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  • Alain Catzeflis

THE JEWS OF THESSALONIKI

Updated: Aug 9

At the Jewish museum I found a memorial to the Jews of Salonika. It included members of a family who were our neighbours in Alexandria


WHAT HAVE WE REALLY LEARNT?

I read this morning that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's teflon Prime Minister, with Trump's approval, intends to annexe most of the West Bank, turning what will remain of Palestinian territory into a Bantustan surrounded by an iron girdle of Israeli occupation. This is the end of a two-state solution.


Coupled with the new Nationality law which firmly establishes Arab residents of Israel as second-class citizens and therefore no citizens at all, is also the end of a pluralist Israel - although not I suspect the end of the story. All of which makes the following post more poignant.


GREEK MACEDONIA: WHERE THE JEWS WERE

We have just spent four idyllic days at the foot of the third nipple of the udder-shaped Chaldikiki peninsula, in northern Greece, the easterly one where the autonomous polity that encompass the great monasteries of Mount Athos exist behind a semi-transparent veil of secrecy.


Only 10 people a day are allowed into this territory where Eastern Orthodoxy took root 1,800 years ago. You have to apply to the Patriarch in Constantinople (sorry Istanbul) for a permit and they don’t allow the fairer sex in - not even my missus. I passed.


We’re back in Thessaloniki, a stylish, cultured, relaxed Mediterranean city with an ancient polyculture. It has none of the frenetic, slightly hard-edged swagger of its big sister - Athens. It wraps itself round a sweeping promenade along the Aegean worthy of Beirut, Alexandria or Nice. It is one of my favourite cities in the world.


The FT, no less, once described it as the best mid-sized European city for human capital. I don’t know about that but it certainly feels like a city that exists on a human scale.


It was once one of the great centres of Sephardic Jewry mainly those expelled by Ferdinand and Isabel from Castile and Aragon under the infamous Alhambra Decree in 1492 - which was really dumb of them because the Jews were among their most productive and industrious subjects.


By 1939 there were nearly 60,000 Sephardim in Salonika. For centuries it was the only city in the diaspora where Jews were in a majority. Then in 1942, a year after the Germans invaded Greece, 54,000 possibly more, were shipped to Nazi extermination camps. Only the Jews of Poland suffered a greater loss.


In the Jewish museum of Thessaloniki, I made an unexpected connection with my past life in Alexandria where I lived till my mid-teens. It contains a few, threadbare memories of a pre-Holocaust population, mainly photos of the disappeared, whole families who lived and perished together.


There is a moving memorial to the Shoah, (holocaust) a miniature version of the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC, where thousands of names are painstakingly carved on black marble.


Among them I found the names of 50 (fifty) members of the prominent Levantine Menashe family whose relatives included a branch that lived across the road from us in Alexandria. The Levant is full of crossroads that frequently intersect and double back on each other, where you might meet yourself going the other way.


The youngest of the Menashe on the memorial is Sarah born in 1941. She lived for just 18 months ( the age of my gorgeous granddaughter Stella) before being shipped to the gas chambers. It is in places like this that I am reminded that Israeli policies towards the Palestinians – whatever the provocation – are a stain on the memory of these Jews who lived for centuries in peaceful co-existence with Christians and Muslims.


My Polish grandparents who sheltered and then facilitated the escape from Nazi-occupied Cracow in WWII of a Jewish toddler I think would have concurred.



PHILIPPI AND OTHER CIVIL WARS

Tomorrow we drive across the border to Bulgaria to meet up with my son, his lovely wife Ninka and the (8th) of my grandchildren, Sophie.


On the way, we shall stop for lunch at Philippi an ancient city and famous battleground - which seems entirely appropriate given the vicious civil war which has broken out in the Tory party back home. (Why did Amber Rudd join in the first place?)


Philippi is, as I’m sure you know, where the great Roman civil war took place ending the Republic. Julius Caesar’s assassins (Cassius and Brutus) came to a sticky end crushed by the forces of Mark Anthony and Rome’s pin-up boy Octavian.


I’m not sure where this metaphor is taking me (apart possibly that at the day's end Brutus fell on his sword) but it’s as good a peg as any on to which to hang a few thoughts about the bloodletting back home.


The first is this: you might watch, open-mouthed, as Johnson the deranged boy-Emperor defenestrates the ‘traitors’ in his ranks, setting fire to the Senate and think “Gosh, this is madness. He’s signing his death warrant”. More Nero than Claudius. And he may well be.


But I don’t believe his consigliere Cummings sees it like that at all and for all I know neither does Johnson. If you wish to sow uncertainty and chaos from which you can profit you must ensure that the first casualty is truth. It doesn’t matter what the facts are or what you THINK, it’s what you FEEL, or rather others feel, that counts.


Once you have got over the hurdle that inconvenient facts pose you’re on a roll.


What if I think your facts have nothing to do with me or how I feel? What if I’m sick of your lot ending every argument by pulling out your killer ‘facts’?”.


In the coming election how many will vote for the facts and how many will vote for how they feel?


This is the Cummings/Bannon game plan. No facts, no logic. Just the hope that if you blow everything up so people no longer know whether they’re coming or going, the pieces will fall your way.


My second observation is this: things can’t stay as they are. In that sense the anarchist Cummings and his friend Steve Bannon are correct. Shareholder capitalism has failed far too many people; the elite (that includes you and me both) have been too smug for far too long; state capture (the ritual where business tells government to jump and government responds, ‘How high?’) is a running sore that will fester till it poisons us.


Alain Catzeflis

Thessaloniki

September 2019

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