Greek Jews are seen being rounded up for deportation in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, in July 1942.
Every Wednesday, a 60-year-old man identified only by his initials – P.S. – attends a Greek language class in Tel Aviv. No one was surprised to see him take up the lessons, given the fact that P.S., who retired six months ago, is half-Greek.
“I started the process to acquire Greek citizenship 12 years ago,” P.S. told Kathimerini in a recent interview.
“It is not a straightforward procedure because many of the archives from that era have been destroyed,” he said, showing no evident sign of frustration about the long wait.
“I love Greece. I very often visit the country and I’ll wait patiently for the ruling,” he said.
His chances are strengthened by the fact that his family left the northern Greek town of Xanthi using a Greek passport in 1935. “I hope that my daughters and I can get Greek citizenship,” he said.
Last week Parliament adopted an amendment that grants citizenship to the descendants of Greek Jews who did not return to Greece after World War II.
In the late 1990s, Greek deputies passed legislation restoring the citizenship of Greek Jews who survived the Holocaust but never returned to Greece.
“One of the problems we faced was proof of identity, as the applicants’ first names were very often spelled differently in each country,” said lawyer Stella Salem, who has undertaken about 100 such cases to date.
“Another obstacle is the removals from the male registry that took place en mass with administrative acts and based on Article 19 of the old citizenship law,” she said.
The recent amendment could be a boon for a large number of Greek Jews. “Interest in Greek citizenship is keen among the children and grandchildren of people who lived in Greece, who became successful businessmen during peacetime and who fought along with other Greek citizens in the war,” Salem said.
The new legal development concerns a large number of descendants – up to 20,000 Jews of Greek descent are estimated to live in Israel. A greater number live in the United States as immigration there began before World War II.
“Every summer Kastoria is visited by young Americans, themselves descendants of Jews who lived in the city. They ask for our help as they search for their roots,” said Soultana Zorpidou of the Jewish Heritage Studies Center in Kastoria, northern Greece. “Many people are emailing us to find out the rules on citizenship,” she said. Zorpidou, a historian, says she often sees emotional visitors trying to decipher the inscriptions across the city.
Two years ago Spain granted citizenship to 4,302 people whose Jewish ancestors fled after being ordered by the Spanish monarchy in 1492 to convert to Catholicism or go into exile. Although Spain set strict criteria for naturalization, the move gave hope to many Jewish families around the globe.
“Greece has become one of the most popular tourism destinations for Israelis,” said P.S., commenting on the strengthening of bilateral ties. “After the crisis in Tel Aviv’s ties with Ankara, Israeli tourists have been flocking to Greek islands instead,” he said, adding that his family had visited Rhodes three times in the past five years.
“There is no culture which is closer to Greece’s than here in Israel,” said the 60-year-old, who describes being brought up as a child listening to stories from his Xanthi-born father. It’s been decades since he last visited his birthplace, whose population was all but wiped out at the Treblinka extermination camp in occupied Poland. “Only six of the 560 residents returned,” he said.
The Xanthi family made a new start in Israel. “The second and third generation of Greek Jews have done pretty well here,” he said. Greece’s decision to formally recognize their origin is seen here as a gesture of good will. “It’s a moral recognition which means a lot to us,” he said. “It’s better to build bridges than to destroy them. This is how you gain allies.”