Remembering Moshe Ha Elion, Sephardic Jewish author and Holocaust survivor from Thessaloniki

Moshe Ha Elion, screenshot from the Youtube video “La Djovenika al Lager” by Dr. Judith Lin, used with permission.

Holocaust survivor, writer and translator Moshe Ha Elion passed away on November 1 at the age of 97, eSephard reported.

He was originally from Thessaloniki, Greece, and was internationally known for documenting the suffering of the Salonikan Jews in the Nazi extermination camps through his memoirs and poems, published in Ladino and Hebrew. Ha Elion lived in Israel and served as representative of the community of Sephardic Jews, and promotor of their ancestral language Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, a Romance language derived from Old Spanish, and one considered endangered.

Ladino scholar, educator and activist Dr. Bryan Kirshen, who only a week ago mourned the passing of one of the last Ladino speakers from the Balkans, Moris Albahari from Bosnia and Herzegovina, expressed his remorse via Twitter:

Moshe Ha Elion was born in Thessaloniki in 1925 in a a middle-class Sephardic Jewish family which spoke Ladino in  the home and Greek outside. In 1943, German Nazis who occupied the city deported him and his family alongside almost entire Jewish population of 46,091 to concentration camps, killing the majority of prisoners in gas chambers over the next two years.

As a teenager, Ha Elion survived Auschwitz, the death marchMauthausenMelk, and Ebensee, and after the liberation immigrated to Palestine, and took part in the establishment of Israel. After retiring from career in the military and state administration, he served as member, vice president and president of the Association of the Holocaust Survivors from Greece in Israel.

In 2020, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center based in Jerusalem, released the documentary about his life “Recuerdos en ladino – La historia de Moshé Haelion” as part of their series of video testimonies of survivors in Spanish.

In 2000 Moshe Ha Elion published “En los Kampos de la Muerte” (The Death Camps) a poetic and autobiographical text written in Ladino and formed of three very large poems: “La djovenika al lager” (“The Fair Young Maiden of the Lager,” dedicated to his sister); “Komo komian el pan” (“How they ate the bread”); and “En marcha de la muerte” (“On the road to death”).

In 2005 Greek music group Codex ensemble led by Kostis Papazoglou and the Jewish Community Choir of Thessaloniki recorded “La djovenika al lager” at the Monastirioton Synagoge in Thessaloniki. The song was included in the CD “En la mar ay una torre” (EMI, 2008). Papazoglou wrote:

“During my trip (1998) to Israel with the Choir, I met Mr. Moshe Ha-Elion, who gave me his poem “La Djovenika Al Lager” with the melody he composed for it. Based on it, I made the arrangement we sing today. The simultaneous narration by Mr. Ha-Elion describes the terrible history of the deported Jews in the concentration camps.”

In 2017 American educator and writer Dr. Judith Lin from the University of Virginia, who worked alongside Moshe for several years, translating his Holocaust work into English, published a short video about part of the process of translating the song.

In a statement for Global Voices given via email, Dr. Lin shared part of her experience in light of the loss of Moshe Ha Elion.

On November 29, 2021 I directed the first choral performance of “The Fair Young Maiden” in English at my university, but this is only a start.

The world is no longer the same without Moshe Ha Elion. His dream was that his song, “The Fair Young Maiden” would become an international hymn of remembrance of the Shoah. I have tried to do my part to help him realize this goal. Ha Elion’s voice and his invaluable artistic contributions will live on through his writing and music.

He will be greatly missed!

Holocaust remembrance in Thessaloniki

Holocaust monument in Thessaloniki. Photo by Filip Stojanovski, CC-BY 4.0.

Until 1912, Jews made up the majority of the population in Thessaloniki. During the Second World War Holocaust or the Shoah, 94 percent of this Jewish population was deported and murdered by the Nazis.

Visitors today can see several several sites dedicated to remembrance of the Jewish presence in the city, including a Jewish Museum and a monument to the 50.000 victims of the Holocaust in the shape of burning menorah with a memorial plaque in the center, next to Eleftherias (Freedom) Square, near the port. The square was used by the Nazis to round up and publicly humiliate local Jewish men on July 11, 1942.  

Greek anti-fascist activists often warn of increasing antisemitism fueled by right wing extremists, while the local Jewish community is striving to urge authorities to increase the visibility and remembrance of the historic heritage. In particular there's controversy over using the Eleftherias Square as a municipal parking lot. Local activists have been using stickers to explain the context to the public and to warn “never again.”

Sticker from Thessaloniki street near Eleftherias Square with a photo from Nazi “registration” of Jews on July 11, 1942, reading “ΠΟΤΕΞΑΝΑ” or “Never again” in Greek. Photo by Filip Stojanovski, CC-BY 4.0.

In 2016 the local Jewish community and the mayor started an initiative to build a Holocaust Memorial Museum & Educational Center of Greece on Human Rights. The construction, initially supported by Germany, stalled due to the economic crisis.  In January 2022 Dr. Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, who was also born in Thessaloniki, asked The Genesis Prize Foundation to direct his USD 1 million award received for the COVID-19 vaccine towards the establishment of a Holocaust museum.

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