The Jews of Zakynthos, Greece’s beautiful Ionian island, owe their survival during the dark days of the German occupation to two brave Greeks.
Zakynthos, also known as Zante, is famous all across the world for its splendid natural beauty and the incomparable hospitality of its warm-hearted people.
However, it is also known to the millions of Jewish people around the world for a heroic moment in time which changed the course of the history of the island forever.
In the depths of World War II, and at a time when the cruelty of the Nazi occupiers across Europe had reached its nadir, a little story of heroism and courage was about to be written on Zakynthos.
On September 9, 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Greece, the German commander of Zakynthos, an officer named Berenz, asked the island’s mayor, Loukas Karrer, to give him a full list of every single one of the Jewish people who lived on the island.
Shocked by the demand, and knowing what would certainly happen to all these individuals, Mayor Karrer went to consult with the bishop of the island, Chrysostomos.
They both took the courageous — and obviously perilous — decision to deny writing down the names of these people.
The next day, the German administration of Zakynthos was furious with the decision taken by the mayor and Bishop Chrysostomos.
Both Mayor Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos were quickly summoned to appear before the German Commandant, where they were ordered to immediately prepare the list of all the Jewish residents of Zakynthos. Karrer flatly rejected the request for a second time.
In a great display of courage and defiance to the powerful occupiers of Greece, the mayor and the bishop handed a simple piece of paper to the Nazi commander.
Zakynthos mayor and archbishop defiant
On that scrap of paper, only two names were written: Mayor Loukas Kerrer and Bishop Chrysostomos.
The Bishop told the German commandant of the island that although the Jews did not share the same religion with the Orthodox Christians and the other Christians of the island, Jews had been living alongside the Zakynthonians for centuries in a completely harmonious and peaceful way.
Chrysostomos allegedly told the Germans that the Jews of Zakynthos are equal to the other Greek citizens of Zakynthos, explaining that if anything untoward happened to them, this would be detrimental for the entire community of the island.
Additionally, Chrysostomos also wrote a personal letter directed to Hitler himself, where he said that he placed the entire Jewish population of Zakynthos under his personal authority, hoping that the German leader would never publicly order the killing of an entire community.
The German officials of Zante were perplexed by the rare and defiant move on the part of the two Greek leaders and decided to halt their plans, asking for a clarification of orders from Berlin itself.
Jews in Zakynthos alerted to the imminent danger
In the meantime, both Karrer and Chrysostomos rushed around the island, telling the Jewish families to disappear and hide either with Greek families who were willing to offer refuge to them or go into the mountains, where it would be difficult for the Germans to find them.
And this is what eventually happened. Nearly all of the Jewish population of Zakynthos, which numbered no more than 300 souls at any time, simply disappeared. The Germans soon said that they would not carry on asking for the list, and their plans were put to a permanent halt.
As a result of the brave move of these two men, all of the 275 Jews of Zakynthos were saved while Jewish communities in other parts of Greece were wiped completely off the map, from Ioannina and Veria to the great cities of Thessaloniki and Athens.
One year later, in October 1944, the Germans finally left the island of Zante. The Jewish families of the island had survived, and in the next few years, after the establishment of the state of Israel, most of them left to begin a new life, this time in their very own country.
Righteous among the Nations ward for mayor
However, the Jews of Zante never forgot that the only reason their families had survived was because of the bravery of Mayor Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos. Loukas Karrer was soon awarded the Yad Vashem Memorial Foundation’s title of “Righteous among the Nations,” along with another 327 brave Greeks.
In another act of appreciation, the Jews of Zakynthos donated blocks of stone for the island’s iconic Saint Dionysius Church, which had been badly damaged during the powerful 1953 earthquake.
The entire Jewish quarter of the island’s capital had also been destroyed by that earthquake as well, and the handful of the Jewish families who were left there finally moved to Athens.
Decades later, on each annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, all of us remember the millions who perished, and all those who courageously fought the inhumane and cruel Nazi regime which systematically murdered millions of Jews, gypsies, the handicapped, homosexuals and thousands of others across Europe from 1939 to 1945.
Among those who deserve to be remembered for their courageous stance are Mayor Kerrer and Bishop Chrysostomos of Zakynthos, who will always have a special place in the hearts of the people of Zakynthos, Israel and the entire world.