NEW YORK – The Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) hosted a commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Manhattan on January 27.
The event featured a screening of the documentary Kissing to the Children and a presentation about the conflicted feelings of European Jews who escaped the Holocaust by television director and producer Gary Gumpert.
Guests were welcomed by Ioni Gliati, regional coordinator of HALC and Alex Bronzo, the associate director of AJC New York, who said the gathering was a fitting ending to a day that began at the United Nations with a speech by Steven Spielberg.
Jo Fine, a member of the AJC board, introduced Gumpert, who is also an emeritus professor at Queens College.
Gumpert began by telling of his experience in the occupied territory on Cyprus with a friend who returned to his home for the first time since the invasion. “He trembled as he entered what was once a familiar place. I shared with him what he felt, in terms of displacement, his loss, forced relocation, and the need to start over again,” he said.
“It is this theme of forced relocation that brings me here tonight. I was born January 21, 1933. On January 30 Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor.”
Gumpert proceeded to recount the impact of the rise of Hitler on his family and their escape to America.
“We all know the Nazis exterminated 6 million Jews, and I could have been one of them, he said. “I still do not understand why I was not.” Gumpert asked “What magical blessings permitted us to migrate to New York while so many others would perish?”
“I lived a good life,” he continued, “so can I call myself a Holocaust survivor?” He noted he does not bear a concentration camp tattoo, nor was he a hidden child. “Is there some measurable degree of suffering that is necessary in order to be a Holocaust victim,” he wondered.
He turned to the more excruciating experience of his parents, “who were faced with the task of restructuring their lives from the ground up…they had lost everything,” but he also hesitated to call them Holocaust victims.
Nevertheless, their lives – including his father’s, which ended prematurely, where shaped by the Holocaust. “Many were unable to cope, and they really didn’t survive.”
Echoing the words of many Cypriot, Armenian, and Pontian children whose families endured genocides, he said “it is sad that my parents did not, could not, or would not, share their past with me. I resented it. It is said that I did not ask enough questions.”
“I am not a Holocaust survivor, but someone shaped by the shattering events of the past,” he concluded.
He then reiterated the bond he feels with his Cypriot friends. “Surviving the 1974 invasion, they found themselves in refugee housing, and had to begin anew, but also surround by the ghosts of their past.”
Ironically, during a trip to Cyprus he learned that from 1946-1949 the British had interned 53,000 Jews in camps because they would not let them into the Holy Land. He and Susan Drucker, Professor of Communication, Hofstra University, are producing a documentary about them.
That cruel story has a happy ending however, as the camps were the place where they learned Hebrew, prepared for their ultimate life in Israel, and even learned to be fighters for their new home.
Before Solomon Asser, the Director of the American Friends of the Jewish Museum of Greece introduced Kissing to the Children, which was directed by Vassilis Loules, he said “I want to start by saluting our previous speaker. Regarding the question of whether he was a Holocaust survivor or not… you are definitely a witness, and there are not enough witnesses left…a lot of people have no idea you can be chased away from your home because of your color, or religion.”
He also sympathized with Gumpert for not asking enough questions. Neither did he. Asser knew some things, but only experienced the depth of his mother’s feelings after her appearance in the movie. “As human beings we have this ability to shut down bad experiences and just move forward. It helps us survive,” he said.
Bronzo noted importance to the deepening relationship between Greek and Jewish-Americans that they “gather to memorialize the 6 million who perished and it was particularly meaningful to see through the film that Greeks and Jew have a shared story through the 20th century.”
Gliati told TNH “it is our duty to maintain the memory of the Holocaust and fight against the evil of anti-Semitism, which offends the meaning of humanity, as it is conceived and served by the Greek spirit.”
Eternal be their memory.