By John Ackerman,
September 10, marks the 75th Anniversary of one of history’s greatest examples of community resistance in the face of evil: the courage of Zakynthos.
If this is the first you are hearing of the anniversary, do not feel unaware. If this is the first you have ever heard of the island of Zakynthos, do not think yourself uneducated.
Outside of Greece, too few today can recall the courageous actions taken by this simple fishing island community during World War II. This community did not witness an historic battle. Rather, this Greek Orthodox community gathered together in civil disobedience to save 275 Greek Jews who would have been sent to Auschwitz.
It is a story we need to know if we are to combat hatred, religious strife and intolerance in our own time.
As the Nazi regime took control of all of Greece in the Spring of 1943, leaders of Greece took action to protect their Greek Jewish neighbors. A major leader of this effort, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, called the nation to action by creating thousands of false baptismal documents. He also called on his priests and parishioners to actively hide and harbor Greek Jews and organized the evacuation of the mainland Greek Jewish population to the many small islands of Greece, which were thought to be safer from the Nazis.
Damaskinos declared, “I spoke to the Lord, and made up my mind to save as many Jewish souls as possible.”
Acting on this request, Greek fishermen would by day fish to feed the population, and by night work to save the lives of the Jews of Greece by providing them passage to the islands.
But by late summer, the Nazi occupation forces began hunting these hidden Jews, going from island to island. On Sept. 9, the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Zakynthos and the mayor of the largest village on Zakynthos, Loukas Karrer, were summoned to the Nazi SS commander’s office on the island.
He told them a major force of Nazi SS troops would be landing on the island the next day and demanded a list of every Jew on the island, to be produced within 24 hours.
Now by this point in the war, everyone had heard the stories of what happened to Greeks who disobeyed or challenged the occupying Nazis. Many had simply been shot in the streets. Entire villages had been massacred in retaliation for a Nazi soldier’s death.
With full knowledge of the risk they faced, the bishop and mayor returned on Sept. 10 with the demanded list.
When the Nazi SS commander opened the list, he found two names: Bishop Chrystostomos and Mayor Karrer.
The bishop said, “Here are your Jews. If you choose to deport the Jews of Zakynthos, you must also take me, and I will share their fate.”
Everyone on the small island of Zakynthos knew what was taking place. During the 24 hours the bishop and mayor had been given to produce a list, they had instead taken the necessary actions as a community to save the 275 Jewish lives by hiding them even more securely then before. They had all worked together to destroy any records or identification of the Jews amongst them.
The citizens of a small Greek island challenged the greatest evil of their time, saving 275 Jews from death at a hideous camp created by that demented regime. Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, recognizes them as Righteous Among the Nations.
We will all draw different lessons from this legendary display of courage, but the question resounds: What are you doing to make a difference yourself within your community?
(This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News, Sept. 10)
John Ackerman is a small business owner, local politician, and Greek Orthodox parishioner in Illinois.