Trezoros – The Lost Jews of Kastoria
Kastoria, a picturesque small town in northern Greece, situated between mountains and lakes, was home to a vibrant Sephardic Jewish community who lived in peace and harmony with its Christian neighbors for hundreds of years, even during the occupation of the area by Italy in World War II.
Seattle local, Leah Watts, shared the fascinating story of her mother, Nina Elias, and her family who originated in Kastoria. Nina’s family fled back to Kastoria from Yugoslavia in hopes of surviving the war, but the Nazis' entrance in 1944 sealed their fate. Only a few months before the liberation of Kastoria by Greek guerrilla units and the end of the war, the entire Jewish community of about 1000 people, was transported to Auschwitz, along with Italian families who helped them. 14-year-old Nina, her mother Mila and the cousins Lena and Beni, were among the only survivors.
At the end of the war, Lena and Beni chose to emigrate to America, while Nina and her mother immigrated to Israel. Despite the geographical distance, the families maintained close ties. About 20 years ago, Larry, Lena's son, began to document the family story.
Like many Holocaust survivors, both Nina and Lena refused to talk about their experiences for many years. Grandmother Mila was a different story. She never stopped mourning her family members who died and even served as a witness in the Eichmann trial. "It was a very difficult time," says Leah, who remembers the trial as a child. Only in the 1970s, when the attitude toward Holocaust survivors in Israel changed and Nina was invited to Holocaust memorial ceremonies in the schools, she opened and began to share. Lena, on the other hand, refused to talk about the painful memories. Surprisingly, it was Lena who urged Larry to finish his film and publish the family story.
With the help of another cousin, also named Larry, the family project was finally completed as a private, independent production. In 2014, during a visit to Israel for a family wedding, Larry presented the film to the family. "Tzuk Eitan (Operation Strong Cliff) began, a war was going on, and we watched the film on a laptop, it was very emotional for everyone," says Leah.
Since then, the film took on a life of its own, it has been shown at various festivals around the world, including Cannes, New York, Los Angeles, Australia and more.
With each screening, the film changes slightly according to the requirements of the various festivals. A special PBS version will also be released soon. Lena, well into her 90’s, attended most of the screening and participated in the post movie discussion. Last summer, at the age of 95, Lena passed away and her elegant character will be greatly missed. Unfortunately, Beni did not live to see the completion of the movie. He past away in 2010 at the age 82.
Leah's mother, Nina, managed to see the film at the private laptop screening. She added her explanations to the places and events, just like when she explained everything to the Polish guide who accompanied the family, in their visit to Auschwitz. Other visitors were fascinated by her first-hand stories and she was also honored by the IDF delegation that was visiting the site.
"During the visit to Auschwitz, we held a private family memorial,” tells Leah,
“We stood under umbrellas in the pouring rain and read the names of the family members who perished, their age, their hobbies, their favorite subject at school, so that their memory will always live with us. When we finished the ceremony, my mother said triumphantly:" You see Hitler, not only did I come back here, but I also brought my children and my grandchildren!"- that was her victory.”
The film ‘Trezoros’ (treasures in Ladino) tells the story of the Elias family and the story of the lost treasures – the Jews of Kastoria. The Holocaust of the Kastorian Jewish community was also the fate of many other communities of Sephardic Jewry in the Balkans and North Africa, whose stories have been told only in recent years.
In Seattle, Leah Watts, hugs little granddaughter Mila, named after the resourceful grandmother, who secretly made cabbage soup at Auschwitz and stole boots to save her niece, and remembers.
Trezoros will be featured in the Seattle Jewish Film Festival on March 11th, 2018. Be sure to stay for the discussion after the screening.