In the late spring of 1944, Nazi ships of death were making stops in the ports of the Ionian Islands. They had stowed 2,000 Jews from Corfu in their holds and another 400 from Cephalonia, and were heading for Zakynthos. The mission of the SS squads was to round up all of the members of the Jewish community in the region and sail them to the western port city of Patra, where they would be transferred onto trains for Auschwitz.
A couple of days before they arrived at Zakynthos, the commandant called Metropolitan Bishop Chrysostomos and Mayor Lucas Carrer to his office and told them they had 24 hours to submit a list with the names of all the Jews that lived on the island, together with details of their assets.
Indeed, they returned with an envelope before the deadline expired. The commandant opened the envelope but the paper within contained just two names: the bishop’s and the mayor’s. “If you harm these people,” Chrysostomos said in reference to the island’s Jewish residents, “I will go with them and share their fate.” The Nazi commander was stunned. He sent an urgent message to Berlin requesting new orders. Meanwhile, the bishop and the mayor had informed the leader of the Jewish community, Moses Ganis, of the German plans, prompting a massive operation to hide the island’s Jews in villages, farms and the homes of Christians.
In the months that followed and until the departure of the German troops, no one betrayed them, no one confessed to knowing where they were hiding, and as a consequence not one single Jew of the 275 that lived on Zakynthos was deported to the concentration camps.
Chaim Constantinidis was 11 at the time. He lived in the island capital with his parents and four brothers. His father was a textile merchant and his older brothers were metalworkers. He is one of the few living members of the island’s Jewish community to remember those days and is set to see the story come alive on the big screen in two American productions: The first is “No Man Is an Island,” a documentary directed by Yannis Sakaridis, and the second a feature film by Theo Papadoulakis, which is still in the making.
Two Greek Americans are behind the projects, producers Gregory Pappas and Steven Priovolos, who rallied eminent members of the diaspora in the US and, of course, Hollywood, behind the projects. One of the executive producers is Sid Ganis, a former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences whose Greek-Jewish family hails from Ioannina in northwestern Greece.
We met 81-year-old Constantinidis in Athens. He has lived in Israel for the past few decades but his mother tongue is Greek. Smiling and happy to be back in Greece, he spoke to us about the old days.
Did you know the Nazi boats were coming to get you?
Yes, but we didn’t want to believe it. We couldn’t believe that people could inflict such suffering on other people. We had never harmed anyone. Why would they hurt us? When they took the last Jews from Corfu we realized that our time was coming. But even then we were so close and attached to the Christians that we were waiting from them to tell us what to do, to protect us.
Who alerted your family?
Ganis came to our house late one night. “Grab a bundle each and leave,” he said. And we ran as fast as we could.
Where did you go?
He had arranged for us to hide out with a family called Sakis, I think – memory does not always serve – in Halikero, an area on the outskirts of the town. They gave us a room. There were seven of us, as well as a cousin of my father’s along with his wife and child. The 10 of us spent five months cooped up in there. We could see the Germans passing the house through the shutter slats. I will never forget those people who risked their lives to save us.
Have you seen them since?
In 1971. I went to visit unannounced. I knocked on the door. Sofia Saki opened; her husband Spyros had died. When she realized who I was she started sobbing. She wouldn’t let me out of her arms.
Let’s go back to the end of the war. When the Nazis left, did you return to your house?
Yes, and it was just as we’d left it. But we did not stay on the island much longer.
Why did you leave?
In 1946, when the state of Israel was being established, people came to us from over there, for propaganda. “Now that you’ve seen what happens, will you stay?” “How do you know it won’t happen again? Next time you may not be so lucky.” They said things like that and my father believed them. We got together as a family and discussed it for hours. We decided that my brothers and I would go. My parents couldn’t follow at the time because my mother was heavily pregnant. On the morning that we waved goodbye to Zakynthos, my younger brother was born.
What was your new life like?
Tough, from the start, before we even set foot in Israel. There were 400 of us from all over Greece who arrived at Sounio [near Athens] to see a rustbucket waiting for us. “Is that what we’re sailing on?” we asked. “Of course not. Your boat, a big one, is waiting for you out in the open sea,” they said. It was a bluff. The trip, two to three weeks, continued in that shell. We could reach down and touch the water. You have no idea, my dear girl, what we went through.
Was it easy to get used to life in Israel?
For me, yes. I was taken to a kibbutz. I worked all day. I didn’t get any money, just a plate of food and a bed to sleep on. I didn’t mind, but there were others who really suffered. One friend, Rovertos, killed himself. That was how sorry he was about leaving Greece. A few years later my parents joined us in Tel Aviv and things got better once the family was together again.
Where did you meet your wife?
In the army. Miriam worked in the library because she was educated and I was a driver. It took a lot of hard work to win her over.
Did she play hard to get?
She was hard to get! But I wooed her with Greek songs. I sang Zakynthian ballads to her.
What sort of work did you do?
For years I made iron bed frames. Then I worked as a chauffeur. I left for work when it was dark and came home in the dark just to make ends meet. In Zakynthos we weren’t rich but we had everything we needed.
What did you tell your daughters about the island when they were small?
That it is the most beautiful place in the world.
What do people in Israel think of Greece?
The best. They love it. You can hear Greek songs playing in homes and cafes, the perfect music for entertainment. And you know what they call Zakynthos? The island of the just. In elementary school history classes children are taught how the Christians there saved 275 Jewish souls.
What are your most vivid memories of your life on Zakynthos?
I remember the laughter of a Christian girl who lived in our neighborhood and was my first love. I think her name was Maria. I’m an old man now and I don’t think my wife will be jealous to hear it. I still remember the taste of my mother’s garlic dip and the smell of the tall grass in the empty plot beside our house. In spring the grass grew so tall I could hide in it. I wanted to look up at the sky without being seen.
Are you pleased that the world will hear your story?
Very. We need to tell the kids today about what happened, about the Nazis and the Holocaust, so that such horrors never happen again.
After 70 years in Israel, how Greek do you still feel?
What kind of question is that? First I say I am a Greek and then a Jew! And I will say it to the day I die!
*This article first appeared in the July 6 issue of “K,” Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement. The Greek language version of the article is here.