January 21, 2019

Director pieces together personal story of Greece’s ‘lost Jews’

In northwest Greece near the Albanian border, the postcard-pretty town of Kastoria sits on a peninsula surrounded by a lake. For more than 2,000 years, a thriving Jewish population lived harmoniously there with its Christian neighbors. 

Kastoria was home to 300 Sephardic families before the Axis occupied Greece and ultimately murdered most of the town’s Jews. Today, there is only one family, descended from one of the 35 survivors who returned after World War II. The rest subsequently moved to Israel and the United States, including 94-year-old Lena Russo, whose son Lawrence tells her story in his documentary “Trezoros: The Lost Jews of Kastoria.”

The film — its title is the Ladino word for “treasures” — portrays the idyllic life Jews enjoyed in pre-war Kastoria in stark contrast to their harrowing experiences during the Holocaust. It uses archival footage, home movies, photos and interviews with survivors, including Lena, her late brother Ben and non-Jewish neighbors and friends. 

The documentary reveals a little-known side of Jewish history, said Russo, a co-founder of the independent studio the Shooting Gallery (“Sling Blade,” “Laws of Gravity”) and producer of PBS’ short film showcase “ShortCuts,” hosted by Louis C.K. 

“Most of the people from the town said when they were growing up there as children, it was paradise,” he said. That’s why, for the first half of the film, at least, he “didn’t want to focus on the negative. I wanted it to be personal and a little sweeter.” Russo said he wanted to show more of what the life and culture was like so when you found out what happened to the community, “it would have a greater impact.”

When he was growing up, Russo’s parents and uncle rarely talked about what happened to them during the war. “They didn’t want it to affect our lives, with negative stories,” he said. But that changed in 1993, when “Schindler’s List” came out and more survivors began sharing their experiences, “and they started opening up a little bit.” 

In March 1944, the Nazis rounded up and deported the Kastorian Jews, including the Russo family, to an Auschwitz transit camp. Lena and Ben endured seven months of forced labor at Auschwitz and, as the Allies approached, a death march to the German camps Mauthausen and Bergen-Belsen. 

Liberated by the British and Americans, the siblings were among a small group of Greek-Jewish survivors. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial
Museum figures, there were 72,000 Jews in Greece before the Axis occupation, and nearly 60,000 died. 

In 1996, a monument was dedicated in Kastoria to commemorate the nearly 1,000 lives lost there during the Holocaust. Russo accompanied his parents and relatives to the ceremony, taking the opportunity to get some footage and interviews on film. “I realized it was a really good story and I decided at that point, I had to make a documentary about it,” he said. “It took 20 years. A lot of things happened in the meantime.”

That included a difference of opinion about the film’s creative direction with his first producer, who “wanted it to be more of a textbook documentary with facts and figures, but it didn’t have the emotion,” Russo said. “I wanted something that was going to grab people. It took a while to find somebody else to help me.”

Larry Confino, a relative on his mother’s side whose grandparents were from Kastoria, became Russo’s co-director and producing partner. From their base in New York, they traveled to Israel, Florida, Los Angeles and Greece over a three-year period to conduct interviews. Several of their subjects have since died, including Russo’s uncle Ben, who passed away in 2010.

The documentarians were lucky enough to obtain black-and-white home movies taken in the early 1930s by Sam Elias, a Kastorian who previously had moved to the United States but visited his relatives and documented family gatherings in Greece. The footage “was in very bad shape. We had to restore it — a long process — but we managed to save 80 percent of it,” Russo said.

Another set of home movies proved more elusive. Russo had tried for years to contact a distant relative who reportedly had the movies. After the man died in 2011, his daughter allowed the directors to search for the film. “It was right there in a closet,” Russo said.

Ultimately, the most challenging aspect of making the film was maintaining an objective perspective while telling such a personal story. “It was very difficult, more on an emotional level, because I grew up knowing the history,” Russo said. “I was supposed to edit the film, and when it came time to edit the footage of my uncle Ben, who had passed away, I couldn’t do it. I’d break down crying. So I handed it over to someone else.”

The tears continue to flow every time he watches “Trezoros” with his widowed mother. (His father, Maurice, died in 1988.) “She saw it three times so far,” he said. “We can’t watch it without crying.”

Now that the documentary is beginning its theatrical run, Russo, 53, is ready to make “something more lighthearted.” He is trying to choose, he said, “between a science fiction piece and a comedy, nothing to do with the Holocaust. After 20 years of dealing with this and the emotions that come along with it, I need to move on.”

But Russo is gratified that the film keeps the memory of Jewish Kastoria alive. “There were Jews all over Greece, in Athens, Salonika and smaller towns like Kastoria,” he said. “Jews were there from the Roman times before Christ. And in one week, they were gone.”

“Trezoros: The Lost Jews of Kastoria” opens Nov. 25 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills.