NEW YORK – A little known part of the histories of Israel and Cyprus – and one of the darker episodes of the British Empire – is being commemorated in a photo exhibition titled “Jewish Refugees in Cyprus on Route to Israel” sponsored by the Park East Synagogue, which is hosting the exhibition and the Consulates General of Israel and Cyprus in New York.
From 1946-49 the British incarcerated 53,000 Jewish Holocaust in detention camps on British-controlled Cyprus to deter Jewish immigration to Palestine.
The opening reception on September 22, was preceded by prayers of remembrance and a brief speaking program in the synagogue that featured moving remarks about the historic ties between the Greek and Jewish people and the current strengthening and deepening of relations of relations among Cyprus, Israel and Greece by Nikos Anastasides, the President of Cyprus and Rabbi Arthur Schneier, international religious freedom and human rights activist and the synagogue’s senior Rabbi for more than 50 years.
The most thrilling moment – and not only for the Greeks present – was the spirited rendition of the Greek and Cypriot national anthem sung by the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School children’s choir.
Archbishop Demetrios of America then offered the 8th Psalm of King David, which he noted, had been recited countless times in churches and temples for thousands of years.
Les Lieberman served as MC and welcomed the guest and acknowledged the diplomatic corps including George Chacalli and Nicholas Emiliou, Cyprus’ ambassador to the U.S. and the UN, respectively, Vasilios Philippou, Cyprus’ Consul General, Ido Aharoni Israel’s consul general and the Ambassador-designate of Israel to Cyprus.
The guests’ first reaction to the black and white images of holocaust survivors back behind barbed wire was often rage at the British for forcing people to relive their worst nightmares. Gary Gumpert and Susan Drucker, producers of the documentary film “Cypriot Memories Forgotten: The Jewish Detention Camps in Cyprus: 1946-49,” who pioneered the study of the camps, add another perspective.
Gumpert told TNH, that he first felt anger, but their research quickly showed them that the experience had a positive side. “It was a giant boot camp for Jews going to Palestine,” and it facilitated healing from the holocaust.
Drucker said “it was an important place…for learning Hebrew and about Israeli society, and for military training for future defenders of Israel.” She said “various Israeli agencies went there – sometimes smuggled in with the help of Greek Cypriots, who also helped thousands escape.”
Their film’s trailer is also featured at the exhibit, and they are raising funds for its final touches.
The exhibition is being held in cooperation with three Cypriot-American organizations whose leaders were acknowledged that night: the Cyprus Federation of America, led by President Costas Tsentas, the Hellenic American Leadership Council, founded by Nikos Mouyiaris, and the Pan Cyprian Association of America whose founder and president is Philip Christopher.
Mouyiaris told TNH he was aware of the camps that were long-gone when he was growing up in the nearby village of Athienou, where archaeologist have found the remains of an ancient synagogue. He said the age-old ties between Cypriots and Jews that are the foundation of new efforts of Cyprus and Israel to help each other, and emphasized the importance of events like the exhibition to foster vital people to people ties.