It probably wasn’t a paradise. No place that is home to human beings ever can be a true paradise.
But it sounds like Kastoria was a wonderful place to live, before the war, before the Nazis, before almost everything good and decent was destroyed, before the hate and the death, before the relationships between groups that had flourished for hundreds of years were demolished, before almost all of the town’s 1,000 Jews were murdered.
Thirty-five of the town’s Jews survived. Two of them were filmmaker Larry Russo’s parents. In 2016, he made a documentary about the town, “Trezoros: The Lost Jews of Kastoria,” which uses old prewar images and recent interviews to tell the story of this paradise lost.
On August 4, Mr. Russo is going to show the film at Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack. (See box.) It is not coincidental that the rabbi there, Ariel Russo, shares his last name. Larry Russo is Ariel Russo’s uncle by marriage. Her husband is Matthew Russo; her father-in-law, Albert, is Larry’s older brother. Like Larry Russo, her father-in-law grew up hearing their parents’ stories.
“I used to hear stories about how beautiful Kastoria was,” Mr. Russo said. He’s 56, and grew up on Long Island. “I was the third, spoiled child, and I took the stories with a grain of salt.
“But then when I was 16 I went there, and the first time I saw it I understood. It really is that beautiful.” It’s on a promontory in western Macedonia, with sea and sky and limestone mountains around it. “It wasn’t until I got older, though, that I understood all the pieces of the puzzle that make up the heritage of Sephardic Jews.
“Basically the reason I made the film is that there were all these stories that I heard at home. And then I would go out in the world with other people, and they’d ask me where my family was from, and I would say ‘Greece,’ and they’d say ‘I thought that you said you were Jewish!’
“I heard it all the time, and so I thought that the story of Kastoria, of the Greek Jews, needed to be told.
“People have to know that this community existed.”
Since its theatrical release, Mr. Russo has been showing the film in synagogues, Jewish centers, and other institutions. And, he added, “we’re in the process of creating subtitles in eight different languages, so that it will be accessible for streaming to countries around the world. We hope to have it up and running by this November.”
The Jewish community in Kastoria was made up of the descendants of the Jews that Spain expelled in 1492, Mr. Russo said. “They spoke Ladino,” the language that combines Hebrew and old Spanish, an early Romance language whose roots in Latin are clear. It is in a way the Sephardic Yiddish in the way that it combines Hebrew with the vernacular in the places where it developed. But there are some differences too. “Our parents spoke Ladino in front of us,” Mr. Russo said. “When they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying to each other, they’d speak Greek.”
That system wasn’t foolproof; his middle brother, Clifton, not only learned Ladino, but he also taught himself Greek.
The original Greek Jews were the Romaniote, Mr. Russo said; eventually the Sephardim joined them. The Sephardic community outnumbered the Romaniote, and many of the older group’s customs have been lost over time. There are not many Romaniote left at all, either in Greece or anywhere else, but there is a synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Kehila Kedosha Janina, that keeps some of the culture alive.
The Jews of Kastoria lived in peace with their Greek Orthodox neighbors. Some of the powerful images in the film — and in the trailer, which is online at trezoros.com — show members of both communities celebrating together, because after all they’re all people, and neighbors. “It really was idyllic,” Mr. Russo said. “It was beautiful. It had nice weather. It was a really innocent kind of place.
“Unlike in the larger cities” — the biggest Greek Jewish community was in Salonika, with its 50,000 Jews, Mr. Russo said — “the relationship between the Jews and non-Jews was harmonious. My mom went to school with Christian Greeks and they all got along. It was not without any issues, but she said that school was a very positive and happy experience.”
Salonika was “about a five- or six-hour horse-cart ride,” he said. “It wasn’t terribly far, but it wasn’t really close either.” The two places developed separately, although “there was a bit of going back and forth.” His parents had relatives in Salonika, he added.
Mr. Russo’s parents each survived with one sibling. His mother, Lena Elias, had cousins in the United States, so she immigrated here in 1949, and worked in the garment industry. His father, Maurice Russo, was in Italy, but he had a nephew who worked in the same factory as Lena. He sent his nephew letters in Greek, and the nephew asked Lena to translate. Eventually, in best rom-com style, “it progressed, and my father decided to contact her directly, and they ended up corresponding. And then my mom was going to Greece to see her brother, and my father invited her to visit him in Italy first — and within three days they got engaged.”
The Russos moved to the Bronx, where their two older sons, Albert and Clifton, were born, and then to Long Island. Their youngest child, Larry, went to NYU, “co-founded a film production studio called the Shooting Gallery in downtown Manhattan, one of the independent production studios created in the early ’90s.” It was an influential place at a pivotal time; when Mr. Russo left a few years later, it was with a great deal of experience, knowledge, and connections.
So when he was ready to make “Trezoros” — the word is Ladino for treasures — he knew how to do it, and he knew why he was doing it. “People should know about the history of this community,” he said — both the way it was destroyed, and the way in which for many centuries it had lived and flourished.
Who: Filmmaker Larry Russo
What: Will show his 2016 film, “Trezoros”
When: On Sunday, August 4, at 7 p.m.
Where: At Congregation Sons of Israel, 300 N. Broadway, in Upper Nyack
How much: It’s free For more information: Go to trezoros.com