The Jews of Salonika and Somewhere Over the Rainbow ($2.21)

The years 1941 to 1945 were horrific for the Jews of Salonika, Greece,and most of her life was horrific for Judy Garland, and 18th century Venice was (not surprisingly) a fascinating place. This is the executive summary of what I learned reading Jack Handeli’s “A Greek Jew From Salonika Remembers” and Gerald Clarke’s “Get Happy: the Life of Judy Garland”.

Salonika (or Thessalonica), the largest city of the part of northern Greece known as Macedonia, was a unique city in the history of the Jewish people. With a Jewish history extending back at least to the time of the Roman Empire, Salonika’s Jewish population increased exponentially at the end of the 15th century following the 1492 expulsion of the Jews of Spain, and through the first four decades of the 20th century, the Salonika Jews spoke a variation of Spanish, called Ladino, and had no knowledge of Yiddish, spoken throughout most of the rest of Europe.

Jack Handeli was born in Salonika. His family was middle class, his father was a businessman, whose relationship to the Jewish religion was much less intense than his grandfather (his father’s father), who led a very traditional religious life. They lived in a fairly wealthy neighborhood, where the Jews were a minority and their social life, and his father’s business life, included Greeks as well as Jews. The Germans did not arrive in Salonika until 1941, but when they came, they came with a vengeance. Handeli’s book tells his story, and that of his family and the Jews of Salonika in general – and a good one, it is not.

When the Germans entered the city, they organized the Jewish population, appointed the chief rabbi as the head of the community (he is viewed with great suspicion by the remaining Salonika Jews, who believed him to be a collaborator, rather than a protector), took the teenagers and had them make a census of the population, required yellow stars to be worn, moved the community into several small ghettos (as short term holding pens, not as long term residences) and transported everyone to Auschwitz.

While the remainder of his family were killed at Birkenau, Handeli lasted the war on a varying number of work crews (he was obviously healthy and strong to start, and received a number of helping hands and lucky breaks, as did all camp survivors), and then, when German defeat was near, wound up on death marches and unbelievably crowded trains, heading back into Germany. When the war finally ended, he realized that Salonika was no longer home, and eventually reached Palestine, after toying with the idea of America.

His book is fascinating, in its account of pre-war Jewish Salonika, the fate of the Salonika Jews during the war, and the immediate aftermath of the war. It was published in Hebrew and English editions, in Israel.

While Jack Handeli’s hell was created by others, Judy Garland created her own hell, as Gerald Clarke’s “Get Happy” demonstrates. Born in the upper mid-west to small time performers and theatrical entrepeneurs, pushed to perform with her two sisters at a very early age, Garland (then Gumm) clearly shone from the start. Her parents (whose own relationship was on-again, off-again) moved to the southern California desert, which gave her mother the chance to transform herself into a real stage mom and push her daughter in Hollywood to whomever would listen. Because of her talent, Judy attracted attention, eventually winding up at MGM and in “The Wizard of Oz”, and the rest is history–a celebratory film career (until no director would work with her because of her addictions and the difficulties posed for filming on schedule), followed by a career as a singer and performer.

At first a naive young teenager, Garland soon discovered sex, and sex was to be one of her main preoccupations the rest of her relatively short life. She was as insecure as she was talented, and needed a man to protect, guide, and take care of her, and she fought her demons (often through pills, pills and more pills). Her acting and singing career had unbelievable highs and lows, as did her health, and her finances. She married several times, each time thinking this was “it”, and each time very quickly deciding she was wrong. She had numerous affairs while she was married, she trusted the men she slept with only to find out that some of them cheated her financially, and that none of them could really keep her in line. She had a number of breakdowns and spent time in institutions on numerous occasions. After being so close to her mother, she rebelled against her and refused, when her mother was jobless and penniless, to provide her with any financial assistance or moral support.

But throughout all of this, her talent carried her on, from comeback to comeback. Until one day, when she was 47, she took too many pills, or the wrong combination, and she died. Whether it was suicide or accidental has never been clear.

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