by Christos Paridis


Since I was little, I used to go through the Hebrew school, I heard the name and I didn't know what this thing is. Over the years I felt ashamed that I had not entered into the process of learning." If Maria Bois felt ashamed that she knew nothing about an important part of her country's history, how ashamed should those who failed to inform her and all her peers about it?

She is the composer and co-producer of the documentary "The Jews of Corfu", which was recently screened at the 24th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, in addition to the music for the only documentary film on this subject to date, which is little known both in Panhellenic and local society, especially among the younger generations, together with the historian Christiana Latsa, he also did the research and shot it with the director Yianni-Mirian Gergevitsa.

He explains: "Giannis and I were wondering how it is possible that a documentary has not been made for so many years. They tell me I did it because I'm Jewish, when I'm not Jewish, I'm Christian, but that has nothing to do with that anyway. I did it because I like making things and writing music for movies. It's nice to make documentaries with historical content, a tribute to the people who died. They could also be Christians, for me we are all Jews, we are all Christians, we are all human."

They met Yannis-Mirian Gergevitsa a few years ago and in the middle of the first quarantine they were discussing the possibility of filming a documentary. It was his idea to deal with the Jewish quarter, precisely because they knew nothing about it. Together they decided it, together they planned it and together, without any financial support, with a minimal budget, they completed it, with the aim of showing it mainly in festivals around the world. That's why it hasn't been introduced to their city yet.

The difficulties were many, as the last remaining Jews on the island want to forget. Maria says about this: "With great difficulty we found some people to talk to us, but since Ivraiki is in the center of Corfu, a very central passage with old and new buildings, we wanted to know their history. Most of them have been demolished and new ones have been built next to them, only the Synagogue is in good condition.

Personally, I was interested in recording very briefly what happened, the key points, and for the world, and me personally, to know the general culture, mentality and history of the Jews of Corfu, I wanted to highlight the customs, the marriages, the way of the life of the Jewish woman through the testimonies of the few remaining descendants and not to indulge in details of History that might tire the public. I should add that Anthi Kyrtsoglou offered great help in the interviews, Giorgos Zoumpos in the research and the journalist Yiannis Andriotis, who lent his voice to the narration".

Yannis-Mirian Gergevitsa, the young Corfu director of Albanian origin who was interested in the subject, explains in his turn: "I got to know the Jews of Corfu through the documentary. I was working for the local channel Star TV and we had done a report on the Jewish buildings that are in ruins and have no owners. This is how the facts began to unfold to me.

I was very upset with the images I saw and the footage sent to us by the Jewish Museum of America. We requested material from both Corfu History and the Jewish Community, which we used. The various sites and the local media, while they announced that the documentary was shot, did not pay any tribute or interview us. We waited, but no one from the local TV station called us. On the contrary, we went live on Ionian TV and ERT3".

Watching the documentary, I discovered that indeed the events of Corfu are relatively unknown. However, I remembered that my friend writer Vasilis Boutos, when he wrote a novel about them entitled "The blood libel", faced problems and had legal disputes with the descendants of people who, according to the evidence of the time, took a controversial stance on the developments.

Thus, due to some still-taboo revelations about the role of the local occupation authorities in the annihilation of the local community just a month before the end of the war, they found themselves publicly blamed precisely because no one was convicted with the Liberation.

The fact is that a community that numbered centuries of presence on the island disappeared within a few days in the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The children who sign the documentary dare to bring everything to light.

But let's take the story from the beginning. Romanian Jews, i.e. natives who spoke Greek, have always lived in the city of Corfu, specifically on the hill of Kampielou, which the locals called "Ovriovouni". When the Venetians around 1425 planned a new fortification, they were dispersed throughout the city, in neighborhoods with Christians.

However, over the years they gathered in a specific area in the densely populated area with the narrow alleys, more or less where the famous neighborhood is located today, without necessarily constituting a ghetto, although a protective wall built around the perimeter offered relative security. After 1492, with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Sephardic Jews arrived in Greece, but the majority of them ended up in Thessaloniki.

It was in 1540 when a new wave from Southern Italy, specifically from Apulia, arrived and settled in Venetian-occupied Corfu. A century later, the so-called Puliese, who also spoke a dialect of their own, were joined by several who arrived from Portugal, the Marranos.

The two congregations, Romaniotes, i.e. Greek Greek-speaking Jews, and Pugliese did not get along, so they had separate synagogues, the Scuola Greca and the Scuola Pugliese. However, as Jews they received special privileges from Venice anyway, due to the island's geopolitical position, and when after the Naval Battle of Nafpaktos in 1571 it was decided to expel all Jews from its possessions, the Corfu Jews were treated better.

At the same time, they had the right to own property and practice the professions of lawyer and doctor, which was prohibited elsewhere. Since then, they have carried a yellow insignia. When at the end of the eighteenth century Corfu came under the possession of Napoleon's France, the Jewish community for the first time had equal rights and equality with the rest of the island's inhabitants.

The fifty-year English occupation from 1814 to 1864, before England handed over the Ionian Islands to Greece, was not the happiest period for the 4.000 Jews of Corfu. Without civil rights and without lawyers, they indulged in what they knew best, trade, as well as shipping. However, during that time, the third synagogue was founded with the name "Nuova".

With the annexation of the Ionian Islands to Greece, the Jews automatically received Greek citizenship. The prosperity of the community was now guaranteed and indeed in the years that followed most families gained strength and prosperity, while the community had its own institutions and schools. Of course, not all of them were rich, there were small craftsmen and artisans and small merchants, however, there was a boom that was disturbing, hence anti-Semitism found the opportunity to show its true dimensions.

On April 13, 1891, just before the Christian Easter, a tailor's daughter, just eight years old, Rubina Sarda, was found dismembered in a sack. The Greeks implemented the medieval "blood libel", that is, the girl was murdered so that her blood could be used for rituals.

In fact, it was spread that the girl was a Christian and that the parents were responsible for the killer. Clashes broke out, mobs stormed the Hebrew street, houses were set on fire, the rabbi's residence was stoned and the Jewish cemetery was desecrated. It was up to the British fleet to enforce order, while military reinforcements were also sent from the mainland.

The events lasted for a month, leaving behind twenty-five dead in Corfu and another five in Zakynthos, where there were also incidents. This resulted in hundreds of Jews leaving Corfu by the end of the year, emigrating to Europe, Thessaloniki, Constantinople and Egypt. At the same time, for the first time Romaniotes and Puliezians joined forces.

During the period of Italian occupation, things were relatively calm for the Jews of Corfu. In fact, thanks to the presence of a Red Cross ship, they felt particularly protected.

Until September 13, 1943, when the Germans, after first bombarding the city, destroying historical buildings, among them the two synagogues "Pulieza" and "Nuova", on the 27th of the month they took control of the island from the Italians. The Jews either did not have clear information about the displacement of the Jews of Thessaloniki or because of the discord among themselves they did not pay attention.

On June 9, 1944, the Nazi forces gathered all the families in the Army Square and from there took them to the Old Fortress. Desperate and helpless, Jews of all ages – even the sick had been raised from their beds – first handed over everything of value they had on them and then the keys to their houses, which on the same day began to be looted – and not only by Germans troops.

The local authorities, i.e. the prefecture, the mayor's office and the police, were said to have done nothing, while a notice was circulated and plastered on the wall hailing the event as something liberating and demanding that anyone who had not yet surrendered should do so immediately or be considered a traitor. The original proclamation exists in the Jewish Museum of Greece and it was this presumption that Vassilis Boutos used, while other historians confirm it in their own books.

About two hundred women barely managed to escape and hide in the villages, changing their names. In other words, what happened in Zakynthos, where the mayor Loukas Karer and the metropolitan Chrysostomos Dimitriou saved their Jewish fellow citizens, did not happen in Corfu. Nor did they have time to cross over to the mainland and take refuge in the mountains.

An attempt by the EAM to trigger a false alarm to cause a disturbance and general upheaval so that they could escape and flee to Albania was unsuccessful. On the contrary, about 2.000 people were gradually boarded on barges and cargo ships and via Igoumenitsa and Patras went to Haidari and from there by lorries-wagons, after a nine-day journey, they ended up in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, where most of them were taken to gas chambers and crematoria. It was June 29, 1944, while the Allied landings in Normandy were underway.

180 people returned to Corfu after great suffering, to find their houses ransacked and in some cases occupied by foreigners. As in the case of the rich heiress Milkas Kolonimos, who had to go to court to prove that her father's mansion and her family's properties did not belong to a well-known lawyer and notary of the time, who had appropriated them with forgeries.

In the documentary, a particularly militant woman who deals with the public, Nina Vital, also participates, giving an interview. Her father was saved in Auschwitz because as a young lad and radio technician he proved useful and did not end up in the gas chambers. He was among the few who returned to his hometown, where he married a Christian woman who had to convert.

Mrs. Vital says: "In Thessaly many were saved who went to the mountain with Ares. One can read these in Stephen Bowman's book Jewish resistance in wartime Greece, translated by Isaac Benmajor, published by the Central Israelite Council. Jewish chickens became captain chickens in the mountains with Velouchiotis. That is, the Jews were fighters, they were not taken just to protect them.

In Corfu we had Romaniotes, i.e. indigenous Greeks, such as the community in Ioannina, who were in permanent rivalry with the Apulians, but after the events of the Rubina Sarda massacre they united. We had very few Sephardim, most of them had gone to Thessaloniki.

Today we are sixty people. The synagogue is no longer in operation. On the big holidays we brought a rabbi either from Israel or some religious minister from the rest of Greece. Most of them, even if they have evidence in their possession, do not give it. With the bombing of 43, all of Corfu was burned, along with a large part of the archives.

There is currently a good effort being made by the community and many of the buildings are being rebuilt. In fact, they are given to the needy and to students, so that they have a roof. Others are rented out and given benefits with the income. We are not talking about the rubble behind the synagogue, most of it on Evgeniou Voulgareos, a very central point in Corfu. I have been dealing with the public for many years and I must say that I have not felt anti-Semitism. Of course, it can be taken out at any time even by people you least expect it from.

I, coming from the space of the left, when the state of Israel does something wrong, I face a mess. "Don't confuse me," I tell them, "I have no connection with Israel." I, like my parents, was born here. You see that it is not only from the extreme right but also from progressives that the rocket can come at you. Let's not forget what happened because whoever forgets them will see them repeated, because fascism is not an ideology, it is a behavior. I do my best because I owe it to the memory of my father and the family."

SOURCE: LIFO, 4.5.2022