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A Tale of Hunger Among the Ice Cream Eaters

by on June 24, 2015 6:15 AM

Thessaloniki, Greece -- All around us, the well-fed patrons of the Electra Palace Hotel's sidewalk cafe were becoming better fed.

It was early evening, the gelato hour in Greece, when people need a jolt of caffeine or sugar or both to bridge the energy gap between their midday meal and their late-night supper.

Here, at the ritziest hotel on Thessaloniki's main square, Jacky Benmayor told me about hunger.

Lying in his bunk in Auschwitz, Benmayor's father would think about "The Invisible Man," a movie he had seen before he and most of the rest of Thessaloniki's 50,000 Jews were torn from the city that had been home since they were kicked out of Spain 450 years before.

If I were the Invisible Man, the boy thought, I would sneak into the camp kitchen and steal some food.

Benmayor let the import of that fantasy sink in. An invisible man would have been able to sneak out of that hellhole. Benmayor's father couldn't see past his own hunger.

I became interested in the story of Thessaloniki's Jews when I learned how much the city had in common with Lviv, Ukraine, where I taught for a semester in 2012.

In terms of percentage of population, these were two of the most Jewish cities the world had ever seen. Both lost their Jewish populations to the Holocaust. Both have tried to reinvent themselves along nationalistic lines, Thessaloniki as a purely Greek city, Lviv as a purely Ukrainian city. Both narratives are false.

When Jacky Benmayor agreed to meet me for coffee, he told me what to look for: a 68-year-old with white hair and glasses who is a little chubby.

"Sounds like me," I said, "except I'm a little younger."

We had no trouble recognizing each other.

Benmayor first learned of many of his father's death camp experiences from a newspaper story written decades after the end of the war. Like many survivors, his father hadn't wanted to talk about what he had endured until he realized late in life that if he didn't remember, the world would forget.

Indeed, Thessaloniki, like Lviv, had forgotten. A city dominated by Jews and Muslims during the long reign of the Ottoman Empire had finally become Greek. It didn't want to be reminded that it had once been Jewish.

It especially did not want to be reminded that some Greeks collaborated with the Nazis, or that some Greeks moved into Jewish homes and took over Jewish businesses and did not relinquish them to the few survivors who returned.

Benmayor's father tried to leave Greece after the war, but Greece wouldn't leave him. He lived in Israel for a time, then came back. His application to emigrate to the United States was approved, but he changed his mind.

This was home, for better or worse.

The son, too, tried life in Israel and watched friends and relatives prosper in the U.S. before settling into life in his hometown. Indeed, there is a lot to like about Thessaloniki. Even with the sword of expulsion/withdrawal from the European Union hanging over their heads, the Greeks continue to while away the hours in their countless outdoor cafes, enjoying the cool breezes that blow in from the harbor.

These days the political winds are telling the powers that be in Thessaloniki that embracing multiculturalism is good for the city's image, which is to say, good for business.

The city's English language slogan: "Many heart."

Jacky Benmayor isn't buying it.

"I'm not naive," he said.

It was one of those things that people say with a smile and a laugh though there is nothing whatsoever that is funny about it.


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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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