The online event “Romaniote Art. A Commemoration of Esther Cohen” organised by the Hellenic Parliament Foundation on Parliamentarism and Democracy, with the contribution of the Jewish Museum of Greece, was held in the Senate Hall of the Hellenic Parliament. The event, which featured presentations and testimonies on the history, daily life, art and music of the Romaniotes, paid tribute to the memory of Ioannina native Esther Cohen, one of the last survivors of the Holocaust, who died on 1 December 2020.
Following a short introduction by the Secretary General of the Hellenic Parliament Foundation, Professor Evanthis Hatzivassiliou, who moderated the event, the President of the Hellenic Parliament and President of the Hellenic Parliament Foundation, Mr. Constantine Tassoulas took the floor. In his address, the President of the Parliament spoke of the shocking fate of Esther Cohen and the Jews of Ioannina.
The President, referring to an account of how Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Propoganda Minister, had a raging crowd in a rally cheering in favour of an all-out war, observed that when humans turn into beasts, the lives of millions change, just as the life of Esther Cohen changed. Although responsibility may frighten us and is something we tend to eschew, the lesson arising from these trials should help us realise that responsibility has two sides. If we are responsible for the bad, we are also responsible for preventing it.
As Mr. Tassoulas mentioned, the community of the Greek-speaking Jews of Ioannina was distinguished not only in trade and artisanship, but also in music, literature and overall, in education. All this culture was expressed in the spring of 2014, inside the Synagogue, through the civilized, tranquil and humane stance of Esther Cohen, the woman who having been through the horrifying experience of Auschwitz, in a discussion with the then President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Joachim Gauck, urged him to make sure that books would be published to educate the young about what happened, so that it cannot be repeated. The memory of those events, the commemoration every year on the 27th of January of the Greek Jewish Martyrs and Heroes of the Holocaust is a way to convince people to unite in love and not in hate.
Moses Elisaf, the Mayor of Ioannina, focused on the value of memory. He referred to the “painful memory”, but also to the duty of us all towards “young Esther, who at 17 was violently dragged to the hell that was Auschwitz”, underlining the need to ask ourselves what were the deeper causes that brought forth this unprecedented nightmarish barbarity. By naming the root of evil, totalitarianism, by defining it as the concentration and surrender of the will of the many in the hands of one and as blind obedience to this person’s unlimited power, he pointed out that today, at a time when Democracy, the only bastion of our security, is under pressure, it is our duty not only to honour but also to remember. To be aware of the horror of totalitarianism in all its abominable manifestations and dimensions.
The words of Esther Cohen, he noted, are a unique testimony against both destruction as well as efforts to annihilate the memory and the testimony.
In his intervention titled “On Romaniote Jews, a posteriori”, author Stavros Zoumboulakis, Chairman of the Supervisory Council of the National Library of Greece and member of the Scientific Committee of the Hellenic Parliament Foundation, pointed out the fact that the great Romaniote community of Ioannina, with its distinguished traits, essentially no longer exists as a community of life, worship and culture, but as a community of remembrance, with the memory of the Holocaust as the main connecting link, as is the case around the word, especially in the small communities of the Jewish diaspora.
This was followed by an intervention by archaeologist Zanet Battinou, Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, entitled: “Time to Shabbat! Images of the rituals and everyday practices of Romaniote Jews”.
Ioannina was the indisputable centre of the unique Greek-speaking Jewish tradition, where Romaniotes creatively combined local custom with their own customs and traditions and produced the unique Greek-Jewish tradition, with its own cuisine, costumes and crafts.
One of the main tenets of Judaism is observing Shabbat, a day dedicated to prayer and to studying the Law and refraining from any kind of productive labour. After 92% of Romaniote Jews of Ioannina had been exterminated at Nazi extermination camps, the crier’s call to Shabbat in the neighbourhood of Μικρή Ρούγα (Mikri Rouga) and Μεγάλη Ρούγα (Megali Rouga) fell silent.
Lastly, rounding out the interventions, architect and musician Sakis Negrin, Director of the Cultural Centre of the Jewish Community of Athens made extensive reference to the “Melodies of the Synagogue and the Rouga”.
The centuries-old presence of the Romaniotes in Greece was a decisive factor in the tradition’s interaction and osmosis with the surrounding folk tradition. The songs of the Romaniotes had a great musical affinity with the folk songs of Epirus, as evidenced by their rhythm, melody, musical scales, harmony, neighbour notes and other musical elements.
To watch the video of the event (available in Greek) click here.
Source: Hellenic Parliament