~ SAVE THE DATE!
THOMAS JEFFERSON H.S. 55th REUNION
HONORING THE CLASS OF 1961
~ DATE ~
MAY 22, 2016
BRUNCH: 11 AM - 3 PM
~ PLACE ~
HILTON GARDEN INN
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y.
FREE PICK-UP AND DROP-OFF @ NEWARK AIRPORT
IS A DESIRABLE AMENITY FOR OUT-OF-TOWN AIR TRAVELERS WITH
PRE-PAID HOTEL RESERVATIONS AT THE HILTON GARDEN INN.
SURPRISES AWAIT YOU AS YOU
FEAST ON A SCRUMPTIOUS MENU SELECTION
AND RECONNECT WITH FELLOW JEFFERSONIANS!
FURTHER DETAILS WILL BE AVAILABLE AT A LATER DATE!
~ BROUGHT TO YOU BY COORDINATORS ~
THEA ALPERT & PROF. ASHER J. MATATHIAS
Direct all inquiries to Class Administrator
* * * * *
PRELUDE TO AN INVITATION
Thomas Jefferson H.S. - Brooklyn, New York
55th Gala Reunion - Class of 1961
by Thea Alpert, Class Administrator/Event Coordinator
The year was 1961. We were teenagers of 16, 17 and 18 at graduation. Who could have known the future and made sense of the concept of 2016. We were young and free in the 60s, pursuing a college education; landing our first job; traveling the world; questioning, searching for inner and world peace; serving our communities; searching for reciprocal love, even starting families. Lives were interrupted and cut short as our country engaged in protested war; assassinations gripped the nation; turmoil on U.S. soil begged for social reform. Much has gone awry in our world in 54 years, but it is because of our individual strengths, humor and good fortune that we have made it to 2015 in what has been a journey of substance.
The year 2016 will be a shining one as we celebrate our 55th year of graduation from Thomas Jefferson High School, the institution that offered us a quality education, the road to maturity, and the place where many lifetime friendships blossomed. 2015 will be an exciting year as we engage in plans for our gala affair. The New York area is the chosen site of celebration in springtime of 2016. Details will follow at a future date.
Snail mail has been discontinued. Invitations and registration forms will be sent to all 1961 students who provide us with their contact details.
Join us in celebration and indulge yourself memorably at our 55th high school reunion.
With best wishes and a good year to all...
NOTICE TO 1961 GRADUATES: THOSE STUDENTS WHO HAVE PROVIDED US WITH CONTACT INFORMATION WILL RECEIVE AN INVITATION TO OUR 55TH REUNION. PLEASE ENTER THIS INFORMATION IN YOUR PROFILE HERE ON CLASSREPORT. CONTACT INFO REMAINS CONFIDENTIAL UNLESS YOU ELECT TO SHARE.
* * * * *
A GENTLEMAN AND A SCHOLAR
A Tribute to Prof. Asher J. Matathias
I was born in Volos, Greece, on December 3, 1943. The actual place of my birth was actually several miles away, in Ayios Lavrentios, a village of several hundred people on Mount Pelion. I was born in a small cave embedded in rugged mountains while my parents were hiding from the Germans. But the story really begins a few years earlier when my father, a young Jewish businessman and itinerant peddler living in Volos, fell in love with a young woman from Salonika.
Although Athens is the best-known Greek city, Thessaloniki or Salonika, a city that Jews settled more than two thousand years ago, has played a more important part in the countryʼs Jewish history. Of the eighty thousand Jews in Greece before World War II, sixty thousand lived in Salonika. In this drama the protagonists were related, and the two families had occasion to come together during the Jewish holidays. By and by, my parents fell in love and corresponded. Even as he traveled, the lad risked capture for violating military curfews and other regulations to visit his maiden in Salonika. During the German occupation, however, they faced certain choices. Should they marry and risk living together? Should they separate, with the understanding that they would meet again, to resume their lives after the war? Or should they separate and say that this is fate, their marriage was not meant to be, with each returning home and forgetting their romance?
They chose the first alternative, to speed up their plans, and on September 6, 1942, Jacob and Nina were married in Volos. It was an omen of good fortune because the Nazis had occupied Salonika first, in April 1941. Many of the cityʼs Jews did not realize or accept the extent of Hitlerʼs plans. Consequently, they were hesitant, and they rebelled at the thought of leaving the main city to seek refuge elsewhere. Therefore, the Germans often sent entire families to concentration camps, never to be heard from and of again. One such family was my motherʼs parents and brothers. My maternal grandparents had a business in Salonika. My grandfather, Daniel Atoun, was a restaurant owner who kept it open to the very end. That might have prevented him from taking the decisive step of leaving. One of my motherʼs younger sisters, Medi, chose to go with my mother and her new husband to begin their new life in Volos.
Life continued for a while under normal conditions, even though it was an occupation period. When Hitlerʼs soldiers and decrees reached Volos, my parents had no time to agonize about having a family. My mother was already pregnant.
My fatherʼs business associates came to him with news of the imminent roundup of the Jewish population. Members of a family named Stamos took it upon themselves to impress on my father the utter seriousness of the Nazisʼ plans for the Jewish population of Volos and to induce him to leave his business and follow a friend of his to the mountains.
A pivotal factor in our—and other Jewsʼ—eventual survival was fluency in Greek. Salonikaʼs importance had grown after many Jews settled there following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Others had arrived from Italy and even some Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe. They were gladly and grandly received by the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the city until it was given to Greece in 1912. This large and thriving colony of Jews never developed a facility for the Greek language, preferring to use Ladino in secular as well as sacred matters.
In the Holocaust period Salonikaʼs Jews were easy to identify because they were homogenous and insulated from native Greek cultural currents and influences. The Nazis destroyed 87 percent of the countryʼs Jewish population. Today only two synagogues remain. The Jewish population now numbers fewer than fifteen hundred people. Because my fatherʼs family had a Romaniote (Greek-speaking) background, they were better able to adapt to prevailing conditions, which required the appearance of assimilation. Using Christian-sounding names was a common subterfuge, for example.
In the midst of a fierce winter and with the Festival of Hanukkah at hand, my mother gave birth to me. No hospital or any other medical attention was available. A midwife living in the same village took three days to reach the cave because of a severe snowstorm. Fortunately, the delivery was without complications. We lived in that cave for two more years, until liberation in 1945.
I have been told that we came close to being captured by the Germans several times. Upon their arrival in Volos, the occupiers had lists containing the names of the resident Jews. The Nazis were to round up the Jews systematically and ship them to concentration camps and subsequent annihilation, the Final Solution. Since the population of Volos had an early warning, based on the unfortunate experience of Salonikan Jews, many fled to wherever they could, to hide and save themselves. When the Nazi dragnets failed to yield all the people on their lists, they figured out that Jews would be found on the outskirts of Volos. On a bright spring morning in 1944, the Nazis began to comb the Volos suburbs, villages and countryside and were successful in augmenting their catch. My parents tell of close calls that they had, and of the heroism of Gentile families, who faced summary execution for harboring Jews if they were discovered.
My father supported the work of the underground, so he would not be found at home during the daylight hours. However, he would return in the evening. Families with babies ran the grave risk of being discovered if the babies cried as the frequent patrols passed by. Several infants died when anxious parents covered their faces with pillows, out of anxiety or accidentally. It is sobering to think that this could have happened to me.
Deprivation was commonplace. My mother could not nurse me properly and I was fed goat's milk. To overcome my aversion to its taste, my parents added coffee to the milk. Our diet included cheese, olives, olive oil, and bread—plentiful and brought daily, very often hot, by the family that was protecting us. Food was prepared in clay ovens, outside, under coals. People brought their stuffed leaves and peppers and tomatoes to cook their meals in the community oven. It appears that we were not deprived of food, but it was not the diet we were used to in the city. I do not recall how many families were hiding in our place. Others were hiding in nearby villages. Many Jews who lived in Volos managed to survive, absorbed in the fraternal bosom of their Christian compatriots.
Alas, one German patrol was able to locate our hideaway in the mountain. With guns drawn and poised they knocked the door down and came upon a nativity scene, a mother and a child only. Of course, instant death could have followed. Instead, the German soldier smiled broadly. A man in his twenties, he said that he had someone just like that baby in Hamburg. The image of the family was enough to overcome the seriousness of the situation that he discovered. He left us in
Years later, having thus been spared from harm, I have no animus toward Germans, do not avoid visiting Germany, and discourage any boycotts of German goods. Although Hitler had many willing executioners, there were also Germans who protected Jews.
With V-E Day people returned to their homes in cities, ready to resume their lives. But many Greeks returned to several years of fierce civil war between government forces loyal to the king and leftists who wished to usher in a workersʼ socialist republic. The timely American intervention, through the Truman Doctrine, infused prostrate Greece with needed economic resources and the military materiel to stave off the Communist challenge. The crisis forced an extension of my fatherʼs military tour until September 9, 1948. Meanwhile, my sister Miriam was added to the family in 1945.
The cataclysmic events during the 1930s and 1940ʼs culminated partly in the establishment of the modern State of Israel on May 14, 1948. Such a belated but welcome development was in pursuance of a United Nations Resolution on the disposal of the British Mandate in Palestine. On November 29, 1947, an overwhelming majority endorsed the quintessential two-state solution; one for the Jews and another for the Arabs. 13 nations opposed the creation of Israel, all Muslim, except for the only European and Christian country, my native land Greece! My fatherʼs younger, unattached brother, Moshe, had braved the British blockade of further Jewish immigration into Palestine to become a pioneering settler. He and my father arranged that Moshe would contact us when conditions in the Promised Land were more propitious. Alas, that time for us to move to Israel was not to be.
Instead, we composed our lives in Volos—father in business, mother a busy housewife, a third child, Rachel, who arrived on January 11, 1952. This was a calm period, but as the early 1950s progressed, Greece suffered a series of devastating earthquakes that brought terrified residents to seek shelter in tents courtesy of Americaʼs Marshall Plan. Also making a debut into our lives was an organization that specialized in disaster relied, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or, as we called it simply, the Joint.
It was at this juncture that we got a tantalizing offer. The quota system for American immigration, based on the National Origins Act of 1924, allowed only a tiny number of people to immigrate from Greece each year. However, because of the extraordinary conditions of suffering, and on an emergency basis, the quota was waived. My parents, then in their thirties decided to rebuild in America. An exciting period ensued: trips to Athens for emigration papers, passports, medical examinations and a round of visits to friends and relatives. We also had to decide whether to travel by air (thirty-two hours, with several stops), or by sea. My father instantly concluded that an ocean voyage would afford us an opportunity to digest the latter-day wonders unfolding in our lives, as well as take in some sightseeing.
On January 18, 1956, we set sail from Piraeus, Greece, on a local steamer, The Aegean, for Brindisi, on the east coast of Italy, after stops in the Ionian Sea isles, including Corfu. We boarded a passenger train for Naples. It was at this teeming port that we first cast our gaze at the flagship of the American Export Lines, the ocean liner SS Constitution, which would transport us to the New World. Most people on the shipʼs passenger list came from Italian locales, including Sicily and Genoa, the first legs of our journey. While aboard ship we made use of my parentsʼ linguistic facilities: Italian, which they had learned during the relatively benevolent occupation by Italian Fascists prior to the Nazisʼ arrival; Spanish, from Ladino, which we used as we befriended our waiter, Pedro, a Puerto Rican living in New York; and French, in which my mother had been educated in Salonika, at a school sponsored by the Alliance Israelite Universelle.
The second and third days of our voyage were also spent in the Mediterranean Sean, calling at Algiers and fathoming the wonder of the Rock of Gibraltar—where the continents of Europe and Africa almost touch each other. The massive Atlantic Ocean lay ahead. For six days the thirty-five thousand ton ship was the oceanʼs plaything, mounting winter waves easily emptying the dining room of their patrons as they sought stomach equilibrium. Finally, on January 30, 1956, a rainy, cold day (but one to celebrate each year as our rebirth) the Matathias family made a triumphant sail past the Statue of Liberty and into New York harbor. Awaiting us, after we cleared customs, was our sponsoring relative, the noted philanthropist Jesse Colchamiro, and representative of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Jesse escorted us to a Greek restaurant, the Pantheon on Eighth Avenue, for lunch, while the HIAS officials arranged for us to stay in their building on Lafayette Street, Manhattan, while they found work for my father and permanent lodgings for the family.
Brooklyn then held a gravitational pull for many Jews, including the Sephardim, as parts of it still do. We were introduced to the United Sephardim of Brooklyn, and to a young rabbi, Arnold B. Marans, who is now the distinguished spiritual leader of the Sephardic Temple of Cedarhurst, New York. Our lives have been linked ever since.
Now, years later, Rachel is a happily married teacher who lives with her husband and four children on the West Coast. My brother, Daniel (my only sibling to be born in America, after my sister Miriamʼs untimely death of leukemia in 1956), is a pediatrician, a graduate of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He is married to Amy Shedroff, and they have two children.
As for the bochor, first born, the erstwhile caveman, I am the president of Long Island Lodge #1353 of Bʼnai Bʼrith, serving in the tradition of the original tribe of twelve German immigrants who founded the worldʼs largest and oldest Jewish service organization. My cup runneth over, in the words of the psalmist, for in every important respect I am the ever-evolving, ever-growing, ever-aspiring product of this blessed land. My formal education included the completion of coursework for a doctoral degree in political science, and I have taught at both secular and religious schools. I have run for political offices and am actively involved in communal affairs. I am married to Anna, my helpmate, and we have three daughters, Miriam, Joy-Simha, and Sara. We have seven grandchildren, and even an Ashkenazi son-in-law whom we love dearly. This is an auspicious point at which to return to an incomplete account of my life in America.
In 1970, as a twenty-six-year-old bachelor, I had my first opportunity to return to my roots in Greece. I reflect upon the fateful moment when my heart and eyes met those of Anna's on August 16. She had decided to make Aliyah to Israel and had returned to Volos to visit her parents for the summer. Life has since taught us that love does not consist of gazing at each other—though we do that often—but of looking outward together in the same direction. We had a whirlwind romance—thirteen days from introduction to proposal and nuptials. In an amazing coincidence, my father had given his retail business over to my future father-in-law when our family left for America.
I had gone to Volos to meet the family who had helped us and to see whether I could bridge the gap and learn more about what had transpired during those critical years. The Stamos family had now also acquired a place in the suburbs of Volos just beyond Agria. As I entered the courtyard, an old man, who must have been several hundred yards away, yelled at me and said: “Asher, you are Asher!” He had recognized me instantly, even though he had not seen me since 1945. Of course, we embraced and we kissed. He immediately went to call his grandchildren, we sat and he retold the story of our survival. It was a wonderful experience for me, for his narrative confirmed many of the details of my early life. It was the last time I would see him alive.
Whenever I travel to Greece, I visit the Stamos family, although now I am seeing the son and his wife, grandchildren, and other relatives. They, of course, always receive me with open arms. I have strong emotional ties to this family. Their heroism might have been prompted by a need to demonstrate patriotism at a time when they were suspected of being leftists. To the extent that the Greek cause was associated with saving other Greeks who happened to be Jewish, the Stamoses went out of their way to save us. They were also personal friends. There was never a monetary payment to these people. Years later I learned from a reluctant source that my parents had arranged that were they not to survive the war, Froso and Yorgos Stamos—who were then childless—would adopt me, have me baptized with the name Apostolos, and would never reveal my true origin. Thus they would be “saving a life for Jesus.” They eventually adopted a son from a couple with many children.
Some Jewish survivors in Greece picked up where they left off before the war with businesses inherited from their families, and they in turn pass them to their descendants. Many other Greek Jews have emigrated to Israel, others to the United States. And the younger generation of Jews continues to forsake Greece, leaving behind the legacy of anti-Semitism and whatever else existed for the Jews in Greece. The older generation, those who are very well-off financially, find themselves less willing to forsake old and comfortable ways. My in-laws are a case in point, refusing to emigrate, settling for periodic visits to and from their children and grandchildren. Life is very pleasant in Greece, with the siestas and a tempo appropriate to successful middle age, and even for elderly couples.
As for me, my personal saga began with my birth in a remote spot and was nurtured by faith, hope, and love—always love—rising from the ashes of the Shoah. Despite the trauma of starting over, my parents embraced an uncertain future in the New World as immigrants who spoke no English. I praise G-d, inspired and humbled by the generosity of a land and its people worthy of the phrase “God Bless America.”
* * * * *