Thinking of my European heritage as we face U.S. elections

By Maria Saporta

As I write this column, on the day before the presidential election, it is without knowing who will be leading our country for the next four years.

A comment I often heard during this election season, often with humor was: “If (fill in the blank) is elected president, I’m leaving the country.”

It just so happens that I’m trying to become a Spanish citizen – a move that speaks more to my heritage than my political beliefs. As someone who was born in the United States, I would never want to give up my American citizenship.

But if I have an opportunity to become a dual citizen, it would feel like I would be able to enjoy the best of two worlds.

Ike and Nora Saporta

A photo of my parents – Ike and Nora Saporta – at an event when my mother was being honored by the French government (Photo by Claude Wegscheider)

My sister, Elena, and I are both seeking to become Spanish citizens. Recently the Spanish government invited Sephardic Jews, who can trace their heritage back to Spain, to apply for citizenship.

My mother’s family and my father’s father were Sephardic Jews who were kicked out of Spain in 1492 and who ended up living in Thessaloniki, Greece for nearly 500 years. (My father’s mother was a Greek Jew from the town of Ioannina in western Greece).

My parents lived in Europe until after World War II after being captured by the Germans in 1944. My father escaped, but my mother and her family were transported in freight rail cars to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where they lived for a year in captivity.

Just this weekend, Atlanta celebrated “The Best of the NYC Greek Film Festival” at the Atlanta History Center.

The film that received the top audience award was: “Cloudy Sunday,” a movie set in German-occupied Thessaloniki in 1943, in a club owned by a famed bouzouki composer and musician Vassilis Tsitsanis. The club became a refuge for a young Christian man in love with a Jewish woman.

The movie, directed by Manoussos Manoussakis, depicts Thessaloniki under German rule. Some of the more fearful Jews in the movie talk about fleeing to Athens, which is under a somewhat kinder Italian occupation.

Although the characters in the movie do not leave Thessaloniki, my parents and my mother’s parents did move to Athens early in 1943. My parents married in Athens on March 10, 1943, living in hiding for a year.

On their one-year anniversary, my parent were found and were brought in for questioning by the Germans, who had taken over the occupation of Athens. A few days later, my parents and grandparents were then rounded up and putting in a holding area from which my father escaped, joining the Greek resistance.

Thessaloniki

A photo of the paralia – the walk along the Mediterranean Sea – in the heart of Thessaloniki, Greece – where there was a large community of Sephardic Jews (Wikipedia)

I’ve always wanted to write the story of my late parents’ experiences during World War II, but given my crazy work schedule, I’ve never been able to carve enough time to write the book.

But seeing a movie like “Cloudy Sunday” does inspire me to not give up on the idea of writing a book about my parents’ tumultuous relationship during World War II – one that I’ve always imagined being turned into a movie.

To write the book the way I would like to, I’m estimating it would take months of research – retracing the places in Europe where my parents were before, during and after the war.

So becoming a Spanish citizen – and being able to travel, live and work in the European Union – would make that an easier task (provided I can pass the mandatory Spanish language and the civic tests).

But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

As someone who spent many summers with my grandparents in Thessaloniki and with relatives in Paris, I have always felt that I have lived on two continents – experiencing multiple cultures and languages.

My deep appreciation for my Sephardic heritage and roots in Spain, my ties to Greece and my connections to France only continues to grow as I get older.

james demetro maria sharp

James DeMetro, director of the New York City Greek Film Festival, stands with Maria Sharp, one of the organizers of the Atlanta showing (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Becoming dual citizens would help me and my sister fulfill our parents’ wishes – to become multi-dimensional citizens of the world.

Before the showing of “Cloudy Sunday,” James DeMetro, director of the New York City Greek Film Festival, read a passage from the Manoussakis, the director of the movie.

“The simple love story in this film unfortunately reflects today’s reality, where racism and neo-Nazism lie in wait eager to infect the global community,” Manoussakis said about his movie. “My aim was to provide a reminder of the atrocities committed during WWII for those who are unaware and for those who have chosen to forget.”

Those are words to hold close to our hearts as we face the election of our next president and other political representatives.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

There are 11 comments What are your thoughts?

What are your thoughts?