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The Agony of Greek Jews, 1940–1945, by Steven B. Bowman. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. 325 pp. $55.00.
Steven Bowman, long regarded as doyen of the emerging (sub)field of Greek Jewish history, has, with his Agony of Greek Jews, 1940–1945, produced a careful and multilayered examination of Greek Jewry’s most devastating five years, 1940–1945—the Nazi occupation of Greece and the Holocaust. And the book’s focus really is on those five years: while at various points it makes reference to events outside its frame, the book’s core chapters zero in on the tangled and multiple threads in the Greek Jewish story of the war years.
The result is that Bowman’s book is unquestionably the best we have for understanding—through his careful primary research—this most densely packed and horrific period in Greek Jewish history. Of necessary consequence, then, those who do not already have some familiarity with Greek Jewish history may find the book difficult to access, and those looking for a broader frame will have to look elsewhere (Bernard Pierron’s Juifs et Chretiens de la Grèce Moderne, for instance, for those who read French, is a superb place to start).
In a compact introductory chapter, Bowman manages somewhat remarkably to sketch with broad strokes the origins and history of various Jewish groups in Greece, outline the contents of the book as a whole, give a summary narrative literature review, and consider the merits of different types of source materials (and, particularly, the difficulties of working with memoirs). This approach—that of bringing together, rapid-fire, multiple questions and trajectories—is characteristic of the work as a whole. Indeed, Bowman’s book is a strange but ultimately satisfying combination of narrative styles, historical questions, and thematic threads. At points it borders on cataloguing—intentionally so: Chapter Five, for instance, entitled “Chronicle of the Deportations” (presumably in a deliberate nod to Danuta Czech’s famous Auschwitz Chronicle) gives a painstaking listing of the stages of deportation, the number of transports from various locations around Greece, the numbers in each transport, and the numbers murdered upon arrival. Such detail is historically important, but it does not make for easy or fluid reading. Yet it at other points Bowman waxes virtually poetic, with heartbreaking rhetoric interspersed throughout: “How does one survive in an environment whose raison d’être is death? How does an individual fulfill the commandment to live when all around are strangers organized to kill?” (p. 113). How indeed? Even at its drier moments, Bowman’s narrative reminds us that behind the numbers, facts, and figures are real people, real lives, real tragedies.
This juxtaposition of narrative modes is nicely complemented by Bowman’s deployment of a not strictly chronological ordering of chapters. This allows for the interplay of multiple themes and threads in his story over the arc of the book—among them, for instance, the Jewish role in the Greek resistance (a subject on which Bowman has published another book, Jewish Resistance in Wartime Greece); the varied relationships between Greek Christians and Greek Jews; and the role of the Greek government in the swirl of countervailing forces that worked upon Greek Jews in the period. These strengths are most on display in chapters seven and eight, which take on the very difficult question of the multiple factors on the ground that made it possible for some to survive while so many others perished.
Other interpretative and methodological frames are perhaps less helpful. Bowman’s framing reference to the notion of diaspora, for instance—he writes in his opening pages that “until the rise of modern Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, all Jews lived in diaspora or galut (exile)” (p. 3)—belies (as he notes) the complexity of Sephardic Salonikan identity, which in many respects was constructed around the notion of exile not from Palestine, but from Sefarad; while for some of today’s “Greek Jews,” exile is understood less through the Hebrew term galut than through the Greek xeniteia—and the longed-for homeland is Greece as much as Israel.
In a well-written afterword, Bowman warns that what Greek Jewish community is left in Greece “is scattered among the millions of Greek Christians who threaten to swallow up the assimilating younger generation.” But assimilation, albeit of a different sort, is also a threat outside of Greece, where within a few short generations, the “Greekness” of “Greek Jews” will be in lost, even if their Jewishness is not. This is arguably no less a loss, albeit a murkier and quite different one. Modernity, and the nations that arguably mark its most potent offshoot, have flattened out the histories of so many, who, like the few surviving protagonists of Bowman’s pages, are disappearing into a world that scarcely has the categories to include, much less understand them.
K. E. Fleming
New York University