Someone in the house was sick, but there was no ice to cool the fever. Homes in early 20th century Thessaloniki had no refrigerators. But Lila, the oldest girl in the family, knew what to do. She ran from the house and found the nearest vendor who might have ice.
“I don’t have any ice,” the vendor turned her down.
Lila’s sharp eyes said otherwise.
“Yes you do,” she said, and, grabbing the ice, ran back home.
This is the story Dad told me about his mother on the day she died. I have other stories about her, from Dad and from my aunt Yvonne. There’s the story of her marriage, which my aunt called “a story of love worth telling,” a story of how Grandfather came to Thessaloniki to study at the military academy and fell in love with Grandmother the moment he met her, and of how she married him over the objections of her family. There’s the description of her by the Greek cousin who carries her name: “She was an unusual woman, like a man. When few women smoked, she smoked. She raised five children alone during the war after Grandfather disappeared.” There’s the story of her skill with languages; she was fluent in Greek, Turkish, and a Jewish version of Spanish called Ladino, and also spoke Italian and German. There’s the story of how my royalist grandmother decided to name her sons after the kings of Greece (conveniently, the names of the first two kings were also the names of the boys’ grandfathers), the story of the “special, military style embroidery” that she made on her children’s clothes, the story of the many animals she collected (a fox, a stork, and a raven that perched on her shoulder, making her, a widow dressed in black with a raven, a striking sight when answering the door), and the story of how, during the Greek civil war, she talked the family out of trouble with one group of guerrillas by carefully phrasing her account of my uncle’s guerrilla activity so as not to reveal that he was fighting on the other side (“I don’t know where he is fighting. He writes me, you know how you do, ‘from where I must be’”). But the story Dad returned to again and again, as key to the character of the widow who saw her family through German occupation and civil war, was the tale of teenaged Lila, grabbing the ice from the vendor and bringing it back to her family.
Of Lila’s family, I know only a little. Lila Gazi (in Greece, the feminine form of my last name lacks an s) was born Eleftheria Veniamin, and grew up in Thessaloniki, the daughter of Constantinos Veniamin, who had a clothing store, and Glykeria Kapitsoglou, who came from Istanbul (a Phanariote Greek, according to my aunt). While Greece won its independence in the nineteenth century, the northern part of Greece, Macedonia, remained under Ottoman rule until the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. The story goes that my grandmother was named Eleftheria, or “Freedom,” as an expression of her parents’ desire for Greek freedom from Turkish rule, and that, after she was born, her father went out drinking with his friends, and came home crying, “Long live Eleftheria!” Later, after Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria had wrested Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War, my grandmother’s father and uncles fought the Bulgarians to keep Thessaloniki Greek. My father said that they went out to fight singing a song whose refrain ran something like, “What have the Bulgarians to do with Macedonia.”
A couple of decades after my grandmother died, I walked into Printers Inc, an independent bookstore in Palo Alto that has unfortunately since gone out of business, and ran into a talk by Victor Perera, about his book The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey. In this book, Victor Perera traces the history of his Sephardic family through 500 years, including the residence of some of them in Salonika (also known as Thessaloniki), “the Jerusalem of the Balkans,” where the Ottoman Empire welcomed Sephardic Jews after they were cast out of Spain. I came in on Victor Perera discussing Sephardic surnames, and I waited after the talk to ask him, what were the odds of a family named Veniamin, living in Thessaloniki, being Sephardic Jewish? Veniamin, you see, is the Greek pronunciation of the name Benjamin.
Thus began an intermittent search to see whether my Veniamin ancestors were once Jewish, or simply carried what’s usually a Jewish name by chance. It’s a search that has taken me to a Sephardic Jewish genealogy email list, to a Jewish genealogy conference in Los Angeles, and to the coordination of a translation project for a Yizkor book commemorating the Jewish community of Thessaloniki. But the question of whether the Veniamin family was once Jewish has been difficult to settle.
- Dad believed that the Veniamins were never Jewish, pointing out that Jews and Gentiles didn’t intermarry much, in those days, in Greece. And perhaps that should have settled the matter, since he knew his family best. But Madeline Albright did not learn till late in life that her parents were Jewish, and so I couldn’t be sure that my own family, particularly one living through Nazi occupation as Albright’s did, would preserve the story.
- Nearly all the Veniamins I could find in the Thessaloniki civil records (helpfully microfilmed by the LDS) were Jewish, and perhaps that should suggest something. But my own Veniamin family carry Christian names, like Constantinos (the name of the Emperor who converted Rome to Christianity), and have their religion listed on their records (there was no separation of church and state in pre-WWII Greece) as Eastern Orthodox. And there is a baptismal certificate for my grandmother’s younger brother, Harisis. We may be the only Gentile Veniamin family in Thessaloniki, but nothing in our civil records suggests that we are anything other than Gentile.
- I thought I could trace the family’s religion by requesting baptismal certificates. In the Ottoman Empire, each millet kept its own records of births, and the millets were organized by religion. So the pre-independence records of Greece are baptismal records, now preserved by the lixiarheion of each city. I wrote, in Greek, to the lixiarheion of Kozani, where both my Greek grandparents were born, and received a baptismal certificate for my Grandfather Gazis, and the word that no baptismal certificate existed in Kozani for Eleftheria Veniamin. It was then that I realized that the Veniamins moved around too much for me to be sure where their baptismal certificates might be. My grandmother was born in Kozani, to parents who were born in Selitsa and in Constantinople, and was raised in Thessaloniki. She herself had her children baptized, not at their birth as most families did, but all together later in life, saving their baptisms up so that she could have them done at a special place, the shrine to Mary on the island of Tinos, the major Marian shrine of Greece, known for its miracles. And she herself could have been baptized anywhere.
And so my search for whether my ancestors had once been Jewish reached a dead end. Could my DNA shed any further light?