The ding of a text awoke me at 2:00 AM October 9, Athens time: “Did you hear about the Israel attack?” Most people I know hoped to postpose the news until I returned from my international trip, but my father’s omnipresent safety concerns wouldn’t wait, even for time zones. I assured him we were taking precautions as my husband and I continued our tour of (fun fact) the nation found by several international surveys to be the most antisemitic in Europe. As a social justice attorney with degrees in history, philosophy and political science, the opportunity to see the birthplace of democracy was a dream. As a Sephardi Jew, the pull to visit the final in the long list of nations which first sheltered then betrayed my family was strong, though after The Shoah none of my line remains there but ghosts. My trip could not have been more timely.
The Historic Jewish Quarter of Veria, Greece (Barbouta) is small and lovely, a neighborhood built along the river, connected with narrow cobblestone streets curving around what are advertised as “19th century mansions.” Now they are mostly hotels, including the boutique one in which we stayed, located next door to the synagogue. It was beautiful and cared for by helpful staff, though, as my husband pointed out, it would have been that much more delightful were it and the others around it not businesses today because the prior homeowners had been exterminated by Nazis.
I had corresponded in advance with Evi Meska, the synagogue’s caretaker and tour guide, explaining briefly my family history with the area. She had responded “It will be a pleasure and an honor to have you and your husband here in Veria. You are a living part of the history of our Jewish community that I tell all the visitors about.” Upon arrival at the synagogue, I thanked her with a small token (literally), from the US Holocaust Memorial, on which is inscribed “What You Do Matters.” She hugged me and said she so needed to hear that, to be reminded of that, and she tucked it with care into her wallet next to a pressed four-leaf clover from a relative. She gave us some excellent information about the synagogue and history of the city’s Jews, and stepped out to grant us privacy.
I removed from my bag with shaking hands my great-grandfather’s tallis, with which he had been bar mitzvahed on this same spot in 1910. With it, he had been declared a man. Only five years later he would be put on a ship to join a handful of relatives in a new world, where few spoke his native Ladino, where he would marry his pre-arranged bride once she arrived from Veria as a teen a few years later. As I unwrapped the antique prayer shawl from the acid-free paper, I realized no one had worn it since his death in 1976. I covered my head, silently said the prayer of our ancestors, slid it over my shoulders, and tears pooled. No member of my family had stood in this place since the Spring of 1943. The town’s 700 Jews (save the few that escaped into the hills) were rounded up and barricaded inside the synagogue without food for a week. Some died, some were killed trying to escape, babies were thrown from the window into the river. The same river used as a mikvah.
Those that remained at the end of the week were loaded into boxcars and sent to Auschwitz. The few that survived the train and the camps returned to find that though the Nazis did not burn their homes or the synagogue, there was nothing left for them. No Jewish families remain in Veria today.
My husband moved around me with the camera, my personal photojournalist, silently documenting, careful not to disturb my reverence, thankfully able to capture what I needed when I had not the presence to ask. Near the end of our time there, I snapped from my trance and thought to ask – did you get a picture of me in front of the ark? Of all the inscriptions? And the answer was always yes, but would you like another? I am eternally grateful.
I signed the synagogue’s guestbook, as great-granddaughter of Solomon Jehuda Angel and Dudon Mari Emanuel Angel, Jews of Veria, of Blessed Memory. I left a tribute and bid Evi farewell with another thankful hug.
We went next to what remains of the Jewish cemetery, now a soccer field and playground lined with gravestones around a quarter or so of the perimeter, with a Holocaust Memorial built into the side of the hill. With no Jews left, it makes practical sense to have made such use of the land. The homage is respectful and the plaques, in Greek, Hebrew and English in no way minimize the atrocities done to those it serves to honor. I prayed the Mourner’s Kaddish for all those lost and tucked a stone engraved “Never Forget” alongside the eroding memorials, many overrun with weeds. My breath hitched as I felt their collective breath stop, and I knew that was not how I wanted my tour of my family’s homeland to end. I headed to the river.
We purchased a half kilo of revani (no judgment, gentle reader) from the local patisserie whose sole menu item since 1886 has been revani. (Side note: one can’t help but wonder if there is a connection between the area’s most famous dessert being a honey cake and Jews having lived there for thousands of years.) We slipped through the metal gate, down the stone stairs and into a fairyland where butterflies flitted on the gentle breeze among the heavy ferns, beams of sunlight danced on the racing waters, and I imagined children once played in the rocks’ shallow caves while their mothers took in cleansing mikvah baths beneath the synagogue perched on the rocks above. There was a natural walking path through here, a few strategic trash cans that most people used. I sat at the wooden picnic table, ate some honey cake, read, walked along the river, ate some more honey cake, prayed and sang songs quietly to myself and my ancestors in this place, gave up on the honey cake, and held the hand of my husband of over 28 years. I kissed him and we walked out of that place. Together. Alive. Ready to return to the sound of the water by our home on a lake across the ocean.