NEW YORK – A moving program of music and memories was presented in the impressive auditorium of Hebrew Union College (HUC) for “Holocaust Remembrance Day of the Greek Jewry” Thursday evening, January 25. The event was sponsored and organized by the Consulate General of Greece in New York. James Demetro, founder of the New York Greek Film Festival, which has presented films about the Jews of Greece served as MC and set the dual tone of reverence and vigilance.
The Consul General of Greece Dr. Konstantinos Koutras offered greetings and thoughts echoed by the speakers who followed him. He emphasized that to truly bring the horrors of the Holocaust to a close, people today must make a decision to be vigilant against anti-semitism and all manner of prejudice that they encounter.
Solomon Asser, President of the American Friends of the Jewish Museum of Greece, noted the nearly 2500 year presence of Jews in Greece and was pleased to announce progress of the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki which is being funded by Germany and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
Amir Sagie, the Deputy Consul General of Israel, also highlighted the new museum in his remarks and thanked Dr. Koutras for the gathering – later the Greek Consulate’s Evelyn Kanellea was acknowledged as the organizer. The event featured the inspiring presence of holocaust survivors, but Sagie warned of the growing challenge to the cause of holocaust remembrance of the steady departure of survivors.
As in previous years, the audience was inspired by the remarks of Rabbi Dr. Martin Cohen, professor at HUC, who began by welcoming Archbishop Demetrios of America and Metropolitan Evangelos of New Jersey.
Rabbi Cohen then invited cantorial student Danielle Rodnizki to the podium, who beautifully chanted the 23rd psalm. She then intoned a special memorial prayer before the Rabbi recited the doxology-kaddish prayer that he called a reaffirmation of Providence and the meaning and purpose of life.
The Rabbi declared that the slogan “never again” must be constantly repeated not only because of the horrific experiences of the Jews of Europe “but also because the holocaust actually serves…as a paradigm for all victimization of groups and individuals…and not merely for the purpose of memory , but for the purpose of action to ensure that the paradigm is not repeated.” He added that “there are groups today that are persecuted because of their religion and their nationality… dear friends: never again applies them also, because if it does not, it will come back to haunt us.”
Demetro announced that in lieu of the keynote speaker presented in the past, the heart of the program would be a musical performance by composer-violinist Evanthia Reboutsika and pianist Areti Giovanou, preceded by screening of excerpts from the documentary film “Kisses to the Children” in which Jewish children hidden and saved by Greek families told their stories.
Director Vassilios Loulis explained in a video message “I did not want to make a film about the holocaust, but a film about childhoods lived in the shadow of the holocaust.”
Reboutsika entered the stage by playing as she walked through the aisles of the packed auditorium. Visibly moved, she paused between pieces to explain that the first one was what nazi concentration camp officers forced a violinist to play as the Jews were marched into the gas chambers. When he spotted on of his relatives in the diabolical procession, he shut his eyes but continued to play.
After additional words from Rabbi Cohen Archbishop Demetrios offered his closing remarks, beginning by thanking all those responsible for the event, including MC Demetro, whom he said handled his delicate task with words and thoughts worthy of the classical Greeks, Rabbi Cohen, whom he called “a non-stop machine of energy…of wise energy,” and all the guests, including the diplomatic corps.
After likening Ms. Rodnizki’s chanting to the songs of nightingales – others were still marveling at the angelic tones created by Reboutsika and Giovani – the Archbishop acknowledged the difficulty of adding his words to a sublime evening. He felt compelled, however, to briefly survey the long history of the persecution of the Jews – the rivers of blood and oceans of suffering – beginning with slavery in Egypt followed by the Babylonian captivity, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and centuries of persecution in Europe that preceded the depredations of the Nazis.
“So we must constantly fight the good fight” he concluded, “because human nature is unpredictable – fight the good fight for establishing peace and reconciliation, and to give the right to people who live on this Earth to live peaceful, creative and happy lives.”
Demetro brought the evening to a stirring conclusion when he noted that unlike the tragic violinist mentioned by Reboutsika, “shutting our eyes is not going to work for us. Closing our eyes to human suffering and humiliation is wrong. Neutrality, silence, and indifference sustain the oppressor – and don’t help the victim.” He concluded with a warning about “those today who would imitate the Nazis,” and by quoting Dr. Koutras, who once told him, “tolerance is no substitute for mutual respect.”