Wiped out ‘in the blink of an eye’: Only 35 Jews survived from a 2,000-year-old Greek community
A new film from co-producer and director duo Lawrence Russo and Larry Confino documents the WWII decimation of the Jews of Kastoria
LOS ANGELES — For the descendants of the Sephardic Jewish community of the idyllic town of Kastoria, Greece, the northern region of West Macedonia inspires memories of picturesque limestone mountains, Byzantine churches, Ottoman architecture, and thriving fur and fishing economies.
It’s a land that has traded hands many times — Norman, Greek, Bulgarian, Byzantine Turkish. In fact, so diverse was this town that it attracted many different ethnic groups, including Jews.
However, during World War II, the previously quiet community, a home for the distinctive Romaniote Jews who settled there 2,000 years before, was extensively damaged and the Jewish population nearly wiped out. Just 35 of the original population survived; it had originally numbered at 900.
A new documentary, “Trezoros: The Lost Jews of Kastoria,” chronicles the history of that Sephardic community and documents the destruction of a minority population — one of many communities that had existed in Greece prior to WWII.
In October 1940, Greece was invaded by Axis forces. Initially, under Italian occupation, the Jewish community remained safe. But after Mussolini fell from power, the Nazis seized control of the town, and 763 Kastorian Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Through never-before-seen archival footage, executive producer and director Lawrence Russo and co-director and producer Larry Confino tell the story of a vibrant community that has slowly faded from the consciousness of so many around the world — Jews and non-Jews alike. For the filmmakers, the story is personal, as their families have direct ties to Greece.
“We want the film to educate people,” said Confino. “We want people to feel something, so they feel the sense of loss. There’s a treasure trove of elderly people in my house. There are people that we take for granted. I would hope this film encourages people to gather their oral histories. They may not make a film, but it’s important to know where you come from and know your history.”
“Trezoros: The Lost Jews of Kastoria” is told by Jewish survivors of Kastoria, with interviews filmed on location in Kastoria, Thessaloniki, Athens, Tzur Moshe, Tel Aviv, Miami, Los Angeles, and New York. (“Trezoros” is a Ladino term of endearment meaning “Treasures.”)
This is no amateur documentary: Director Russo co-founded the independent studio The Shooting Gallery (“Laws of Gravity,” “Sling Blade”) and directed the Emmy nominated PBS short film showcase “ShortCuts.” Confino is the founder of Synapse Productions and executive director of ImageRescue, Inc.
Based in New York for over 25 years, Confino has produced documentaries and commercial projects on a multitude of subjects for production companies around the world.
In advance of the film’s release, Russo and Confino sat down in Los Angeles with The Times of Israel.
What do you hope to achieve with this documentary?
Russo: We want to bring awareness that there were Jews in Greece. Not only were they there, but they had been part of some of the oldest communities in the world. In almost the blink of an eye during WWII, that was taken away.
Why cover this issue now and what makes it deserving of a documentary?
Confino: We felt a sense of honor to tell the story, along with a sense of responsibility. If we don’t capture it now, when will be able to? We prepared to interview any of the 35 who survived. A couple of people didn’t want to talk about what happened to them, but most of them did. We really needed to capture the oral histories.
How did you fill in missing details that the survivors could not help with?
Confino: At a certain point, we realized that there were certain facets of the story that weren’t there. We were lucky enough to meet a gentleman from Kastoria. He introduced us to Greek Orthodox people who were children at the time, but still had some vivid memories.
Your mother, Lena Russo, is an important part of this documentary and tells much of the story. How did your parents’ experience persuade you to work on this film?
Russo: I grew up with most of those stories. As a kid, I always wondered why I didn’t have grandparents. As I got old and learned about the history, it made an impact. I felt a responsibility to tell their stories. In 1996, there was a monument dedication to the Jews who were killed in WWII, as depicted in the film. At that point, I got together with some of the survivors and realized there’s something here to make a documentary.
Can you tell us about the personal connection you have to the town of Kastoria?
Confino: In the documentary, you see the Confino store. That belonged to my great-grand uncle. My great-grandfather’s brother stayed in the town — some of the Confino family came to the United States, but many stayed. Literally everyone in my family who stayed was lost in the Holocaust.
How did you go about locating survivors? How long did that process take?
Russo: Two of the 35 survivors were my parents. Two more are my uncle and aunt. These are a rare group of people who survived experiences during the war in Greece. They knew everyone else who was alive because they kept in touch.
Do you have plans to partner with any Jewish and Holocaust remembrance museums?
Confino: We realize we’re capturing a portion of WWII history that needs to be seen by the general public. It’s a corner of the Holocaust that should be seen. We’re hoping for partnerships. We’re getting requests from the town of Kastoria to incorporate it into the history curriculum in high schools. This outreach is part of our main objectives. We will also be screening it in Tzur Moshe in Israel, which, as the story goes but needs to be verified, is named in honor of a Kastoria resident.
What were the survivors like?
Confino: The takeaway from meeting them, across the board, is their incredible mental strength. These are people who were determined to survive and are very inspirational. The two sisters, Hanna Kamhi Saady and Solika Kahmi Elias, live down in Florida. You can make a film just about them — about any of these people.
What about other people interviewed for background, such as members of the Christian community?
Confino: Interestingly, we found some of them in the United States only after going to Kastoria. We had to go to Greece to find out about this guy who lives in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. He had a very vivid memory of his childhood. One of the things he told us was that he witnessed how the Nazis rounded up people in the Jewish community. He was in his backyard, and he describes it as an eyewitness. Even though he hadn’t lived there in 50 years, he had very vivid memories of that time.
We found another in Jackson Heights in Queens, New York, and wouldn’t have known about him had we not gone to Greece. Ultimately, it took four trips to Greece to arrange for interviews, film shooting, and more.
Do you see any parallels with what has happened to the Jews during WWII and the conflicts of today that have put communities like the Yazidis in Iraq and others at risk?
Russo: Unfortunately, genocide is an ongoing thing. There is always some part of the world where people are trying to oppress a group of people based on their ethnic background. As far as the film states anything, it’s a reflection of one of the larger examples of genocide.
How do you educate your kids about this topic?
Confino: In the case of this project, I felt like my kids were a little too young to know what I was working on in the beginning. I consciously didn’t involve them. My kids have only seen the film recently. There’s a certain amount of pride in where I come from. That’s something I hope to pass along to my kids. If the Holocaust had not occurred, we’d be traveling back to Greece to visit relatives. Instead, we’re doing what we can to preserve the memories of victims.
The film will run in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall from November 25 to December 1, 2016. Visit www.trezoros.com about upcoming dates in other cities.