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Following Shira's Journey

A heart-gripping Greek Jewish odyssey as documented by Carol Gordon and Natalie Cunningham

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"Watching the survivors talk with this cold number tattooed on their skin was ... gut-wrenching": Natalie Cunningham.

05 March 2015

Carol devoted 25 years of study to uncover the hidden story of the Greek Jews and the little-known truth about the Greek Holocaust. A lifelong passion for Greece led her to explore the history of the country's once thriving Jewish communities and the small modern-day communities which are determined to never let the tragedies of the past be forgotten.

Born in South Africa, she migrated to Australia in 1995, and with her team, has designed a unique three-part project, which aims to share this story with audiences in Australia, Greece and around the world. Somewhere along the way, she teamed up with Greek Australian aspiring director Natalie Cunningham, who brought in a whole different perspective. Neos Kosmos interviewed both of them before the presentation of the project at the Jewish Holocaust Museum on Thursday 5 March, a few days before Shira travels to Greece, to be screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival and the Jewish Community Centre in Athens.

"I felt a very strong connection to Greece almost on a spiritual level, which is something I honestly can't otherwise explain," Carol Gordon tells Neos Kosmos.

"It is extraordinary as there was no-one of Greek descent in my family; it is really interesting to feel connected to a country you have no actual connection to."

Carol grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, alongside Greek people, as there was a huge Greek population there at the time. She believes Greeks and Jews are very much alike. While she was still living in South Africa, she began researching the history of the Greek Jewish communities.

"In all my travels, I slowly started to discover that there once were Jewish populations all over Greece and most of them had disappeared during the war," Carol says.

"I started this quest because I became very passionate with discovering information about those communities, while no-one knew anything."

A while later, she relocated to Australia as a result of the political situation in South Africa. "It got very dangerous, the crime was untenable and we were scared to leave our house, even to go out in the garden," she remembers.

"I had a baby and was trying to have a life while people around us were constantly being attacked."

"We didn't want to be a statistic so we left," Carol adds.

Her burning desire to tell the story of these communities didn't leave her though. Her coming to Australia made her even more committed and compelled to get it done.

"I always knew about Rhodes in Greece, because I met many Jews from Rhodes who initially had fled to Rhodesia, Congo and eventually settled in South Africa, but we had no clue about the rest, including Thessaloniki, where 60,000 of an 80,000 Greek Jewish population who perished in the Nazi concentration camps lived," Carol explains.

The experiences of Greece's Jewish population during the Holocaust have remained relatively unknown until recently. In the post-war years, fear, suspicion, economic hardship and civil war relegated the sad history of the Greek Jews to the horrors of a time people preferred to forget.

"A very interesting part of this quest is that there was no internet during the quest, no information available anywhere, therefore I had to dig bits and pieces here and there."

"When the internet happened, my whole life changed because suddenly I was able to contact people all over the world and held information that was just not 'out there' for public knowledge," Carol admits.

Her extensive research eventually led her to write a film script, with the hope of doing a feature film based on it, even though everything originated from the idea of a documentary.

"When I realised that getting a feature film made was so difficult, I decided to return to my original plan and turn this research into a documentary," she says.

"I have actually published the screenplay, which is fiction, though based 100 per cent on factual events."

In the book, Shira - the fictional Carol - actually finds a branch of her family history connecting with Greece.

"The fictional character in the book is mainly based on me, her name is Shira, which in Hebrew means song ... Carol also means song."

"I might have been Greek in a past life - if you believe in this kind of thing. Maybe this is my missing link," she says with a laugh.

Carol had been working on this project for over 20 years. After the shoot in Greece, Natalie Cunningham came along.

"I did the shoot on a shoestring, with most people 'donating' their skills and time," Carol confesses.

She had spoken to a young man from the Jewish community who happened to be at a film school and asked him if he could edit the material. He initially agreed to, but at the time of the shoot he was finishing off his own film and was unable to take on the responsibility. He recommended Natalie, a Greek Australian filmmaker instead.

"Coincidentally I was in Germany at the time of the filming, learning a lot about WWII and visiting several Jewish memorials, as I was particularly interested in the history of the Holocaust," Natalie Cunningham says.

Carol's phone-call, mentioning she was doing this documentary about the Greek Jewish community that perished suddenly made perfect sense to the young filmmaker.

"After talking on Skype for hours, we both realised this collaboration was meant to be," she says.

Carol kept coming across people who didn't know about the Greek Jewish community and its staggering story.

"I was one of them," Natalie tells Neos Kosmos.

"Working on this film was also a big learning process for me, as I was researching an area I knew very little almost nothing about, as did many people I spoke to."

For Greek Orthodox Natalie Cunningham, Shira's Journey was not only fascinating, but an eye-opening experience to which she connected instantly.

"Discovering the extent of the suffering these people had been through was mind-blowing," says Natalie.

"In school, I learned about the Jews in Germany, Poland, France, in Italy even, but never did I hear anything about the communities in Greece.

"I'm grateful, as many years might have gone by without me knowing about this part of the history," she continues.

"We would always simultaneously come up with the same ideas, even though I'm 55 and Natalie is 28," Carol highlights.

Natalie edited the film from home for over six months, watching the survivors tell their stories in Greek, translating and adding the subtitles. Following Shira's Journey features interviews with Greek Jewish Holocaust survivors, second and third generation survivors as well as community members who are fighting to keep their traditions and culture alive.

"As a Greek Australian, this experience was immense and a lot of the time I had goosebumps on my skin.

"Watching the survivors talk with this cold number tattooed on their skin was ... gut-wrenching," Natalie continues. "It's not only what they experienced in the concentration camps; hearing them go through the incidents leading up to the moment of their capture is something that really stayed with me."

Carol, on the other hand, was drawn by the story of a woman in Larissa, who actually didn't go to the camps but was a survivor in hiding, having to lie about her identity to stay alive.

"She was only sixteen, living with her family in the woods and wanted to go to Larissa to see her classmates and friends, who she missed terribly. Even though her parents told her off, she went regardless," Carol tells.

"The girl was actually betrayed by a school teacher who recognised her, was captured and interrogated for days, stripped of her belongings. She persistently lied about her name and demanded to be released and her valuables to be returned to her, but remained incarcerated and fought with the soldiers constantly."

According to the woman, the lengths the SS were prepared to go in order to verify the story of a little girl were unbelievable. They were willing to march to a nearby village and conduct a research.

Fortunately, there were a lot of circumstances that fell in her direction by sheer luck, and thanks to some very quick thinking she managed to be set free and run off back to the hills.

"One more story that really got to me was that of a survivor we met in Thessaloniki," Carol says.

"Aged sixteen too, he survived because his mother was German and was needed to translate. The Nazis never stopped torturing him even though he was of value to them."

"He was medically experimented on, had his appendix removed with no anaesthesia, while his friend died next to him. When he was liberated, he was nothing but a breathing skeleton and had to remain in hospital for months."

Carol came across several appalling stories during her research, many of which involved children.

"Most of the time I was in tears just by looking at my kids; thinking of what the Nazis did to babies; the number of people who died for nothing.

"The more I found out, the more I wanted to make the story of the Greek Holocaust known," Carol says.

Ever since the Film Festival, Carol and Natalie have been getting international attention, which makes them even more determined to get the story told.

"We wouldn't have gotten there without all the great support from the Greek Community, the Greek Film Festival and the Greek Centre, who have been on board with this project from the very beginning" Natalie adds.

"As a Greek Australian and a director, having our film screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival is an honour that gives us more motivation to pursue our cause."

* Shira's Journey is a published screenplay which tells the story of a young Jewish woman who travels to Greece to learn about the Jewish communities that existed there prior to World War Two, illustrated with the photographs of ethnographer Emmanuel T. Santos. Part of the photographic archive will be presented at the Jewish Holocaust Centre (13-15 Selwyn Street, Elsternwick, Victoria 3185) on Thursday 5 March, 7.30 pm. For more information and bookings call 9528 1985 or email admin@jhc.org.au. Tickets cost $10.

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