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Joseph Eliyia, the Jewish Messiah of Greek Poetry

How two fundamental pillars of Western thought—classical Greek rationalism and monotheistic Jewish faith—collided in a remote area of the archipelago to produce a short-lived but influential communist

Matt Alexander Hanson
March 25, 2019
Anatolia Press, New York, 1944, first edition
Portrait of Joseph Eliyia, illustration by Dr. Johan A. Van Zuylan, from the collection 'Poems,' translated from the Greek into English by Rae Dalven and published in memoriam by the Greek Jews of New YorkAnatolia Press, New York, 1944, first edition
Anatolia Press, New York, 1944, first edition
Portrait of Joseph Eliyia, illustration by Dr. Johan A. Van Zuylan, from the collection 'Poems,' translated from the Greek into English by Rae Dalven and published in memoriam by the Greek Jews of New YorkAnatolia Press, New York, 1944, first edition

March 25 is Greek Independence Day, but it is also the day when, in 1944, Nazis destroyed the heart of Romaniote Jewry in Ioannina. To many in Greece and around the world, the early-20th-century poet Joseph Eliyia remains the preeminent syncretist of 2,300 years of Greek-Jewish thought, encompassing the founding Western traditions of reason and faith, which he achieved in three troubled decades. He died at 29, 87 years ago.

His legacy is upheld by Eleni Kourmantzi, professor of modern Greek literature at the University of Ioannina, in the poet’s birthplace, and by another leftist Jewish writer with Ioannina roots, the communist politician Savas Michael-Matsas. Coincidentally, 87 also represents the percentage of Jews who perished in Greece during the Holocaust, the highest of any country officially occupied by the Nazis ahead of Poland’s 84 percent, the unspeakable 3 million lost, according to the Greek-Jewish scholar Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos.

On July 29, 1931, 18 months before Hitler rose to power, Eliyia breathed his last in Athens after being rushed to the Evangelic Hospital. The jarring train ride to the capital worsened his suffering all the way from the village of Kilkis near Thessaloniki in the northeastern region of Central Macedonia, where he had contracted intestinal typhoid by consuming polluted water. The story relayed by his mother is that he fell mortally ill because his employer refused to allow him sick leave.

Heracles Apostolides, one of Eliyia’s friends from the literary taverns of Athens—a communist, the first mayor of Ioannina, and a notable journalist who would direct Greece’s National Library from 1945 to 1959—said that his friend’s death was a kind of suicide, prefigured in his poem “Kilkis.” Eliyia wrote the poem in honor of his friend, the poet Kostas Karyotakis, who shot himself through the heart in 1928. The late NYU professor and Romaniote scholar Rae Dalven, renowned for her complete collection of Cavafy, translated the final lines of the three-stanza poem:

Somewhere Life overflows unshielded, unrestrained,
In the light of the east,
And you, poor one,
With idle-weary soul, live in Kilkis!

It is clear that Eliyia spent his final year in abject misery, the only Jew in a conservative village where his superior, the school principal, asked him to change his name and deny his Jewish identity. The poet had to swear on the New Testament before assuming his last post, but he did not mind. He had long defended the teachings of Jesus on interfaith grounds. He had many Christian friends while the Jewish Orthodoxy in his native Ioannina repeatedly ostracized him throughout his young, brief life. His nationalist sympathies for world Jewry as a prewar Zionist praising the Balfour Declaration, and later as anti-Zionist aligned to revolutionary Hebrew poets, twice led to his expulsion from the Alliance Israelite Universelle, first as a student, later as a teacher.

Eliyia’s status as a persona non grata eventually led to his self-imposed exile from Ioannina. It began when his students left him without greatly-needed fees. He then lived as he always would, desperately poor. After writing an article criticizing his antagonist, the Procurer of the Republic, he endured a month-long incarceration in his beloved hometown, during which time he wrote one of his more incendiary poems, “Behind Bars.” Its last two stanzas have all of the airs of full-blooded Marxism, with his peculiar twist of biblical insight:

Heavily, heavily, your chains clank on my flesh,
Bitter bondage, blood-sucking serfdom,
And I long for freedom, for wide horizons,
But alas! The prison forts are triply walled.

Black tyrant, savage murder, still you do not conquer me,
And my soul does not bow with humility,
I beg not for freedom, I beg not for grace,
At the door, O Cain, drips your crime!

Rae Dalven translated the poem from his outmoded, literary demotic in her illustrated, bilingual Greek-English collection, Poems by Joseph Eliyia, published by Anatolia Press in 1944, and she signed a first edition to Duke Ellington, inscribed in remembrance of the awards dinner given by the American Marxist magazine The New Masses. Archives at the National Museum of American History show that Ellington went to an awards dinner for The New Masses in 1946. And it was in January of that year when New Masses published “My Cousin Malkah,” by the Yiddish-speaking Communist Party pamphleteer Abraham B. Magil.

Returning to themes shared by Eliyia and Michael-Matsas, Magil chronicled the divide between Zionism and the left at the cusp of WWII’s paradigm shift, and its lingering aftermath. “The war is over, but peace is a Sabbath guest who has failed to arrive,” he wrote for the Jan. 8, 1946 issue under Howard Fast’s cover story “The Gray Ship,” lamenting his brethren murdered by the Nazis, and the terrors of life for Jews in British Mandate Palestine.

Inside the anti-conformist Bar Locomotiva, a cooperative beer cafe, alternative bookstore, and indie music haunt in the anarchist Athenian neighborhood of Exarcheia, a very warm and conversational Savas Michael-Matsas bent low and shook his head while reflecting on the untimely passing of his beloved friend and leftist comrade, Eliyia. Under his thick glasses, and his signature long, white hair that curled out from both sides of his coarsely woven Greek-style boater hat, Michael-Matsas recalled the sting of multigenerational oppression that he has confronted boldly and loudly in public throughout his long and colorful life as a Trotskyist philosopher, literary theorist, and leader of the Worker’s Revolutionary Party, in active solidarity with his Greek Jewish kin.

“We have state anti-Semitism in this country, parastate and paramilitary groups including the Nazis. In Ioannina, which was also the home of my family, Joseph Eliyia Street is dedicated to the very talented, young Greek poet, who was a real wise man. He unfortunately died because this bastard, the director of the school in Kilkis did not give him leave,” explained Michael-Matsas in his gruff, burly voice, thickly accented in classic Greek style. “He was a multifaceted personality. He was one of the few to exist in this very anti-Semitic and anti-communist country called Greece, where to have both qualities, Jewish and communist, is hell.”

Eliyia is much better known today than in the past chiefly due to Eleni Kourmantzi and the scholarship that she produced. She has been lecturing and publishing on his life’s work for 15 years. Michael-Matsas respects her as a good friend and left-wing colleague, although he is not shy to chuckle that she stands more to the right. Most importantly, he recognizes her as the first to appreciate Eliyia within the academy, despite his also working as a teacher in postgraduate cultural studies at the University of Athens.

“At first I was studying Dimitris Hadjis and his book, The End of Our Little Town,” Kourmantzi recalled during a conversation at Ioannina’s lakeside Skala Café. “In 1992, we wanted to have an international congress about Dimitris Hadjis at the University of Ioannina. I learned of two persons, Sabbetai Kabili, a conservative person from the prewar Jewish community, and Josef Eliyia. I knew only the name, and the street.”

After the conference, she went for a stroll nearby where Eliyia was raised, and felt the undying chill of Nazi occupation. “Eliyia was so lovely, because he was against the system,” she said. “He’s one of the first communists in our city. In 1999, I wanted to teach the poems of Josef Eliyia, not only the known poems. I have a good working history of the Jewish community. In literature, only Josef Eliyia was important. After Josef Eliyia, there is Savas Michael-Matsas nowadays.”

Michael-Matsas’ mother was among the communist partisan guerrillas hiding out in the embattled mountains of Epirus. There, she became one of the Righteous Among the Nations by saving her future husband, a Jewish doctor born in Ioannina, during the Holocaust. They bore a son on the Sabbath, naming him after the holiest day of the week, which in Greek is pronounced Savas, a name that was also given to the brother of his grandfather, who was executed in Ioannina the day of the Nazi deportations, March 25, 1944. He was hanged for not giving the Germans the keys to the bank where he worked, and he died singing the Greek national anthem as it was the day commemorating independence from the Turks, which had been intentionally planned to coincide with the roundup of local Jews beginning at 2:00 a.m, until morning. That he received his name from his father’s father is traditional to the Greek-speaking Romaniote Jews.

When prompted to identify Greek Jewry, Savas Michael-Matsas quotes Ulysses: ‘Jewgreek is greekjew.’

With a sharp wit, Michael-Matsas recounted his origin story over a few slow drafts of water as he traced the genesis of his political and cultural identities directly to his mixed parentage. “I am the second son in the family,” he explained. “My maternal grandmother was a Russian from Odessa. I also have a grandmother from Alexandria, Egypt. That was the Ottoman Empire. Everyone loved my uncle. I took his name, and my Russian grandfather from Odessa was Michael. All of my Matsas family members were from Ioannina. They are Romaniotes, so contact with Eliyia was from the beginning. I mean he was a myth, a legend for the Romaniotes,” said Michael-Matsas. “The contact with Eliyia was nearly physical, because my father was very close friends with Gavrilidis the father of the publisher [of Gavrilidis Editions] and bookseller [at Poems & Crimes Art Bar]. They were a communist family of Romaniotes from Ioannina. When Eliyia died, he left his mother poor, hopeless, alone. Gavrilidis’ father took her home in Athens, into a working class area.”

One of Michael-Matsas’ father’s many cousins was Joseph Matsas, a partisan Holocaust survivor and author of Greek Jewish Songs, a booklet published in 1953 to preserve the nearly extinct Judeo-Greek dialect, which The Forward recently called “moribund.” It also anthologizes the ancient literary tradition of the Jews of Ioannina, a seminal document by which readers appreciate the voice of Europe’s oldest Jewish diaspora. Matsas’ daughter Allegra is the secretary of the Jewish Community of Ioannina, which is based in a modest office on Joseph Eliyia Street and is led by president Moses Elisaf, a professor of internal medicine. She grew up praying with her family of survivors in the unnatural emptiness of the Old Synagogue. It holds one service a year during Yom Kippur, largely for multigenerational pilgrims in a community numbering some 35 mostly elderly members.

“I grew up here. We are so few, and we are doing everything,” said Allegra, while giving me a personal tour of the Old Synagogue inside Ioannina’s castle district. “We are waiting for the death, the end of the community, unfortunately. As I know several languages, and especially Hebrew, I can explain. Here, during the month of March, 75 years ago, 96 percent of the Jewish community was exterminated.” She added that the synagogue is the biggest and the oldest in all of the Balkans, here since the eighth century. “It appears on maps in the 14th century, but in this shape it was built in 1826. The bishop and mayor asked the Germans to use it as a library, so it was not destroyed. We have a lot heritage, a lot of customs, a lot of history. We are preserving this by creating a museum here in the synagogue. We have the art of poetry, for example, Josef Eliyia, and my father.”

The intellectual legacies of Michael-Matsas and Eliyia are linked in many ways. According to Michael-Matsas, Eliyia launched the Communist Party in Ioannina by organizing its first local cell with Jewish workers. The vanguard of Greek communists were Jews, and not only in Ioannina. One of the key founders of the Communist Party of Greece was Avraam Benaroya, a Sephardic Jew from Bulgaria who led the Ottoman Empire’s Socialist Workers’ Federation.

Despite the fact that Epirus was often the poorest region in Greece throughout its history, particularly in the early modern era, many foreign writers like the English poet William Plommer, author of the 1970 biography The Diamond of Jannina on the infamous Ali Pasha, noted it as the most important city in Greece, for the cultivation of its Hellenic schools, like the Zosimaia. The sky-blue and off-white neoclassical building where both Michael-Matsas and Eliyia gave public lectures still stands, built by a family of rich merchants. An attacker injured Eliyia here before his engagement in 1921, when he won overnight fame for his talk on “Biblical and Post-Biblical Poetry.” Michael-Matsas triggered tears and outrage when, in his speech dedicated to Eliyia, he critiqued the formation of Ioannina’s postwar bourgeoisie.

As a literary theorist, Michael-Matsas stands with Eliyia in his respect for the Bible as the first revolutionary book, followed by Marx’s Capital. He is now a Joyce scholar. One of his latest essays, titled “Nolandsland,” drew from the bottomless well of Finnegan’s Wake. When prompted to identify Greek Jewry he quotes Ulysses: “Jewgreek is greekjew.” His studies in semiotics are inspired by Mikhail Bakhtin, as when he recalls the Talmud’s Megillah tractate where Moses discusses what it means to be a Jew. In his words, Moses says that a Jew is anyone who rejects avodah zara, Hebrew for “exploitative work.” Michael-Matsas then concludes that all Jews are, finally, communists, and all communists Jews.

Beyond the identity politics of Judaism and communism, Eliyia best loved to be called a poet. “Eliyia belonged to no group and cannot be classified with any ideology,” wrote Dalven, in her biographical preface to his Poems.

That a poor poet born during the turn of the century in a small lakeside city obscured by alpine mountains on the edge of the dying Ottoman Empire would reinforce the two most fundamental pillars of Western thought, bridging classical Greek rationalism to monotheistic Jewish faith—and with peerless depth—is a stunning truth. That he did so in his 20s while establishing his chosen medium of demotic Greek as the national language, is for lack of a more profane word, near-messianic.

Nicholas Bakos and Isaak Dostis contributed research.

Matt Alexander Hanson is an arts and culture journalist based in Istanbul.