17 September 2021

The Greeks have a word
for it (28) School

Greek schoolchildren and pupils went back to school this week … the school on Nikomedias Street in Tsesmes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

The schools reopened across Greece earlier this week, and each morning there are joyful sounds from the schools in this part of Rethymnon. The school in Tsesmes, beside La Stella, the hotel where I have been staying this week and last week, is brightly decorated with street art on the street frontage.

The word school, of course, comes from the Greek σχολή (scholē), originally meaning ‘leisure’ or free time, and also a place where there is time for leisure and to make good use of it. Later, the word came to mean a lecture or discussion, or a group to whom lectures are given, in other words, a school.

Watching the happy faces of the children going to school in Rethymnon, they could hardly imagine how, when I was a child, me and my schoolfriends would have made no link between ‘school’ and ‘leisure.’ So, how was this leap in language first made?

Leisure gave Greeks in the classical world time to think and to explore ideas. And so, the connection was made between leisure and the pursuit of knowledge or learning. The word evolved to mean ‘time used for intellectual discussion,’ then to mean the discussions themselves, and finally to mean the place where these discussions were conducted.

Eventually, we had a name for a place of learning, a school.

The Romans borrowed this Greek word with its educational meaning as schola, which became scōl in Old English. In time, this word evolved into scole in Middle English, and then into school when attention was paid to the influence of the Latin form of word.

The ‘school’ meaning ‘place of instruction’ comes from the Latin scola, itself derived from the Greek skhole, meaning ‘lecture or discussion.’ The same classical roots also gave us words such as ‘scholar,’ ‘scholastic’ and ‘scholarship.’

By the early 17th century, we were using ‘school’ in the figurative sense of ‘group of people who share agreement on a subject,’ as in a ‘school of thought.’ In English, we also use the word school as a figure of speech, speaking of ‘a school of thought’ or describing the way we through experience as the ‘school of hard knocks.’

When I was looking at the word synagogue earlier this week, I mentioned that Yiddish speakers in Eastern and Central Europe often called a synagogue a shul, which is also the Yiddish word for school.

Ashkenazic Jews in English-speaking countries use the Yiddish word shul (שול) for a synagogue, but many Sephardic and Romaniote Jews use the word esnoga (אשנוגה), from the Ladino (‘bright as fire’) or kahal (קהל).

But the word shul, with the same roots as the word school, has roots in classical Greek today. Indeed, a similar word is also used in some Sephardic communities, most notable in Venice. The Scuola Levantina is the synagogue of the Sephardic community in Venice, for example, and the Italian Synagogue of the Italkim community is known as the Scuola Italiana.

Meanwhile, on this Friday evening after Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur, it is interesting to read that Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has honoured two Greeks, Vasiliki and Dimitrios Kiakidis, posthumously for rescuing Donna Rodrig, a Greek Jew, during the Holocaust.

The Israeli Ambassador to Greece, Yossi Amrani, presented the award last week to the couple’s grandson, Dimitris Kiakidis, in Komotini in northern Greece. The ceremony was hosted by the town’s mayor, Ioannis Garanis.

Vasiliki and Dimitrios Kiakidis ‘shined as beacons of light in the darkest of times of the Holocaust,’ Mr Amrani said. ‘They are a living proof that humanity should never give up to tyranny. They remind us all it could have been different. They are the right answer to racism, bigotry, history rewriting and Holocaust deniers.’

About 59,000 Greek Jews were victims of the Holocaust – a least 83 percent of the total number of Jews living in Greece during World War II.

Dimitrios Kiakidis was a doctor with a small private clinic, which he opened in the winter of 1941-1942. He met Donna Rodrig, who had been desperately looking for work, during a visit to Thessaloniki in 1942. He offered her a job and invited her to live with his family, looking after the children, Theofilos and Konstantinos.

Dr Kiakidis obtained a fake Christian identity card for Donna in 1943. With the help of the Greek resistance, he then sent her to the safety of a mountain village. There she continued to work as a nurse until the end of the occupation.

In March 1943, 864 Greek Jews from Komotini were arrested by Bulgarian authorities, deported and exterminated by the Nazis in Treblinka. All of Donna’s relatives were among them.

Thanks to the humanity and bravery of the Kiakidis family, she found a safe haven and was rescued. After the war, Donna married an Auschwitz survivor in Thessaloniki, where she lived until she died in 1996, remaining friends with the Kiakidis family.

To date, 362 Greeks have been recognised among ‘the Righteous Among the Nations.’ They include the Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, the chief of the Greek police in German-occupied Greece, Angelos Evert, the Greek resistance fighter Lela Karagianni, the former Mayor of Zakynthos, Loukas Karrer, Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Zakynthos and Metropolitan Ioakim of Dimitriada.

‘They are the right answer to racism, bigotry, history rewriting and Holocaust deniers.’ Their resistance to evil, racism and fascism put them in a school all of their own, and teach us salutary lessons.

Shabbas Shalom

The Holocaust Memorial in Plateia Eleftherias (Liberty Square) in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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