As Greeks we were raised with the slogan “Freedom or Death” in our hearts and minds, recollecting the countless acts of heroism and defiance that took place during the various early revolts and eventual Revolutionary War from the Ottoman Turks in the 1800s.
“Eleftheria H Thanatos” is embedded in our cultural DNA, our poetry and music, our literature. There are so many other examples throughout Greek history. Even Greece’s great literary giant Nikos Kazantzakis gave one of his masterpieces this title.
There were the women of Epirus who donned their traditional costumes and danced off cliffs with their infants in their arms, rather than be taken as Turkish slaves in the early 1800s and the mass suicide at the Cretan monastery of Arkadi in 1866 when a thousand villagers sought refuge inside the monastery walls and ultimately ignited the storage of gunpowder opting to end their own lives as free Greeks.
As we pause today to remember International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’d like bring to light one of the many unknown stories of Greek heroism, character and defiance that represent the “Freedom or Death” national mantra– that took place inside the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.
Most Greek Jews were transported to Auschwitz and faced immediate death upon their arrival. The “healthier” ones were put to work in various capacities. One such work battalion was called the Sonderkommando— work units of prisoners, composed almost entirely of Jews, who were forced, on threat of immediate death, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims.
The Sonderkommando were Jewish prisoners who worked the death camps in return for special treatment and privileges. Every few months, the current Sonderkommando was liquidated and the first task of their successors was to dispose of the bodies of the previous group. Since a Sonderkommando usually comprised men from incoming transports, their second task often consisted of disposing of the bodies of their own families.
The Sonderkommando did not participate directly in the actual killing — that was carried out by the Nazis. The Sonderkommando duties included guiding the new arrivals into the gas chambers, removing the bodies afterwards, shaving hair, removing teeth, sorting through possessions (much of which they were given as reward), cremating the bodies, and disposing of the ashes.
Their knowledge of the internal workings of the camp marked them for certain death. Someone selected for the sonderkommando had a choice: die then or die in four months time.During the summer of 1944, thousands of new Jewish prisoners were arriving at the death camp by the day— especially from Hungary. The increase of prisoners necessitated the enlargement of the sonderkommando.
The Nazis ordered 434 Greek men— all Jews— to report to duty as Sonderkommandos— to assist in the destruction of their fellow humans. When their new duties were explained to them by the Nazi commanders they took the extraordinary step of organizing a group meeting the night before they were to report to work.
The group collectively decided to defy the Nazis and refuse to perform such inhumane work— knowing very well what their fate would be. Not a single one of the 434 Greeks reported for work the next day and told the Nazis that they refused to work.
All 434 were immediately gassed in the very crematorium they were assigned to work inside.
Olga Lengyyel, an Auschwitz survivor and author of the memoir “Five Chimneys” wrote in her book “What a demonstration of courage and character these Greek peasants had shown. A pity the world does not know more about them!”
In my small way, I hope a few more people learn about the heroism of these 434 Greeks who chose to die proudly, rather than go against their nature as human beings and be forced to do inhuman tasks.
Although not related to this particular event, an editorial from the Atlanta Constitution on April 29th 1941 sums up beautifully this yearning for freedom and dignity, so expressed by the Auschwitz rebels— and all freedom-loving Greeks who preceded them. This editorial was about the Greek forces that fought— and died against the Germans the day after they invaded Greece.
“The Greeks came bearing a gift. A priceless gift which we need not beware, for it is beyond compare. While we debate in fear and waver in useless longing for peace, the Greeks have shown the world that men still die for freedom, for a cause, against hopeless odds knowing that death is inevitable yet preferring it, as Socrates accepted it, before dishonor.
“It seems strange in this modern, cynical world of ours to hear of men dying for honor and glory. You have heard of men preferring to be live cowards than dead heroes— it is symptomatic of our civilization.
“The Greeks of a more remote heritage without material wealth have proved richer than we thought, for they have kept alive the sacred fire that through the years has burned its beacon for the wayfarer who sought freedom and dignity. It is hard to die with dignity. But the Greeks have… The heroes may be dead, but in their brief moment they lived as only men can live and die— with honor.”