Unsung Holocaust “Heroes of Salonika” Makes Debut
Illustration: Deportation of Greek Jews by Wetzel, Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-179-1575-15 [CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de] via Wikimedia
A fascinating new documentary film called “Heroes of Salonika,” which sheds light on the practically unknown destruction that befell Jews in the Greek city of Salonika during the Holocaust, will be broadcast on the Israeli Channel 12 (Keshet) on TV and on its website this Holocaust Remembrance Day. Showings will be on Wednesday, May 1st at 10:30 pm and on Thursday, May 2nd at 10:05 am.
Known as "the Jerusalem of the Balkans," the Jewish community of Salonika (Thessaloniki) was the largest Sephardi community in Europe prior to World War II. Over 50,000 Jews lived in this coastal city, the second largest city in Greece — but less than 2,000 of them survived the annihilation wrought by the German Nazis in the Holocaust.
“Heroes of Salonika,” produced by Yigal Yosef Pomerantz and Sol Levy, depicts the pre-war thriving Jewish community of Salonika, which was home to over 40 synagogues and schools.
The film follows the war years of six survivors who were ages 15-20 when they arrived in Auschwitz. Filmed in 2015-17, when they were in their late 80s or 90s, the survivors relate events and zoom in on details as if they happened yesterday. Historical footage is interspersed throughout the documentary, as is a musical score with some Ladino melodies reflecting Salonika's heritage of Ladino culture.
Pomerantz, a teacher from Jerusalem, got the idea to make the film after reading an article in 2015 in the Hebrew Makor Rishon about Jacob Jaco Maestro, who saved hundreds of Jews in Auschwitz. As a youth in Salonika before 1939, Maestro learned German by selling trinkets to German soldiers. When Maestro was taken to Auschwitz, his knowledge of German and ingenuity helped him become an assistant to Righteous Among the Nations Jerzy Pozimsky who headed the prisoners' labor office.
Maestro's daily job was to place prisoners in various labor commandos or task forces in the Auschwitz complex. He had access to the prisoners' files and was able to place Salonika Jews and some Polish Jews in easier jobs, thus saving their lives. Greek Jews who worked in the "Canada Camp" would smuggle him diamonds and gold currency, with which he would bribe the Germans.
After reading the article, Pomerantz met Maestro and filmed an interview with him. This inspired him to find other survivors from Salonika, a community lacking documentation.
"There are almost no survivors from Greece who were teenagers or adults during the war, who were also able to communicate well at their advanced age," says Pomerantz. "When I began these interviews four years ago, I knew and sensed I'm capturing them at their last moments." Indeed, Maestro passed away a year after meeting Pomerantz.
The film's crew includes well-known Israeli filmmakers including director Tom Barkay, cameraman Yochay Rosenberg, and production consultant Itay Ken-Tor; the original music is by Boaz Schory. Prof. Dr. Gideon Greif, an expert on Auschwitz who serves as the film's historical and academic advisor, regards Maestro's rescue efforts as unique.
In 2016, Pomerantz and the crew travelled to Salonika with Greif to interview two survivors on site. One of them, Moshe Ha-Elion, read from his Bar Mitzvah portion in the impressive Monastir Synagogue, which remained intact from before the war due to its use as a warehouse by the Red Cross. Ha-Elion lives in Israel and is active in educating about the Salonika community.
Heinz Kounio, the second survivor, still resides in Salonika. Some of the film's photographs are from his father's photography business — which was the largest in the Balkans. Kounio is also filmed in the Jewish Museum near its memorial wall.
Other survivors were interviewed in the film; Yvonne Razon, who passed away in March 2019, sang a haunting song that the women prisoners would sing in Auschwitz. Derio Sevi and Benico Djaghon highlighted how the Greek Jews were further humiliated in Auschwitz because they did not speak Yiddish or Polish, and as a result they were ridiculed by other Jewish prisoners, some of whom doubted their Jewish identity. Without Yiddish, they could not understand the Germans' orders and were targeted by them.
Dilemmas of family loyalty, faith, and survival at all costs come up in this film, which is also intended for a wider non-Jewish audience that is less familiar with the Holocaust. "Heroes of Salonika" has been translated into English, and Pomerantz hopes to raise funds to translate it into other languages.
Production of the film was supported by the Salonika and Greece Jewry Heritage Center, the Claims Conference, and Sol Levy.