By Margie Burns, edited by Sophia S. Huling
An estimated 87 percent of the Greece’s Jewish population – 60,000 to 70,000 people – perished during the Holocaust. Thanks to the refusal of some Greeks to cooperate with German plans for deportations, 10,000 survived. The man who led those efforts was the Church of Greece’s leading hierarch, Archbishop Damaskinos (1891-1949), appointed archbishop of Athens in 1941.
The Romaniote Jews of Greece were the first Jews in Europe, arriving around the time of Alexander the Great. In 1492, thousands of Sephardic Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition and found refuge in Greece, then ruled by the Ottoman Turks. Many Sephardim settled in Thessaloniki – a city that, before World War II, had one of the largest Jewish populations in the world.
With the advent of the Nazi occupation in April 1941, deportations from cities like Thessaloniki proceeded at a rapid pace. Many Jews fleeing persecution in the north found a safe haven in Athens.
On September 20, 1943, Dieter Wisliceny – a deputy of Adolph Eichmann, the administrator of the Nazi Final Solution – arrived in Athens. Wisliceny ordered the city’s Chief Rabbi Elias Barzilai to appear before him, to provide accurate figures about the Jewish population in Athens and to create a Judernat. Made up of Jews who were coerced into joining, a Judernat made compliant Jews ”responsible” for keeping law and order in a Jewish community, and used them as a liaison between the German authorities and the Jewish population.
Wisliceny ordered Barzilai to provide the names and address of all members of Athens’ Jewish community, the names of all foreign Jews living in the area, the names of Italian Jews in Athens, and the names of those who had assisted Jews to escape to Palestine. He also commanded Barzilai to compile a list of individuals willing to serve on a new council – of which Barzilai was to be president – that would create a Jewish police force to carry out Nazi demands, and unveiled plans to create identity cards for all of Athens’ Jewish population.
Shaken by his encounter with the Nazi commander, the Rabbi contacted Archbishop Damaskinos and told him about the meeting.
Since Damaskinos knew what had taken place in Thessaloniki, he suggested the entire Jewish community take flight, because it could not be protected.
Barzilai asked the Germans for more time to compose the requested lists, and then, after meeting with other leaders of the Jewish community, he destroyed the community records and advised the Jewish people to flee. A few days later, the Rabbi himself left the capital and joined the resistance.
The Church of Greece, under Damaskinos’ leadership, condemned Hitler’s plans for the country and instructed priests to announce its position in their sermons.
As they prepared to implement the deportation and mass murder of their Final Solution, the Nazis compiled intelligence reports about the Jewish population of Athens. Damaskinos’ and the Rabbi’s work had transformed Athens into a safe refuge. Since many of the newly arrived Jews had no fixed place of residence, German intelligence about the Jewish population was often wrong.
The Nazis chose important Jewish holidays for their monstrous acts, beginning with an order on the eve of Yom Kippur, signed by the German military commander in Athens, S.S. General Jurgen Stroop, designed to organize the city’s Jewish community under Nazi supervision.
Under the order issued by Stroop, Jews were commanded to appear at community offices within five days to declare their residences and register their names. Despite the threat of dire consequences for failing to appear, only 200 showed up.
In a similar instance, the German authorities announced that they were planning to bring a special flour to Athens for Passover, so the Jewish population could prepare matzo – provided they were willing to reveal themselves and register with the authorities. Although the false act of kindness tempted some, many more Jews registered because they were afraid the Nazis would enact reprisals on their Christian neighbors, who had been shielding them from the persecution.
When the Germans began rounding up Jews, over 600 Greek Orthodox priests were arrested and deported because of their actions in helping Jews, and many Jews were saved by the Greek police, the clergy and the resistance.
There were several means of escape. Many left by boat from Oropos in Attica, where they were frequently forced to pay enormous fees for a three-week journey to Turkey. Some young men without families escaped to partisan camps in the mountains. A false baptismal certificate and new identity papers from the Greek Orthodox Church could also help a desperate fleeing Jew.
Archbishop Damaskinos oversaw the creation of several thousand such certificates, and Athens Police Chief Angelos Evert provided more than 27,000 false identify papers to desperate Jews seeking protection from the Nazis.
The Archbishop also ordered monasteries in Athens to shelter Jews, and urged his priests to ask their congregations to hide Jews in their homes. As a result, more than 250 Jewish children were hidden by Orthodox clergy alone.
Damaskinos and Evert would surely been killed if the extent of their assistance had become known to the Germans.
When all official appeals to stop the deportations failed, Archbishop Damaskinos spearheaded a direct appeal to the Germans, in the form of a letter composed by the famous Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos and signed by prominent Greek citizens, in a bold attempt to appeal to the hearts and minds of the occupying authorities, in defense of the Jews who were being persecuted.
The letter incited the rage of the Nazi general Stroop, who threatened the Archbishop with death by a firing squad. Damaskinos’ response was, ”Greek religious leaders are not shot; they are hanged. I request that you respect this custom.” He was referring to the lynching and hanging of Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople by a Turkish mob in 1821, in retaliation for the Greeks’ launching a war of independence. The simple courage of the religious leader’s reply caught the Nazi commander off guard, and his life was spared.
The appeal of the Archbishop and his fellow Greeks is unique; there is no similar document of protest of the Nazis during World War II that has come to light in any other European country. It reads, in part:
”The Greek Orthodox Church and the Academic World of Greek People Protest against the Persecution… The Greek people were… deeply grieved to learn that the German Occupation Authorities have already started to put into effect a program of gradual deportation of the Greek Jewish community… and that the first groups of deportees are already on their way to Poland…”
“According to the terms of the armistice, all Greek citizens, without distinction of race or religion, were to be treated equally by the Occupation Authorities. The Greek Jews have proven themselves… valuable contributors to the economic growth of the country [and] law-abiding citizens who fully understand their duties as Greeks. They have made sacrifices for the Greek country, and were always on the front lines of the struggle of the Greek nation to defend its inalienable historical rights…”
”In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity: they are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion… Our holy religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek’ [Galatians 3:28] and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences. Our common fate both in days of glory and in periods of national misfortune forged inseparable bonds between all Greek citizens, without exemption, irrespective of race…”
”Today we are… deeply concerned with the fate of 60,000 of our fellow citizens who are Jews… we have lived together in both slavery and freedom, and we have come to appreciate their feelings, their brotherly attitude, their economic activity, and most important, their indefectible patriotism…”
Source: The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation