A lecture given on May 10, 2004, at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington by Dr. Michael Matsas, author of "The Illusion of Safety – the Story of the Greek Jews during the Second World War," published by Pella Publishing Company, 1997.

Editorial Comment: About two years ago I read Dr. Matsas' book and I was quite intrigued by the subject since it matched histories I had heard from non Jewish sources in Salonica. This lecture contains the highlights of the book and I believe it to be required reading for any Greek or Jew and not just for Greek Jews. - Theo Pavlidis - June 2005


There were Greek Jews before there were any Greek Christians. This is so, because there were Jewish communities in Greece even before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. They lived in Sparta, Samos, Rhodes, Cos, Delos, Crete, Aigina, Argos, and elsewhere. There is archeological evidence that synagogues existed in Athens, Corinth, Salonica, and Veria.

In the 11th century Benjamin of Tudela found many prosperous Jewish communities in Greece. Around 1400 the Turks occupied Greece. Hungarian Jews came to Greece to avoid the persecutions following the Black Death.

In 1492 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews of Spain. They left behind their fortunes, which financed the expeditions of Columbus. The royal couple initially rejected Columbus’ proposal to find a route to the Indies, because they thought that they did not have enough money to finance his voyage. But their new treasurer, a Jew who converted to Christianity, persuaded them that they had all the money they needed and they recalled Columbus.

Soon Portugal expelled its Jews and many came to Greece. They were followed by Italian Jews expelled from Sicily and Apulia, and in 1648 Jewish refugees arrived, escaping the Cossack massacres. The Turkish sultan remarked, “They tell me that the Christian rulers are wise. But how can they be wise if they expel the Jews who enrich me?”

Regardless of their place of origin, upon their arrival in Greece, the Jews were assimilated into one of two traditions. In cities like Salonica or Veria they became Sephardim speaking Ladino or in cities like loannina or Arta they became Byzantine or Romaniote Jews speaking in Greek. The Spanish Jews contributed greatly to the development of Greece. They introduced printing, the textile industry, and international trade.

In 1821 the Greeks revolted against the Turks and liberated almost half of mainland Greece. The Turks in Constantinople or present-day Istanbul killed the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Gregory V and asked some Jews to throw his body into the sea. This part of the story was taught in the Greek schools when I was in Greece.

The second part of the story was not taught in the schools. This is the second part. When it became known in Greece that "a Jewish mob desecrated the body of the Patriarch," the innocent Jews of the newly liberated areas of Greece were massacred. Some escaped death by becoming Christians and some escaped to Turkish-occupied Greek cities. For example, the Vrahoritis family of loannina escaped from Vrahori, present-day Agrinion. They say that Vrahori originated from the word "Evraiohori," or Jewish village. This seems to be possible, since I did not see any rocks (rock=vrahos) in Agrinion.

I was a high school student in Agrinion when I heard about this massacre of the Jews for the first time. One day our teacher, Panos Papachristos, took our class out of the city and told us about what happened in 1821 and how the 200 Jewish families of Agrinion were massacred. It is rumored that the Papachristou family was one of those who converted to Christianity in 1821. Danny Spiegel, a historian, wrote a paper about the Jewish tombstones of Mystra. The Jews of Mystra were also killed in 1821.

A Greek Christian physician once asked me to give him information about the Greek Jews. He wanted to write a historical novel about his great-great-grandmother who was a little Jewish girl when she was saved from death in 1821.

It is obvious that there were “righteous Gentiles” in 1821, just like there were in the Second World War, like those who saved the Papachristou family or the ancestor of the physician. The greatest righteous Gentile I was able to find was one of the Greek leaders, Kanellos Deligiannis. He saved 12 Jews from the massacre of the prosperous Jewish community of Tripolitsa. He kept them hidden in his house for three years and, only in 1824 was he able to secretly move them to the island of Zakinthos, which was not then under Greek control.

The English historian Finley said, “I listened to distinguished Greek military leaders describing the atrocities which they committed and bragging about the role they played in encouraging their soldiers to execute them.” Furious was also the historian Spyridon Trikoupis, “and so Christians... acted many times during the revolution as students of...a school which teaches that, for crimes committed by others, innocent people should be penalized for crimes they did not commit.” [1]

In 1834 Prince Othon and Princess Amalia of Bavaria became the king and queen of the new Kingdom of Greece. They brought from Vienna to Athens their dentist, Dr. Lefkowitz. At that time Dr. Lefkowitz was the only Jew alive in the Greek kingdom. He became a Christian Orthodox and many of his descendents became dentists. We were told this by Professor Georgis of the Dental School of Athens, who was one of the descendents of Dr. Lefkowitz.

In 1912 the Greeks liberated the rest of mainland Greece, including Salonica, which had a large Jewish community. A great fire of unknown origin devastated the Jewish neighborhoods in 1917. Thirty-two synagogues were destroyed and approximately 50,000 Jews were left homeless. Many emigrated to France and Palestine afterwards. In 1922 Greece was defeated by Turkey and, in an exchange of populations, one million Christians arrived in Greece from Asia Minor. The tension, which already existed between Christians and Jews, increased considerably.

In 1940 there were 77,000 Jews in Greece, 56,000 of whom were living in Salonica. During the war against Italy and Germany, over 500 Greek Jewish soldiers were killed in action. Colonel Mordechai Frizis and his troops gave the Allies their first victory of the Second World War, when he stopped the Italian advance in Epirus and liberated part of Albania. An Italian plane killed him because he refused to dismount from his horse! Last year his remains were returned from Albania and were buried in the soil of Greece, which he loved very much, with great honor, by the Greek government.

As I remember my life in Greece, I don’t have any complaint against my classmates in my high school or Dental School of the University of Athens. I served for three years as a dental officer in the Greek army and I consider it an honor to be appointed director of the dental office of the Military Academy of Athens.

Yet I remember how insulting it was for me to hear the common expression, “havra iouthaion” (Jewish synagogue) which characterized any noisy gathering in a classroom or public place. Holy week and especially Good Friday was a period when, as a Jew, I did not feel comfortable at all.

In 1943-44 when we lived in the village of Psilovrahos, we attended church services. hoping that the villagers would feel that there was no real difference between them and us, except that we did not make the sign of the cross. After the Good Friday service, however, many of the villagers looked at us without love. The kind priest Papadimitris visited my parents after the service and apologized to them for the things he said. “It is my job, you understand,” he concluded. We understood!

The next day, five-year-old Panos, who loved me, looked at me with suspicion. “You killed Jesus Christ!” he said. To this day I feel pain when I remember the words of the little boy. I realize what a great effort is required by a Christian to successfully suppress such anti-Jewish feelings.

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