NEW YORK – The Consul General of Greece in New York, George Iliopoulos, invited members of the Greek- and Jewish-American communities to commemoration of “Holocaust Remembrance Day of the Greek Jewry” at the Greek Press Office in Midtown Manhattan on February 5.
The Greek consulate and the American Friends of the Jewish Museum of Greece were co-sponsors of the event, which was an extended meditation with words and music on the power of remembrance.
The evening’s somber tone was complemented by the spirit of fellowship among those who gathered for a program of prayer, history and music.
Iliopoulos welcomed the guests and focused on the importance of education as the means for fulfilling the declaration heard often that night: “Never again.”
“We must take the necessary steps to educate our youth. Learning about the past is the pre-requisite required for a better future,” he said.
Rabbi Martin R. Cohen, professor of Jewish History and Hebrew Union College led the gathering in prayers for the commemoration of those who died in the Holocaust and the traditional Kadish prayer for the dead.
The prayer was sung by cantorial student Inbal Sharett-Singer, who is the great grand-daughter of the second prime minister of Israel and has Greek-Jewish roots. She is writing her dissertation on the Sephardic music of Greece with an emphasis on Thessaloniki.
Two other cantorial students presented the 23rd Psalm. Emma Goldin sang and Jay O’Brien accompanied on guitar.
Rabbi Cohen intoned “Bind them in the bonds of eternal life and may their earthly resting place be one of peace,” and later on there was a moment of silence.
The event continued in musical mode with songs presented by soprano Lina Orfanos accompanied by Spiros Exaras on guitar. They began with Theodorakis’ “Song of Songs” from Mauthausen, which has lyrics by Iakovos Kambanellis, followed by the Kessariani by Stavros Xarhakos with lyrics by Lefteris Papadopoulos. The final piece was Theodorakis’ “Kane Kouragio – Have Courage.”
Orfanos offered a moving performance and later told the guests that her mother Sophia, who was present, is a Holocaust survivor – a hidden child. She said that when she was singing “I had to try not to cry. When I sing I think of my mother’s family that I lost, and I am grateful we are here today.”
The audience also watched a video with a message from Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. In the context of Greece just having assumed the six-month EU presidency, he said Europeans have a moral obligation to mark the Holocaust.
“We must see that it is taught to new generations “we condemn unequivocally racism and anti-semitism as extreme criminal acts. There is no room for racism and anti-semitism in our Europe. It is not a political choice; it is the foundation stone of our unity and our common future.”
During his brief speech, Rabbi Cohen said “we must participate in such sad but necessary commemorations.”
He cited a newspaper article which noted that the great scientific and technological advances recent decades can lead to harm if society does not also stand up for the great humanistic values which are informed by Jewish and Christian culture which also come from the Greek world.
The speakers, who included Archbishop Demetrios of America, Solomon Asser, the President of the American Friends of the Jewish Museum of Greece, emphasized such events will increase in importance as time passes and takes away the remaining Holocaust witnesses and survivors.
Asser noted some of the tragic – and heroic – history of the happenings during the nazi occupation of Greece. It is estimated that 87 percent of Greece’s Jewish population was wiped out, the largest percentage in Europe, but he also emphasized that Greece is the only country where religious and civil officials stood up to the nazis in defense of their country’s Jews.
He said that the Museum is committed to making sure history is not forgotten and repeated through programs that will train teachers all over Greece to convey to the new generation what happened.
Archbishop Demetrios was touched by the evening’s musical dimension and noted it was one of the more beautiful of the many way of remembering things. He praised the musicians and highlighted the three songs sung beautifully by Orfanos, and acknowledged Exaras’ sophisticated accompaniment on guitar.
The archbishop meditated on the importance of remembering and noted that “one of the aims of dictatorships is to take away people’s memories, so we must cultivate it…you cannot have a decent present and livable future without a strong past.”
He was especially pleased to hear the 23rd psalm sung in Hebrew, and in return offered the psalm in the Greek of the Septuagint. He called the psalm is “a basic religious text that gives courage in difficult times.”
Asher Matathias, professor of Political Science at St. John’s University, noted that gathering was prompted by the International Holocaust Commemoration Day, which marks the January 27, 1945, liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp, by Soviet troops. Matathias, who survived as a child by being hidden by Greeks, appreciates the day’s establishment by the UN nine years ago, and its commemoration by Greece’s Consuls General in New York.