JERUSALEM – One by one, the 40 descendants of a group of Israeli brothers leaned over and embraced the old Greek woman to whom they owe their very existence as she sat in her wheelchair and wiped away tears that streaked her wrinkled face.
Holding the hands of people she hid, fed and protected as a teenager over 75 years ago, Melpomeni Dina, 92, said she can now "die in silence."
Sunday's emotional meeting was the first time Dina met the children of the Mordechai family she helped save during the Holocaust. Once a regular ritual at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel, these meetings are dwindling rapidly due to the advanced ages of survivors and first responders and may not happen again. The meeting that is about to be extinguished is the latest reminder for Holocaust commemorators preparing for a post-surviving world.
"The risk they took of taking over a whole family, knowing that it endangered them all," said Sarah Yanai, now 86, who was the oldest of the five brothers Dina and others harbored. "Look at all this around us. We are now a very big and happy family and it is all thanks to them that saved us."
About 6 million European Jews were killed by German Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. More than 27,000, including 355 from Greece, have been recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations," Israel's highest honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
The most famous cases are Oskar Schindler, whose efforts to save over 1,000 Jews were documented in Steven Spielberg's 1993 film "Schindler's List", and Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who is credited with saving by at least 20,000 Jews before mysteriously disappearing.
The names of those honored for refusing to be indifferent to genocide are engraved along a tree avenue at the Jerusalem memorial. It is believed that only a few hundred are still alive.
"This is probably going to our last meeting because of age and frailty," said Stanlee Stahl, executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which sponsored the event and provides $ 1 million a year in scholarships. monthly for those recognized.
She said her organization has held such meetings every year since 1992, but this was probably the last of its kind and therefore particularly emotional. Similar meetings sponsored by Yad Vashem of long-lost brothers or other relatives are also coming to an end.
"Either the survivor has passed away, the righteous has passed away or, in some cases, the surviving or just Gentile is unable to travel," she choked out. "You see the survivors, the children, the grandchildren, the future. For me, it's very, very, very special. In a way, one door closes, one opens. The door is closing very slowly at meetings."
The Mordechai family lived in Veria, Greece, near Thessaloniki, where almost the entire Jewish community was annihilated within a few months in one of the most brutal Nazi executions.
When the Nazis began arresting Jews for deportation in early 1943, the family's non-Jewish friends provided them with fake ID cards and hid them in the attic of the old abandoned Turkish mosque. They stayed there for almost a year, listening to the shouts outside other Jews being gathered. But eventually they had to leave because their health was declining in the tight, unventilated attic.
That was when Dina and her two older sisters took the family of seven to their own home on the outskirts of town, sharing their few food rations with them. One of the children, a six-year-old boy named Shmuel, became seriously ill and had to be taken to a hospital despite the risk of exposing his identity. He died there.
Soon after, the family was informed and Dina's sisters and relatives helped them escape in various directions.
Yanai, the eldest, went to the forest, another went to the mountains, and his mother walked away with her two surviving young children in search of another hiding place. Dina and her orphaned and impoverished sisters gave them clothes before departure. The family gathered after their release and went to Israel, where the children built their own families.
Yossi Mor, now 77, was only a child when his family was welcomed, but he said he still remembers some things, such as when his older brother died and the kindness they found from his rescuers – which gave them various forms. of refuge for almost two years.
"They fed us, gave us medicine, gave us protection, everything, washed our clothes," he said, before gesturing toward Dina. "She loved me so much."
Mor and Yanai had met Dina in Greece years ago. But the younger generation in her extended family, which included elementary school children in braids and soldiers in uniform, had never met her before Sunday's ceremony. The two soldiers proudly pushed Dina and Yanai around the complex in their wheelchairs.
A special committee, chaired by a retired Supreme Court judge, is responsible for examining all cases of "Righteous Among the Nations" before granting the title. After a long process, between 400 and 500 are typically recognized per year, and the process will continue and new stories will emerge, even for posthumous winners, said Joel Zisenwise, director of Yad Vashem's department.
"What we see here is moving in the sense that we have evidence of a rescuers' ongoing relationship with survivors and descendants. It's a continuous way of paying tribute," he said. "It's definitely exciting to see these families coming together, knowing that they can really be one of the last reunions."