For Greece, a record of sorrow and righteousness

 

During World War II, Archbishop Theophilos Damaskinos was surprised to learn that German-occupied Greece had started to deport Jews from the city of Salonika.

An armistice held that all Greeks, regardless of their race or religion, were to be treated equally. In the archbishop’s opinion, the Greek Jews were law-abiding and had sacrificed for their country.

“We hope that the Occupation Authorities will realize in due time the futility of the
persecution of Greek Jews, who are among the most peaceful and productive elements
of the country,” Damaskinos wrote in a 1943 letter protesting the occupation, according to the Shoah Resource Center.

Archbishop Theophilos Damaskinos is recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Public domain/Wikipedia.

Damaskinos is today recognized by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust center in Israel, as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. Damaskinos’ efforts will be one of several aspects of the Holocaust in Greece that will be explored in an upcoming series presented by the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center and the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

This year’s annual Holocaust education series will be presented in partnership also with the Saints Constantine and Helen Church of Wauwatosa, the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church of Milwaukee and the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago.

The series will span January through March and will consist of films, discussion, a concert and a lecture, each exploring the Holocaust in Greece. The final event will be a lecture by Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, on Damaskinos’ legacy.

Shay Pilnik, executive director of HERC, said the organizations wanted to shed light on a portion of Holocaust history that people may not be aware of. Greece was home to about 77,000 Jews when the Axis powers took occupation in 1941, according to Yad Vashem Holocaust center in Israel. The largest concentration was in Salonika, where 50,000 Jews lived. About 60,000 Greek Jews died in the Holocaust.

Many people are familiar with the country where Nazism was bred, and the impact of the Holocaust on European countries like Poland and the Soviet Union, Pilnik said. People are likely less familiar with the story of Greece, where leaders like Damaskinos sought to protect Jewish residents.

“We were both aware of the uniqueness of the topic, but we were equally aware of the fact that it is quite neglected in the public or common knowledge of the Holocaust,” Pilnik said.

He said he thinks this series will demonstrate the extent to which the Nazis went to carry out their “final solution” — exterminating the Jews.

A woman weeps during the deportation of the Jews of Ioannina, Greece on March 25, 1944. The deportation was enforced by the German army. Almost all of the people deported were murdered on or shortly after April 11, 1944, when the train carrying them reached Auschwitz-Birkenau. Public domain/Wikipedia.

“The Nazis did not just want to target the Jews of their own country or even the Jews of neighboring countries,” he said. “We felt that this fairly neglected story of Greek Jews actually teaches us a lot about the Holocaust. What we wanted to do was bring it from the periphery to the forefront.”

Laurie Herman, library and media center director at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay, said she looks forward to highlighting the stories of people like Damaskinos. Many are familiar with the work of other people recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, she said, but perhaps not the Greek archbishop.

“(He) really was a very brave man who stood up for what he believed in,” she said.

Some of the series’ events will take place at the JCC, while others will be hosted at Greek Orthodox churches.

John Ackerman, director of media relations for the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, said the organization also wants to call attention to a lesser known area of World War II history.

“The Greeks didn’t capitulate and didn’t just think of themselves,” he said. “They’d been living in harmony for so long, they didn’t think of each other in those lineage groupings of people.”

Ackerman pointed to the old philosophy about standing up for others so that they will be around to protect you when you’re in need. With genocide already a part of the nation’s history, he said, Greeks did not want to see the crime committed again.

At the time, Damaskinos urged that if the Nazis insisted on deporting their people, the Greek government should take a clear stance against the move.

“The responsibility of the leaders will weigh heavily upon the conscience of the nation if today the leaders fail to protest boldly in the name of the nation against such unjust measures as the deportation of the Greek Jews, which are an insult to our national unity and honor,” Damaskinos concluded in his protest letter. The letter was also signed by the leaders of other cultural organizations.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Damaskinos’ historic letter protesting the Nazis’ actions in Greece.

“The Greeks wanted to make sure they were standing up and saying, ‘No,’ that this isn’t correct,” Ackerman said.

In Damaskinos’ case, that meant standing up in the face of his own death. General Jurgen Stroop threatened to shoot the archbishop when he learned Damaskinos was behind the protest letter, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“According to the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church, our prelates are hung and not shot,” the museum credits Damaskinos as saying. “Please respect our traditions.”

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How to go: Greece and the Holocaust 

All programs are free and open to the public.

When: Sunday, Jan. 14 at 2 p.m.

Where: Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay.

What: Film — “Cloudy Sunday.” A Greek drama about the love between a Jewish girl and a Christian boy, depicting the impact of the Holocaust on Salonika.

When: Wednesday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m.

Where: Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay.

What: Film — “Because of That War.” An Israeli film focused on two Israeli musicians, exploring the effects of the Holocaust on the second generation in Israel.

When: Wednesday, Feb. 7, 7 p.m.

Where: Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, 2160 N Wauwatosa Ave., Milwaukee

What: Film — “Cloudy Sunday.” A Greek drama about the love between a Jewish girl and a Christian boy, depicting the impact of the Holocaust on Salonika.

When: Sunday, Feb. 18, 2 p.m.

Where: Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay.

What: Concert by Cantor Alberto Mizrahi of Anshe Emet in Chicago. Mizrahi is the child of Greek Holocaust survivors and will present Jewish, Greek and Mediterranean music. He will also talk about his family background.

When: Wednesday, Feb. 21, 7 p.m.

Where: Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay.

What: Film and filmmaker visit — In the Shadow of the Acropolis by Laura Zelle. The film explores the Romaniote, an ancient Jewish culture from which Zelle descended. The culture was nearly destroyed in the Holocaust. Zelle will discuss the film and her family’s background.

When: Tuesday, March 20, 7 p.m.

Where: Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 9400 W. Congress St., Milwaukee.

What: Lecture by Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, on the legacy of Archbishop Theophilos Damaskinos.