Coming up on Sunday, Kehila Kedosha Janina, the Lower East Side’s Greek synagogue, will be hosting its 4th annual Greek Jewish Festival.
The festival celebrates the synagogue’s unique Romaniote and Sephardic heritage with traditional foods, Greek and Sephardic musical performances from four different bands, dance performances, plus arts and educational activities for the kids.
The big event, which drew 8,000 people last year, is staged in front of Kehila Kedosha Janina, the Landmark-protected synagogue building on Broome Street, between Allen and Eldridge streets. The festivities takes place from noon-6 p.m. Visit the event website for more details.
Members of the Kofinas and Hatzis families, April 15, 2018. Photos courtesy of Kehila Kedosha Janina.
Earlier this month, there was a heartfelt reunion at Kehila Kedosha Janina, the Greek Jewish synagogue, between a Holocaust survivor and members of the Christian family who helped save his life.
Each year, the historic Lower East Side congregation observes Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. At least 67,000 Greek Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II. One of the synagogue’s longtime leaders, Sol Kofinas, was only six-years-old when his father, mother, sister and baby brother were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Sol, his older brother, Zino, and their grandmother, were protected by the Hatzis family of Athens. In an act of courage that put their own lives at risk, the Orthodox Christian family hid the Kofinas brothers, even when the Gestapo came looking for them. In an emotional ceremony held April 15, Kofinas was reunited with Litsa Pantieras and Demetra Georgiou, whose parents kept him safe until the end of the war. They had not seen one another since 1955, when Kofinas came to America. Pantieras and Georgiou now live in Ottawa, Canada.
After lighting candles in memory of those who perished, the families exchanged long embraces, and shed some tears. In Athens before the German occupation, they shared a home. The sisters referred to Sol and Zino as their brothers, saying, “We grew up side by side.”
“We’re here,” said Georgiou, “to build understanding and strengthen our ties so that we never again have to be a witness to the hatred that led to the Holocaust.”
The meeting became possible after Marcia Haddad-Ikonomopoulos, director of Kehila Kedosha Janina’s museum, spotted an article about the Hatzis family in a Canadian newspaper (there’s a reproduction here). Through the story, she contacted the sisters, and the reunion was set. In prepared remarks, Haddad-Ikonomopoulos said, “We here at Kehila Kedosha Janina never forget the Moral Courage of Greek Orthodox Christians who risked their lives to save Jews in Greece. Without this, so many of our dear friends and relatives would not have survived.”
In that Canadian newspaper story. another daughter spoke of the risks taken by Antonios Hatzis during the war, explaining, “Our father never talked about what he did… If someone would ask him about it, his answer was, ‘I did what everyone could do for his neighbour, for a friend, for a human being.’ He was a very simple man with a lot of dignity.”
A big crowd turned out yesterday on Broome Street to celebrate the city’s designation of “Hy Genee Way.” The block between Allen Street and Eldridge Street is now co-named for the beloved former spiritual leader of Kehila Kedosha Janina, the only Greek Jewish synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.
Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, director of the synagogue’s museum, recalled the lean years on the Lower East Side, in which Genee was determined to keep the congregation going. “The ceiling tiles were falling down, the plaster was falling off the walls,” she said, but Genee refused to give up on the historic building. “Without him, we would not have been here,” said Ikonomopoulos.
Kehila Kedosha Janina’s president, Marvin Marcus, said the co-naming ceremony was an opportunity to take notice of what a single person did to preserve his community. A tailor by trade (his shop was located on Delancey Street), Genee was, “a simple man with a sincere love for his heritage,” said Marcus.
Members of Genee’s family, including his children (Lois Genee Ledner and Marty Genee), were in attendance yesterday afternoon. City Council member Margaret Chin and members of Community Board 3, who supported the designation, were also on hand. There was praise all around for a young board member, Andrew Marcus, who spearheaded a petition drive in support of the co-naming.
Genee died in 2006. The synagogue has been completed restored and is a New York City landmark.
Coming up on Sunday, Oct. 16, there will be a dedication ceremony on Broome Street, a portion of which will be co-named “Hy Genee Way.”
Genee was the longtime leader of Kehila Kedosha Janina, the Greek Jewish synagogue at 280 Broome St. Members of the community will gather on the block between Allen and Eldridge streets for the ceremony at 1 p.m. The street designation was approved by Community Board 3, the New York City Council and Mayor de Blasio, who signed legislation making the co-naming official over the summer.
Genee was for many years president of the shul, the only Greek Jewish synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. He died at the age of 83 in 2006. You can read our previous coverage of the co-naming campaign here.
Coming up on Sunday, the Greek Jewish Festival makes its triumphant return to the Lower East Side. The event is hosted by Kehila Kedosha Janina, the only Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.
There will be kosher Greek food, entertainment (including traditional Greek dancing) and an outdoor marketplace. You’ll also be able to tour the synagogue, which has been beautifully restored. The inaugural version of the event last year attarcted a big crowd.
The festival takes place on Broome Street between Allen and Eldridge streets — from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday. More information here.