James R. Russell


The vandalized Holocaust memorial at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, December 27, 2022. (Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece via JTA)
The vandalized Holocaust memorial at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, December 27, 2022. (Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece via JTA)

The news of the fourth desecration in a row of the Holocaust memorial in Thessaloniki comes on the first anniversary of the passing of my mother, Rachel bat Yosef ve-Margalit, zikhrona li-vrakha. I’m going to tell you her story.

A Jewish family named Saltiel— in Hebrew, Shealtiel— lived in Castile, in the heart of Spain. The synagogue was named after wild fig trees that grew next to its walls. A Hebrew inscription on a tombstone records that in Passover week of 1097 a Saltiel and his son were studying together when the roof collapsed suddenly. One likes to hope they were enjoying the mysteries and lights of Torah on a beautiful spring day and death came suddenly and swiftly, enabling their souls to ascend together to the Yeshiva shel Ma’ala, the celestial academy, with its sages, lights, and wonders.

In 1492 following the edict of Granada by the “Catholic kings” Ferdinand and Isabella— may both their souls burn in hell— the Saltiels joined the myriads leaving their country, Sefarad. They found welcome and safety under the rule of the Ottoman Turkish Sultan in the northern Greek port city Thessaloniki, which the Turks called Selanik and we called Salonica. Los Figos Locos was re-founded, and for four mostly quiet centuries Kabbalists conferred, longshoremen hauled, seamstresses spun, printers bound books, and mothers sang as they cooked, all in Ladino— in the Spanish they rescued from the Inquisition.

There was a boy named Jacob Saltiel who fell in love with a girl, Rachel Benruby. But he was timid, and finally one day he said, “Rachel, I have been waiting for you for seven years.” “Why didn’t you ask,” she replied tartly. My grandmother, Marguerite, was born to them in 1900. She attended the Alliance Israelite school and learned French. The Jews had founded the first trade unions in the Ottoman Empire; and she learned of Socialism and Zionism in the Ladino papers she sold to make some extra money. The family was not rich: Jacob was a grain trader, but even if the crop was bad he still paid the farmer the promised price. His character earned him a priceless epithet, “el Bueno”.

When Grandma was eleven, Greece regained Thessaloniki; and when she was seventeen much of the city, including nearly all its vast Jewish neighborhood, burned down. Grandma worked for a French army newspaper and was paid in sacks of flour: the family survived and boarded a ship at Piraeus for New York in 1920.

In the New World, the family advertised in the Ladino paper for a husband for Marguerite. They would leave a book on a table and hide in the kitchen. Most candidates didn’t touch the book, one picked it up upside-down, and the man who became absorbed in it was my grandfather Joseph Sananes, a scholarly man who had come from Tétouan, Morocco, in 1906. He and his wife raised their four daughters in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn: Jacob and Rachel lived with them, and it was common for twenty relatives to sit down to dinner.

When the Great Depression hit, Grandpa lost everything and began to despair. His mother-in-law sat him down and asked what he had when he came into the world. “Nothing,” he replied. She said, “You started from there and became prosperous. It was not that hard. You’re a good man. You can do it again.” He worked very hard, and made homemade Shabbat wine and raki; Grandma found cheap groceries at the market and made him tajine, and kadayif, and candied orange peel. Guests came on Shabbat and holidays. Grandma told stories about Djouha, the folk hero and Sufi holy fool the Turks call Hoca Nasreddin. They sang Ladino songs: La vida dó por el raki.

My mother Charlotte (in Hebrew, Rachel) was born in 1927. After classes at Lafayette High School she worked at a doctor’s office. She graduated Brooklyn College and got a PhD in Chemistry from Columbia. Mom was the first woman tenured in Chemistry at CCNY, the City College of New York. In 1946, Mom was on Brighton Beach with her gang and they introduced her to a handsome young sailor in the US Navy. Joe Russell (Hebrew, Yosef Baruch) was also from Bensonhurst, from an Ashkenazic, Galitzianer family. Dad has the middle name “blessed” because he’s descended from R. Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, author of the holy sefer Ma’or va-Shemesh. (We’re thus related also to the Piaseczner Rebbe, Admo”r Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the “Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto”, may his merit defend us and may God avenge him.)

Joe and Charlotte were married on December 20th, 1947, by an Orthodox Rabbi on Bay Parkway. Dad became a lawyer; Mom taught Chemistry. Yours truly came into this world in 1953 and was named after Ya’akov el Bueno. My brother Josh was born four years later. I heard Ladino all the time but was never taught it: it was the secret code Mom and Grandma used every afternoon in phone calls, but I could catch “los chiquiticos”, “the kids”, i.e., us.

On weekend trips from Manhattan to Brooklyn we would squeeze into Grandma’s tiny kitchen for roast peppers, fish cakes and rice with a simple but rich tomato sauce, and for dessert, the brittle sugary and cinnamon pastries called fijuelas (and in Ladino the j is a zh, not a kh, sound). (I can’t bake fijuelas, but our Mexican neighbors got them from the Crypto-Jews and call them buñuelos, and if you pass through here I’ll cook dinner for you.) And she told us Djouha stories, and described Salonica as it was. I took all this treasure for granted, and have to admit I was sometimes embarrassed that my family were working-class ethnics: some of the kids at my school lived in duplexes on Fifth Ave. and their parents belonged to exclusive (i.e., no Jews) clubs. But I got over it.

We were the survivors of a lost world. Nazi Germany invaded Greece in 1941. The Final Solution in Thessaloniki was final indeed: the cops, an assortment of right-wing Greek and Macedonian nationalists, and even a sprinkling of local Armenian fascists helped the SS and Gestapo and when it was over, nearly all of the “Jerusalem of the Aegean” was gone. Not one of our relatives whom Grandma knew of, survived.

I went back to Salonica, the first of my family to go since 1920, in March 1975. The Jewish cemetery, which was the oldest and largest in Europe, had been plowed over quite deliberately by the authorities and the local university— named after Aristotle, if you please— was built over the graves. Although the Greek fascist junta had fallen the year before, the former Nazi Gauleiter still spent his summer vacations in northern Greece. I found the little Jewish community and spent Pesach with the aged Rabbi, Azaria Shabtai. That summer I returned to study Modern Greek and other subjects at the university. The program was run by IMKhA, the Balkan institute: its course on the history of Thessaloniki barely mentioned the Jews at all. In the view of those right-wing nationalists, “Hellenization” was not the culture of Socrates, Seferis, or Cavafy, but an Orwellian memory hole: we, the Jews of Greece no longer existed now, but we had no history either. We had never existed.

There was a bookshop, the city’s oldest and largest, owned by a Sephardi gentleman named Molkho. I went there to buy a volume of the poet Constantine Cavafy, and asked about the war. He told me he survived because the Greek Communist partisans had taken any Jews who wanted to escape, into the mountains. Most were complacent, did not believe things could get as bad as the Communists warned, and were trapped. Most were murdered at Auschwitz.

There is a postscript to this story that I’ve not set down in writing before, but now that I’m an old man I don’t much care what people who don’t like Jews or Communists will think. They hate me anyhow, and I hate them. And besides, the desecration of the pathetically tiny memorial in Salonica to a titanic crime has made me very angry. So here goes.

* * *

My paternal grandpa was born on the Lower East Side of New York City and dropped out of high school to help support the family. He worked as a printer, and after work would run (literally, he couldn’t spare bus or subway fare) to the New School for Social Research, or Columbia, to sneak into a lecture hall and hear the Marxist philosopher Thorstein Veblen. A few times, before 1917, he met Leon Trotsky, who was then living in the Bronx and talking about Revolution over glasses of tea in the editorial office of a Russian paper on the Bowery. Grandpa became a Socialist, and when in 1917 the USA entered the senseless bloodbath raging in Europe (this country never declared war on Ottoman Turkey, though, despite the Genocide of the Armenians), some antiwar guys including John Reed split and founded the Communist Party of the United States of America. John Reed went to Moscow for accreditation and stayed on: he’s buried in the Kremlin wall. During the Red scare after that war, they deported to Soviet Russia a Jewish woman Grandpa also knew, an Anarchist named Emma Goldman. She used to say, “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.”

Some of my Dad’s older friends were young Communists who fought and died for freedom in the Spanish Civil War. So when I was a kid, I sang not only “La Vida Dó Por El Raki” but also “Viva La Quince Brigada”. After World War II, the Western powers decided to install the right-wing regime of the pseudo-Greek “king” in Athens, surrounded by the collaborationists and hangmen of the German occupation. EAM-ELAS, the Communist Resistance, fought back. It was a losing battle: Stalin had already signed Greece over to the NATO sphere of influence. And if you think that NATO then (or now) had anything to do with freedom or democracy, read about the political murder of Lambrakis in Thessaloniki and the fascist junta in 1967, three years later. Watch the movie “Z” by Kostas Gavras.

Americans and Canadians, many of them Jews, fought honorably for Spain. My Dad was too young in the 1930s, but he lied about his age to enlist early in the US Navy in World War II and after the war he pitched in with some great Greek-American guys— I met one of them when I was a kid— to load ships at night with guns in New Jersey to arm the freedom fighters of EAM-ELAS who had saved some of the Jews of Salonica a few years earlier, and who were forced to fight again. They knew they were going to lose that battle, but they fought to win anyhow. Which is what you have to do. Thermopylae, for instance…

The war is not over. Anti-Semitism is every bit as virulent today as before the war. Nazism endures in Greece, too: the Khrysi Avghi (Golden Dawn) party, the Nea Taxis (New Order), and the scum who painted their white supremacist cross on the Salonica memorial. I like to think that an ancestor of one of those creatures found himself in the crosshairs of a US-made rifle Dad helped put in the hands of an antifascist guerrilla. There is only one real way to defeat Nazis and anti-Semites, and it isn’t op-ed pieces.

To all fascists and anti-Semites, everywhere: we’re still here, you bastards, you sons of bitches–- and this son of Salonica, the Spanish Republic, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the CPUSA is ready to fight back. We will win. And when you’re gone, there won’t be any memorial over your ashes.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies, Emeritus, at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University; the journal Linguistica Petropolitana, Russian Academy of Sciences; and the journal Homo Loquens, Russian Christian Humanities Association, St. Petersburg. He is a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. He holds the PhD in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; B.Litt. (Oxon.); B.A. (summa) (Columbia). His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.