In September 2013, an Australian team travelled to Greece to shoot a documentary focusing on the Greek Jews – their rich history, the impact of the Holocaust on them as well as their present-day existence. The documentary is based on an original screenplay written by Carol Gordon who also directed the film together with Natalie Cunningham. “Following Shira’s Journey: A Greek Jewish Odyssey” premiered at the Delphi Bank 21st Greek Film Festival in Melbourne on October 26, 2014 and it has been screened at Film festivals worldwide since then. An integral part of this project are the photos captured by Emmanuel Santos; they were featured in a major exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne in 2017.
Carol Gordon answered some questions for the Against Antisemitism blog about this remarkable project.
Your multi-faceted project is based on intense research. How did you first become interested in Greek Jewish Communities?
I grew up in South Africa in a traditional Jewish household. I knew about the Greek Jews from Rhodos because many of them came to South Africa before the war. I also knew vaguely about Jews in Thessaloniki because I had read a book that mentioned the community. South Africa was also home to a very large Greek Orthodox community so we had many Greek friends and they often told me information about the Jews of Greece that I’d never heard of before. After school I travelled to Greece and felt a very strong connection there, resulting in me going back a few times. With each trip I learned more about the many Greek Jewish communities that had existed there. I became determined to find out as much as I could and to document this very unknown history – particularly the devastating effect of the Holocaust on the Greek Jewish communities. It is only in the past ten years that much more information has come out into the public domain. It took me around thirty years of researching until I felt I had enough to write the screenplay and do the documentary.
The Documentary and Photographic shoot took you to 10 communities throughout Greece. What were the challenges that you faced?
It was a lengthy process to identify the last remaining Jewish communities in Greece. Once I’d done that, the next challenge was to meet people in those communities and set up interviews with Holocaust Survivors. One of the problems in finding Survivors to interview was that many were too old and some were not well or had dementia. Sadly, since the shoot in 2013, many of the Survivors have passed away. I don’t speak Greek so I often had to work through interpreters. Another major challenge was to raise funding for the project. Unfortunately I never managed to raise much except for a few donations that I was very grateful for. I ended up funding the project from my own savings.
“Following Shira’s Journey: A Greek Jewish Odyssey” was shot at a particularly difficult time for Greece, as the neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn” party had already entered Greek Parliament, thus multiplying its violent and murderous attacks on migrants and leftists. Most of the Greek Jews that you interviewed – among them some Holocaust survivors – were very worried about this situation. Are you aware of their thoughts and reactions after judges ruled on October 7 that “Golden Dawn” was a criminal organisation in disguise? What in your opinion is the significance of this verdict?
I have been in contact with many of the people in the Jewish communities since the verdict and they are all extremely pleased with the result and relieved as well. I think the significance of this verdict is that it sends a very clear message – that racism and antisemtism will not be tolerated. Neo Nazism has no place in our world and this ruling confirms that.
In your documentary you also discuss the challenge for survival that the Greek Jewish communities face. What do you think could be done to revitalise those communities?
Sadly, I don’t think that those communities can be revitalised. Before WWII there were 32 thriving Jewish communities throughout Greece. Of the 10 remaining communities that have some semblance of existence, only 3 are fully functioning communities with Synagogues holding regular services. These are Athens, Thessaloniki and Larissa. The most important thing is to make sure that the history of those communities is remembered and celebrated because it is probably only a matter of time before the numbers decrease even more.
To what extent can your documentary contribute to Holocaust education and to raise awareness about the problem of Jew-hatred?
Our vision for the Project is to share untold stories for a more tolerant world. Our mission is to connect people, cultures and stories via creative and educational platforms. The fact that we have interviews with Survivors in the documentary and in the Education Package that we are putting together, is very impactful in terms of Holocaust education. It is always powerful to hear testimony from someone who went through it. I think that through the testimonies, the viewer gets an understanding of the danger and horrors that anti-Semitism can lead to. This can be applied to any form of racism.
Are you planning an update of your film or/and a DVD edition?
The documentary is being updated at the moment to include some new information regarding Golden Dawn. Once the film has been updated and the education package is complete, we will make them available on line. We have also just finished a Greek subtitled version of the documentary which we hope will be used throughout Greek schools and other institutions for educational purposes.
What do you think about the problem of antisemitism in Greece and in Europe more generally?
Unfortunately the problem of anti-Semitism is still very prevalent in Greece and throughout Europe. There are constant attacks on Jewish institutions and vandalism of cemeteries and monuments. The only thing to do is to continue to educate people about the facts and the dangers of such acts.
Can you give us some key information about Jewish life in Australia? Is Jew-hatred a recurrent problem on the continent?
The Jewish population of Australia represents approximately 0.5% of the national population. There are around 113,000 Jews in Australia with the majority residing in Sydney (New South Wales) and Melbourne (Victoria). There has definitely been a rise in antisemitic activity over the past few years. This includes anti-Semitic vandalism and graffiti, the circulation of anti-Semitic documents and fliers, verbal abuse and online hate groups. We have community groups that monitor such activity and the police are active in responding to it.
Carol Gordon is a Melbourne-based writer, filmmaker, and Holocaust educator. Carol trained as a film editor in South Africa and worked in the film and television industry there for many years. In 1995, Carol moved to Australia with her family. With a Degree in Teaching and an Honours Degree in Communication (Media Studies), Carol has completed several courses through the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Devoting more than thirty years to the research of the history of Greece’s Jewish communities and their near-destruction during the Holocaust, Carol continues on her mission to present the Shira’s Journey Project to local and international audiences of all ages, and sharing the little known history of these once vibrant and dynamic communities.
Natalie Cunningham is an Australian filmmaker of Greek heritage. Following the success of her debut short documentary, ‘You Know What? I Love You,’ a touching portrait of her grandmother, Natalie has pursued her passion for inspiring and evocative storytelling through film. Natalie’s work explores themes of cultural identity and belonging and her films have screened at local and international film festivals including the Melbourne International Film Festival and Palm Springs International Short Film Festival. Natalie’s role as co-director and editor of the documentary Following Shira’s Journey: A Greek Jewish Odyssey (2014) marked the beginning of her collaboration with Carol Gordon, with whom she has since worked on The Bialik Button Project (2015) as well as a series of educational resources exploring the history and present day experiences of Greek Jewry.
Born in the Philippines, Emmanuel Santos is an Australia based documentary and art photographer. For more than a decade, Emmanuel Santos has been tracing the songlines of the Jewish spirit. His photographs are memory tracks spiralling through history, hinting at the prophecy of ingathering from every corner of the earth.