Righteous among the Nations and the Five Ignorances

What a rush; I spent the school year in school learning to be a teacher. I didn’t even have a real summer, as you’d expect a student to have, since it was almost entirely consumed with final exams and papers. Normally I try to travel in the summer, maybe to someplace deep and foreign, but this time I only had one week to travel and one day to plan it, so we found some cheap, last minute tickets to Zakynthos, Greece from Tel Aviv, Israel. So, knowing nothing about Greece other than what we read in the news, we launched into the skies and flew west across the Mediterranean Sea inside a plane full of teenagers heading out to party for a last minute getaway before their army service begins in the fall. What better way to finish learning how to be a good teacher, right? There were only some minor disturbances on the flight and the dread that was expressed by a few of the flight attendants before the plane took off was mostly unjustified, even though a second before we landed a universal squeal echoed around the cabin from the giddy kids anticipating the wheels hitting the tarmac. My wife and I had seatbelts to hold us down to our chairs, thankfully, so when all the teens screamed before the wheels touched down we couldn’t jump that far out of our seats from the surprise.

I’ve always been interested in a wide variety of subjects, which is probably a good reason to be a teacher, so I was amiss that I hadn’t heard of the island of Zakynthos before. I mean, the island was mentioned by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey, after all. Evidently, the island’s first inhabitants were Arcadians led by the son of King Dardanos whose name was Zakynthos, and named his island thus. The island is close to another larger island called Kefalonia, which, being originally from California, we kept calling it that, much to the locals’ endless consternation. The island’s history includes a significant number of the nobles among the suitors of Penelope trying to shack up with her while King Odysseus was away, as well as participation in the Trojan War, and even some scant dealings with Spartans. Suffice it to say that the Greek island has had some press over the years.

All I hear about Greece these days is the debt crisis, which I’ll reconstruct here briefly to satisfy my own curiosity on the subject. It started in 2008 during the global recession. Greece had borrowed more money than it could make by taxing its citizens, or at least be successful collecting. In 2010 Greece was barred from bond markets for having a deficit in the stratosphere, and bailouts began via emergency loans sporting austerity measures to curtail government spending. Today most Greeks believe that the loans harmed the country, with unemployment skyrocketing, obnoxiously high taxes, existing salaries and pensions getting gouged and slashed, and the current overall economy being 25% smaller than when the debt crisis began back in 2008. But, there is hope. Even though in May of 2017 the unemployment rate for youth reached 46 percent, the economy is supposedly stable now and growing slowly. During our trip, when asking Greeks about the problem, many just said that they were lazy. At one store we wondered into the guy helping us get a sim-card for a phone to use told us that he had been a computer science major in Athens, but suffered financial distress and had to come to the island to work at the phone store. His opinion on the subject was that, “Greeks work really hard trying to find ways not to work hard.”

So, after we landed in Zakynthos, luckily found a car to rent, and drove off into the night with some poor directions that I printed from Google Maps the day before in order to find our hotel, we got totally lost. We drove in circles, passing the same places multiple times, but we finally got some directions from a local pub owner that included using Google Maps without internet (welcome to the Millennial Generation). My wife thanked her travel angels anyways as we pulled into the hotel’s dirt parking lot. Then the hotel owner greeted us congenially and proceeded to tell us his life’s (sob) story. It was filled with a lost business in Athens, a huge mortgage on the hotel, a wife to steer clear of during our stay due to mental illness, and a retirement age up into the ripe 80s or 90s. I liked the guy, though, and if you’re okay with strange behaviors and the unknown, I’d recommend the place. He even showed us a secret, local well to refill our water-bottles, since there’s no way to get rid of garbage on the island; and it’s a sanctuary for sea-turtles who suffer regularly from illegal dumping and littering, a problem that I’ve witnessed in multiple places firsthand (including Israel), a problem that negatively affects the entire globe.

Zakynthos is a beautiful place with blue caves and grottos big enough to drive a boat into, which they did at every opportunity. In Israel we have a very similar place in the north that can be visited called Rosh Hanikra. It has the same calcite-white rock faces jutting into crystal blue waters with sunlight reflecting off it all. In Zakynthos, however, there are hundreds of people motoring about trying to catch the light with their cameras and phones to show-off back home. We did do some of the regular tourist things on the island, and enjoyed a few private beaches as well, but the day we stumbled into a tourist shop to get out of the heat for a spell was the biggest find of all.

The owner of the shop was sweating profusely behind the counter. It was a typical tourist trinket shop, and I found a new hat there that I’m very fond of. But, the real story happened when the shop owner asked where we were from, assuming I’m sure, that we would be from America. When we said Israel instead, his eyes lit up and he told us an amazing story about the island’s Jews and the Nazis, who had been unsuccessful in shipping the Jews back to death-camps for extermination on the mainland. He told us that the German commander demanded that the mayor of the town, Loukas Karrer, give him a list of all the Jews on the island, including addresses, professions, and economic status, and if he failed to do so by the next day he would be killed.

Mayor Karrer then discussed the matter with the local Greek Orthodox Bishop, Dimitrios Chrysostomos, and they decided to burn all the records of the Jews that they had and sent the island’s Jews into hiding into the mountains with locals. Bishop Chrysostomos, who was fluent in German, told the Nazi commander that all the Jews had already left the island because of the war and bombings. But still, the list was requested over and over. After repeated refusals to hand over a list, Chrysostomos finally gave over a list with only two members of the community on it, himself and Mayor Karrer. They saved all 275 Jewish souls, and in 1978 both men were recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous among the Nations, an honor given to non-Jews who, at great personal peril, saved Jews during the Holocaust. After the war, in 1953, an earthquake destroyed one of the town’s historic synagogues and the entire Jewish quarter, prompting the remaining Jews of Zakynthos to either move to Athens or to immigrate to Israel.

Abandoned Jewish Cemetery on Zakynthos Island

On the flight home all the kids finishing off their party-time on the island were quite obnoxious, yelling back and forth, kicking the backs of seats, and not afraid to challenge anyone that questioned it. It reminded me of a couple of times practice teaching last year, when I just completely lost control of the class I was trying to teach. Starting next week I’ll be teaching English as a foreign language to 9th and 10th graders at a local middle and high school, hopefully in order to inspire the generation of tomorrow to continue building our world with even greater deeds. I guess that, in order to be a good teacher, I need to delude myself to some extent just to find meaning in the world – I know it sounds inside-out, but as far as I can tell, this is the only possible reason we’re even here in the first place, to temper our egos with belief, or to forget what we think we know just so we can learn it again. And with that, I’ll leave you with this:

If ignorance + freedom = chaos, ignorance + power = tyranny, ignorance + poverty = crime, ignorance + religion = terrorism, and ignorance + money = corruption, then ignorance must be the root of all evil, so that means that education must be the key to an enlightened future!

Wish me success, and shavua tov, everyone!!

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