The Two Greek-Jewish Holocausts 1821 and 1943-1944
by Dr. Michael Matsas

Note: This article is based on a Lecture that was part of the Yom Hashoa Event at the Sephardic Center, Forest Hills, New York on April 15, 2007.

            We all know that the Germans and their collaborators killed 6 million Jews, including 67,000 Greek Jews.  Religious hate for the Jewish people had a lot to do with the Holocaust. The United States and Great Britain are indirectly responsible for the loss of 87% of the Greek Jews; a loss that could have been prevented, as you are going to see.

Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel wrote, “We are who we are because of what we learn and remember.”  Christian children learn about the noble teachings of Jesus Christ, and also that the Jews killed him.  They also learn that the Jews cannot go to heaven, no matter how good they are, because they don’t believe in Jesus Christ.  With this kind of indoctrination, it is very difficult for a good Christian to love a Jew.

            Anti-semitism in Greece today is almost as virulent as it was in 1821.  It is worse than it was in 1953 when Greek Jews could become officers in the Greek Army.  Today Jewish architects and engineers serve as soldiers or corporals, while their classmates serve as officers. 

            In Agrinion, my high school teacher took our class out of the city and told us an extraordinary story. We knew that in 1821, the Turks in Constantinople killed the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Gregory the Fifth, and asked some Jews to throw his body to the sea.  Our teacher told us the story that is not taught in the Greek schools, what I call “the neglected Holocaust”.  He said, “As soon as the news of the murder of the Patriarch arrived in Greece, the Greek Jews were massacred.”  In the city of Agrinion alone, over 200 Jewish families were killed.  The same happened in Mystra, Kalamata, Corinth, Thebes, and other cities.  Some people, like the family of my teacher, survived by converting to Christianity. The Vrahoritis family moved to Ioannina.

There was one Greek, powerful enough to be a “righteous gentile.”  He was one of the Greek leaders, Kanellos Deligliannis. He saved 12 Jews from the massacre of the prosperous Jewish community of Tripolitsa. The anti-Jewish feeling was so strong that he kept them in his house for 3 years and only in 1824, was he able to secretly move them to Zakinthos, which was not then under Greek control.  So the kingdom of Othon and Amalia did not have even one Jew alive. Their Viennese dentist, Dr. Lefkovits converted to Christianity when he came to Athens. Of course everyone knew that the Greek Jews were innocent of the murder of the Patriarch, but for almost 2,000 years the Christian church persecuted and indirectly killed countless Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, a murder they did not commit.  The noble teachings of Jesus of love and forgiveness were forgotten, and by 1543 the greatest German theologian, Martin Luther, gave this advice: “Set fire to their synagogues, confiscate their assets, and if any Christian shows pity for a Jew, he will burn in Hell”.

            Hitler took advantage of this long hatred of the Jewish people. He wrote “Anti-semitism is a useful expedient.  It is the most powerful weapon in my propaganda and of deadly efficiency.”

            In the book “Hiltler’s Pope,” by John Cornwell, Pope Pius XII gave his message of indifference, not only by his silence, but also especially by his “Reich Concordat,” a treaty with Hitler, which insured that the Nazis would rise unopposed to power.  This treaty, by Hitler’s own admission, sealed the fate of the Jews in Europe.                 

            For Greece, war started on October 1940, when Italy invaded Greece.  Germany had to come to the aid of Italy in the conquest of Greece which was divided into German and Bulgarian zones with 62,000 Jews and the Italian zone with 15,000 Jews. 

            The extermination of the Jews of Europe started as soon as Germany attacked Russia on June 22, 1941. The United States knew about the mass killing of the Jews as early as July 1941. The American military attaché in Berlin reported: “The normal procedure for the Nazis upon taking over a city in the East is to establish local commandos, to separate the Jews and to shoot them.” 

            Professor Breitman discovered that the coding system of the German Order Police that dealt with the Jews was broken by British Intelligence. The British were able to follow transports of Jews all the way to the killing grounds by intercepting radio messages. They knew the names of the units involved and the names of the officers who were in charge, the number of the transported Jews, and the location of the executions.  Winston Churchill was given such reports daily and he circled with a red pencil the numbers of the Jews who were killed.

            I thought it would have been inconceivable if the Allies did not warn the European Jews of such a mortal threat. In response to my request, Mr. Nathanael of the BBC wrote to me that: “No broadcast in the Greek language during the war mentioned anything about the Jews.”

            On August 1st, 1942, Edward Shulte, a German industrialist transmitted to the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland the information that “Hitler had ordered the liquidation of all Jews throughout the territories occupied by Germany.”  The information was transmitted to England and the United States.

            Professor Wyman wrote in his book, “The Abandonment of the Jews”, that “anti-Semitism was widespread and the State Department was actively blocking information about the genocide and deliberately obstructing rescue efforts. The press had little to say and this was in the inner pages. The United States and Great Britain were deeply committed to a policy of not rescuing the Jews, while, if the US accepted a policy of rescue, hundreds of thousands would have been saved and in the process it would have saved the conscience of the nation.”  Professor Wyman concluded with this statement, “A fact that particularly pains me as a Christian is that the American churches were silent.”

            John Pehle, the Executive Director of the War Refugee Board said: “The State Department was actively suppressing information about the Holocaust, while Undersecretary of State Breckinridge Long tried to cover it up.  By suppressing information, the Government becomes an accomplice in what the Germans were doing.” Officials of the Treasury Department revealed the “nasty scandal” in a report entitled, “Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews of Europe.”

            The abandonment of the European Jews by President Franklin D. Roosevelt became obvious when he refused entry to this immense country to the 900 German Jews of the “St. Louis,” six hundred of whom were eventually killed by the Germans.

            As a Greek Jew, I want to express my gratitude to the people of the United States. To those who fought as members of the Armed Forces, to the 460,000 who fell in action and their families, and to those who contributed to the war effort with their labor in the farms, the factories, and the merchant marine. 

            It is the Government of the United States, which,  with its silence, indifference and malicious motives, is indirectly responsible for the death of millions of Jews and especially for the death of the 67,000 Greek Jews who could have saved themselves relying on their own resources alone if the United Stated had told them that the Germans planned to kill them.

            Saving the Jews of Europe should have been a moral obligation for the US and not simply a humanitarian act. Five hundred fifty thousand American Jews served with distinction in the Armed Forces of the United States.  Eleven thousand were killed, 40,000 were wounded, and almost all of them had relatives in Europe who were abandoned to the hands of the Germans.  The American government rejected thousands of applications for immigration to this enormous country. Among these applications was that of Anne Frank’s family of Amsterdam.

            The Congress of the United States refused to allow entry to this country to 20,000 German Jewish children who were allowed to leave Germany. They were all below 14 years old. So the Germans killed them all. And while 6 million Jews were dying in Europe, the United States was becoming a nuclear superpower, thanks to Jewish scientists like Albert Einstein, Oppenheimer, Zillard, Teller, Rabbi, and Admiral Hyman Rickover, while the relatives of these Jews were left to die in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka.

            Professor Daniel Goldhagen, in his book “Willing Executioners,” asks the question, “How could the Holocaust happen?”  The answer can be found, he writes, “in the widespread, profound, and virulent anti-Semitism based on the traditional religious enmity to Jews. The German Protestant and Catholic churches, their bishops and their theologians watched the suffering that the Germans inflicted on the Jews in silence.”

            In Greece, the Jews knew nothing about mass killings or concentration camps.  Early in 1942, partisan groups formed in the mountains and they were fighting the enemy. The Germans were afraid to visit the thousands of the villages in the mountains. There were no roads leading to them. They had to go on foot and they were afraid of being ambushed. In July 1942, the Germans made their first move against the Jews in Salonika, with the events in Eleftherias Square and the forced labor battalions. This was the time when the Jews should have dispersed themselves to these mountain villages and not remain at the mercy of the Germans.  To do that they needed close Christian friends. They were the ones who had trusted relatives in these villages. But thanks to anti-Semitism, very few Jews had close Christian friends. So what happened was that over 3,000 wealthy Salonikan Jews went to Athens. The others stayed in their homes. The Christians had a far better understanding of what had to be done than the Jews. But the Christians, with rare exceptions, saw what was happening to the Jews with indifference and some with pleasure. Many became rich because of the Holocaust. Finally out of 77,000 Jews, only 6,500 remained in Greece and most of them found safety in the Free Partisan-Controlled Areas where my family went by taxi on October 3, 1943, and remained free.

            This window of opportunity for the Greek Jews to remain free was lost for the Jews of the German zone on February 8, 1943 and for the Jews of the Italian zone on October 8, 1943. On these dates German regulations prohibited Jewish families from leaving the cities. Escape became perilous if not impossible. In spite of that, Rudolph Vrba who escaped from Auschwitz, asked this question, “Could anyone send me alive to Auschwitz if I knew what was going on there?”

            And this is my question.  Why did these God-fearing British and American officials not  report this massive terrorist plot to kill, not just 3,000, but 8 million people?  Why  did these religious hypocrites help the Germans kill the Jews?

            The British and the Americans had the means to tell the Greek Jews that the Germans planned to kill them, as they had killed the German and the French Jews.

  1. There were BBC radio broadcasts, distributed by the resistance daily;
  2. There were American and British secret agents in the cities;
  3. There were British military missions;
  4. There were leaflets dropped by planes.

            If the allies had alerted us, they would not only have done their duty, but they would have helped the war effort since thousands of Jews would have become partisans fighting the Germans. 

            In the American archives, I discovered over 500 pages of documents related to the Greek Jews sent by American diplomats from Istanbul and Cairo. They were all ignored and placed in the archives. They were classified as secret. They certainly were not secret from the German murderers. They were secret only from the Jewish victims and from any decent people who could have saved them.

            Conditions in Greece were different than in any other country and favored the survival of large number of Jews.

  1. The anti-Jewish measures started very late. From August 1941, when the Americans and the British understood that the Germans killed Jewish men, women and children for no other reason except that they were Jews, until February 1943, when the Germans were ready to kill the Greek Jews, 18 months passed. There was more than enough time for the Greek Jews to take with them their gold and precious items and disperse to the thousands of mountain villages and survive.
  2. There was an Italian zone of occupation which offered safety until October 1943.
  3. There were free partisan- controlled areas.
  4. There was proximity to Turkey. Some 1,500 Jews with the assistance of ELAN, the naval branch of the resistance, crossed the Aegean Sea went to Turkey and from there to Palestine. 

            There was cooperation between the Greek resistance and Haganah, the Jewish resistance of Palestine. Haganah provided to EAM-ELAS medicines, uniforms, blankets and gold. In March 1943, while most of the Jews of Europe were already dead, the first transport of the unsuspecting Jews left Salonika for Auschwitz. The other Jews remained in their homes hoping that the Germans had no reason to deport them. They hoped in vain. Even when Italy capitulated the Jews remained paralyzed in their homes, trusting the promises of the deceitful Germans.

            The deportation of the Jews in the Italian zone started one year after the deportation of the Salonikan Jews, in March 1944, and it was not finished even by July 20, 1944.  There is information which supports my view that the only reason the Jews of Zakinthos and the Jews of Albania were not deported was that the Germans were forced to leave Greece and Albania. 

            The historian Cornelius Ryan writes about a German, a half-Jew, whose mother was a Christian and his father a Jew.  He lost an arm while fighting as a German soldier in the Eastern Front.  Half-Jews served in the German army until 1942.  In April 1944, Joachim Lipschitz had been marked for internment in a concentration camp.  From that moment on, he had been in hiding (in the house of his fiancée) in Berlin. The Gestapo planned to round up all those with even a drop of Jewish blood on May 19, 1945. 

            I believe that Bishop Chrysostomos of Zakinthos and Mayor Karrer deserved to be honored as righteous gentiles for their bravery. However, I cannot believe that the Germans would have allowed the Jews of Zakinthos and Albania to remain alive while they killed the German Jewish invalids, including those who received the highest awards of valor while fighting for Germany in World War I.  The Germans even killed the half-Jewish invalids who fought for Germany in World War II, while they sent to concentration camps and probable death all other half-Jews, including two close friends of mine whose father was a Christian and who almost died in the camps.

            And now I will talk about some interesting things that happened in Greece. In March 1943, when the deportations started in Salonika, the Jewish wife of George Politis, was allowed to be present in a clandestine meeting of 42 deans and presidents of organizations, meeting under the chairmanship of Archbishop Damaskinos. Mrs. Politis gave a heart breaking presentation pleading for assistance for her co-religionists.  The great poet Angelos Sikilianos wrote the famous protest which was signed by the Archbishop and the 42 prominent Greeks.

            Elias Venezis, the biographer of Archbishop Damaskinos, revealed in 1982 that the Archbishop met in March 1943 the German Ambassador, Günther Altenburg, and asked him to stop the anti-Christian deportations. The Ambassador replied that, “They could not be stopped and, on the contrary, they would expand to the rest of Greece.”  Unfortunately, the Archbishop did not transmit this information to the Greek Jews.

            In Thessaloniki, out of possibly 10,000 Jewish families, only one family was offered asylum in the city. A few days before the Germans left, their saviors forced the Jewish family to legally transfer to them all their real estate holdings. The family survived, but it became destitute. These saviors are included in the list of Greek righteous gentiles which consists of 70 couples and 79 individuals, to whom I am deeply grateful. Even after the Jews had to wear the yellow star in Verria, Menahem Stroumsas, decided to take his family, including the elderly grandmother, to the mountains. At one point they had to cross a river.  The old lady for the rest of her life kept talking about the parting of the waters as in the time of Moshe Rabbenu. 160 Jews followed his example and survived.

            According to the book “In Memoriam,” Rabbi Koretz sent a telegram requesting the arrest of the Jews of Katerini and that the chief of the police Papageorgiou saved the 30 Jews of his city.  I was told this is not true by Mr. Iosafat from Katerini. “A telegram arrived ordering the arrest of the Jews. The telegrapher immediately contacted my father and said he would delay the delivery of the telegram for 24 hours. The Jews of Katerini went to the mountains.” So the true hero is an unknown telegrapher, to whom I am deeply grateful.

            In Patras the German half-Jew, Mr. Wolfson, who worked as an interpreter for the German Army visited Isaak Matsa, President of the Jewish Community, and told him that the Germans planned to register the Jews. Most of the Jews of Patra went to the mountains and survived. Only the poor stayed in the city.

            In Athens, Baruch Shibi, a journalist and a leader of the resistance, knowing what happened in Salonika with Rabbi Koretz, conceived the plan of abducting or killing Rabbi Barzilai. The other leaders agreed to the plan. The Rabbi was sent to the mountains. The disappearance of the Rabbi forced the Jews to hide, go to the mountains, or to Turkey. The chiefs of the police Evert, Vranopoulos and Glykas issued hundreds of false identity cards.  All three are honored as righteous gentiles.  In contrast, the Greek Police and the Greek security battalions cooperated fully with the Germans in the deportation of the Jews. In addition there were thousand of traitors, including six Jews who were betraying hidden Jews. 

            Over 650 Jews became partisans of ELAS.  Six received the highest awards for valor.  In the battle of Karalaka 150 partisans including Jewish fighters like my cousin Joseph Matsas, Lieutenant Marco Carasso, and others ambushed a German battalion that captured five Jewish families. 252 Germans were killed. A man from New York sent me a photo of the monument which was erected there. Click here to see the photo

            In the battle of Menina, partisans of EDES attacked a German column.  My cousin, Dr. Michel Negrin, a medical officer of General Zervas, treated wounded partisans and also ten wounded Germans who were picked up by a British submarine.

            In loannina, out of 1,860 Jews, only one family of four survived intact.  On the day of the arrest an unknown man to whom I am also deeply grateful, asked the Vehoropoulou family to follow him at a distance, until he led them out of the city. After the war they tried to find him. They did not and Mrs. Vehoropoulou who was very religious told me: “He must have been an Angel sent by God”.

            And now I will give you an idea as to what I found in the archives. Following is a report, sent to the Secretary of State by the American Consul Burton Berry from Istanbul.

            “Michael Boyiadjoglou, a Greek tobacco merchant, arrived in Turkey.  On April 30, 1944 while on a train from Athens to Salonika, Mr. Boyiadjoglou talked with three German SS officers who said that they were on their way to Corfu, where they were to deport all Jews.” This life-saving information was ignored and placed in the archives. Almost 40 days later the unsuspecting Jews of Corfu were arrested. 

            It would have been extremely easy to warn the Jews of Corfu, via the British military mission in Greece and the resistance. According to the German Archives, the commander of Corfu, Colonel Emil Jaeger, sent a lengthy report to his superiors explaining why the Jews should not be deported. He insisted that “they should first transfer the Italians of Badoglio, who as former soldiers are much more dangerous than the Jews, against whom, by the way, we never expressed any complaint.” Out of 2,000 Jews of Corfu only 187 survived, 300 women, many of them pregnant, accompanied by midwives, formed a transport which eventually arrived in Auschwitz. Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Polish Jew, wrote, “Last night they burned the Greek Jews from the Island of Corfu, one of the oldest communities of Europe. The victims were kept for twenty-seven days without food or water, first in launches, then in sealed cars. When they arrived at Auschwitz’s loading platform, the doors were unlocked, but no one got out to line up for selection.  Half of them were already dead and half in a coma.  The entire transport, without exception, was sent to crematorium No.  2.”

            I conclude with a poem by Yitzhak Katznelson, which was written a few days before the poet was killed. It was buried in front of many people and it was recovered after the war by a man who survived. 

Sure enough, the nations did not interfere, nor did they protest,
Nor shake their heads, nor did they warn the murderers.
Never a murmur.  It was as if the leaders of the nations
Were afraid that the killings might stop.

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