By Margie Burns
Although an estimated 87% of the nation's Jewish population -- 60,000 to 70,000 Greek Jews -- perished during the Holocaust, 10,000 survived, largely due to the Greek people's refusal to cooperate with German plans for deportations.
With the arrival of the Axis occupation, deportations from cities like the northern port of 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 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 who had escaped 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 the north, he suggested that the entire Jewish community should take flight, because it couldn't be protected.Rabbi 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.
Jew had participated freely with other Greeks in all walks of life for 2,300 years, co-existing in harmony with their Orthodox countrymen, contributing good work in numerous fields. Jews had lived in Athens since the time of Alexander the Great, in the mid-fourth century, many having sought sanctuary in Greece after having been expelled from Spain in 1492. During the Holocaust, the Greek Jewish population was almost completely destroyed.
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. They 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, SS. General Jurgen Stroop, which organized the city's Jewish community under Nazi supervision.
The Jewish population in Athens had increased since the outbreak of the war. Damaskinos' and the Rabbi's work had transformed the city in 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.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 matzoh -- 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 started 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. Damaskinos and Evert faced the threat of death for their efforts, and would surely been killed if the extent of their assistance had become known to the Germans.
There were several means of escape. Many left by boat from Oropos in Attica, where they were frequently force to pay enormous fees for a three week journey to Turkey. Some young men without families escaped to partisan camps in the mountains. 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 Evert provided more than 27,000 false identify papers to desperate Jews seeking protection from the Nazis. The Archbishop also ordered monasteries and convents in Athens to shelter Jews, and urged his priests to ask their congregations to hide the Jews in their homes. As a result, more than 250 Jewish children were hidden by Orthodox clergy alone.
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." 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. The following is the full text of the letter:
To: Mr Konstantinos Logothetopoulos
Given in Athens, on March 23 1943
Mr Prime Minister,
The Greek nation has learned, with justifiable astonishment and
distress, that the German Occupation Authorities commenced to
implement in Thessaloniki the measure of the gradual deportation
of the Greek Israelite population beyond the borders of the country
and that the first group of displaced persons are already on their
way to Poland. The distress of the Greek people is all the greater
1) According to the spirit of the terms of the cease-fire, all
Greek citizens expected to receive the same treatment at the
hands of the Occupation Authorities, irrespective of race and
2) The Greek Israelites have not only been invaluable contributors
the nation’s economic progress but have as a group always
demonstrated loyalty and entire comprehension of their duties, as
Hellenes. Thus, they shared the common sacrifice on behalf of the
Greek state and found themselves in the front line of the battles
which the Greek Nation waged in defence of its revocable historic
3) The fidelity of the Hebrew Community in Greece precludes in
advance any accusation of its involvement in activities and
actions susceptible of threatening, even from afar, the security
of the Military Authorities of the Occupation.
4) In the face of national consciousness, the sons of the common
mother country of Greece are united without distinction and equal
members of the National Body, irrespective of any difference of
religion or faith.
5) Our Holy Faith recognises no distinction, superiority or
inferiority, based on race or religion, holding as doctrine that
"There is neither Jew now Greek" (Galatians 3:28), condemning
therefore any tendency to create any discrimination or racial or
6) Our Community of destiny, through days of glory and periods of
national misfortune, hammered on the anvil of courageous Hellenism
indissoluble bonds linking all Greek citizens, without distinction,
whatever race they may belong to.
We are not of course unaware of the profound opposition between
New Germany and the Israelite community, nor is it our intention
to become the defenders or simply the judges of international Jewry
and of any of its actions in the sphere of the major political and
economic problems of the world. The only thing that interests and
is of vital concern to us today is the fate of 60,000 of our fellow
citizens of the Hebrew faith, whose nobility of sentiments,
fraternal disposition, progressive ideas, economic activity and
most important of all irreproachable patriotism, this last having
been irrefutably demonstrated by the large number of victims the
Greek Israelites brought forward the unlamenting and without
hesitation to the altar of duty to the imperilled common
fatherland, we have known through our long life together, a life
shared in slavery and in freedom.
We are persuaded that the government shares the thoughts and the
feelings of the rest of the Greek nation, on this matter. We
further believe that will have already made the necessary
representations to the Occupation Authorities with regard to
the cessation of the distressing and purposeless measure of
the deportation of the Greek Israelite population.
We hope indeed that you will have represented to those in power
that this harsh treatment of the Greek Israelite population, in
contrast to that of Israelites of other nationalities resident
in Greece, renders all the more unjustifiable and consequently
morally unacceptable the application of this measure. And if
reasons of security should be advanced in justification of
this measure, we consider that other solutions might have been
found and preventive measures implemented, such a confinement of
the active male population alone (excepting children and the
elderly) in some specific place within the borders of the Greek
State and under the supervision of the Occupation Authorities in
such fashion that the security of the latter be safeguarded
even against hypothetical danger, and the class of Greek
Israelites escape the dreadful consequences of the deportation
with which they are now threatened. It is unnecessary to add that
were such a measure to be implemented, the rest of the Greek
people would be disposed, if requested, unhesitatingly to add
their entire assurance, on behalf of their ill-used brothers.
We hope that the Occupation Authorities will before it is too
late realise the futility of the persecution of the Greek
Israelites, who are among the most peaceful and productive
members of the population.
If however they should adhere obstinately to their policy of
deporting these people, then we feel that the Government, as
the agent of residual authority in this country, will have to
assume a clear position against these actions, leaving to the
foreigner the entire responsibility for the perpetration of this
manifest injustice. Because we think that no one is entitled to
forget that all the acts committed in this difficult period,
even those lying outside our will and our power, will one day
be examined by the Nation by meet and right historical reckoning.
At the hour of judgment, the moral responsibilities will weigh
heavily on the conscience of the Nation, and even more so the acts
of those in power, if they shall have failed to express through a
courageous and honourable gesture their entirely reasonable
displeasure and the unanimous objection of the Nation to actions
as mortally offensive to national unity and honour as the
deportation of the Greek Israelites now commenced.
Archbishop of Athens and all Greece
The President of the Academy of Athens, S. Dontas, the Rector
of the University of Athens, Er. Skassis, the Rector of the
National Polytechnic, I. Theofanopoulos, the Rector of School
of Economics and Political Sciences, A. Nezos, the President
of the Medical Association of Attica, M.Karzis, the President
of the Bar Association of Attica, P. Anastasopoulos, the
President of the Association of Notaries to the Court of
Appeal of Athens and the Aegean, K. Antonopoulos, the President
of the Union of Editors of the Athens Daily Press, G. Karantzas,
the President of the Society of Greek Authors, Th. Synadinos,
the President of the Society of Greek Writers, M. Argyropoulos,
the President of the Chamber of Commerce of Piraeus, D.
Petroulakos, the President of the Technical Chamber of Greece,
A. Karras, the President of the Proffesional Chamber of Athens,
S. Halkiadakis, the President of the Union of Greek Chemists, K.
Nevros, the President of the Pharmacists’ Association of Athens, A.
Tsisonis, the President of the Dental Association, I. Kareklis,
the President of the Chamber of Manufacturers of Athens, K.
Papadoyannis, the President of the Pharmacists’ Association of
Piraeus, M. Kalatzakos, the President of the Greek Actors’
Association, Th. Moridis, the President of the Panhellenic
Pharmacists Association, A. Karamertzanis, the President of
the Medical Association of Piraeus, D. Mantouvalos, The
President of the Athens Chamber of Commerce, D. Vasilopoulos,
the President of the Athens Chamber of Trade and Industry, A.
Poulopuolos, the vice-president of the Union of Greek
Theatre and Music Critics, N. Rodas, the President of the
Medical Association of Kallithea, M. Rimantonis, the Secretary
General of the Panhellenic Dental Association, H. Apostolou,
the President of the Association of Greek Industrialists, I.
Terzakis, the Director of the Emergency Shelters, Th. Sperantzas,
the Director General of the Social Insurance Foundation, H.