When Lena Russo was taken to Auschwitz, she was met with suspicion by the other inmates. Originally from Kastoria, Greece, Lena did not speak any Yiddish. At home, they spoke Ladino. It wasn’t until she recited the Shema that the Ashkenazic Jews in Auschwitz believed that Lena was indeed Jewish.
Most of us associate the Holocaust with the destruction of eastern European Jewish communities. Unfortunately, Sephardic communities were affected, as well. Out of the formerly thriving Jewish communities in Greece, 96% of Greek Jews perished in the Holocaust. To commemorate their lives and legacy, Lawrence Russo and Larry Confino produced a documentary called Trezoros – “treasures” in Ladino – which premiered in Beverly Hills on November 29th. The film tells the story of the Jews of Kastoria, a small town in Northern Greece where both Russo’s and Confino’s families originated. Of the 1000 Jews who lived in Kastoria before the Holocaust, only 35 survived.
Kastoria was a picturesque town, surrounded by a lake on three sides and bordered by mountains to the north. Most of its residents, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were involved either in fishing or fur businesses. The Jews maintained close relationships with their Greek Orthodox Christian neighbors, helping each other out in times of need.
At the outset of World War II, Kastoria was occupied by the Italian troops. The town’s residents experienced hunger and poverty. They survived by turning to fishing to feed their families and traded with nearby towns for grain and other food staples. The Italians were not interested in destroying Kastoria’s peaceful population. While they executed the partisans and their suspected collaborators, they did not interfere with the lives of either Jewish or non-Jewish residents of Kastoria.
In the winter of 1943, after the fall of Mussolini, the German troops took over the parts of Greece that had been previously occupied by Italy. The Jews were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz. The deportations took place on the same day throughout Greece, including Kastoria.
The documentary follows the stories of Lena Russo and Beni Elias, the mother and uncle of director Lawrence Russo. Lena and Beni were the only survivors of their immediate family. After the Holocaust, Lena went to the United States and eventually married another Kastorian survivor, Maurice Russo. Beni returned to Kastoria. While Beni’s Christian neighbors welcomed him warmly, the town was not the same without its Jewish population, and at Lena’s insistence, Beni joined her in America. A few other Kastorian Jews attempted to return home after the Holocaust, but most eventually moved to larger Jewish communities. Today, there is only one Jewish family living in Kastoria. The other Kastorian Jews and their descendants currently live in the United States, South America, and on the Israeli moshav Tzur Moshe, which was founded by Jews from Kastoria before the Holocaust.
For both Russo and Confino, who are third cousins, producing the documentary involved a personal and emotional journey. “I gained a certain understanding of my identity,” says Confino. Russo grew up without any grandparents. He’d seen their pictures in his parents’ bedrooms, but his parents did not talk about their Holocaust experiences. It wasn’t until his first trip to Kastoria that Russo learned that his grandfather was the head of the Jewish community. “It was nice to see my family’s respectable history,” he says.
Both Russo and Confino felt responsible for telling their families’ stories. The project left them “very fulfilled,” says Confino.