Remembering Palestine from Greece

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A little more than 77 years ago, Allied forces fighting in northern Greece were speedily overwhelmed by German strength, and so forced to withdraw from the mainland.

Battle of Kalamata commemorated on its 75th anniversary in 2016 (Neos Kosmos)The campaign was very brief: the Germans invaded on the 6 of April 1941, and the decision to evacuate the troops was made on 17 April. The Allies' main task thus became that of engaging in delaying tactics in order to ensure that the removal to Crete was as effective as possible: roads had to be kept clear, and ships readied and put in place.

Some thousands of men escaped from Megara, Corinth and Nafplion, but thousands also found themselves at the end of the trail, in the south-western Peloponnesian port of Kalamata, where ships were coming to take them off so that they could, it was hoped, live to fight another day.

The Allied forces included many Australians and New Zealanders, who fought bravely along the Kalamata beach: they lost the beach, won it back, and then lost it again during the 28 and 29 April. Although approximately 9000 men got away, it has been calculated that about 8000 were taken prisoner. They were marched up the main street of Kalamata while the locals defied German rifle butts to cheer them and wish them well.

In these days of spring sunshine and early tourists, it is hard to imagine the battle, but for years now there has been a wreath-laying ceremony at a small memorial close to the waterfront. The dedication on the short marble column remembers those who fell or were taken prisoner, and those who escaped 'to fight again for the world to be free'. The flags of Greece, Britain, Australia and New Zealand are hoisted for these occasions, and in the past veterans from each country's services attended. Now their descendants come to represent them.

The service conforms to a set pattern. Kalamata's mayor and other dignitaries attend, as does the Bishop of Messenia and the vicar of St Paul's Anglican Church, Athens, along with an interpreter. National servicemen stand in serried rows.

There are prayers and readings followed by a recitation in English of the fourth verse of Laurence Binyon's poem 'For the Fallen': 'They shall not grow old ...' Wreaths are laid by the representatives of the Allied countries, and by the veterans' descendants. Kalamata's brass band plays the national anthems, and the young soldiers sing the Greek one with great enthusiasm.

 

"I thought of the Jewish man's words: 'In the end, we are all just people.' Why can't politicians remember that?"

 

This year things were different. I have attended many of these services, but for the first time that I can recall there was a small Jewish contingent present, and two of their number laid a wreath. I knew that there had been a Jewish community in Kalamata: when I first came to the area many years ago, there were two shops that were always closed on Saturday.

I never learned how big the local community had been, but I did discover that there have been Jews in Greece since the fourth century BC. Before the war, there were about 100,000, 70,000 of whom lived in Thessaloniki. Now there are fewer than 5000 in the entire country. At least 500, fighting in the Greek Army, were killed in action during the Second World War.

The atmosphere after the service is always informal, so I went to talk to the Jewish delegation. One man said he now lives in Israel, but his father had lived in Kalamata for 50 years. 'We can call ourselves whatever we like,' he said, 'Jews, Christians, Muslims, but in the end we are all just people.'

It was 8 May; 14 May is the Palestinian day of remembrance (Nakba) for the 700,000 people who became displaced when the state of Israel was established.

This year marks 70 years since that happening, and was also marked by the moving of the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a development that has always been considered too controversial to contemplate in the past. Within hours, protests had broken out in Gaza, and the Israel army had started firing. The last reports I read had the number of dead at 60.

I thought of the Jewish man's words: 'In the end, we are all just people.' Why can't politicians remember that?

 

 

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Battle of Kalamata commemorated on its 75th anniversary in 2016 (Neos Kosmos)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Palestine, Israel, Greece

 

 

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Gilian - you may find this extract from pp.148-49 of my book Jews and the Left (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) of interest: About 56,000 of the 77,000 Greek Jews lived in the port city of Salonika where they constituted nearly 40 per cent of the total population. They formed the only Sephardi Socialist trade union in the world, the Workers Socialist Federation of Salonica, in 1909. The founder was Abraham Benaroya, a Salonican-born Jewish printer and tobacco worker who was drawn to Socialism whilst living in Bulgaria. He returned to Salonica in 1908, and played a key role in developing the wider Greek trade union movement. Other key leaders included Alberto Arditti, David Recanati, Abraham Haason and Joseph Hazan. The Federation included some non-Jews, but most of its 7000-8000 members were Jews involved in the tobacco trade and associated industries such as typographers, clerks, craftsmen and dockers. These were not assimilated Jews, and many were wedded to traditional religious beliefs. The Federation published a number of newspapers and pamphlets in Judeo-Spanish, and engaged in various polemics with the Zionist movement. It has been estimated that Socialists constituted about 15-20 per cent of the overall Jewish community. In 1918, the Federation joined the newly established Greek Socialist Labor Party, and lost its unique Jewish identity. It later came under the control of the Greek Communist Party, and three of the 12 workers shot by police during the famous May 1936 strike in Salonica were Jews. Jewish prominence in the Party declined during the 1930s, and most of the Jewish workers of Salonica including many of the leaders of the Federation were killed in the Holocaust. Benaroya survived Auschwitz and migrated to Israel in 1953 where he established a group of Ladino-speaking Socialists who published the El Tiempo newspaper.
Philip Mendes | 23 May 2018


It would be good if the 'Jewish Man's words' were brought to the attention of Benjamin Netanyahu. The establishment of the American Embassy was certain to spark protests. Powerful political motives seem to have completely swamped any sense of compassion or understanding in this latest mess. There is a lot to think about here. Thanks Gillian.
Stephen | 23 May 2018


Thanks for this essay, Gillian. My step-father, "Bill" PRINCE - a signals man - was among the Australian troops successfully evacuated from Kalamata. Last October while briefly in Kalamata we visited this memorial site. After returning home to Australia I looked through his photos from his time in Palestine - the King David Hotel somewhat central among his photos. So your reference to the recent Jewish delegation was also pertinent - and I want to add a sober underscoring Amen to that man and your echo asking why it is that no matter what we might call ourselves - in the end we are all just people - and the rider that politicians never seem to understand this simple fact - always hankering (most of them) to the divisive "them" and "us" distinctions - never our commonality. It was nearly 40 years ago that a classmate in a Cambridge Diploma Course I was studying told me that her mother was a Ladino speaker - from Turkey out of the diaspora from Spain forced on the Sephardic community by los Reyes Católicos - Fernando y Isabella in 1492 - a busy year that. So several years ago in Istanbul I sought out the old Synagogue and Museum - surprised and delighted that I could read some of the old Ladino newspapers on display. Drawing the threads together! Peacefully so.
Jim KABLE | 23 May 2018


An interesting fact that we need to be reminded of our shared humanity but unfortunate that it includes racism and hatred. One hopes for peace and understanding instead of the opposite.
Maggie | 24 May 2018


“We are all just people”. How apt, particularly in the light of the Middle East conflict. Thank you Gillian for your interesting article. I can well remember my visit to Greece in 2004 and my introduction to German war occupation particularly my visit to a Nazi war massacre site on a cypress covered hill above Kalavrita.
John Whitehead | 24 May 2018


I remember, while on a work-related stay in Kastoria, Western Macedonia, some years ago, wondering why there were so many apparently deserted mansions in the town, once gracious dwellings, but clearly in a state of long-term neglect. I later learned that these had been the homes of Jewish families deported to Nazi death camps during the Second World War, from which only 35 survivors returned. On a recent visit to the Jewish Museum in Athens, I learned that furthermore, the Jews of Kastoria had been part of a very ancient community of Romaniote Jews, who had been settled there for 2,000 years. How cruel is "history" in the narrow sense - meaning the perennial contest between cultural and actual survival and the forces that seek to extinguish these on the pretext of some transient political power-play or other? Man's inhumanity to man (and it is most often women and children who are among the first casualties) seemingly knows no bounds, and those who seek and strive to redress the balance are the true heroes of human history, in my view.
Jena Woodhouse | 24 May 2018


Congratulations Gillian for a great article which reminds us how shamefully the Greek and Palestinian peoples were treated by the British and the US after WW2. This article reminded me of a book I read several years ago about Alex Sheppard, a Melburnian, an advocate for democracy in Greece and an Australian army colonel who led the retreat of 15,000 Allied forces from Piraeus in 1941 as the German troops were invading. When the war finished, Alex Sheppard returned to Greece to work for the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. However, he was expelled by the British administration when he intervened to save the life of a 14 year-old girl who was to be executed by Greeks who had been sympathetic to the Nazis because her parents had been supporters of the Greek resistance- the EAM-ELAS Winston Churchill was intent on foisting the discredited royalty that had supported the fascist pre war Metaxas regime, back on the Geek people who overwhelmingly wanted a democratic republic. The British and US interference in Greek politics led to a civil war and many years if suffering at the hands of right wing repressive governments until the fall of the colonels' junta in 1975. Alex Sheppard' s passion for social justice and freedom for Greece led him to work for many years with the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Greece. While the Greeks faces many problems, they are not in the same dire situation as the Palestinians who face live ammunition fired at them by the Israeli Army when they peacefully protest for their state, their land and their human rights. No-one can disagree with Gillian's final sentence: '......In the end, we are all just people.' Why can't politicians remember that?"
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 19 July 2018


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