October 30, 2008
They are sad reminders of a time and place filled with horror: doors of homes that belonged to the Jews of Greece before the Holocaust.
Isaak Dostis, an American-born photographer who splits his time between his ancestral home in Ioannina — about 280 miles northwest of Athens — and West Long Branch, saw these splintered and faded portals as holding the ability to teach lessons of the Shoa.
The exhibit, “Exodus/Exits,” recently concluded a month-long run in Ioannina.
“I see all the abandoned homes still in their original condition but sorely in need of help. And since I had done exhibits for seven years, it was a natural progression to begin here as well,” he told NJ Jewish News in an e-mail interview. Dostis was director of Kehila Kedosha Janina, a Romaniote synagogue and museum built by Greek Jews on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 1900s.
“My father’s family comes from Ioannina, my mother’s from Preveza,” he said. “The occupation was spread out amongst Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. Many Jews — including most of my family — were safe.”
For a little while, anyway. The exhibit marked the date — March 25, 1944 — when the Nazis rounded up the town’s Jews for deportation.
“The Jewish population…was decimated,” Dostis said. “Ioannina lost 1,850 of almost 2,000 residents. I lost 54 members of my family in Ioannina, Corfu, Athens, Preveza, and Patras.” Sixteen of his relatives were saved by Righteous Gentiles, which he chronicles in Ten Gold Medals: Glory or Freedom, the account of an uncle’s escape from Greece through Turkey and Palestine.
Dostis said that after the war “about a hundred or so returned either from the camps, from hiding, or from the mountains where they fought with the Andartes [the Greek underground]. Greece passed a law of return so that Jews could reclaim their houses, the only European country to do so. But it was still difficult. Many left for Athens, Israel — when it became a state — or America.”
‘I don’t think they know what a treasure of a history there is to discover.’
Dostis and his wife, Diana Sunrise, traveled to Ioannina in 2005 “as an experiment after bringing tours of Americans to Jewish Greece for years. Two years ago, we made the actual move. It has been wonderful.”
He created his door project to make the local population aware of what happened during the war, since Holocaust education is not part of the school curriculum. “There is no overt anti-Semitism here but I don’t think they know what a treasure of a history there is to discover.”
Dostis said there are fewer than 60 Jews in Ioannina these days. Most of his mother’s family moved to Israel after the war; his father’s side had immigrated to America before the Holocaust. “There is not much family left here, a few cousins,” he said.
Dostis is also a filmmaker, writer, and actor. He is currently working on I Never Danced With My Father, a feature movie that will be released in 2009. He and his wife wrote Greek Salad, a children’s book about tolerance and cooperation. For the past 12 years, the Dostises have hosted workshops on “moral courage” during their return trips to New Jersey in association with the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Center at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft.