda Sousis.

Annita, who's 14, loves to sing ballads and wants to be a music teacher. But, like other young people, she worries that the post-austerity Greek economy will just keep sinking.

"All the kids at school worry about the future," she says. "One of my classmates lives in an orphanage because he comes from a big family that's poor and can't support all eight children. But he has big dreams. We all do."

Her parents talk about moving to Israel, where other Greek Jews have relocated recently to work. But she wants to stay in her homeland.

"I am so attached to this land, and I wouldn't want to go anywhere else, for any reason," she says. "I want to do whatever I can to save my country."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

On this eve of the Jewish New Year, we turn now to Greece where the Jewish population has dwindled to just 5,000. Jews have lived in Greece since the time of Alexander the Great, but nearly all of the Greek-Jewish community perished during the Holocaust.

As Joanna Kakissis reports from Athens, Greek-Jews now face a new concern. They're worried about the rise of neo-Nazis in the country.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: No one has ever doubted Mois Yussuroum's patriotism. As part of the Greek Resistance during World War II, he fought Benito Mussolini's fascist army and then the Nazis.

MOIS YUSSUROUM: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: The other resistance fighters did not know I was Jewish, says Yussuroum, who's now 94. His superiors had given him a Christian name, Yiorgos Gazis, in case he was captured. He served as a commander and received medals for bravery. But more than 70 years after Yussuroum and other Greeks fought the German Nazis, they're facing the rise of Greek neo-Nazis, the Golden Dawn party. Its members say they are patriots, not fascists. And that makes Yussuroum cringe.

YUSSUROUM: (Through translator) Their minds are sick. They say the Holocaust is a lie and don't believe Germans killed Jews. What can you do with people like that?

KAKISSIS: Golden Dawn is not going away. It holds 18 seats in parliament and is rising in public opinion polls. Its members use adapted Nazi symbolism and slogans and blame Jewish bankers for the country's debt crisis. And this propaganda is spreading, says Zanet Battinou, director of the Jewish Museum of Greece.

ZANET BATTINOU: It is heard, it is said, it is written. So many more people hear this and read this and are maybe wondering about it. What we are here to do is to offer accurate information, which has been double-checked and historically substantiated.

KAKISSIS: The museum is now running a special exhibit called "Synagonistis," or "Comrade-in-Arms," about the 650 Greek Jews who fought in the anti-Nazi resistance. More than 400,000 Greeks died during the Nazi occupation, among them, more than 67,000 Greek Jews. Most lived in the northern city of Thessaloniki and were Sephardim, descended from the Jews Spain expelled in the late 15th century.

Greek Jews were some of the city's most successful merchants. They spoke Ladino or Judeo-Spanish, say Erika Perahia-Zemour, curator of the city's Jewish museum.

ERIKA PERAHIA-ZEMOUR: It was very easy to recognize a Jew. Only young Jews spoke Greek. The Greek, they kept a small accent.

KAKISSIS: Their accents gave them away to the Nazis who deported them to die in concentration camps.

ROSINA ASSER-PARDO: (Singing in foreign language)

KAKISSIS: Some Greek-Jewish children escaped by hiding in the homes of Greek Christians. Rosina Asser-Pardo was a third grader in pigtails when her family went into hiding. In this recent documentary, she recalls emerging after 548 days and discovering Thessaloniki had become a city of ghosts.

ASSER-PARDO: (Through translator) They counted us, and there were only 70 Jews left from a community of 55,000 people. And there was this enormous feeling of loneliness.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

KAKISSIS: The 1,500 Greek Jews who remain in Thessaloniki keep their traditions alive. The community's choir sings in Ladino. The choir's CD features children from the local Jewish elementary school singing "Eight Candles," a Hanukkah song.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

KAKISSIS: But in Athens on July 24th, another song was heard - a Greek version of the Horst Wessel song, a Nazi anthem. The Golden Dawn party blared it outside its headquarters while handing out food to Greeks only. Party supporters have attacked African and South Asian immigrants, claiming they're all in Greece illegally. The violence scares Orietta Treveza, a Greek-Jewish educator with three young children.

ORIETTA TREVEZA: We think that we are next. It's not going to end with the immigrants.

MARIOS SOUSIS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: This could only end with Golden Dawn destroying Greece, says Marios Sousis, Treveza's 75-year-old father-in-law. Sousis is descended from Jews who have lived in Greece for more than 2,000. He was hidden during the war. His father is thought to have died at Auschwitz.

ANNITA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Sousis lives outside Athens, near the sea, where he rows a small, weathered boat with his granddaughters, Annita and Linda.

ANNITA: (Singing in foreign language)

KAKISSIS: Annita is 14 and loves to sing Greek ballads. She wants to be a music teacher but, like other young people, worries that the post-austerity Greek economy will just keep sinking. Her parents talk about moving to Israel for work. But she wants to stay in her homeland.

ANNITA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: I am so attached to this land, and I wouldn't want to go anywhere else, for any reason, she says. I want to do whatever I can to save my country.

ANNITA: (Singing in foreign language)

KAKISSIS: For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.