Interview with Diána Vonnák about the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative

The ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative is a German-based non-profit organization with the core objective of protecting and preserving Jewish cemetery sites across the European continent. With the financial support of the European Commission, the ESJF started in December 2018 a full mapping process of 1,500 Jewish burial sites across five European countries. Diána Vonnák, Head Officer of Communication and Media (and a trained social anthropologist) at ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries, answered some questions for Against Antisemitism blog about this unique project.

Until its completion in June 2020, the project will carry out extensive research and survey work in five European countries: Greece, Lithuania, Moldova, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Why did you choose those five countries?

We wanted to have a range of countries that are all important for the history of Judaism in Europe, and that encompass the diversity of European Jewish heritage. It has been a great experience to work in Sephardic and Ashkenazi cemeteries and research the differences. Another important angle is the institutional and legal diversity of these countries: the challenges have been really different: Lithuania had a comprehensive list of cemeteries, but these weren’t surveyed with the accuracy of our drone surveys, while for instance Ukraine and Moldova had no comprehensive data. In these cases it is crucial to verify the existence of cemeteries, visit any site where there’s a chance to find one: we visited 132 places in Moldova and were able to survey 70 cemeteries, but there were places nobody documented before. This work is less spectacular but it is incredibly important if we want to have a proper overview of European Jewish cemeteries. In some places, like in Slovakia, the Jewish community owns these sites, but elsewhere, as in Greece, ownership varies from site to site. By the end of this survey we will have a solid grasp of the main challenges and a greater understanding of the situations in our project countries.

In order to map burial sites, your team is using unmanned aerial vehicles commonly known as drones. How do drones facilitate your work? 

Drone technology allows us to take high resolution aerial images which has individual GPS coordinates of every image (geotag). Later we are processing those images to create a point cloud from which we can make a preliminary terrain analysis such as topography of the site. This gives us very precise information about each and every site, which serves a dual purpose: it documents the condition of every cemetery, and it is the basis of any future protective measure like fencing. We are using point cloud to create a 3D model of sites that makes it easy, cost effective and fast to plan fencing. In short, UAV made our work more faster and accurate. 

Your team travelled in Greece between 26 March and 14 April 2019, visiting 48 places and mapping 45 sites altogether. What have been the challenges and particularities of mapping Jewish cemeteries in Greece?

The geography of Greece was a challenge for our survey team: places can be remote, you have to fly, take a ferry to reach smaller islands. This is something we did not experience in other places. Greece is really divided: most sites are either demolished, or when they survive, they tend to be fenced and cared for. We classify cemeteries according to the urgency of the need for fencing and we found only three sites that would require urgent action: Argostoli and the old and new cemetery in Didymotheicho. 

Drone image of Athens 3rd Jewish cemetery, an example of a well-preserved and maintained Jewish cemetery. Photo courtesy of ESJF.
Drone image of Athens 3rd Jewish cemetery, an example of a well-preserved and maintained Jewish cemetery. Photo courtesy of ESJF.
Drone image of the old Jewish Cemetery of Didymoteicho. Both the old and new cemeteries of Didymoteicho are partially fenced, but the fence is in such a dilapidated condition that they are in urgent need of re-fencing. Courtesy of ESJF.
Drone image of the Old Jewish Cemetery of Didymoteicho. Both the old and new cemeteries of Didymoteicho are partially fenced, but the fence is in such a dilapidated condition that they are in urgent need of re-fencing. Courtesy of ESJF.

The city of Ioannina once was the center of Romaniote Jewish life. It is not well known that the Zosimaia Lyceum and a school yard are standing today on the site of the old Jewish Cemetery. How did you survey a burial site that doesn’t exist anymore?

We use old maps and historic information to establish the boundary of cemeteries. In case they are built over, as in Ioannina, Heraklion or Corfu, we still gather photographic evidence, but there is not much we can do. In Greece, this has been a sadly common situation: 43% of the sites we surveyed were demolished and overbuilt. In Thessaloniki, for instance, a university campus was built on a really old cemetery that dates back to the late 15th century. We encountered similar cases elsewhere too, e.g. in Ukraine. In these cases, memorialisation is especially important, as this remains our only chance to save these sites from oblivion. Education, awareness raising is crucial in these contexts and it takes the place of using cemeteries themselves as testimonies of a shared history, which is what ESJF would do otherwise.

The old Jewish cemetery of Ioannina was demolished and has been built over. Today, the Zosimaia Lyceum and a school yard are standing on the site. Both photos courtesy of ESJF.
The Old Jewish cemetery of Ioannina was demolished and has been built over. Today, the Zosimaia Lyceum and a school yard are standing on the site. Both photos courtesy of ESJF.

Your team also surveyed other Jewish cemeteries in the region of Epirus which are less known than the cemetery in Ioannina: Paramythia, Arta and Preveza. Which are the challenges that you faced?

Arta, Paramythia and Preveza are all demolished sites, so our work was chiefly about documentation. Arta has a sign at the former Jewish neighbourhood, and a memorial. Preveza has residential and commercial buildings over it, Paramythia is now covered by a highway and a bus stop. In these cases it is often difficult to establish the boundary accurately, that can be a huge challenge. If we step away from the challenges of survey itself, the biggest difficulty lies in keeping the memory of something invisible alive. A comprehensive database like ours helps to grasp the sheer scale of destruction, and hopefully to work against it,  to address this loss.

The Jewish Cemetery of Preveza has now residential and commercial buildings over it. Drone photo courtesy of ESJF.
The Jewish Cemetery of Preveza has now residential and commercial buildings over it. Drone photo courtesy of ESJF.

According to a recent study commissioned by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Greece, the incidents of antisemitic rhetoric and the recorded attacks against Jewish cemeteries, monuments and synagogues in Greece are disproportionately high although the numbers of Greeks of Jewish religion are, according to the Greek Census, very low (5000, i.e. 0.05% of the Greek population). How do you think that the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative can contribute to a better protection of Greek Jewish cemeteries?

ESJF believes in the importance of the engagement of communities, local authorities and the broader public in general. We always try to work with mayors, reach out to schools. We do not carry out advocacy work per se, but we believe in the power of restoring knowledge and awareness about heritage sites. Jewish heritage is part of our shared, European heritage and often, especially in the absence of a local Jewish community, gentile communities are important guardians of these sites. Our surveyors experience quite some interest from locals: people ask questions, want to know more. Building an open-access database, carrying out educational projects and engaging local leaders are the first steps to work against atrocities.

Some weeks ago, Moses Elisaf, the head of the tiny Jewish community in Ioannina and a distinguished professor of pathology, was elected the country’s first-ever Jewish mayor. What do you think about Elisaf’s victory?

Of course we welcome a political climate where the Jewishness of a candidate is not an obstacle for their success. However, the sheer emphasis that his Jewish origins receive points to the fact that Greek Jewish life hasn’t been “normalized” post-Holocaust in a way that one may hope. There is still an “us” vs. “them” logic in marking Elisaf as a Jewish mayor. We had an amazing experience with many mayors in various countries, and have seen the dramatic difference their policies can make in the fate of Jewish heritage sites. We welcome any mayor, Jewish or not, who is happy to undertake the responsibility of tending to the local Jewish heritage, engaging their entire community. ESJF’s work, through education and awareness, aims at showing that Jewish heritage is not something separate that concerns only those who identify as Jewish. Instead, it’s a common heritage. Greek Jewish history is also relevant and important for non-Jewish Greeks (and beyond that for Europe in general). We hope that ESJF’s work can be a help in normalizing and integrating Jewish presence, Jewish identity and Jewish heritage in Europe.

The new Jewish Cemetery of Ioannina.  A number of gravestones have been moved from the old demolished cemetery. Courtesy of ESJF.
The New Jewish Cemetery of Ioannina. A number of gravestones have been moved from the old demolished cemetery. Courtesy of ESJF.

The ESJF provides free access to its database of Greek cemetery sites: https://www.esjf-surveys.org/surveys-in-greece/

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The Jewish Community of Ioannina in the spotlight: Two exhibitions in Athens

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“The Jewish Community of Ioannina – The Memory of Artefacts” 
This exhibition highlights historical aspects regarding the daily life of the old Romaniote Community of Ioannina, combining the information with photographic material and authentic objects from the J.M.G. collections, which are presented to the public for the first time, but also with unique artefacts kindly loaned by private individuals.

Joseph Eligia, the Poet of the Lake
This interactive exhibition offers visitors the opportunity to become acquainted with the era, the life and the work of the great scholar and poet from Ioannina, and encourages them to develop a reciprocal dialogue with him, based on the poems and the translations of the holy texts, which he bequeathed us.

The aim of the periodic exhibitions and the related cultural activities is to present the public with elements from the life and traditions of one of the smaller, but yet oldest Jewish communities in Greece, and also to explore its individual and collective contribution to the enrichment of the local urban and social transformations.

The exhibitions are accompanied by a bilingual catalogue, as well as educational programmes specially designed for students.

The exhibitions will be hosted by the Jewish Museum of Greece from January 23 until September 25, 2017.

Inauguration: Monday, January 23, 2017 at 19:00. Open House: 18:00 – 21:00

More information here.

«Η Εβραϊκή Κοινότητα των Ιωαννίνων – Αντικειμένων Μνήμη»
Αναδεικνύει πτυχές της ιστορίας και της καθημερινής ζωής της παλιάς ρωμανιώτικης κοινότητας των Ιωαννίνων, συνδυάζοντας τις πληροφορίες με φωτογραφικό υλικό και αυθεντικά αντικείμενα από τις συλλογές του Ε.Μ.Ε. που παρουσιάζονται για πρώτη φορά στο ευρύ κοινό, αλλά και με πρωτότυπα κειμήλια υπό ευγενική παραχώρηση ιδιωτών.

«Γιοσέφ Ελιγιά, o Ποιητής της Λίμνης»
Αυτή η διαδραστική έκθεση δίνει στους επισκέπτες την ευκαιρία να γνωρίσουν την εποχή, τη ζωή και το έργο του σπουδαίου γιαννιώτη διανοούμενου και ποιητή και τους ενθαρρύνει να αναπτύξουν μια διαλογική σχέση μαζί του, βασισμένη στα ποιήματα και τις μεταφράσεις των ιερών κειμένων που μας κληροδότησε.

Στόχος των περιοδικών εκθέσεων και των συνδεόμενων πολιτιστικών δράσεων, είναι να παρουσιάσουν στο κοινό στοιχεία από τη ζωή και την παράδοση μιας από τις μικρότερες, αλλά και συνάμα παλαιότερες εβραϊκές κοινότητες του ελλαδικού χώρου, και να διερευνήσουν την ατομική και συλλογική προσφορά της στον εμπλουτισμό των τοπικών αστικών και κοινωνικών μετασχηματισμών.

Τις εκθέσεις συνοδεύει δίγλωσσος κατάλογος, καθώς και ειδικά σχεδιασμένα εκπαιδευτικά προγράμματα για το μαθητικό κοινό.

Οι έκθεσεις θα φιλοξενηθούν στο Εβραϊκό Μουσείο της Ελλάδος από τις 23 Ιανουαρίου έως τις 25 Σεπτεμβρίου 2017.

Εγκαίνια: 23.01.2017, 19.00. Διάρκεια Εκδήλωσης: 18:00 – 21:00.

Περισσότερες πληροφορίες εδώ.

Trezoros: The Lost Jews of Kastoria

We woke up one morning, and we saw black snow. It had snowed, and it did not usually snow in March. My grandmother said that “Something will happen, something bad will happen”. 

Kastoria, March 1944, from the clip “Black Snow”

[On the night of March 24, 1944, the Jewish population of the city was arrested and detained in the Girls’ High School of Kastoria. Three days later, 763 people, and a small number of Yugoslavian Jews who had found refuge in Kastoria were transported to Thessaloniki on vans and then to Poland, never to come back again. via]

Synopsis via trezoros.com

trezoros_kastoria_dokumentary“Trezoros: The Lost Jews of Kastoria” is a moving documentary that illuminates the lives of a Sephardic community in Greece whose story speaks for all people who have been decimated by war and discrimination. The story is set in the beautiful, idyllic city of Kastoria where Jews and Christians lived in harmony for over two millennia.

In October of 1940 it would all be destroyed after the invasion of Greece by Axis forces. Initially occupied by Italy, the Jewish community remained safe. After Mussolini fell from power the Nazis took control of the town, dooming the community that had existed since the times of the Roman Empire.

The film uses never-before-seen archival footage, vibrantly bringing to life just one of the many Jewish communities that had existed in Greece before the end of World War II. TREZOROS (Ladino/Judeo-Spanish term of endearment meaning “Treasures”) is a highly emotional story told by it’s survivors, with interviews filmed on location in Kastoria, Thessaloniki, Athens, Tzur Moshe, Tel Aviv, Miami, Los Angeles and New York.

Directors: Lawrence Russo, Larry Confino

[…] For the directors Lawrence Russo and Larry Confino, who are cousins and whose forefathers were Kastoriani, this was more than a family project. Releasing precious oral history narrated by a small group of people, the superbly crafted documentary tells of the suffering of one town, but calls forth the universal quality of community resilience in the face of horrendous odds.

The directors seamlessly and without artifice combine interviews with highly personable men and women of the Sephardic community which was in the 1930s a substantial presence in Kastoria, a stronghold of the Greek Orthodox Church but where Jews and Christians lived in harmony for hundreds of years. The Jewish populace of Kastoria dating from the times of the Roman empire, were to be all but wiped out by the Holocaust.

Compared with the tragedies that hit their co-religionists in much of Europe, the fate of Greek Jews is inadequately known. This film graphically puts that right as far as Kastoria is concerned. On a larger scale, Thessaloniki had 50,000 Jews before World War II and was known as the Jerusalem of Greece. Today there are only about 600 of the faith living in Greece’s second city. [James Brewer, allaboutshipping.co.uk]

Νέα εφαρμογή κινητού για τη Συναγωγή των Χανίων / Launch of the “Etz Hayyim and Jewish Legacy in Crete” Mobile App

Via Israel in Greece

Οι Πρεσβείες του Καναδά και του Ισραήλ παρουσίασαν χθες την εφαρμογή του κινητού τηλεφώνου για την “Συναγωγή Ετς Χαγίμ Χανιών και την Εβραϊκή Κληρονομία της Κρήτης”. Η τουριστική αυτή εφαρμογή αποτελεί σημαντικό εργαλείο, δίνοντας στους χρήστες άμεση πρόσβαση σε πληροφορίες για την πλούσια ιστορία της Εβραϊκής Κοινότητας των Χανίων και της Κρήτης.

The Embassies of Canada and Israel presented yesterday the new mobile phone app for the “Etz Hayyim Chania Synagogue and the Jewish Legacy in Crete.” This tourist app is an important tool that provides users with information regarding the rich history of the Jewish Community of Chania and Crete.

Έκκληση για οικονομική ενίσχυση με σκοπό την αποκατάσταση των ζημιών στο Εβραϊκό Νεκροταφείο των Ιωαννίνων / Fundraising to restore the Jewish Cemetery of Ioannina (Greece)

Σύμφωνα με το epiruspost.gr, θυελλώδεις άνεμοι προκάλεσαν την Πρωτοχρονιά τεράστιες ζημιές στο Εβραϊκό Νεκροταφείο των Ιωαννίνων. Το μικρό κτίριο που χρησιμοποιείται ως Συναγωγή για τις νεκρώσιμες ακολουθίες, το πλακόστρωτο αλλά και αρκετοί τάφοι υπέστησαν σημαντικές φθορές. Επειδή η ολιγάριθμη Εβραϊκή Κοινότητα των Ιωαννίνων θα είναι αδύνατο να καλύψει από μόνη της το κόστος των ζημιών που ανέρχονται σε πολλές χιλιάδες ευρώ, η Μάρσια Χαντάντ Οικονομόπουλος, διευθύντρια της συναγωγής & του μουσείου Kehila Kedosha Janina στη Νέα Υόρκη, απευθύνει έκκληση για άμεση οικονομική ενίσχυση με σκοπό την αποκατάσταση των ζημιών. Όποια/ος θέλει να βοηθήσει, μπορεί να επικοινωνήσει μαζί της στο μέιλ kehila_kedosha_janina [at] netzero.net.

According to the news portal epiruspost.gr, strong storm winds severely damaged the Jewish Cemetery of Ioannina, Greece on Thursday January 1st. The Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue & Museum of NY, is spearheading a drive to raise money for repairs (estimated at more than $50,000). US residents can donate by sending checks to Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue, 280 Broome Street, New York, NY 10002. For those outside the United States who wish to make bank transfers directly to the Jewish Community of Ioannina, please contact Marcia Ikonomopoulos at kehila_kedosha_janina [at] netzero.net and she will send you the bank information for the Jewish community in Ioannina.

More information: Jewish cemetery in Ioannina, Greece damaged by storm (Jewish Heritage Europe)

Uprooted tree next to tahara house at the Jewish cemetery in Ioannina, Greece. More photos at http://www.jewish-heritage-europe.eu/2015/01/05/jewish-cemetery-in-ioannina-greece-damaged-by-storm/%E2%80%9D

Uprooted tree next to tahara house at the Jewish cemetery in Ioannina, Greece. More photos at http://www.jewish-heritage-europe.eu/2015/01/05/jewish-cemetery-in-ioannina-greece-damaged-by-storm/%E2%80%9D

Greece: Rhodes Jewish Quarter

The Jewish Quarter of Rhodes is a significant historical area. Fleeing from Spain in 1492, many Jews established themselves in Rhodes, where they thrived until the Holocaust. A Synagogue, Museum, Neighborhoods, and Cemetery are still there, and professional guiding is available. [John23gr]

Fate of Nations: Ioannina’s Jews (excerpts)

I had planned to go to church last Sunday, but I found myself heading to synagogue after being invited there by two colleagues who share my guesthouse in Ioannina.

Within a short time, I was following them as we wended our way in downtown Ioannina towards the old castle and the synagogue inside.

Inside the ramparts, we turned left and came upon the old building and its white, neo-classical entrance.

We had arrived early to the service, so we passed time walking around and inspecting the building.

Aristotle, caretaker the synagogue, told us after our walk that the building dates from 1854. The outside shows its age outside, but the inside is bathed in soft, pastel-like white light.

Around the interior walls are plaques with names of Jews who were rounded-up and away by Germans in 1944 and perished in the Holocaust. Over 1850 names. Children. Aunts. Uncles. Fathers and mothers. Grandpas and grandmas. Sisters, brothers, and friends. All here. All dead. […]

One man opted to say a few words (in perfect Greek!) and referred to the six million Jews who perished in World War II, including those from Ioannina.

“The egg of the serpent has appeared again,” he intoned, referring to the Chrysi Avgi party. “And there is only two things we can do. One, remember the past. And, two, do whatever in our power to fight this scourge. I am afraid things are going to get worse but we must draw courage from this battle!”

The man’s speech lasted all of three minutes. Sweets were next passed around, and then we headed for a short service at a memorial just outside the castle walls.

It was sunny and bright, the first time in a few weeks, lending a natural warmth to the proceedings. As we walked, Elefthera, from Albania, married to a local Greek, told me that her country was the only one that hid her Jews from the Nazis.

“Albania is one of the few countries that don’t need visas to visit Israel!” she offered as a result. […]

-Taso Lagos

Ξενάγηση στην Εβραϊκή Αθήνα από τον Αριστοτέλη Κοσκινά και τους atenistas

  • Σε όσους και όσες θέλουν να πάρουν μια γεύση από τον μοναδικό περίπατο στην Εβραϊκή Αθήνα που διοργάνωσαν οι atenistas την περασμένη Κυριακή, τους προτείνουμε το επιμελημένο βίντεο του Βαγγέλη Λαΐνα όπως επίσης και την εξίσου ενδιαφέρουσα ανάρτηση του αρχαιολόγου και ξεναγού Αριστοτέλη Κοσκινά, μέρος της οποίας αναδημοσιεύουμε παρακάτω:

Την Κυριακή είχα την τιμή να κάνω μια ξενάγηση με θέμα την Εβραϊκή Αθήνα, έπειτα από πρόσκληση μιας εξαιρετικής ομάδας που πασχίζει για μια καλύτερη Αθήνα, τους Atenistas.

Δυστυχώς, στην πόλη απομένουν ελάχιστα κατάλοιπα της εβραϊκής παρουσίας. Ένα σημαντικό κομμάτι της ιστορίας της πόλης έχει εξαφανιστεί σχεδόν σα να μην υπήρξε ποτέ, κάνοντας την πόλη μας φτωχότερη.

Η εβραϊκή παρουσία στην Ελλάδα ξεκινά από την προχριστιανική εποχή. Έχουμε τεκμήρια για ανθηρές κοινότητες σε δραστήρια εμπορικά κέντρα του ελληνιστικού κόσμου (Δήλος, Ρόδος, Κόρινθος). Οι σταθμοί του αποστόλου Παύλου στην Ελλάδα, αντιπροσωπεύουν πόλεις με ανθηρές εβραϊκές κοινότητες, στις οποίες ήξερε ότι θα βρει φιλοξενία και ένα πρώτο ακροατήριο. Από αυτούς τους εβραίους προέρχονταν οι πρώτοι χριστιανοί.

Ο αριθμός των εβραίων στο ελληνικό έδαφος αυξήθηκε μετά τις διαδοχικές αποτυχημένες επαναστάσεις τους κατά των ρωμαίων που οδήγησαν, μεταξύ άλλων, και στην καταστροφή του Ναού του Σολωμώντα.

  • Διαβάστε τη συνέχεια της ανάρτησης του Αριστοτέλη Κοσκινά “Ξενάγηση στην Εβραϊκή Αθήνα” εδώ.

Περίπατος στην Εβραϊκή Αθήνα με τους atenistas

Η ομάδα “Πόλις” των atenistas σας προσκαλεί αυτή την Κυριακή σε μια νέα βόλτα στα άγνωστα σημεία της πόλης μας. Σειρά αυτό το μήνα έχει η Εβραϊκή Αθήνα, τα ιστορικά της αποτυπώματα, τα μνημεία και το παρόν της.

Έναρξη περιπάτου: 14.00 στο Εβραϊκό Μουσείο, Νίκης 39, Σύνταγμα/Πλάκα.

Όσοι δε, επιθυμούν μπορούν δωρεάν ειδικά για την περίσταση να περιηγηθούν στο Μουσείο απ’ τις 13.00 (θα υπάρξει και ξενάγηση για τα 50 πρώτα άτομα).

Στις 14.00 λοιπόν με επικεφαλής τον κ. Αριστοτέλη Κοσκινά θα επισκεφθούμε την Αρχαία Αγορά (ερείπια συναγωγής), Μοναστηράκι (Γιουσουρούμ), το μνημείο του Ολοκαυτώματος στον Κεραμεικό, Συναγωγή , Εβραϊκή Κοινότητα.

Στο τέλος την εμπειρία θα συμπληρώσουν παραδοσιακά σεφαραδίτικα τραγούδια που θα ακούσουμε στο Gostijo. Η παρακολούθηση είναι δωρεάν (όποιος θέλει μετά να δοκιμάσει την εβραϊκή κουζίνα το εστιατόριο παρέχει μενού με ειδική τιμή 10€ χωρίς κρασί).

Τα λέμε από κοντά!

Πηγή: atenistas.gr/evraiki_athina/

(Θερμές ευχαριστίες στον Γ. Σταματιάδη!)