Remaining Jews of Greece illuminated in book, exhibit

Serina Matsas was carrying full grocery bags home to her two-room apartment in Ioánnina, Greece, when her friend introduced her to photographer Morrie Camhi.

Camhi, then a photography instructor at City College of San Francisco, was devoting a sabbatical to an exhaustive research and photography project on the Jews of Greece.

"I like to photograph people where they live and work, because the photo becomes a biography," he said during a recent interview in his treehouse-like Petaluma studio.

But Camhi found to his astonishment that both the woman's rooms were too tiny to fit into with camera equipment, so he shot his pictures in the public hallway that connected them.

"Her only feeling of freedom and breadth comes from the connecting hallway!" he wrote in his journal. "I elect to photograph her there."

The result of Camhi's travels is "The Jews of Greece," a book of photographs, many on display through August at Petaluma's Vision and Magick Gallery.

"There are lots of older people, not many kids," he said. "A lot of [younger people] didn't choose to create families again; those that did would emigrate elsewhere to do it."

Between 8 and 9 percent of Greek Jews perished before the end of World War II. "There were 10,000 Jews living in Greece at the end of the war," Camhi said. "There were 4,000 when I got there."

More than 3,000 are in Athens, with the remaining 1,800 scattered throughout the rest of Greece.

"This book deals with the miraculous percentage that survived," he said.

Yet for Camhi, who with his wife, Lynn, has traveled extensively and photographed numerous cultures and subcultures, his mission in Greece was not the academic work of a Holocaust scholar.

"There's a continuing preoccupation with Holocaust issues among Jews," said Camhi. "I've attempted to make this broader."

Although the work is not new, it is timely, he said.

"We're at a very angry place. [Alleged Oklahoma City bomber Timothy] McVeigh is angry. These [Greek Jews] are the survivors of another angry time. There are signs that we might get to a parallel place. [On the eve of World War II], People weren't separating what became the Holocaust from the flag-waving of the time. People got a perspective, but it was too late for that 89 percent of the Jews of Greece."

Nevertheless, in the photos, "these people are presented living their lives in a normal way. I would hope if a message gets through, it's `why, these are ordinary people.'"

The Jews of Greece originate from the Romaniote Jews, there since the days of Alexander, and the Sephardic Jews who came after the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. Many speak the Sephardic language Ladino, a hybrid of Hebrew and medieval Spanish that was the language of Camhi's youth.

But the Jewish community of his past is gone.

"There are synagogues everywhere, because there used to be lots of Jewish people." he said. However, "When I was there, there was only one rabbi in all of Greece."

He photographed the synagogue in Rhodes — "beautiful, but no one to go, not even enough for a minyan. The communities are so small the synagogue becomes a community center. The person with the best and most melodic voice becomes a prayer-reader, and symbolic leader."

The photos are powerful: One of the few remaining Jews in Didimotiko, a town on the eastern border, stands amid rubble in what is left of the synagogue.

"It was devastated by townspeople, who believed a rumor that Jews had buried treasure in the walls," Camhi said. "Of course, they found nothing."

"There were six Jews in Didimotiko when I was there," he said. "I've heard that now there are none."

But the story is not entirely one of loss. A young man stands in a one-room schoolhouse, under a blackboard filled with Hebrew characters. The room seats maybe 10 students.

"They're trying very hard to regain their culture," Camhi said.

In Ioánnina, where he met Serina Matsas, "it was almost scary how much they're all together," he said. "There are 60 Jews, and almost all of them live in the same apartment building."

It's also the only place where Camhi encountered any resistance to his plans.

"The townspeople want to lead their current lives, not be neon signs of Holocaust survival," Camhi wrote in his journal.

Nikos Stavroulakis of the Jewish Museum of Greece met with the families, and "his eloquence prevailed," Camhi wrote. "If it wasn't for Stavroulakis, I would have batted zero there," he said.

Fortunately Camhi hit a home run. There is the sweet-looking elderly couple, whose children and grandchildren live in the apartment next door. Their apartment — with its radio in a wooden cabinet, its lace doilies, grand light fixtures — their clothing, even the way they take each other's arms, reveal the grace and civility of Jewish life in pre-1930s Europe.

Then there is the dark-haired Eftychia Svolis, sitting in a tiny grocery, talking animatedly. On her forearm is a tattoo from her days in the concentration camp.

"I went in as girl of 15," she told Camhi. "A day later, I was a woman of 15."

Yet in Camhi's work, his subjects live. He hopes visitors will travel a cultural distance, as he has, to see the exhibit.

"The further removed they are from being Jewish, the more I want them to come," he said. "It's a question of expansion. Otherwise, we're going to feel inferior to a modem."