Embracing a shared history

By Margarita Pournara

Greeks pay tribute to the country's Jewish population just once a year. It is on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, that we commemorate that small, albeit precious segment of the population that has had a presence in this country for thousands of years.

Now scattered around the country, the Romaniote and Sephardic Jewish communities of Greece lost about 87 percent of their members during the Second World War. How do the survivors and their descendants feel about the growing influence of Greece's neo-Nazi party?

Over the past few years, the country's Jewish community has been trying to defend itself by being more outward-looking. It has taken courageous, emotional steps to enable non-Jews catch up with their poor understanding and awareness of Jews.

In late December I was invited to attend an event at the Beth Shalom Synagogue in central Athens. Several Jews were joined by their Christian friends at the Saturday service. The rabbi gave us a warm welcome and then took the time to explain to us the entire ceremony, the significance of the holy scripts, and the role of the faithful.

After the service, as if we were one big family, we paid a visit to the old synagogue in Thiseio, a building that usually opens only on special occasions. The atmosphere was warm and, for the non-Jews among us, the visit was a unique experience.

The present leaders of the Jewish community appear to be prudent and open-minded. They seem to grasp that in a society which is increasingly turning in on itself, the best you can do to exist with dignity is to stand exactly where you deserve to be.