As a bit of woman in Ioannina, a metropolis in northwestern Greece, Zanet Battinou recollects her grandmother talking in hushed tones of the outstanding 19th-century Jewish patriarch, Davidson Effendi Levis. “My grandmother was one of the older women of Ioannina to survive the war, so she remembered him,” stated Battinou, now director of the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens, the place we have been seated on a current morning. Their two households, like many in Ioannina, have been Romaniote Jews, neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic, however descended from Hellenic communities established round the third century BCE. “He was an important man,” Battinou remembers her grandmother telling her, “the head of a big family of notables and philanthropists.”
A photographic portrait of the fez-wearing banker and businessman—one of solely 4 Jews elected to the short-lived Ottoman parliament of 1877—was hanging close by, alongside a household tree displaying his and his spouse Hannoula’s many descendants. Pinned to the photograph have been household heirlooms, medals its topic had earned for his service, not solely to the Ottoman Empire, but in addition to Greece, France, and Austria-Hungary.
But it was not Davidson Effendi’s many accomplishments, however moderately, a pastime pursued by his son Nissim, that had introduced us to the museum that day. Born in 1875, the fifth of six youngsters, Nissim Levis was educated in Switzerland and educated as a physician in Montpellier and Paris earlier than returning round 1904 to Ioannina to follow, opening an workplace the place he typically handled sufferers at no cost. A good-looking, mustachioed sophisticate, he was passionately concerned about new applied sciences; his spare time activities included images and vehicle racing. He was affiliated with numerous ladies and loved the companionship of a minimum of one shut, long-term male pal, however he by no means married and left no descendants.
What he left as an alternative—earlier than Nazi occupiers murdered 92 % of Ioannina’s Jewish inhabitants, together with Nissim, then age 69, and different Levis relations—have been over 550 pair of glass negatives, the fruit of his ardour for and talent with stereoscopic images. He took footage each at residence and through his research overseas and travels to France, Italy, and Switzerland, to the Ottoman capital of Istanbul (then referred to as Constantinople) and to Izmir.
Nissim Levis’ stereoscopic digital camera. (Courtesy Jewish Museum of Greece)
Through the Lens of Nissim Levis: A Household, an Period, a multimedia presentation closing right now after a yr run at the Jewish Museum of Greece, showcased this exceptional physique of work. Amongst Nissim’s earliest pictures are footage of fin de siècle medical intern life and excessive jinks in Paris, however laced (like the novels of French Sephardic writer Albert Cohen, a Levis household good friend) with a sure “Oriental” aptitude. He exhibits himself dressed up as a pasha, for instance, for the interns’ annual masked ball, reclining on embroidered silk cushions introduced from Ioannina. He pictures youngsters—together with one kaffiyeh-clad boy—crusing toy boats in the Luxembourg Gardens, or his associates enjoying whist and studying newspapers at the elegant Café Soufflot, a well-liked Left Financial institution hangout for expatriates, together with members of the Younger Turks motion. Different footage—of top-hatted, fan-wielding crowds watching the races at Longchamp or returning by way of horse-drawn carriage from the Bastille Day parade on the Champs Elysées—mirror a fascination with velocity and movement, reminiscent of his near-contemporary Jacques-Henri Lartigue.
However life at house beneath the Ottoman Empire additionally captured his consideration. Again in Ioannina, he data outings on Lake Pamvotida to hunt waterfowl and promenades en famille (the ladies bearing parasols, the little boys in sailor fits) on the picturesque, deserted island at the lake’s middle. A faithful uncle, he notes with delight the engagements of his nieces, good-looking younger ladies displaying their copious dowries, and their weddings, when visitors pack the city’s important road, which runs between the two Levis household mansions, so far as the eye can see. And he portrays their rising households.
Ottoman rule in Ioannina ended with the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Amongst Nissim’s many pictures of historic occasions is the image he shot from a excessive clock tower of the victorious Greek cavalry getting into the metropolis, and the crowds awaiting them.
After that, the Levis household males cease sporting the Ottoman fez; many adopting straw boaters as an alternative. The youthful ladies progressively commerce their mutton-sleeve robes and feathered hats for drop-waist sheaths and cloches. The arduous journey from Ioannina to Western Europe—by horse or mule by way of the tough Epirus mountains, then by boat and practice—turns into (for the fortunate few to make the journey) a bit simpler, although vehicle mishaps are nonetheless widespread. The lads of Nissim’s era, together with his brother Maurice, an inventor whom he visits repeatedly in Marseilles and Paris, tackle weight and gravitas. There’s Alpine mountaineering and cavorting amid the ruins of the Acropolis together with his grandnieces, and the occasional household sojourn at a French Grand Hôtel.
However nothing modifications all that a lot, in the footage at the least. Nothing appears to perturb the sense of optimism and belonging, the solidly bourgeois religion in progress, that many years earlier had led Nissim, as a younger medical intern, to breathlessly chronicle the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The fairy-tale-like turrets and spires of its Palace of Electrical energy, its shifting sidewalk, its unique worldwide pavilions lining the Seine, all seem to vow a cosmopolitan future of limitless horizons.
The photographs develop into extra uncommon round 1930. Photographic supplies, which Nissim had imported (probably from France) turned more durable to acquire. Cash was scarcer, borders have been tightening; the distant rumblings of warfare would quickly be audible.
And we all know how this story will finish. The Nissim Levis Panorama: 1898-1944—a catalog compiled by Alexander Moissis, whose great-grandmother was one of Nissim’s beloved nieces—ends with a photograph dated March 25, 1944. It exhibits males, ladies, and youngsters, bearing bundles and boarding a truck parked simply down the road from the Levis household houses. Nissim Levis didn’t take the image; he was amongst the Jews deported that morning. He and his relations have been taken by truck to Larissa and loaded onto a practice; a couple of days later those that survived the journey have been murdered at Auschwitz.
Ioannina, Greece, March 25, 1944, close to Mavili Sq., lower than 200 meters from the Levis’ household residence. This photograph was not taken by Nissim D. Levis. He was deported that morning, at age 69, alongside together with his sister-in-law Rifka, his nieces Annetta and Nelly, and his nephew Nissim M. Rifka, who died on the practice to Auschwitz; the others have been executed upon arrival there. Nissim’s brother Maurice was taken from his house close to the Eiffel Tower in Paris throughout the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of July 16, 1942, and after a quick cease in a transit camp at Drancy, was additionally executed at Auschwitz. Might their reminiscence be a blessing. (Kapon Editions)
The catalog, with an introduction by Columbia College historian Mark Mazower, additionally tells the story of the pictures’ rediscovery, as soon as the world they depicted had vanished for good. After the conflict, Nissim’s grandniece, Hiette (who had escaped deportation by hiding out in Athens) returned together with her husband to Ioannina, to seek out the household houses looted and burnt. Nothing of their previous life, it appeared, had escaped the conflict’s devastation. However strolling again to their lodge, they came across a younger boy, a road vendor promoting “Views of the panorama!” for one drachma. Approaching him, they acknowledged their uncle Nissim’s stereoscopic viewfinder and his glass negatives. They purchased the lot and commenced the decades-long hunt, right here and there and in the flea markets of Athens, to gather as many of Nissim’s pictures as attainable.
In Athens, the tiny Romaniote synagogue, referred to as The Tree of Life (Etz Haim)—tucked away behind a courtyard the place a centuries-old palm tree towers—is now solely open for Excessive Vacation providers and particular events. Its congregants, many of them aged, collect on Saturdays throughout the road at the metropolis’s principal synagogue, Beit Shalom.
Unannounced, my household joined them there for the shut of Shabbat one Saturday night. My teenage son was given an aliyah, and after providers we sat with the congregants, a handful of aged males, a married couple (Israeli vacationers), and the younger chief rabbi of Athens, Gabriel Negrin, who shares my paternal grandmother’s maiden identify. In truth, I discovered whereas scripting this story that my grandmother, who died lengthy earlier than I used to be born and whom I had all the time assumed was Sephardic, was, in reality, a Romaniote Jew from Thessaloniki. (She had married into my grandfather’s giant Sephardic household.) So the previous yields its secrets and techniques slowly, if in any respect—a puzzle whose outlines we understand however dimly.
For Greek Jews, Thessaloniki is, to an excellent extent, a lacking piece of the puzzle. There, the dying toll for the Jewish group throughout the struggle was even greater than in Ioannina—over 96 %—and the Nazi looting of Jewish artifacts was much more in depth. “There were 16 synagogues in Thessaloniki, there were religious schools, rabbinical schools, homes, libraries,” Zanet Battinou defined, “but despite all that, there is very little from Thessaloniki in our collection.” The museum has been vigilant, however little has turned up. “I think all those looted items are together somewhere,” Battinou stated ruefully, “though that somewhere could be at the bottom of a lake.”
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