The International School for Holocaust Studies
A Brit Milah (Circumcision Ceremony) Kit from a Greek Jew
Courtesy of the Artifacts Department, Yad Vashem Museums Division
By the Artifact Department at Yad Vashem
Translated from Hebrew by Yael Weinstock
According to Jewish law and tradition, when a baby boy is 8 days old, he is circumcised and welcomed as a member of the Jewish people. The kit pictured above was used by a mohel (a trained man responsible for performing the ritual) named Moshe Matza in Greece for the circumcision ceremony of Jewish baby boys. According to his granddaughter, “Grandfather wanted every baby to be dressed appropriately for a festive event including a wearing pair of socks, even for babies whose parents were too poor to worry about dressing their baby in socks.”
The Greek town of Zakynthos was named for the western island in the Ionian Sea, on which it was located. From 1482-1797, the island of Zakynthos was controlled by the Republic of Venice, and later by England. In 1864 the island became part of Greece. Already from the time of Venician rule, there is evidence of a Jewish community in Zakynthos. From May 1941 to September 1943, during World War II, the island was ruled by the Italian government. Following Italy's surrender in September 1943, the German army took control of the whole area and did not lose control until September 1944.
As soon as the Nazis took control, their policy of terror began. Greek Mayor Lucas Kerr evaded the Nazis’ orders for a list of Jewish names, and with Archbishop Kristoman Dimitri decided to rescue Jews from deportation. They sent the Jews to hide in nearby villages, and instead of providing a list of names of Jews, they sent their own names to the authorities. Although the Germans had offered food and money to anyone willing to report the presence of Jews, they did not receive cooperation from local residents. According to testimonies, the commander of the partisans on the island, Dimitri Katbtis, supported the Jews and threatened the German naval commander of the island not to expel them.
In fact, the community of Zakynthos is the only Greek Jewish community that was saved from annihilation in its entirety. After the war, most of the community moved to Israel. Molcho, the last Jew left on the island, died in 1984 and was buried in the local cemetery.
The Matza Family – Moshe and Esther, and seven of their nine children – Rosa, Shulamit, Devorah, Michal, Dino, Avraham, and Herzl, hid in the village of Katastari with Stephanos and Panyiota Biliardo. One of their sons Shlomo had already moved to Israel before the war, and another son Aharon had left the island and moved to the city of Corfu, where his wife was from. He was expelled with the rest of the Jews of Corfu to Auschwitz, where he perished.
In order to support his large family while in hiding, Moshe, with the assistance of his adult children, went around from morning to night in the villages and sold dry goods from a temporary stall.
Moshe, who worked as a mohel and a hazzan (cantor) in his community and in other Greek Jewish communities, continued to perform circumcisions despite the inherent danger because he felt he had a responsibility to Jews in the area. After his death, during Hanukkah in December 1944, his daughters Michal and Devora saved his circumcision tools and brought them to Israel.