When you look at the facts and the cruel fate of Greece’s Jews, it would appear at first glance that the millennia-old community suffered the same fate as many of Europe’s Jewish communities at the hands of Hitler’s mad men. Indeed their fate was a cruel one and over 80 percent of them were wiped out.
But the real story of Greece’s Jews isn’t only one of tragedy and destruction, but one of humanity, as well. I grew up in a home with constant war stories. My late father was 13 when the Nazis invaded his island of Crete — when the “umbrellas” fell from the sky in late May 1941 and thousands of German paratroopers were dropped in to capture and occupy the last Allied stronghold of the Balkans.
My father was born and raised in “Ovreaki” or Hebrew-town — the Jewish quarter of Hania that is located in the old town, near the most picturesque harbor in all of Europe. There was a synagogue there and Jewish and Christian kids played “topi” and soccer together and chased each other in the medieval alleyways. The adults co-mingled too. My father would always tell me that they (the Cretan Jews) were “just like us, except they went to a different church”).
Many of the Greece’s Jews have been in these lands since before the birth of Christ. I recall an email exchange with anti-Semitic (and uninformed) Greek Orthodox priest when he scolded me for using the word “Greek” and “Jew” in the same sentence during a talk I gave at an event and proceeded to lecture me that Greece was an Orthodox Christian country and that I shouldn’t be “promoting” another agenda.
I reminded this man of the cloth to look beyond Greece’s Christian history and that Greece existed long before Christianity arrived on its shores. I preceded to remind him that when St. Paul arrived in Greece to preach the word of Jesus Christ — including on my ancestral island of Crete, it was the pagans and the Jews that he was there to preach to.
There were generations of Jews in Greece long before it became the Orthodox Christian stronghold that it is today. Fortunately, this priest is the tiny minority amongst my community and most people know and understand the important and significant role this historic community — Europe’s oldest community of Jews — have played in Greece.
Fast forward to the Second World War, when history began to take a toll on the Greek Jews. Tens of thousands of them were rounded up and taken to the death camps — especially the Sephardic community in Thessaloniki. Entire communities of Jews which had lived there peacefully for thousands of years were wiped out — Ioannina, Rhodes, Hania, Veria. Entire families and generations of lineage decimated.
The world has designated this day, January 27, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which also coincides with the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp— where the majority if Greece’s Jews perished. And it is important that we pause on this day to be reminded of the horrors of the Holocaust.
But there were also stories of humanity and hope that unfortunately don’t make the history books as often as the death statistics do, and we have an obligation to remember them and share them. So on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, in addition to paying tribute to those who perished, let’s also honor and praise those who saved lives and provided hope.
Today, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, let’s also recall names like Archbishop Damaskinos — the only European Christian leader to publicly defy Hitler’s order to hand over his community’s Jews. The Greek Archbishop even invited the Nazis to come and take him and hang him for his actions, which included issuing secret “baptismal” papers to thousands of Greek Jews, giving them Christian names on their IDs and allowing them free passage through Nazi checkpoints — ultimately saving thousands.
Names like Archbishop Chrysostomos of Zakynthos should be remembered too, who, when asked for a list of Jews on his island, offered a scrap of paper with his own name written on it and told the Nazi general to go ahead and take the Jews away. In the interim and during the negotiation, he ordered his priests and flock to scatter and hide the Jews of the island. The end result: Zakynthos was the only Jewish community in Europe to not lose a single soul in the Holocaust.
Another name comes to my mind— the Greek American Metropolitan of Volos, Ioakeim, who warned the chief rabbi of the city of Volos where he was head of the Greek Orthodox and conducted a massive effort to save his city’s Jews.
And allow me a moment of personal remembrance to my late Grandfather, Michael Papadomanolakis, who hid his own best friend and neighbor for two years and offered his own identity papers to him, thus allowing him to survive in a countryside village (in the complete and open sight of an entire village of people who knew the said Jew wasn’t my grandfather). The man survived and fled to Palestine, through Turkey, shortly before the liberation and his fate was never known to my family. All we knew was that my grandfather saw it as his duty as a human being to save his friend.
While we pause today, on Holocaust Remembrance Day to pay tribute to the millions of innocent souls who perished during one of the most despicable actions in history, let’s also pause for a brief moment and remember those whose belief in humanity tried to stop it.