TORONTO — As he chatted with friends in a coffee shop on the Danforth one day in 1999, George Gedeon, a Toronto news video editor of Christian Greek descent, suddenly realized that his knowledge of a troubling facet of modern Greek history was abysmally lacking.
When a friend mentioned that 62,000 Jews in Nazi-occupied Greece were murdered during the Holocaust, he was not only dumbfounded but embarrassed by his ignorance.
“I didn’t know that,” he said, adding that his schoolteachers never bothered to mention the Holocaust in their Greek history lessons.
Eager to educate himself, Gedeon, now 63, contacted the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, where 46,000 Jews were rounded up and deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp between March and August 1943.
“That was the beginning of my introduction to Greek Jews,” said Gedeon, who freely admits he was exposed to anti-Jewish stereotypes and tropes at home during his youth.
In 2000, video camera in hand, he went to Thessaloniki and met the president of its Jewish community. He told him he wanted to make a documentary film about Greek Jewry.
“He expressed support for my project,” said Gedeon, who was born in Ismailia, Egypt, lived on the Greek island of Rhodes and immigrated to Canada after the Six Day War in 1967.
Armed with grants from donors, he returned to Greece four more times in the next few years and filmed yet more footage.
Having finished his 47-minute film, In the Presence of My Neighbours, he presented it at the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv in 2011. Shortly afterward, Channel 2, an Israeli TV station, broadcast it.
On April 4, the film is scheduled to be shown at Temple Sinai, and on Sunday, April 21 at 2 p.m., it is due to be screened by the Toronto Jewish Film Festival at the Shepherd Cinema 5.
In the Presence of My Neighbours is a broad and sympathetic survey of an ancient community decimated by the Nazis in a few short years.
By his reckoning, Greece was home to 70,000 Jews before World War II, with the vast majority living in Thessaloniki.
Although Jews arrived in Greece during the Greco-Roman period and were integrated into Greek society, they were sometimes subjected to restrictions. And because Jews were associated with the crucifixion, and generally maintained good relations with Greece’s Ottoman overlords, they aroused the enmity of some Christians, he notes.
When Greece was invaded by Italy in 1940, Jews serving in the Greek army conducted themselves with exemplary bravery. During the subsequent German occupation, Jewish citizens were marginalized, mistreated and forced to sell their properties at artificially depressed prices as most Greeks looked away in indifference.
Still, other Greeks collaborated with the Germans or helped Jews, he observed.
The archbishop of Athens denounced the deportations, which the Greek government tried in vain to stop. According to Gedeon, most Jews in Athens survived because they were under the protection of the Orthodox Church, the chief of police and the resistance movement.
By his estimate, 8,000 Jews survived, going into hiding with the assistance of Christians or escaping from the country altogether. Miraculously, 2,000 Greek Jews managed to return from the Nazi death camps.
In the wake of the war, Greece was one of the first European countries to repatriate property to rightful Jewish owners. In some cases, however, Jews had to launch lawsuits to retrieve stolen property.
Gedeon, in his film, claims that antisemitism is alive and well in contemporary Greece. “Jews create problems for us,” says a Greek. Still other bigoted Greeks claim that Jews were responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attack in Manhattan, deny the Holocaust and blame Jews for Greece’s current financial crisis.
Gedeon is repelled by the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, which fared relatively well in the last Greek national elections. It feeds on the dire economic situation and the presence of illegal immigrants in the country, he said.
Although embarrassed by the dark side of Greek history, the Greek government is positively disposed toward the Jewish community, he pointed out.
With only about 5,000 Jews living in Greece today, the future of the community remains murky. In an interview, Gedeon expressed optimism that it will prosper. “I do want to see Greece keep its Jews. They are happy and comfortable in Greece.”
Gedeon, who recalls having seen and heard Israeli aircraft bomb Ismailia during the opening round of the Six Day War, is not certain whether his film will ever be screened in Greece.
“Holocaust survivors have told me it will never be shown in Greece,” he said. “I hope they’re wrong. Maybe an independent television channel will run it.”
He added, “I don’t dare show it to the Greek community in Canada. I’ve been accused of being a bad Greek. Often, they think I’m a traitor. Their first reaction is: ‘You must be a Jew if your name is Gedeon.’”
Describing himself as a proud Greek patriot, he said he recoils from the unsavoury dimensions of Greece’s past. Nevertheless, he fervently hopes that Greece will acknowledge its complicity in the Holocaust and come clean.
“My work will be completed if the Greek government says, ‘We’re sorry for what happened.’”