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Feta cheese in bulk

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Friends and relatives remember Holocaust survivor and Greek native Esther Ackos Winthrop


Esther Ackos Winthrop passed away on September 20, leaving behind not just a long legacy of public service, but also a life that was distinctive in several important ways. Firstly, she hailed from a Jewish community that is little-known even within the Jewish community: the Romaniote Jews.

This Jewish community has lived in and around Greece for more than two millennium, and once spoke a unique dialect of Greek called Yevanic. The language included elements of Hebrew and Aramaic, and, as far as anybody has been able to tell, there is not a speaker of the language alive today.

Esther Ackos Winthrop. Image courtesy of Pam Winthrop Lauer.

Esther Ackos Winthrop (Photo: Courtesy of Pam Winthrop Lauer)

The Romaniote Jews have their own customs, distinct from those of the larger communities of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, and their distinct culture, which drew influences from the Hellenistic and Palestinian Jewish world, had a profound influence on religious poetry.

According to her husband Harvey Winthrop, Esther never lost her connection with her Greek heritage, and it showed itself especially in their meals together. “We had a lot of baklava,” he said in interview with the American Jewish World. “We’d buy Greek olive oil, feta cheese. We always had feta cheese. We bought it in bulk.”

The Romaniote Jewish community were victims of the Holocaust, losing an estimated 86 percent of their population when the Nazis occupied Greece. Winthrop was a survivor of the occupation, having been born in Prevesa, Greece, in 1935, and raised in Athens.

When the Nazis invaded, Winthrop and her family hid in the house of a Christian neighbor, sharing a single room in the basement. In 1944, the Nazis aggressively rounded up Greek Jews for deportation to the death camps, and Winthrop’s father was among them.

Winthrop and her surviving family members remained in hiding until after the war, disguised as relatives of their Christian neighbor.

After the war, when her mother Rose was struggling to raise five children on her own, Winthrop moved into an orphanage for a while, taking the place of her younger sister, “in order to make her younger sister’s life better,” according to her son, Marc Winthrop.

Winthrop’s family was penniless and had lost their property, and Greece experienced a civil war between the Greek government and the Democratic Army of Greece, which was the military branch of the Greek Communist Party. “I don’t think there were any anti-Semitic incidents,” Harvey Winthrop told AJW. “The Communists in Greece just made life uncomfortably bade for everyone.” Winthrop and her family left Greece in 1951. According to Harvey, they considered Israel. “Esther’s mother had a friend in Israel, and she said ‘Don’t come, life is too hard here.’” Instead, Winthrop and her family wound up in Minnesota.

Speaking of Winthrop at her funeral, Rabbi Morris J. Allen of the Beth Jacob Congregation said of her life in America that it “was not lived in the valley of the shadow of death at all, but rather her life was lived in fullest sunlit day on a mountain top.”

Rabbi Allen continued: “It is not to say that she didn’t mourn her losses and remain justifiably filled with anger towards the Nazis who destroyed her early life — but she never let those feelings become the central narrative of her life. Emerging from the Shoah, she came to see the opportunities that she was given as a result of being alive, and she was not going to squander any of them and she was going to have the best revenge by living fully and meaningfully.”

Winthrop and her family settled in St. Paul, where Esther pursued a career in health care, first as a nurse clinician in cardiology at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth, and later, after her retirement, as a nurse case manager for Jewish Family & Children’s Service of St. Paul.

She was also extraordinarily active in her community, possessing what Rabbi Allen described as a “millennial’s attitude” to Jewish education, traveling great distances to attend any class that attracted her interest.

“She really loved learning,” Harvey Winthrop recalled of his wife. “And she lived to play bridge.”

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