By Eleni Sakellis
NEW YORK – The Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation (HACF), the Hellenic-American Chamber of Commerce (HACC), and American Friends of the Jewish Museum of Greece presented Jews of Greece: 25 Centuries of Continuous Presence at the offices of Norton Rose Fulbright in Midtown Manhattan. Dr. Mimis Cohen, a founding member of the American Friends of the Jewish Museum of Greece and a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago gave the presentation on the early interaction of the Greek and Romaniote Jewish communities around the Eastern Mediterranean, including the cross-fertilization of ideas which has had a significant and long-lasting impact on Western civilization and became the basis of Judeo-Christian culture.
The history of Romaniote communities and their traditions and customs were discussed as well as the influence from their non-Jewish neighbors in the development of a unique culture. Tragically 86% of the pre-war Jewish population of Greece perished during the Holocaust, including the Jews from the Romaniote communities.
Dr. Cohen was born and raised in Athens after the Second World War. His parents survived the Holocaust in Athens thanks to the courage of Greek Orthodox friends. A reception with Dr. Cohen followed the program.
The event was well-attended with over 300 people present while about 140 people had to be put on a waiting list due to the building’s security requirements.
Both the program and the reception were free of charge.
Among those in attendance at the event were Consul General of Greece in New York Konstantinos Koutras, Consul of Greece Manos Koubarakis, Permanent Representative of Greece to the UN Dr. Catherine Boura, Rabbi Dr. Martin Cohen, Nicholas Kourides, Esq.- Chairman of HACF, President of the American Friends of the Jewish Museum in Greece Solomon Asser, Brian Devine- partner of the firm Norton Rose Fulbright and President of HACC, James Stratakis- President of HACF, James DeMetro- HACF Board of Directors and New York Greek Film Festival Director, Amalia Cosmetatou- Executive Director and Cultural Director of the Onassis Foundation, and Ioannis Vrailas- HACF Board of Directors and Special Adviser on Political Issues within the Office of the President of the 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly. Also present were Greek Press Office Director Sia Papatriantafyllou, Louis Katsos- EMBCA President and Founder, and George Zapantis, as well as many members of the community.
As Kourides noted in his opening remarks, there was an overwhelming response to the event with so many people wanting to attend and about 140 people still on a waiting list who could not be there. Solomon Asser noted that the HACF and HACC boards are interlinked and also connected to the AFJMG. The Jewish Museum is celebrating 40 years, he said, teaching teachers and students about the long history of the Jews in Greece. Stratakis said in his introduction to Dr. Mimis Cohen that the history of the Greek Jews is part of Hellenism and Hellenic culture and though not widely known, it should be known.
Dr. Cohen then began his lecture, noting that the first Jewish communities in Greece were established 25 centuries ago. He cited the mention of Greeks and Jews in the Bible and archaeological evidence, inscriptions in Greek and Semitic, and the ruins of ancient Jewish synagogues in Greece bearing Jewish symbols like the menorah.
The communities thrived in the Hellenistic period when Greek was the language of commerce and culture.
The story of Alexander the Great’s arrival at the gates of Jerusalem where the high priest greeted him outside the gates to prevent the sack of the city. Seeing the Temple of Jerusalem, Alexander said it’s nice but I want to put a few of my statues in here, but the high priest told him that instead the Jews would name their first-born sons after him, so the name Alexander became a Hebrew name. Dr. Cohen pointed out that the story, though oft-repeated though the generations, is in fact a myth.
Excavations are continuing to reveal the historic presence of the Greek Jews, Dr. Cohen observed, noting the bilingual Greek and Semitic inscriptions on a funeral monument at the ancient cemetery Kerameikos in Athens and the ruins of the first synagogue in Europe at Delos dating back to the 1st century BCE. The travels of St. Paul the Apostle are also evidence of the thriving Jewish communities of Greece, Dr. Cohen said.
He also spoke about World War II and how it changed everything for the Jews of Greece, many of whom perished in the Holocaust. The survivors, he noted, were helped by the courageous acts of their fellow Greek citizens, the Greek Orthodox Church, and government officials who if caught would have been sentenced to death for helping the Jews.
He spoke movingly about the tragic loss of the community of Ioannina where there was no Archbishop Damaskinos or Chief of Police Angelos Evert as there was in Athens to help save lives. Dr. Cohen noted how the Jews of Zakynthos were saved as were many in Volos and Thessaly where the Resistance was stronger and Jews were able to flee to the mountains.
While pointing out the recent rise in anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, Dr. Cohen concluded on an optimistic note sharing his experience at the Yom Kippur services in Ioannina where the community is only 40 people, but the synagogue was full with Jews from Israel, France and the US, as well as other countries of the Diaspora. The encouraged everyone to visit the Jewish Museum and support their work to preserve the remarkable history of the Jews in Greece.