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Visiting The Corfu Synagogue – the Meaning of Holocaust

Tom Winnifrith
Tuesday 24 July 2012

I have written before about Joe Levy, godfather to Olivia and my very good friend. We met when he was the handyman who looked after – among other things – a house in Swiss Cottage converted into six flats where I lived with Olivia’s mother. The two houses I bought/co-bought after that were redesigned by me and Joe put my ideas into practice. He is truly a faultless human being, bar his support for Chelsea. He was born here in Corfu and is, as you may have guessed, Jewish.

Yesterday I followed the sign to the “Jewish Quarter.” There is no real quarter just a synagogue which is in impeccable condition, is fully renovated and was being cared for by a rather fat old lady who was talking animatedly in Hebrew to some Israeli visitors. Needless to say she also spoke perfect English. The building is more than 400 years old. And in 1940 there were around 2000 Jews living on the Island – among them Joe Levy's parents.

There is a photo exhibition in the building of life in the 1930s. The Community engaged in a wide range of trades. It was integrated fully. That is no wonder because under the rule of the Venetians, French, British and Greeks there had been a long history of tolerance. On the side of the main hall there is a plaque listing the surnames of those who perished in 1944. There are names that are clearly Jewish: Levi (has Joe anglicised his name?), Israel, etc. But there are Greek and Italian names – this was a community that was an integral part of the wider Corfiot community.

In 1943 the Germans invaded. Most of the Jewish quarter was destroyed. And a year later around 1793 Jews were stuck on a boat and then herded into cattle cars to Auschwitz and Birkenau. 121 came back. Most were liquidated within days. A few families had managed to escape during the Italian rule that preceded German rule. Perhaps 100 or maybe a few more made it off the island and some like “Uncle Joe” found safety, in his case - travelling inside the womb -  in Egypt.

Today there are 60 Jews left here and many of them are incomers, folks who have left colder and less friendly lands to the East. There are but a handful of Corfiot Jews left here. Hundreds of years of history, a vibrant and generous community acting as part of the wider community, almost entirely wiped out in days. That is what happened here. I am not sure if Joe has been back. Like Prince Phillip, born here but who left as a baby, it might be rather hard to come back. Painful memories passed down, perhaps a bit of guilt that he survived and others did not. I just do not know how he must feel.

Some of those names on the board will have been his relations, others friends of his parents, neighbours, work colleagues, children he might have played with and all of that world, all of those lives were, after hundreds of years, just snuffed out in a few days.

Today the words holocaust or genocide are used liberally. It is often used to describe the actions of Israel in Gaza. To use such language demeans it and seeks to negate the scale and horror of what holocaust really means. Israel does not systematically execute an entire community. Yes she kills people in Gaza because each month 200 rockets are launched from Gaza aimed at Israeli civilians. Israel responds with an attempt at a targeted response – seeking to destroy command centres or rocket launchers. Civilians are occasionally killed – a function of Hamas locating its operations in the heart of residential areas. But this is an unintentional by product. And it is small scale.

What happened in Corfu was replicated across Europe. It was a systematic and largely successful attempt to destroy an entire culture, an entire people. That is a holocaust. The word should be used sparingly and when appropriate, it should be reserved for crimes so horrible that it is still hard to imagine how they could be contemplated. It is bad enough coming to terms with what happened here 68 years ago as you gaze at a building or look at faded photographs of life before the war. The thought of those men, women and children being herded onto boats, unaware of their destination and possibly their fate and the horror as the journey continued up into Poland does not bear contemplation.

I try to block the whole idea from my mind. One day I shall have the courage to visit a place such as Auschwitz. But not yet. A civilised world would not allow anyone to forget the horrors of what happened lest there be danger of a repetition. A civilised world would not seek to trivialise what happened by using the world holocaust to describe events which bear no resemblance to the liquidation of 90% of European Jewry. Reading the British press and hearing some folks speak, you sometimes question how civilised some of us really are.

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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