Ioannina, a scenic town in northwestern Greece, features a medieval fortress, picturesque lakes, snow-covered mountains, and a long and rich Jewish history. But like many cities in Europe, the Holocaust all but wiped out its Jewish community. Today fewer than 50 Jews remain, and most of them are elderly. Nevertheless, we were determined to include Ioannina on our itinerary this summer. We felt that these Jews, many of them survivors, would benefit from our visit.

Our first stop was the local synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Yashon, built in 1826 and beautifully restored. There we met Moses Elisaf, the community president. “You have to meet Shmuel Cohen,” he told us.

Shmuel is 93 and has lived in Ioannina all his life. We made our way to his apartment, a short distance from the synagogue, where he and his wife, Esther, greeted us warmly. Shmuel spoke to us in Hebrew, which he had taught himself utilizing a Greek-Hebrew dictionary. That was our first inkling of the tenacity of Shmuel’s character.

As he shared his life story, we learned that his peaceful youth was shattered with the Nazi occupation of Ioannina. Sensing that his days were numbered, he fled to the mountains and joined the Greek resistance movement. When he returned home after the war, he faced the bitter reality: his community had been obliterated—men, women, and children. But Shmuel fought on, marrying Esther, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and settling in Ioannina together with the handful of orphaned Jews who shared his fate. They had two children, a son and a daughter, both of whom emigrated to Israel. Tragedy struck close to home again, and Shmuel’s grandson was killed while serving in the Israeli army during the Lebanon War. Then his son passed away, still in the prime of his life. His daughter and granddaughter live in Rechovot, Israel, so they don’t see each other often.

One might expect Shmuel and Esther to be angry and embittered. The gentle couple sitting and chatting with us were anything but that. The synagogue is a big part of their life, and Shmuel is the cantor, singing the tunes he remembers from his childhood. He practices at home daily, filling their life with music. In fact, we were lucky to be treated to his beautiful rendition of a traditional Jewish song.

After almost two hours, we decided it was time to go and let Shmuel and Esther rest. But first, we pulled out our tefillin. Shmuel was ecstatic to put them on. We helped him wrap them and say the blessing, and then took the requisite picture—our personal testament to the power of the Jewish soul.