The story of the Jews of Salonika (the second largest city in Greece) is little known. Of the traditional, close-knit community that numbered 52,000 before the Holocaust, only 1,800 returned. Four years ago, Yigal Pomerantz, 49, from Jerusalem read an article in the Hebrew National Religious newspaper Makor Rishon about Jacko Maestro z”l and was inspired. Maestro arrived in the first transport to Auschwitz from Greece in March 1943 and due to his knowledge of German became a translator. He was taken off the transport by Jerzy Pozimski, a prisoner from Poland, who was eventually honored as one of the Righteous Gentiles. Pozimski trained Maestro to work in prisoner services in Auschwitz 1, 2 and 3. Over a two-year period, Jacko was able to save hundreds of Jews, mainly from Salonika, by placing them on easier work details, assigning the more arduous work to German criminals. The Jews worked in a factory where their rations were bigger, their treatment was better, and they were out of the elements. It is estimated that one hundred of the Jews he helped survived the Holocaust. In fact, a street was named after him recently in Beit Sha’an.
But Pomerantz didn’t want the film to be only about Maestro. He wanted to tell the story about the largest Sephardic Jewish community annihilated in the Holocaust, a story not even largely known among Sephardim.
Pomerantz approached his friend Sol Levi and asked for help in getting the project off the ground. He worked for four years interviewing survivors and taking a crew to Greece to film. Pomerantz also credits Tom Barkay, a guiding force behind the film who was its director and editor. “Tom was very devoted and gave it everything he had,” attests Pomerantz. Also accompanying Pomerantz and his crew to Greece was historian and Yad Vashem Professor Gideon Greif.
The result, “Heroes of Salonika” is a moving and monumental film that focuses on six survivors, five men and one woman, five of whom made aliyah to Israel and one, Heinz Kounio, who returned to Salonika where he became a distinguished member of the Jewish community.
Heroes of Salonika will premiere on Israeli television on erev Yom HaShoah and then in the States with English translation in community centers in the Tri-State area. Pomerantz hopes to get more funding to bring the film to national television and festivals and have it translated into additional languages for greater exposure.
Originally an English teacher, this is Pomerantz’s first foray into film and there was a lot of on-the-job training. Although Pomerantz is Ashkenazi, and his family was in America during WWII, for many years growing up he felt a connection to the Holocaust and he intuited a lot of things about what had happened in the camps, things he couldn’t possibly know.
“I felt such an overwhelming awakening. I felt a mission to tell the story of Salonika’s Jews so it would be known and remembered,” says Pomerantz, “and so that lessons would be drawn from it.” One of the messages that Pomerantz hopes will emerge is dispelling the misconception that Jews in the Holocaust went to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter.
In the film, Dario Sevy talks about how he could have joined the Partisans when he was still in the ghetto work camp and escape being shipped to Auschwitz. He refused. How could he leave his parents, his siblings, his family and seek refuge only for himself? The loyalty that family members felt to stay together often cost them their chance to escape. They didn’t want to abandon their families. And they believed the lies of resettlement.
Dario Sevy and Benico Dgahon were both sent to clean out the Warsaw Ghetto along with 4,000 other prisoners, mostly Greeks. They both made aliyah but hadn’t been in contact for seventy years. The film brought them together again.
As soon as Pomerantz decided to make the film, he was filled with a sense of urgency. These people are not going to be around much longer, they were in their late eighties and early nineties and he felt that every day that they were alive and well, and could speak coherently, was another miracle. “Before the story disappears forever, let’s get the story,” he said. He was just in time. Yvonne Kamhi Razon had a stroke after giving her interview. And Jacko has since passed away.
Although the Salonika Jews share a similar narrative to the other inmates of Auschwitz, there are two differences. The Greek Jews stuck together and helped one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Also, they were isolated from the others by their inability to speak Yiddish. It was difficult to communicate with the other inmates and to understand the instructions of the German soldiers. They were often brutally punished for not following orders.
“One of the things that intrigued me is what happened to people religiously,” says Pomerantz. One person became an atheist. Yvonne Kamhi Razon didn’t stop believing in God, but refused to pray or to speak to Him anymore. Moshe Haelion felt he was saved by miracles and kept his faith in action and belief. One miracle he tells is that a monk asked him to teach him Greek in a hospital in Auschwitz and gave him extra bread for the service. Also, during a selectzia on Yom Kippur, even though he looked frail and was sick, Haelion was spared and written in the Book of Life, a true miracle. In the film, Haelion tells his story from the synagogue in Salonika, a vestige of a community that was almost wiped out. The names of those who perished are engraved on a wall in Salonika’s Jewish Museum.
The five other interviewees came to Israel and served in the War of Independence – Benico Dgahon helped liberate old Jaffa. They all merited to build Jewish homes in Israel and raise children and grandchildren.
The Heritage Center for the Jews of Salonika, housed in the Leon Recanati Old Age Home in Petach Tikvah, helped sponsor the film and they will be screening it regularly to educate visitors at the Center about Greek Jewry.
“Heroes of Salonika” is probably one of the last films that will ever be made using live interviews. It is a tribute to individuals, to a community and to an Ashkenazi Jew who felt that this story needed to be told.