GreekReporter.com Diaspora Greek Embassy Commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day

Greek Embassy Commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day

Holocaust Remembrance
A wedding in Kastoria, Greece, in 1937. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Andrea Matza Grass.

The Ambassador of Greece to the USA, Her Excellency Alexandra Papadopoulou, hosted a commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day in the presence of His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America last Thursday evening.

Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated annually worldwide on January 27 — the day that Auschwitz was liberated by Russian troops.

Greece once had a sizable community of Jews, who had originally settled in areas including Thessaloniki, Ioannina and Karditsa — but their numbers were decimated during World War II, with only a small remnant remaining today.

The commemoration ceremony was held virtually, but on a Pan-American level, under the auspices of the Embassy of Greece in Washington, D.C., and with the participation of every Greek Consular authority in the USA.

Members of the prewar Jewish community dressed up to celebrate Purim in the 1930s. Credit: Jewish Museum of Greece/Twitter

The Embassy displayed a series of haunting digital photographs of Greek Jews as part of the exhibit “The Good Shepherds,” arranged by the Jewish Museum of Greece (JMG), the idea for which originated with Samuel “Makis” Matsas, the president of the Museum.

The photographs bear witness to the innocence of the prewar days in Greece, showing housewives in the old Jewish community of Karditsa — which no longer exists — putting their laundry out to dry, and the faithful dressed up to celebrate Purim.

Women from the Jewish community of Karditsa — which no longer exists — doing their laundry in prewar Greece. Credit: Jewish Museum of Greece/Twitter

A child of the Occupation, who survived thanks to the timely escape of his parents and the generosity of friends and strangers, Matsas asked the museum (located in Athens) to research the conditions under which senior members of the Christian clergy and eminent rabbis acted in various ways to assist persecuted Jews during the Nazi Occupation.

The Good Shepherds exhibit showcases the many positive actions, gestures of sympathy or support, and rescue attempts, no matter how large or small, which were revealed by JMG research, to both honor those involved at the time and inspire us today.

A Torah case, or Tik, from Ioannina, Greece. Credit: Jewish Museum Greece/Twitter

It also aimed to highlight the importance of individual choice within an extremely complex, — and often contradictory — social context. The stories were illustrated by original artifacts belonging to some of the senior clerics in Greece.

The exhibition was made possible by a three-year-long cooperation between the Museum and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Athens.

The event sponsors stated that they wanted the event to serve as an “unequivocal reaffirmation of our relentless commitment to stand against anti-Semitism.”

Jimmy Demetro, the host of the forum, reminded participants that before WWII, there had been at least 78,000 Jews living in Greece. Fully 87% of these people were wiped out during the war, amounting to the greatest loss of Jewish population of any European country.

Living through the coronavirus pandemic, Demetro stated, gives us a little perspective on the meaning of life relative to the great devastation that occurred during wartime. One would think that the daily coronavirus death statistics would numb us, he said, to the impact of the loss.

Could facing even more death, as everyone did during the War, make people completely lose their sense of what it means to be human, a sense of the meaning of life itself?

“A failure of humanity”

The Holocaust, he stated, was “a failure of humanity,” the triumph of people who had “lost their moral fiber.” They lacked, he said, the courage to question an outrageous ideology. “We are here,” he said, “to remember the men, women and children who perished.”

The Jewish quarter of Ioannina before WWII. Credit: Jewish Museum of Greece/Twitter

“No matter how painful it may be,” he added, “we need to remember.”

Her Excellency Ambassador Maria Papadopoulou stated in her remarks that it was also important, however, to recognize the “institutional acts of courage” that did occur in Greece during the War, carried out by those who had “the courage and integrity to fulfill their moral obligation” to help others.

“Having the courage to define evil,” she stated, “they showed others the way.” The Greek church, she related, was one of the pivotal institutions which did exactly that, fulfilling their moral calling to love their neighbor, acting as the good shepherds that they are meant to be in society, just as Christ would have wanted them to do — at extreme peril to their lives.

The Ambassador struck an ominous note by saying that “Human evil is not finished. We should have pride in human civilization, but the people who created that civilization are the same humans who inflicted horror on their fellow human beings.”

The Embassy — and all those who commemorate International Holocaust Day every year, she added — remember the actions of all those who “somehow managed to do their duty, to fulfill their moral obligations, and ensure nothing like that can ever happen again.”

“Stand above our human nature”

“We have to stand above our human nature,” she urged the seminar participants, to make sure that no such atrocities are ever allowed to occur on the earth ever again in the future.

Solomon Asser, the president of the American Friends of the Jewish Museum of Greece, stated that “as the years go by, this Remembrance Day becomes ever more important because more and more of the oldest survivors pass away every day.”

Synagogue on the Greek island of Kos, before WWII. Credit: Jewish Museum of Greece/Twitter

Oldest Jewish diaspora in the world

Asser noted that there has been a documented Jewish population in what is now Greece since the year 3,400 BC — by far the oldest Jewish diaspora community in the world. However, Jews living there before the Second World War were living in an “illusion of safety,” because Greece had up until that time escaped the many pogroms that had occurred in many European countries throughout history.

The Jewish Museum of Greece has become “a pivotal source for teachers and students” in learning about the long history of Jews in Greece, he told participants, with trips to Auschwitz organized through the American Friends of the Jewish Museum sponsored by the Kounalakis family of California.

Archbishop Damaskinos of Greece was just one of the shining examples of humanity who stood firm against the Nazi horror, even when he was threatened with death himself. He was one of the only heads of institutional churches in Europe who was instrumental in helping Jews escape the clutches of the invaders and occupiers, and has gone on to be named one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel.

Keynote speaker Dr. Mimis Cohen, a retired professor of plastic surgery at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, and a founding member of Friends group as well as an expert on the history of Jews in Greece, also addressed the audience.

78,000 Jews lived in prewar Greece

He related that the 78,000 Greek Jews who had called the country their home lived in a total of 27 different communities scattered across the nation, with their own schools, hospitals, athletic clubs and civic organizations serving their people, when the German occupation of Greece began on April 6, 1941.

Moreover, Dr. Cohen noted that as many has 13,000 Greek Jews even fought alongside other Greeks in the Army, and 513 of them were killed for their bravery in trying to rid their country of the Nazi menace, including Col. Mordecai Frizis, the highest-ranking man in the Greek Army at the time.

At the time, Greek Jews living in New York City prayed with Archbishop of the Americas Athenagoras, the prelate who went on to be named Ecumenical Patriarch, for the freedom of the Greek nation, and the Archbishop lent his full support to the Greek Jews as well during those terrible years.

The month of March, 1943 marked the first deportations of Jews from Greece, with the majority of them being taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Thessaloniki Archbishop included in “Righteous Among the Nations”

During wartime, foreign diplomats also helped Greek Jews escape the clutches of the Germans, along with ordinary citizens and churchmen. Gennadius, the metropolitan of Thessaloniki, the city with by far the largest Jewish population in the nation, “preached peaceful coexistence” with the Jews before the war.

When the city’s Chief Rabbi Horetz was arrested and held captive by the occupiers, Gennadius wrote a letter in protest — which was in itself a dangerous act in those days. Gennadius, Cohen stated, himself is now commemorated in Jerusalem as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” for his courage in standing up against the Nazis.

Still, in this large and cosmopolitan city, almost no one else assisted their Jewish friends and neighbors during the War. Of the 56,000 Jews who had once called Thessaloniki home, only one –one — family was sheltered by a Christian family during WWII.

And even after the war, the Jewish cemetery of the city, which had been completely desecrated and destroyed, was not repaired by the city or the nation for decades, lying in ruins for 71 years afterward. There were many collaborators who also worked closely with the occupiers to appropriate Jewish homes and other property.

As Cohen noted, it wasn’t only that the war had destroyed that generation of people. The occupying German Army — and its collaborators — had “stolen the future,” depriving the community of all its future generations as well.

Archbishop of Athens was shining beacon of hope and courage

However, Damaskinos, the Archbishop of Athens, was one of the shining beacons of light during these times, Cohen stated, doing an “incredible job” to help save as many people as he could, even at peril of his own life, sheltering Jews in monasteries and convents.

He authored a petition in support of Greek Jews which he circulated far and wide; in it, he reminded Christians that the apostle Paul had said in the Bible that all men were now brothers, that there was “neither Jew nor Greek.” In the missive, he lauded the Jewish Greeks as long having been among the most “peaceful and productive elements” in the country.

“The conscience of the nation is heavily burdened,” Damaskinos said in the petition, admonishing his fellow Greeks to stand up for what they knew deep down was morally correct. For his pains, Archbishop Damaskinos was threatened with a pistol by German officers who confronted him after the petition became known. But he stood firm, reciting the laws made during Ottoman occupation as he responded defiantly “Members of the clergy of Greece may not be shot, they may only be hanged. I beg you to respect this tradition.”

“No fear of the enemy”

He was justly recalled, noted Cohen, as a legend for his courage, a “man who had no fear of the enemy.” A statue of Damaskinos now stands in front of his cathedral in Athens and the “Damaskinos Award” is given out annually in his honor to single out an individual who stands above others in service to the Jewish community. The Jewish school in Athens is named after the Archbishop who knew no fear.

“What would have happened,” Cohen asked, “if other shepherds (around Europe) such as Damaskinos had stepped up to the Nazis at the beginning of the occupation?”

David Asser was a fortunate recipient of Damaskinos’ influence, surviving the war only because as a child he had been given Greek identity papers by the chief of police of Athens, who was persuaded to do so by Damaskinos. His mother, Rosa Pardo, was one of the rare Jewish children who was sheltered during the war by a Christian family.

Mayor Loukas Kerrer and Bishop Chrysostomos of Zakynthos

Zakynthos story a rare point of light during occupation

Cohen related the well-known story of the Jews of Zakynthos under occupation as another point of light in an otherwise dark time for Europe. At the outset, the German officers who had taken control of the island asked the local metropolitan and the mayor for the names of all the Jews who lived there.

The piece of paper he received from them, however, had only two names on it — that of the mayor of Zakynthos, Lukas Karrer, and bishop Chrysostomos himself. Cohen noted that no Jews on Zakynthos lost their lives during the war — a distinction that no other island in Greece can share.

And justifiably, mayor Karrer and Metropolitan Chrysostomos are also listed among the Righteous of the Nations in Israel.

Shameful incident on Corfu

However, the situation on the island just to the north, Kerkyra (Corfu), could not have been more starkly different. Despite the strong support from the local metropolitan, Methodios, who warned the Jews that they were in danger, and urged them to flee to the mountains with the Resistance, they stayed in their homes, believing that they would remain safe until the Allies came.

Cohen related the bone-chilling story of how local officials, including the mayor and chief of police, later openly announced to the people of the island that they should “rejoice” after the deportation of almost all of the island’s Jewish residents, because all the property and commerce the Jews had owned would now be theirs.

“Embrace one another in agape”

Archbishop of the Americas Elpidophoros addressed the participants at the end of the seminar, saying that the exhibition is a “most timely reminder of the need for true spiritual leadership in our world today. We have witnessed the rise of hate groups for years, consistently marked by virulent anti-Semitism.”

The stories presented in the webinar are a “brutal reminder” of that earlier time, the Archbishop stated. However, he said, “We who are the shepherds of our flocks must be ever vigilant since for the wolves of evil and prejudice are not yet extinct.

“I rejoice that their names and stories (of the good shepherds) are among us. Even as we commemorate the deep pain of the Holocaust, we still grapple with the concept of how this could have happened in a so-called modern civilized era,” he noted.

“This is why these exhibitions and remembrances are so vital. They remind us to be watchful and always embrace one another in mutual respect. Let us embrace one another in agape and in mutual support.”