On 11 June 2005 on a Greek island paradise my 62-year-old heart finally broke.
I know it was medically declared to be a heart attack. The same thrombosis, massive blood clot, that had killed my paternal great-grandfather, my grandmother, my great-uncle Manny, great-aunt Sarah and my father, all found alone, dead in bed. An enviable exit for European Jews of their generation, some might think. They were indeed the very few survivors of a pogrom-and Holocaust-shattered family. If one goes by the medical version, then, all that saved me and not them was a two-hour time difference. In Britain, it was 7.45 in the morning and I would have been in bed. But Corfu time is two hours and ahead I was out shopping, between the health shop and the pharmacy. It was the pharmacist who called the ambulance. The health shop proprietor was keeping a low profile. I had just swung out in disdain at his not stocking supplies of hemp oil. Being a great self-medicator, I told the pharmacist not to bother with the medics, all I needed was an antihistamine tablet and some distilled water and a triple espresso. She ignored my request. Flat on my back inside the ambulance with its siren sounding just as it did when I was born, during the Second World War, I felt myself becoming transparent, fading away. If I could have spoken, I wanted to tell them: ‘Look, I don’t need the injections and the oxygen - it’s only my heart breaking.’ I’ve almost been there so many times before and it had to happen one day. I just hadn’t expected it to happen here. But it was happening, here on the island of Corfu, that this old heart of mine broke for real.
I had gone to Corfu in the first place because I was tired and yearning for some kind of peace after a lifetime of working and researching, obsessively trying to solve the conundrum of theatricalizing the non-existence of my own and others’ murdered families. Forty-five years working, driven, non-stop in theatre, the last ten being devoted to a form of choreographed physical theatre with my own company - Found Reality - that has left me unable to walk without sticks. ‘Corfiots’ practise courtesy and helpfulness to strangers and guests with such elegance and grace, despite the barrage of tourist rudeness they receive on a daily basis in the high season. There is no car crime on the island, house and car doors are not locked, mediaeval unlit alleyways are safe to wander through at midnight. Covered with Italian not Greek olive trees, the island resembles nowhere else on earth. I had found Prospero’s island (many have thought it to be just that). I decided it was time to print the ‘I already gave, sweetheart’ T-shirt and accept the offer of a quiet life in a paradise. The only ‘Jewish’ image it conjured up for me was a picture of Leonard Cohen in sandals.
Of course I knew of the Greek Jewish Holocaust, or thought I did. Raised on a predominantly Ashkenazi perspective of martyrdom, it seemed somehow distant and, on a miniscule island the size of Corfu, numerically minor. Dealable with, somehow. I had already explored the tiny Jewish ‘ghetto’ of Corfu Town clinging to the base of the mighty Venetian fort, the single remaining synagogue, the bombed and burnt remains of two others and the Hebrew school. Almost two thousand martyred souls. None of them related to me. It was not that I was being reductionist, it just seemed small and distant enough to live next to, compared with the rest of the world that I had tried and failed to settle in.
Did I really believe that an obsessive researcher such as myself would stop being just that? My move to Corfu coincided with an upsurge of interest in and publications about the Greek Jewish Holocaust. I began to read and, once I knew, could not un-know. At first my interest lay in Thessalonica, the mighty Balkan Jewish port. I wrote a play about it, but something about the unrecordedness, the ungraspability of Corfu’s story - its almost domestic scale - kept nudging away at me. I was spurred on with irritation by the likes of Laurence Durrell’s idyll of the pre-war Corfu that he lived on – Prospero’s Cell contains a very unloving description of Corfu’s Jewish quarter in 1937:
The verminous and crooked streets of the Hebraica . . . the cobbled alleys are slippery with excrement . . . the little shops, made for the most part of the flimsiest materials, are worm-eaten and decayed. Yet counters groan with cheap dress materials, mounds of sweets and everywhere the tap of shoemakers’ hammers emphasizes the gnome-like quality of the place.
And what is the incitement for Durrell and his companions to visit? A rumour that a descendent of Judas Iscariot lives there. Great humour is then found in the fact that he is a ‘deaf-mute’ - just how does one interview a deaf-mute, and a Jew at that? Judas’s deaf descendent probably endured far worse humiliation before he perished in or on the way to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Although I had found the Catholic and Orthodox Greeks sympathetic to the subject of the Holocaust and many escaped Greek Jews became heroes fighting with the Greek partisans - I even talked with people whose parents hid belongings for deported Jewish families against their return - there was also a darker side. There were the familiar denunciations to the Gestapo. I was unnerved by the references of some Greeks to the Jews being ‘taken by the Germans’, as if no one was responsoible for the insane compulsion to genocide of all too human leaders and followers. The urgent restoration of the old Jewish quarter that seems to involve a lot of removal of street signs that bear Jewish names. The tourist board signs which announce, in unfortunate English, ‘To the Jewish Community’, where none now exists. The café proprietor opposite the synagogue who held his gold crucifix neck chain defensively towards me when I asked if he knew anything about the synagogue, as though I were a returned Jewish vampire. The Simon Wiesenthal organization had in the last five years complained to the Greek government about anti-Jewish statements in both parliament and press. Right-wingers had questioned the loyalty of Greek Jews. The myth about there being no Jews killed in the World Trade Centre bombing - ‘because it was bombed by Israel and all the Jews had been warned’ – was adopted from Arab sources and printed in a right-wing newspaper owned by an independent Member of Parliament who also tabled a motion in the House about it. But these are post-Holocaust and probably no better or worse than anywhere else.
In 1943 the atmosphere in Jewish Corfu, even after the Salonika deportations, was not at all one of fear and trepidation. After all, those deportations had been carried out by the then victorious Germans. The preliminary bombing of the Normandy beaches had begun and there was already anticipation of the war’s end. The occupying Italian army on Corfu, as well as on the other two islands that define the outer borders of Greece - Crete and Rhodes - had absolutely refused to implement Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies. The majority of Corfu Jews were more likely to speak in a Venetian dialect than Greek or Ladino. Yet this over-familiarity with Italian culture was to make the Jews feel too secure and totally unprepared for the German arrival and its consequences.
The rulers of Venice had a soft spot for Corfu Jews, due to various acts of patriotism, civic loyalty and good works on their part so, when the Jews of Venice where expelled in 1571, the Corfiot Jews were exempt. Despite much talk, in the end there was never, under Venetian rule, a traditional, compulsory ghetto on Corfu. What was finally established had no actual gates, was mainly curfew-free, open all night and also had Christians living in it.
Under French rule (1797-9), Corfiot Jews enjoyed full rights of citizenship but, when the island became a republic under a British protectorate (1815-63), they were forbidden to practise in court and lost all their civil rights. When Corfu was annexed to Greece, Jewish rights were restored - the Greek constitution made no religious distinctions.
But the population that faced Hitler’s obsessive mission of removal was already decimated. A blood libel that started in Damascus in 1840 slowly spread through the Ottoman Empire and reached Corfu in 1891, 27 years after it had been handed back to Greece by the British Empire. Ironically, the victim was a Jewish girl - murdered by fanatics who wanted to prevent the Jews participating in the forthcoming elections. The uproar that was raised against the Jews, aimed at turning the populace against them, succeeded and led to nearly half the population emigrating to Egypt, with only the poorest staying behind. This was the world of the remnants of predominantly old people and children, the sick, the poor and the disabled that Durrell and his companions witnessed that night in 1937.
By the start of the Second World War, there were about 2,000 Jews on Corfu. Four days after the start of the Normandy landings, during Pesach, it began.
They are what I saw that hot morning in July. I was looking up at the old Venetian fortress, around which the Jewish quarter clustered, rising up the hill from the town - the endless spiral of stone steps. I saw them, I felt them: 1,795 men women and children, dragging cases and bundles. Children, sick and dying old people all being herded, driven or hauled across the dirt and rock, up and up to the dank stone shell at the peak, left to sleep foodless on dirt floors, open to rain and sun for five days. For the mighty and terrifying German human disposal machinery’s famous efficiency was at last breaking down, tragically for the Corfiot Jews. Not enough fuel resources available. As for all such Jewish problems, despite the risk of German defeat, fuel was diverted from the major war effort to this task, clearly crucial above all others. Finally the Corfiot Jews were bundled into empty motorless barges, towed by motor boat to Lefkas and kept there for a day, where the locals who attempted to feed them were beaten or shot. Thence to Patras for another day and the same senseless denial of food or feeding by others. Then on to Athens, still towed in barges. Five days in all and then onto the trains to Auschwitz. Their journey took over 20 days in all, with almost no food or water. Once the train was stopped by Balkan partisans, who robbed the dying Jews of their few remaining valuables, killed a few of the younger men and then left them to their journey. Most of them were dead on arrival, the rest so far gone that they were sent straight to the gas chambers without even a selection. A few of the men put up a valiant fight when they saw their fate, but, in impossible circumstances, they were rapidly murdered.
It was the image of these Corfiot Jews and their pointless journey that clung to me as no other has. I had learnt to deal with the six million and with the individuals, even when identifying family members - for I had never known them. But somehow this group of under 2,000 individuals was exactly imaginable. I could not stop seeing them. I saw them all, I would swear it under oath - and that was the precise moment when my heart broke.
The doctors persisted in their interpretation - the blood clot - and with chemicals they dissolved it. Morphine took away the pain, oxygen and drips kept me alive. Just a first, massive heart attack - a warning about lifestyle change etc. Five different medications daily. I concurred with all this, of course, agreeing with doctors, consultants, my partner, family etc. I refused them only one thing: they wanted to send me to Athens by boat for tests they did not have the equipment for. But until now only I know the real truth. That morning at 9.45am, Corfu time, my heart finally broke. Despite the pain and fear it caused me, I am honoured that it broke in remembrance of those almost forgotten Corfiot Jews.
May their souls find rest.
Sam Boardman-Jacobs is currently working on a theatre piece based on the story of the Jews of Corfu.