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The Jews of Greece

An evocative and timely exhibition on display at Melbourne's Jewish Museum

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Jim Claven, Panayioti Geladas, and Adamantia Pellegrino (nee Geladas). Photo: Vicki Kyritsis

07 April 2017

Standing with Panayioti Geladas and his family in front of a prewar sepia image of his father Dionisis brings to life the story of Greece's once vibrant 2,500-year-old Jewish community.

The image is part of the new exhibition at Melbourne's Jewish Museum entitled 'The Jews of Greece'. Filmmaker Carol Gordon and Photographer Emmanuel Santos have put together a beautiful exhibition marrying the story of Greece's Jewish community with Emmanuel's evocative modern photographs, along with those of the community before the Second World War. The exhibition was launched last Sunday.

Panayioti's father was one of the brave breed of individuals in WWII Europe who took action to protect members of his local community singled out for murder by the Nazis.

In the story recounted by Panayioti's daughters Adamantia and Denise, Dionisis as the mayor of Pandokratora on Zakynthos joined with other officials on the island to help the Metropolitan Bishop Chrysostomos save the entire 275-person-strong Jewish community on the island, hiding them in various rural villages. In retaliation the Nazis took all of the island's children to work camps.

In recognition of the island's action in saving its Jewish community from the Holocaust, a statue of Bishop Chrysostomos and of one of the mayors of
Zakynthos, Mr Lukas Carrer, were erected after the war on the site of the island's synagogue. They have also both been awarded the title of 'Righteous Among the Nations', the honour given to non-Jews who, at personal risk, saved Jews during the Holocaust.

It was because of the actions of people like Panayioti's father and others that a small but significant number of the prewar Jewish community were able to survive the Holocaust.

The exhibition documents the ancient nature of Greece's Jewish community with quotes from classical scholars. Emmanuel Santos' photographs convey the significance of Greece's Jewish community – from its surviving synagogues to its ancient artefacts and cemeteries, from Athens to Thessaloniki, from Volos to Crete. Greece's Jewish community is the oldest continuous Jewish community in Europe.

Emmanuel's photographs also show some of the interesting synergies between the customs of the Jewish and Greek people. One touching image is of a candle lit in memory for someone who has passed - a site common at many Greek graves.

Mr Phillip Dalidakis MP launched the exhibition in the presence of the Consul-General of Greece, Ms Christina Simantirakis, and over 150 attendees including members of Melbourne's Jewish and Greek communities. Mr Dalidakis, a former treasurer of the museum, talked of his pride in launching the exhibition given his own Greek and Jewish heritage. Ms Simantirakis talked of the important place Greece's Jewish community has in its culture and history. Both stated how welcome the exhibition was in documenting the history and survival of Greece's Jewish community.

As the crowd made their way to view the exhibition, the strains of a Sephardic melody floated through the building, blending beautifully with the photographs and stories on display.

The storyboards of the exhibition take you on a journey explaining the history of Greece's Jewish community from ancient times through the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman eras, on to modern times. Old photographs show school children dressed in traditional Greek costume and another of school children playing bouzoukia!

The exhibition also tells the story of Greece in WWII and the Holocaust. It tells the story of how nearly 13,000 Jewish Greeks served in the Greek army in the Second World War and hundreds more in the brave Greek resistance to the Nazi occupation. And of course, it tells the story of Panayioti's father and others who acted to save their Jewish neighbours.

Panayioti's family story is a window into both the suffering of the Greek community and the wider story of the Jews of Greece. This family in Melbourne are a direct connection to the defiant action of many individual Greeks in saving their neighbours from destruction. It was an honour to meet Panayioti and his family – and a reminder of the need for all of us to oppose racism and xenophobia.

Carol Gordon has been researching the history and culture of the Jewish community of Greece for many years, and recently released her documentary film Following Shira's Journey: A Greek Jewish Odyssey, which was co-directed and edited by Greek Australian filmmaker Natalie Cunningham. Emmanuel Santos is a well-respected Melbourne documentary and art photographer who has been photographing the Jewish and Greek Diaspora and cultures of antiquity for the past three decades. His photographs are held in the permanent collections of many Australian and overseas museums and galleries.

The exhibition is running until September at the Museum at 26 Alma Road, East Kilda, VIC. Carol Gordon and Emmanuel Santos will also be conducting tours of the exhibition on alternate Sundays. Call the museum on (03) 8534 3600 or visit jewishmuseum.com.au to check opening hours and to connect with one of the personal tours.

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