Friday, July 5, 2013

Balkans III

My Christian readers may wish to start at the bottom.

Saturday, June 29, 2013
Why Ioannina (yah-nin-ah)? It is a small city of about 120,000 people, set on a very pretty lake, surrounded by rugged mountains. The old city is contained within the walls of the Kastro, a fort dating back to the 13th century. Before WW II, the Jewish population of Ioannina had fallen by about half to under 2,000. Initially, the Jews were relatively safe because Ioannina was in the Italian occupation zone, but once Mussolini fell the Germans arrived in force. Almost all of these Jews were sent to Auschwitz, and now 30 Jews live in Ioannina. This, in itself, does not distinguish Ioannina from so many other Balkan or European communities. We came to Ioannina because it is the now nearly-deserted home of Romaniote Jews, so-called for two millennia to identify them as Roman subjects. They long preceded the Sephardim, the Iberian Jews fleeing the Inquisition, although the large number of Sephardim (from the Hebrew word for Spain) overwhelmed Romaniote customs and practices to a great extent.

A small Romaniote community maintained itself in Ioannina until the Nazi scourge. The one synagogue in Ioannina continues in the Romaniote tradition. One other exists on Broome Street on the lower East Side. Not only our group, but a family from Maryland celebrating a Bar Mitzvah brought the synagogue to life, if only for a few hours. The father is descended from an Ioannina Romaniote family, and his son expressed his desire to be Bar Mitzvahed in the Romaniote synagogue. An Athens-based, Israeli-trained cantor conducted services Friday night and Saturday morning, sometimes joined by the voice of Samouel Koen, the 88-year old Romaniote cantor who has lived in Ioannina his whole life, with the exception of his time with the partisans in the mountains where he survived the war. Note that his wife’s left forearm bore the tattoo she received at Auschwitz, where she was spared extermination as a healthy teenager to work in a munitions plant.

Even though I participated in the Saturday morning service, chanting a blessing over the Torah, it was very hard to keep up with the proceedings combining two traditions that were equally foreign to me and my Eastern European background. We were also inhibited by the use of several different prayer books, since there were not enough of any one version to go around. On the other hand, the emotional value of attending this Bar Mitzvah, the first held in this synagogue since 2007, was substantial. This rare occurrence drew most of the local Jews as well.

Earlier yesterday, we went to the local Jewish cemetery, not free from vandalism, but relatively well-maintained. Typical of Sephardic custom, the tombstones lay flat covering the entire grave. This protected them from being toppled over, the easiest form of desecration. However, a thick coat of pine needles covered most of the tombstones, because, until you came close, the property looked like a grove of tall pine trees, set close together. I suggested to Marcia, our group leader who is the docent for the museum portion of the Manhattan Romaniote synagogue, that her packing instructions for next year’s group include whisk brooms to uncover the inscriptions engraved on the horizontal tombstones.

Just as Dr. Laura in our group provided a personal connection to Salonika, Leon W., a retired foreign service officer, who was traveling with his wife, daughter and son-in-law, has deep roots in Ioannina, through his father. He quickly recognized familiar family names in the cemetery and on memorial plaques in the synagogue. He also was the only one of us familiar with the Romaniote service, and the other four of us (males – the women across a wide aisle, but not forced to sit in the balcony) kept looking over his shoulder to approximate where in the order of service the rapidly-chanting cantor had reached.

Sunday, June 30, 2013
While hard copy newspapers eluded me, the informed that there was business as usual back at the ranch. You can easily recognize the subject matter from the URLs.

Ten hours after leaving Ioannina, we arrived in Athens. Fortunately, we made two interesting and refreshing stops along the way. First, Metsovo, an Alpine-appearing village, where many of the houses had slate roofs, real slate slabs set in concrete.  Then, and my intermittent naps threw my measure of time off, we reached Meteora, where six monasteries are built on the top of soaring sandstone rock pillars, and I mean soaring.,or.r_cp.r_qf.&fp=6ca84d98d48f74bf&biw=1280&bih=680 

We visited one of the monasteries that was approachable on wheels. The views were thrilling and scary, and the small church rivalled the monastery in Rila, Bulgaria for the density of interior decorations.

That brief taste of the ascetic existence in retreat from the world did not diminish my appreciation of our luxury hotel in the Plaka, an ancient neighborhood in the shadow of the Acropolis.

Monday, July 1, 2013
This morning, we had our last outing as a group, a visit to the Jewish Museum of Athens, three short blocks from our hotel. Again, personal links to our group jumped up. The current exhibit on Greek Jewish partisans featured a cousin of Leon W., who could have been his double. A book on hidden Greek Jewish children had a photograph of Dr. Laura, with her childhood friend.

With another couple, we foolishly climbed to the top of the Acropolis at the peak of the afternoon’s heat. Foolish, but rewarded by the sight of the magnificent structures going back thousands of years.

Our biggest reward came when we returned to our hotel and free Wi-Fi to learn that Boaz and Noam have a baby sister. Even in a couple of thousand years, it would be hard to find happier grandparents. Our group mates toasted us at the farewell dinner tonight, since they were leaving Greece tomorrow while we arranged for two more days on our own.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013
We went to the marvelous, new Acropolis museum, a striking building with a magnificent collection of antiquities. The glory that was Greece. Wow! Yo! The contrast with the present is more dramatic when the quality of the past is so manifest. As tourists, we generally saw the better side of contemporary Greek life. Caf├ęs and tavernas were crowded at all hours, maybe no jobs distracted the patrons. Almost any conversation with local citizens quickly turned to the financial hardships they are facing and their desire to flee or have their children flee to almost anywhere.

I almost did it.  Walking around the Plaka, I spotted Chop Sticks, a Chinese restaurant, next to a Japanese and an Indian restaurant.  When we headed over there for dinner, we found that they had hung up their chopsticks and closed the restaurant permanently.  Instead, we went into Indian Kitchen, Apollos 6, a long, narrow space decorated modestly except for the back wall that looks like the entrance to a respectable Delhi mansion.  It was almost empty when we entered at 7:30, but was 2/3 full when we finished.  We chose some of our favorite dishes, chicken biryani (7.20€), saag paneer (8€) and nan (2€).  Food was good at a fair price.  Only the Coke Zero at 2.50€ for a 33 cl bottle was a reach.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013
The weather in Athens remained hot and we decided to head to sea rather than traipse museum to museum, or even store to store.  We took an all-day, three-island cruise from the port of Pireas, stopping at Hydra, Poros and Aegina.  Hydra was easily the most interesting and attractive of the three, maybe because it is the least developed, barring all motorized vehicles.  Humans and materials are moved around the island by donkey.  Doors off small alleys open to colorful gardens.  This could be a perfect hideaway while you finish the Great Athenian Novel.  The other islands are much more conventional in appearance, with new buildings on the landscape, cars, motorbikes, trucks and, except for their waterfronts, less charm than our hotel room.

When we returned to our hotel, we were greeted by armed police and those guys with twisty wires running out of their ears hovering near a big Mercedes sedan with the German flag on its front fender, parked in front.  I waved to them, and inquired after Frau Merkel's health.  We washed up quickly and went to a nearby taverna for our last dinner in Greece.  I ate moussaka, appropriately enough.

Thursday, July 4, 2013
Our flight to New York lasted over 10 hours and we landed among a huge crowd of folks arriving in time to see the fireworks over the Hudson River.  It took us more than one hour to get through passport control and customs.  All this time afforded me the opportunity to gather some of my Balkan impressions.  There seems to be a literary renaissance throughout the region, with graffiti on almost every available surface.  Welcome to the Bronx circa 1980.  Language is a source of local fun, especially when the word for Yes in Greek sounds like the word for No in Bulgarian.  "Turkish" serves as a common, but inconsistent, adjective -- Turkish bread is very good; Turkish coffee is very strong, but is now called Greek coffee; Turkish toilets require aim and acrobatics.

Friday, July 5, 2013
Back to work and back to Chinatown today, as the temperature reached 99° according to two web sites that I checked.  Under these conditions, a visit to Wo Hop downstairs at 17 Mott Street for beef chow fun and a 12 oz. can of Diet Coke at $1.25 for lunch made the most sense.

Epistle to the Christians
Admittedly, my writings are often full of Jew this and Jew that, but I learned of a remarkable act of Christian charity on this trip that deserves repeating over and over.  I'll quote from a story in the Jerusalem Post by Leora Goldberg, published on December 13, 2009, coincidentally my brother's birthday if you need reminding.  “On September 9 1943, the governor of the German occupation [of the Greek island of Zakynthos] named Berenz had asked the mayor, Loukas Karrer, for a list of all Jews on the island.  Rejecting the demand after consulting with [Greek Orthodox] Bishop Chrysostomos, they decided to go together to the governor's office the next day. When Berenz insisted once again for the list, the bishop explained that these Jews weren't Christians but had lived here in peace and quiet for hundreds of years.  They had never bothered anyone, he said.  They were Greeks just like all other Greeks, and it would offend all the residents of Zakynthos if they were to leave.  But the governor persisted that they give him the names. The bishop then handed him a piece of paper containing only two names: Bishop Chrysostomos and Mayor Karrer.  In addition, the bishop wrote a letter to Hitler himself, declaring that the Jews in Zakynthos were under his authority.  The speechless governor took both documents and sent them to the Nazi military commander in Berlin.  In the meantime, not knowing what would happen, the local Jews were sent by the leaders of the island to hide inside Christian homes in the hills.  However, a Nazi order to round up the Jews was soon revoked - thanks to the devoted leaders who risked their lives to save them.  In October 1944, the Germans withdrew from the island, leaving behind 275 Jews.  The entire Jewish population had survived.”

Thank you.

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