Lina Amato: Surviving when others didn’t
What does it do to one’s sense of self to be among a handful of people of your community saved from a violent death?
Lina Kantor (nee Amato) was eight years old in July 1944, when her world was shattered by Nazi deportations. How she was saved by the Turkish consul is the focus of a documentary by South African filmmaker Johnathan Andrews.
The Story of Holocaust Survivor Lina Amato will be screened at Parktown’s Space Frame Theatre to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.
Lina (82), who lives in Cape Town, was born in 1936 on Rhodos Island. This is one of the Dodecanese Islands, which is today owned by Greece. For many years, its inhabitants led an idyllic existence.
Jews began to immigrate there from the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. By the turn of the 20th century, it was a contested piece of land; Italy and Turkey claimed it.
This uncertainty was the glitch that saved the lives of Lina, who was an only child, her parents and several others. Lina’s granny had refused to take Italian citizenship with the changing of the island’s ownership. Thus, she retained her Turkish passport. This gesture of refusal enabled her to save the lives of her loved ones.
But the story is complex. Lina’s father was the manager of Bank Solomon Alhadeff et Fils. He employed 300 people. Her mother was a piano teacher. Already at the age of three, Lina knew discrimination: she wasn’t allowed to go to school with other children on the island because she was Jewish.
Her parents were friendly with an Italian couple, Girolamo and Bianca Sotgiu, both teachers, who could see the writing on the wall in terms of the encroaching arm of Nazi legislation. Because of this, Lina’s parents and the Sotgius made an agreement that Lina would be informally adopted by the Sotgius.
So, in the dead of night, Lina was smuggled into the Sotgius’ home. She remembers being handed the Sotgius’ baby to distract her. Every day she went to church, where she was taught to pray in Latin and make the sign of the cross.
“I was so young, that these rituals were taught to me in games,” she says in the interview.
But these plans proved unnecessary. It transpired that Lina’s Turkish roots was the clincher, enabling the Turkish consul, Selahattin Ülkümen, to “play G-d” and save lives. Just 39 of the then 1 700 Rhodos Jews who were being rounded up to be sent to Auschwitz for extermination had Turkish citizenship. Ülkümen was able to prevent the Nazis from taking them. As Gwynne Schrire points out in a Jewish Affairs article, no such law actually existed, and it was through his sheer chutzpah and will to save the Jews that Ülkümen put himself on the line.
Lina, her parents and other members of the Jewish community who had Turkish papers spent the rest of the war under German rule. They were not allowed to leave the island. “It was like being under house arrest,” Lina explains. They had to report daily to the Gestapo on the island.
So virulent was the German passion to destroy Jews that, although the war was nearing its end and Germany was clearly losing and struggling for resources, a great deal was spent on the deportation of Rhodos Island Jews. This involved shipping them over 500km to Athens and then transporting them on a 1 900km train ride to Auschwitz. Hundreds died en route.
Ülkümen and the Sotgius were honoured by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1989 and 2015, respectively.
Given his passion for storytelling and his interest in living archaeology, when Andrews met Lina some years ago, the die was cast. The result? A gem of a Holocaust film, which steers clear of using Holocaust images and instead, focuses on the stories.
The film features clear historical context by Richard Freedman, director of the SA Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, and a brief interview with the current Turkish ambassador in South Africa, Elif Çomoğlu Ülken. The essence of the story is captured by Lina herself. Her words are carefully chosen; her silences, devastating.
Having studied in the department of Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of South Africa, Andrews started visiting Israel regularly several years ago. His academic interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict grew with each trip. “This whole issue of ethnic tensions grabbed me,” he recalls.
While he was exploring Lina’s story, the world interjected. In 2016, the Turkish airport was bombed and a coup was staged. Turkey became complicated to engage with. Andrews had to wait for the political landscape to shift. Then a new ambassador was appointed, and Andrews feared that this film would not be on her agenda. Fortunately, this was not the case.
“The opportunity to explain a story told by someone who has been through this horror, was something I couldn’t refuse,” he says. Andrews was so inspired by Lina’s story that he went on to initiate a project for world peace. One of the agendas of his #GETPeaceProject is about getting more and more stories of this nature to be shared by creating documentaries that tell the stories.
Stories left untold can be tragic, he adds. Tali Nates, executive director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre, recently told him that there are about 20 Holocaust survivors in South Africa who, to date, have not told their stories in public. “They must,” says Andrews. “It’s their responsibility to tell the world what happened.”
In 2005, the United Nations declared January 27 the international day of Holocaust remembrance, to commemorate the Red Army’s liberation of Eastern Europe’s largest concentration camps.
For more information on the world premiere of this film, visit www.join-mozart-festival.org or www.johnathan-andrews.com. The DVD will be on sale at the screening and online: https://goo.gl/gDoXCV.