Up until the Holocaust, Greece had a thriving Jewish community dating back to the time of the expulsion from ancient Israel.
Salonika was known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans and had a Jewish majority in Ottoman times. During Ottoman rule, the Jews of Greece thrived and coexisted peacefully with their neighbors for the most part. Under Ottoman control, Jews would experience a golden age that rivaled Muslim Spain. The Greek Jewish community consisted of two groups, the Sephardic Jews who were heirs of the Golden Age of Muslim Spain and Romaniot Jews, who were Hellenized and lived in the area for over 2,000 years. However, this rich and ancient Jewish community dating back to antiquity was wiped out during the Holocaust.
According to the Kehila Kadosha Ioannina Synagogue and Museum, out of all of the countries occupied by the Nazis, Greece lost the largest percentage of its Jewish population. A larger percentage of Greek Jews were selected to die at the death camps than that of any of the other Jewish communities. 87 percent of the Greek Jewish community, numbering between 60,000 and 70,000 souls, perished in the Holocaust. Most of them were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
There are many reasons why a larger percentage of Greek Jews perished in the Holocaust than the Jews in any other Nazi occupied country. For starters, Greek Jewish society was very family-centered. As a result, young Greek Jews who might have been able to survive by fleeing refused to do so because they did not want to abandon their families. Another one of the factors that lead to their death was that they had a longer journey to travel in the cattle-cars than the other Jews did. As a result, when the Greek Jews arrived in Poland, a greater percentage did not appear fit to work slave labor as far as the Nazis were concerned. Another factor leading to their deaths was the language gap. Since they didn’t speak any of the surrounding languages, their chances of successful escape attempts were virtually non-existent and they could be killed on site for not understanding German orders.
Furthermore, Greek Jews were used to drinking vast amounts of water and thus, even though the water in the camp was contaminated, they usually couldn’t resist drinking it, thus leading to all sorts of diseases leading towards death. Additionally, since the Greek Jews were used to a more temperate climate, they could not physically handle the cold of Poland. Another factor that one should take into consideration is that Greek Jewish men were more likely to be assigned to be Sonkercommando than other Jews, since they were usually strong and able-bodied because they worked in the ports in Greece. These Jews were executed every three to four months, to ensure that there would be no witnesses to the Nazis Final Solution. These are a few of the many reasons why Greek Jews died in greater numbers in Auschwitz than other Jewish communities. Thus, 85 percent of Greek Jews would not be able to survive the conditions in the Auschwitz camp, while the average was 70 percent for other Jewish communities.
The result of this situation was the tragic systematic destruction of the Greek Jewish community. Only between 8,000 and 10,000 Greek Jews managed to survive the Holocaust, thus serving as the remnants of what was once a flourishing Jewish community. These Jews for the most part managed to be saved due to a proclamation by Archbishop Damaskinos instructing members of the Greek Orthodox Church to issue false baptism certificates to Jews that requested them. His protest was the only one of its kind by any major Christian leader in Europe. In addition, the Italians didn’t really cooperate in the deportation of Jews in their zone, until Italy surrendered in September 1943. Yet, such efforts were not sufficient to alter the fate of the Greek Jewish community.
By: Rachel Avraham
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