In the immediate post-World War II years, the United States saw a massive influx of refugees from war-torn European nations. While typically the Jewish community looks to the European theater when addressing WWII, fewer are aware of the chaotic conditions in Greece at the time.
When the Greco-Italian War started in 1940, beginning the Balkan campaign of the war, Greek-Americans mobilized in support of Greece and garnered respect from the American public. However, the fall of Greece boded ill for many families, and Greek Jewry was in particularly dire straits. This week, the JT sat down with members of the Greek Jewish community in Baltimore to learn more about the conditions of Jews who immigrated to the United States during that time with the aid of the HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which partnered with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
Columbus Day in 1956 fell on Oct. 12, and the day saw two of Baltimore’s enduring Greek Jewish families arrive on new shores: the Velelli family and the Yohanas family. Throughout the 1950s, Greek Jews had been immigrating to the United States, and Baltimore hosted a small community; approximately 15 families composed the community at its height.
“My father especially wanted to make a change post-Holocaust because the situation of Greek Jewry was quite dire,” shared Rachel Glaser, a local of Velelli descent. “It was impoverished and so much of Jewish culture and people had been destroyed. Over 85 percent of Greek Jews were killed. It was very hard to pick up the pieces. Those who had survived had lost everything. That, combined with the fall of Greece, put everyone in bad circumstances, particularly financially.”
The Velelli family was one of the last Greek Jewish families to move to Baltimore. Glaser’s grandparents were still living, and her father did not want to uproot them. “My parents and grandparents went on continuing to try and live. I think coming back and having more children is the most amazing thing that my parents have ever done.”
Her father, Emmanuel Velelli, reopened his textile business, but no one really made it back to where they were before the war. After his parents passed away, he began to seriously undertake the work necessary to move to America. The U.S. had a quota system for immigrants that made it very difficult to get into the country — it was essentially necessary to already know people living in America in order to come. At some point, however, the quota system was relaxed for Greece, so it made coming to America a far more realistic possibility. Glaser’s parents took advantage of the opportunity when HIAS came to Greece.
There was this moment of, ‘how can you be Jewish if you don’t speak Yiddish?’ That was the first time we really felt different. We didn’t really fit into the Baltimore Jewish community, nor did we fit into the Greek part of town. — Rachel Glaser
Post-Holocaust, HIAS was working throughout Europe on two fronts. First and foremost, the organization’s goal was to help resettle Jewish survivors and revitalize their communities. Additionally, HIAS wanted to reunite families that had been scattered by the war, helping those who had family elsewhere to resettle near their family members.
When a family immigrated to the U.S., it was assigned to a city that could support its members. Cities had specific numbers of refugees that they could accept, and it was necessary to know someone in the city who could help support the newly immigrated family.
Glaser’s father was given the choice of moving to Los Angeles, Minneapolis or Baltimore because that’s where they had family members. The family in Los Angeles was having trouble finding work, and those members in Minneapolis told the family that it was far colder than they were used to. Her uncle told her father not to come to Israel because of poverty and the difficulty of finding jobs as well, so the family decided to move to Baltimore when a cousin living in the city spoke up.
Isaac Yohanas, who moved to the United States with his family at the same time, shared a similar experience. “My mom did not want to come to the U.S.,” he said, “but my father did. We would get letters in the mail saying to come to the U.S., that it would be a good experience, essentially that the streets were paved with gold. We moved to Baltimore at the request of one of the people already here who were sending us letters.”
Upon arrival in Baltimore, the families were met by representatives of The Associated who showed them to the furnished apartments that had been set aside for each family. “We had a lot of help from the Associated Jewish Charities,” said Yohanas, referring to the Federation’s previous name.
“I didn’t speak English when we first got here,” recalled Glaser. “My older sister, who was already 20, had taken English lessons in Greece in preparation, as had my father, so they knew a little bit. I was the youngest, so I knew no words of English. We went to the neighborhood public school; it was very intimidating and scary. The system wasn’t what it is now. There wasn’t English taught as a second language. Eventually, I just had to figure it out. Both my brother and I were put back a grade to help us catch up.”
For many of these families, acclimating to the Jewish community in Baltimore proved to be a challenge. Baltimore Jews had never encountered Greek Jews who were not Ashkenazi like most of Baltimore’s Jewry at the time.
Glaser recalled, “An Associated member tried speaking Yiddish to us, and my father had to explain that we didn’t speak Yiddish. There was this moment of, ‘How can you be Jewish if you don’t speak Yiddish?’ That was the first time we really felt different. We didn’t really fit into the Baltimore Jewish community, nor did we fit into the Greek part of town, where the community revolved around the church. It seemed like we didn’t fit anywhere until we were able to get more consonant.”
For Yohanas and his family, the neighborhood of immigrants they lived in was where they fit.
“We were accepted because we were living in an area that housed a lot of immigrants as well,” Yohanas said. “They were so helpful, and everyone was staying together; we all socialized a lot. When we came home, our parents wouldn’t be there, so we went around to different people’s houses — everyone took care of each other. It’s like the Hassidic community, where everybody took care of everybody else and their children. We didn’t have to worry about anything happening to us. We knew we could go over to so-and-so’s house because we were all immigrants together and family friends. The neighborhood was our sanctuary.”
Yohanas added that the families who still live in the area have walked to the same shul together for 60 years now.
“For a long time, we were quite in-between,” said Glaser. “A lot of Greek Jews felt that way. My family was always a shul-going family, but there was none that matched our customs, so we joined an Orthodox shul because it was the closest to what we knew. And slowly, we were able to become a part of Jewish life. But we are truly grateful for the work of The Associated through HIAS to bring our family over. We didn’t do it on our own.”
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