Interview: Anna Rezan, who brings to life little-known stories from Greece during the Holocaust
In her documentary film, “My People,” the young Greek Jewish actress-singer explores the World War II years in her country and her Jewish roots. She opens a window, not only into the post-war resilience of her Holocaust survivor interviewees, but also into the way church leaders and others helped thousands of Jews avoid deportation, and into the Greek resistance, her grandfather and grandmother having been among those who joined the partisans.
Her film, since its premiere in Las Angeles in 2022, has been lauded as powerful, inspirational, challenging, and eye-opening. It was nominated twice for Best Documentary in film festivals and won the Audience Award in New York. Greek journalist Dimitris Kannavos writes that “the film is a passionate love letter to Greece and its unknown historical events during WW2.”
Amid her successful acting career, Anna Rezan, 30, wrote, produced, directed, and narrated “My People.” Her narrating voice is lyrical and soothing, something that is, perhaps, strange to say given the subject matter. You can get a sense of the tone and scope of the 90-minute documentary in the trailer:
I interviewed Rezan by video chat from her home in New York City.
I understand you have an interesting family tree. Can you tell me something about that?
Given the fact that one part of my mother’s family comes from Spanish Jews and the other part from Poland, I felt that that makes me a co-production in general. My mother’s aunt was married to the rabbi. My father’s family [they are Christians] is from Smyrna [renamed Izmir in 1930]. All of this made me a very cosmopolitan citizen of the world.
My father’s family had suffered a lot. In 1922, they were expelled from Smyrna and had to come to Greece, and 20 years afterward faced the war. Those who survived the Nazis and those who survived the Turks created me.
How much was the Holocaust a topic of conversation as you were growing up?
My Jewish identity was nurtured in a safe space where I was able to learn and grow freely from a young age and I always knew I was the grandchild of survivors. Growing up, we knew about the Holocaust but nobody in the family would go into detail. My grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, didn’t want to discuss it with his daughters. He would say that his mom was taken to Auschwitz and that was it.
In school, also, it was mentioned, but not in depth. How much it was talked about depended on the individual teacher.
Growing up, I also knew about the insanity of the war that hurt Greece and Greeks in so many ways but the weight of this fact and the hardship of our ancestors didn’t really register with me until later in life.
What lay behind your making this documentary?
At the beginning of my international career, I would often get upset that people were not even aware that there were Jews in Greece. And I was always aware of the greatness of our presence and that Greece played an important role in the outcome of the war. One of the reasons I decided to make the film was to make these historical facts known globally – about Greek Jews and Greece’s contribution to winning the war.
I knew that my great-grandmother was murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenhau. I went there to learn more about how she died and that became the start of a seven-year journey into my own Greek and Jewish roots. Knowing my interviewees was a way of knowing my great-grandmother.
Was there a difference for you between the experiences of Greek Holocaust survivors and those from other European countries?
It was pretty much the same. Yet, you know, it was slightly different in Greece because during the Italian occupation in certain parts of Greece, as revealed in the movie, the Italians didn’t seek to exterminate Jewish people.
We also had the great partisan movement of EAM [the National Liberation Front], the guerrilla partisan movement that protected the Jews. And the only religious leader that protested the Nazis in an official capacity was Archbishop Damaskinos of the Greek Orthodox Church in Athens. Priests around the country were arrested for helping people –Jews, communists, gays, and political figures.
One particular story that was a high point in the documentary for me [Sheri Oz] was how the bishop and mayor on the island of Zakynthos when commanded by the Nazis to produce a list of the Jews living on the island, submitted two names: their own. Another was how the Athens police chief issued thousands of false identity papers to Jews, some of whom fled to safer places and some of whom, among them Rezan’s maternal grandfather, joined the resistance. Her paternal grandfather was in the Royal Navy. And there are more stories told by Rezan.
What made the documentary particularly impactful was the smooth flow between black-and-white archival images to accompany historical commentary and the contemporary video interviews with survivors who exuded vibrancy and strength.
Salonica was coined “Mother of Israel,” and was home to the largest Sephardic population in the world until the war; it suffered the greatest losses within Europe – out of about 50,000 Jews, only 1000 survived.
What was the most moving incident in the film for you?
It was a nonstop experience of moving moments, I felt: OMG, this is too much, this is incredible, and then something else would come up to top that experience.
It was shocking and at the same time inspiring, and I hoped it would be inspiring for the audience.
I don’t know if you noticed that I wanted this film to be something different — that at the end, you would feel empowered. The Nazis destroyed hundreds of millions of people – it’s on a much larger scale than what we generally look at. One person survives, such as Nina [one of her interviewees], and she loses 27 members of her family.
They were traumatized in such an absolute way – the losses are much much greater than just the 6 million we talk about. People lost their whole families and lived through inhuman insanity. And there were also all the people who fought with the allies in Greece, in France, and everywhere that was occupied – so we’re talking about hundreds of millions of people.
For me, the most inspiring element is not that these people survived, but basically the fact that they decided to have good lives after having experienced something like that.
Is there something you regret not having included in this movie?
I focused on certain communities, but there are also other communities, for example, Rhodes [an island] or Kastoria [in the north]. There wasn’t enough time to get into the details about every community. In the end, we interviewed six survivors with different experiences from various areas of Greece, so we were able to also capture to a large degree the experiences of those communities we couldn’t fit in.
At first, people were saying it was impossible to do such a movie. There were already movies about the Jews of Salonika and they were saying it is impossible to tell the whole story. I am one of the youngest people to ever tackle such a matter and I was determined to succeed. The whole team was.
What was the hardest part of the film for you to make?
It was very difficult to be constantly exposed to all sorts of torture and suffering and loss and I would burst into tears between one location and the next.
At one point, my health was not great. I suffered from anxiety and was coping with some depression. I remember my mother asked me what was going on; she thought it was a personal matter that was making me so sad. I told her that nothing was wrong, and when she answered, but you look so sad for the longest time, I suddenly realized it was the movie! It was shocking when we realized this because if it is depressing to make a movie about people who went through the Holocaust, the thought of actually living through it was overwhelming.
Did making this film change your relationship with Greece in any way?
Well, the film focuses, and sheds light, on a lot of unknown incidents of resistance and this was definitely one of the reasons I wanted to make this film; it is not widely known that Greece fought against the Nazis. The resistance was great and even though they were poorly equipped, they formed a partisan movement that functioned in addition to the Royal Greek Army and Navy. There were moments when my co-writer and I would feel so proud to be Greek.
I was very lucky to have grown up in a household that openly discussed all aspects of the Greek history and it wasn’t compromised by personal political views. Our family members have been very proud that my grandfather and grandmother were members of the resistance.
Yet, in every country, for the Nazi plan to materialize you needed collaborators and it is important to address the fact that all over Europe you had collaborators. There were Greek collaborators also. The collaborators played a significant role in every country. One single person cannot exterminate so many people.
It is important to realize we all make choices. The great leader, Aris Velouchiotis, instead of organizing the resistance, could have collaborated and continued to live the privileged life into which he was born.
Why does the Greek resistance not get the attention given to the French resistance?
The resistance was mostly made up of democratic people with socialist ideas who thought that communism would make people happy, and after the war, we had a civil war in Greece that drew attention from the heroism of the resistance.
Also, the Western powers were trying to wipe out communism. Nobody was supposed to praise the communists. But if we look at it from the perspective of when it happened, having such ideas at that time meant wanting equality and having people’s basic needs covered. But because they were identified as communists, they were forgotten.
Did making the film affect your relationship with the Jewish People?
I always valued our spiritual ways of being and thinking but it is important to understand they were people, mothers with daughters, girls with boyfriends — and the Nazis came after them. They were innocent human beings, so I felt even more proud of our Jewish people for having kept going even after having experienced something so traumatic. It is remarkable that they tried to rebuild each other and their faith and keep it alive.
In an interview with Dimitris Kannavos, you said that comedy saved your life. What did you mean by that?
When shooting the documentary and working in the editing room for hours on this heartbreaking material, I’d watch comedy to be able to fall asleep and regain my will to live. Comedy was instrumental in the making of this documentary.
My interview would not be complete if I did not ask you what kind of kid you were.
I was very upbeat. I was a Disney person and wanted to make people laugh. All my life, I was staging plays with friends. I was a dancer too, and I began my career at age 11 acting, singing, and dancing. I started talking with my parents about my ambition at age 12 after watching Macaulay Culkin movies.
Perhaps this is funny: my mother wanted to be an actress but became a legal consultant and my father wanted to become a director but became a federal judge – and they met in court.
Right after high school, at the age of 18, I moved to NYC alone. I remember being so excited about going to New York for the first five hours of the flight and then for the next five hours asking myself what did I think I was doing!
What are you up to now?
I’m starring in a movie in Greece and I’m happy to go back to acting. The movie is an international production and I have the lead female role. I am also co-producing a documentary with a German director about an island to which they exiled the Greek communists in the 1940s after the war.
“My People” was just shown at an AHEPA [American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association] event in New Jersey to celebrate Greek Independence Day and it will be shown in Las Angeles for Yom Hashoah, followed immediately by a San Francisco premiere. I hope the film will also be screened in Israel.
In “My People,” Rezan shines a light on Greek Jews and non-Jews in a way that inspires admiration and makes us want to know more.
‘Love brings Love’ is her motto and that is the name of her film production company. She hopes that her documentary shows that we can transform even the most horrific traumatic experiences into a life filled with love and happiness.
She has been praised for promoting Hellenism around the world and, perhaps coincidentally, the topic of the Holocaust has received more attention on Greek television this past year than ever before. Rezan is hesitant to attribute this to her film, but she does note that dialogue seemed to open up as articles about her documentary appeared in the media.
The film is produced, written, directed, and narrated by Anna Rezan. Pantelis Kodogiannis was co-writer, and co-producers were Zafeiris Haitidis and Academy Award-winning producers Mitchell Block and Kim Magnusson. Billy Nikolopoulos composed the music score.
Feature Image Credit: Fotis Papagermanos, Used with Permission
Also published in Israel National News.