Greece lost the vast majority of its 75,000 Jews in the Holocaust. The largest segment of the Jewish population (between 40,000 and 50,000) lived in Salonika, a coastal city in northeast Greece, which had been home to the largest single population of Sephardic Jews in the world, Ladino speaking Jews who were welcomed to this city by the Turkish Sultan, and who enjoyed a cultural flowering under Turkish and then Greek rule.
During the early years of World War II, most of Greece was occupied by Italy, but this northern segment of Greek Macedonia was German occupied, with a significant amount of Greek collaboration. Scholar Andrew Apostolou spoke on “The Holocaust in Salonika” last night at the Magen David Sephardic Synagogue in Rockville before an audience of perhaps 200. An Oxford scholar, Apostolou gave a very informative and intelligible presentation, saying that while the Greeks like to speak of the horrible occupation (which it was) and how the Christians tried to help the Jews, that research on what happened in Salonika does not bear this out for the most part. There were many Greek collaborators (in fact it could almost be said that the Salonikans invited the Germans in); there was much Christian indifference; and there were some instances of Christian aid to the many Jews of the city. Further, he pointed out, that Christian aid to the Jews was not without great risk. In addition to the 45,000 Jews who were deported to Auschwitz in 1943 (after several years of increasingly severe restrictions), there were 15,000 non-Jewish Greeks who were killed as “reprisals” during the German occupation of Salonika. To be sure, most of these were not killed because they helped Jews, but any sort of protest could turn deadly. Nevertheless, he said, there were some protests; he cited university protests against decreasing student aid as an example.
Contrasted with the Jewish experience in Salonika, was the experience of the 275 Jews on the island of Zakynthos, a small island off the larger island of Corfu. These were not Sephardic Jews of Spanish origina, but were Romaniot Jews, who had been in Greece probably since Greco-Roman times. They were Greek speakers, not Ladino, and therefore impossible to distinguish from the remaining inhabitants. The island population saved all 275 Jews; they simply refused to turn them over, they refused to give their names to the German occupiers (eventually, the Italian occupation was replaced by a harsh German occupation); they hid them for years in farm houses scattered about the island.
The story was a fascinating one. The mayor and the bishop, when required to give names to the Germans, submitted a list of two names, their own. When told by the Germans that the Jews were dangerous and were potential perpetrators of sabotage, they demurred and said that the Germans should worry about the Greeks, not the Jews. And not one Greek on the island turned in one Jew during the entire time of the occupation.
After the war, most of the Jews (who were by and large impoverished at that time), left the island to go to Athens or to Palestine, and the remainder were scattered after an enormous earthquake in the early 1950s destroyed the main city, but they remain close to the island today, visiting back and forth. The mayor and the bishop meanwhile have been honored by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
The Zakynthos story was told in a new documentary film, “Song of Life”, which tells the story, and interviews the survivors. It has some beautiful moments, although the film itself could, I think, have been edited one more time.
Last year at the Jewish Film Festival of Washington, another documentary was shown, this one a Swiss made film called simply “Salonica”, which showed how little of Jewish Salonika remains, and what it had been like.
Quite a contrast between the two. And it shows what, perhaps, could have been done differently to avoid the calamity that occurred. Or perhaps that is just wistful thinking. Perhaps everything was inevitable, and always will be.