NEW YORK – Trezoros: The Lost Jews of Kastoria will be airing on PBS stations across the United States this April, and in the New York area on April 12, check your local listings. The documentary chronicles life in the picturesque town of Kastoria, where Jews and Christians lived in harmony and friendship for over two thousand years. The title Trezoros is the Ladino/Judeo/Spanish term of endearment meaning “treasures.”
The film takes the audience on a journey from the joyful innocence of the pre-war years through the heartbreaking struggles of the Holocaust, to a unique place in time and history highlighting a Greek Jewish culture lost forever. Director Lawrence Russo spoke with The National Herald about the film and about his family experience.
He told TNH that he first decided to tell the story of the Kastoria Jewish community in 1996 and even recorded some initial interviews with Holocaust survivors, but it was in 2008 that the professional production came together. Both Russo’s parents were born and raised in Kastoria and their families were there from at least the 1500’s. The film is dedicated to his parents who were two members of Kastoria’s Jewish community of the 35 who survived the Holocaust. Russo’s aunt and uncle were two more survivors.
His father Maurice Russo passed away in 1988 and his mother, Lena Russo, passed away last July at age 95, shortly after the screening of Trezoros at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. “She was an indomitable woman,” Russo said, adding that “she lost all her family except one brother in the Holocaust.”
She was in Belgrade after the war and was crying constantly, Russo noted. Standing on a bridge, she realized she had to stop with the sorrow and threw her handkerchief in the river. Russo said of his mother, “She was always positive,” never wanting her children to live with the negative.
One of the most challenging aspects of making the film, Russo told TNH was that it is a personal story. Growing up without grandparents when other children had all of theirs, he knew they had passed away but not the details since his parents never spoke about the Holocaust. When he learned about what had happened, it was crushing, he said, “I felt a responsibility to tell the story on an emotional level.”
Russo is the youngest of three brothers; Albert is the eldest and Cliff, the middle brother, speaks perfect Greek.
When asked about the overwhelmingly positive response to the film, he said, “It touches on the positive aspects of life which resonates with people.”
That people of all faiths and backgrounds are learning about the Jewish community of Kastoria is one of the most rewarding aspects. Attending the 2012 screening of the film in Kastoria, Russo said he sat next to a young police officer who was perhaps 25 years old. The young cop turned to him after the film and said “I had no idea about this.”
Trezoros will be screened again in Kastoria on April 20 as part of the Center for Studies of Jewish Heritage of Kastoria annual Day of Commemorating the Jewish Community of
Kastoria- 75 Years after Holocaust. The free screening will be held at 7 PM at Aula University of Kastoria with Russo’s brother Cliff in attendance. The commemoration continues on Saturday, April 21 at 10:30 AM at Omonoia Square with the Symbolic Holocaust Walk of Remembrance, official greetings, wreath-laying ceremony, and the Choir of Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, and at 7 PM at the Community Theater Hall
A party in Kastoria. Photo: Lena Russo
Argos Orestiko “The lost innocence of Anna Frank” will be presented by the Theater club of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki Entremosotros, under the auspices of the Mayor of Argos Orestiko and the Governor of Western Macedonia.
In October 1940, the peaceful life of the community changed forever with the invasion of Greece by Axis forces. Initially occupied by Italy, the Jewish community remained, but after Mussolini fell from power, the Nazis took control of the town, eventually gathering all the residents in a single day, and sent them to concentration camps.
Using never-before-seen archival footage, Trezoros vividly brings to life just one of many Jewish communities that had existed in Greece for centuries and even millennia before the end of World War II. The film is a story told by its survivors, with interviews filmed on location in Kastoria, Thessaloniki, Athens, Tsur Moshe, Tel Aviv, Miami, and New York.
Directed by Russo, and co-directed and produced by Larry Confino, the film was widely praised on the film festival circuit with screenings in London, Cannes, Melbourne, Sydney, New York, and Los Angeles. Russo co-founded the independent studio The Shooting Gallery (Laws of Gravity, Sling Blade) and directed the Emmy-nominated PBS short film series ShortCuts. Producer/Co-Director, Confino is the Founder of Synapse Productions and Executive Director of ImageRescue, Inc. Based in New York City, Confino has produced documentaries and commercial projects on a multitude of subjects around the world.
Trezoros is an inspiring story of survival that resonates universally and is of particular interest to Jewish and Greek communities worldwide. The poignant story of one family’s experience helps honor the memory of the once vibrant community and reminds us of man’s inhumanity to man and also of the enduring spirit of the people who survived the horrors of the war. As George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason, 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Check your local listings for the PBS schedule. More information is available online at http://trezoros.com.
The wedding photo of Lena and Maurice Russo. Photo: Lena Russo