The Jews in Greece — Introduction

(1941-1944)


The nearly total extermination of Greece's 80,000-strong Jewish community during the Second World War is broadly known.* Specialists of this period are familiar with the more detailed aspects of the Nazi measures designed to apply the "final solution" in Greece, as well as the assistance Greek Jews received from resistance organizations and individuals. A number of monographs addressing specific issues related to the fate of Greek Jewry are beginning to appear.1 In fact, the quantity of information on Greek Jews during the war, both in terms of empirical data as well as of working hypotheses, is already demanding a more synthetic approach. Such an approach would consist of placing the Jewish question of wartime and prewar Greece in a broad social context rather than isolating its separate aspects for the purpose of analysis. It is toward the formulation of such an approach that the following documents are being published here. These documents consist of accounts of the conditions faced by Jews in wartime Greece related by Jews who managed to leave occupied Greece. These descriptions appear in the documents of four separate sources of information. The first is the U.S. Office of Censorship, which monitored information in the Allied and Axis press; the second is the Military Attache's office in Istanbul, Turkey; the third is the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul and the fourth is the Office of Strategic Services. It must be stressed that what follows is neither a full set of documents on the Jews in wartime Greece, nor a complete series of documents on this subject by each of the four separate services. It is, rather, a selection of these which reflects the overall picture of the circumstances under which the fate of the Jews tied in with the general situation in wartime Greece.

These descriptions are among the very few contemporary records of how ordinary people experienced the Nazi extermination of Greek Jews. Eyewitness accounts are an area where scholarly research has learned to tread carefully. If we allowed the facts to "speak for themselves," we would be censoring the role of the historian. The value, however, of these documents, beyond their empirical content, is in how the interviewees depict the situation they left behind them in Greece. The picture invariably presented is one of the general conditions of the country, with the personal or collective Jewish aspects woven into a broader canvas. One gets a sense of daily living conditions, Nazi repression, and the response of the resistance movement. This seems a profitable starting-point for a synthetic examination of the Holocaust in Greece.

Most of the reports mentioned above were by Thessaloniki Jews with Turkish citizenship, who were allowed to travel to Turkey. The sources of the rest of the reports, it can be assumed, "ere Greek Jews or non-Jewish Greeks. The information suffers from the inevitable factual or chronological inaccuracies of contemporary observations, which are not serious enough to detract from the value of the accounts. One anonymous source, almost certainly non-Jewish, exaggerates the relations between Greek Jews and the rest of the population before the war, which were not unproblematic in Thessaloniki, the main center of Jewish life in Greece. As far as these relations are concerned, the recently published study by George Mavrogordatos on interwar Greek politics2 has contributed to a better understanding of them. The antisemitic incidents which did take place in Thessaloniki were connected with the unresolved issue of the unassimilated minorities in northern Greece and their anti-Venizelist electoral behavior. While local venizelists were connected with these incidents, neither official Venizelism nor Venizelos himself sanctioned them in any way: in fact, they condemned them. The accounts published here reflect the fact that the more assimilated mixed-origin communities of the south, including Athens, were assisted more directly by the Greek population than the self-contained Sephardic communities in Thessaloniki and elsewhere. The conditions under 'which the Sephardic communities remained less assimilated than the older communities have been analyzed in the short but succinct history of Greek Jews by Nikos Stavroulakis.3 I have argued that assimilation, alongside a developed resistance movement, were the two most important factors in the survival of the Jews of Athens.4 In Thessaloniki, on the other hand, the resistance movement was not in a position to be of direct help. What help it was able to offer, according to Markos Vaphiadis's memoirs, was rejected; the Eamist Jews preferred to remain with their families during the roundups.5 Meanwhile, the special responsibilities of the Jewish leadership in Thessaloniki have been pointed out in a number of studies.6

A brief chronology of the Nazi measures against Greek Jews7 may be a useful companion in the eyewitness accounts which follow: as soon as the Nazis occupied Greece, they suspended all Jewish publications and began publishing the antisemitic Greek-language newspaper Nea Evropi in Thessaloniki. The fifteen-member Jewish Council of the city was arrested. The following year, in July 1942, forced labor was introduced in the Thessaloniki area, a German-occupied zone, causing many Jews to move away from the city and into the Italian-occupied zones to the south. Between 2,000 and 3,000 Jewish young men were dispatched to other parts of Greece to participate in forced labor. Meanwhile, the Bulgarians, who occupied northeast Greece, began taking antisemitic measures which eventually led to the deportation of the Jews of Thrace to Treblinka.8 In November 1942, the first confiscations of Jewish property in Thessaloniki occurred. The systematic expropriation and requisitioning of Jewish property began in January. In February, the Nazis issued orders forcing all but foreign Jews to be marked with armbands and yellow stars, and their stores identified as Jewish with appropriate notices. The first deportations began the same month. By August, about 46,000 Thessaloniki Jews had been deported to Auschwitz and Birkenau.

The "final solution" was delayed for the other, smaller, Jewish settlements in Greece because these were within the Italian-occupied zones. The Italians had refused to participate in the Nazi measures. Italy's withdrawal from the Axis in September 1943 meant the beginning of Jewish persecution all over the country, which now came under Nazi occupation. The Athens Jews were ordered to register in October, but very few did so. Aided by EAM, Chief Rabbi Barzalai burned the registers and escaped to the mountains. Jewish property was promptly confiscated in the capital.

In a series of raids in the spring of 1944, about 5,000 Jews were seized and deported in Athens and the rest of the mainland. Relatively few Jews were rounded up in the Volos-Trikala-Larissa area, where EAM-ELAS were powerful, but in the northwestern town of Ioannina almost all of the small community were deported. The same occurred with the small communities on the islands of Rhodes, Corfu, and Crete. The 300 or so Jews on the island of Zakinthos were allowed by the Austrian commander there to escape to Italy before the arrival of the SS.

Throughout 1943 and 1944, a number of foreign consulates were successful in rescuing a number of Jews with non-Greek passports. But the largest number of Jews survived within Greece through the protection offered by EAM and a variety of sources, including Archbishop Damaskinos and Chief of Athens Police Angelos Evert, and, of course, a large number of the population.

Notes

*The documents which follow were collected with the kind help of Nikos Papaconstantinou in Washington, D.C.

1The books and articles on the Jews of Greece, 1941-1944, have been recorded in J. O. latrides, ed., Greece in the 1940s: A Bibliographic Companion, bibliographies by Hagen Fleischer and Steven Bowman, University Press of New England, Hanover and London, 1981. Other or more recent articles of interest include J. Ben "Jewish Leadership in Greece During the Holocaust," in Patterns of the Jewish Leadership in Nazi Europe, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1977; R. Dalven, "The Holocaust in Janina," in Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 2, no. 1, May 1984; A. Kitroeff, "Greek Wartime Attitudes Towards the Jews in Athens," Forum (forthcoming).

2G. Th. Mavrogordatos, Stillborn Republic: Social Coalitions and Party Strategies in Greece, 1922-1936, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1983.

3E. Sevillas, Athens-Auschwitz, Lycabettus Press, Athens, 1983, edited and introduced by Nikos Stavroulakis.

4Kitroeff, op. cit. The most active resistance organization in this respect was EAM.

5M. Vaphiades, Apomnimonevmata, Vol. II, Nea Sinora, Athens, 1985.

6Ben, op. cit.; M. Molho and J. Nehama, In Memoriam, Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, Thessaloniki, 1976.

7A more detailed resume can be found in J. L. Hondros, Occupation and Resistance: The Greek Agony 1941-44, Pella, New York, 1983. 8H-J Hoppe, "Germany, Bulgaria, Greece: Their Relations and Bulgarian Policy in Occupied Greece" in Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, Vol. XI, No. 3, Fall 1984.


Source: "Documents: The Jews in Greece, 1941-1944: Eyewitness Accounts," by Alexandros Kitroeff, Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, Vol. XII, No. #3, (Fall 1985)