Sephardic Judaism's Hidden Children in Occupied Greece
SEPHARDIC JUDAISM'S HIDDEN CHILDREN
IN OCCUPIED GREECE
by Alexios Nicholaos Menexiadis
Published in The National Herald, February 4, 2006 Issue
I am excited to announce that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group.
There are many similarities between the history, sufferings and fate of the Jews who were living in Greece during the Second World War and the Occupation, and those of the same fate in other German-occupied territories, but there are also many differences.
Extensive investigation has been going on for some years now into the tragic story of the Jews of that time, as part of international historical research into the Holocaust. Greek historians and researchers have written noteworthy and particularly interesting works documenting events, accounts and memories which should never be forgotten, and have made them accessible to the general public.
The focus of most of these works has been on the arrest, uprooting and eventual extermination of thousands of Greek Jews at Nazi concentration camps. The participation of many escapees in the resistance movement, and the efforts made by ordinary people, local political, law enforcement and religious authorities to save those who were of the Jewish faith are quite well documented in historical works of a purely scientific nature, as well as published accounts of personal experiences.
The disintegration of the communities; the systematic plundering of synagogues; and the seizure of the property of displaced Jews are all issues which have already been dealt with and researched to a greater or lesser degree.
There is another aspect, however: that of the ordinary people who, with no personal interest, protected the fugitives when they were at the utmost limits of despair and had no means of defending themselves against the merciless persecution the occupying forces had unleashed upon them.
Not only individuals, but also whole families frequently found refuge in the homes of their Christian fellow citizens. Hidden this way, they managed to survive in most cases. The people who hid them were ordinary people with nothing to gain - indeed, quite the contrary. They not only placed themselves, but also their families, in tremendous danger. If they were found out, they faced capital punishment, as stipulated in the German regulations.
And yet, these people - more often than not acting on their own initiative and not waiting to be asked - offered to help their fellow human beings whose lives were in danger, people with whom they had lived peacefully for many years. They shared the meager space of their homes with them and, in many cases, also shared their even more meager food supplies. Putting their own lives in jeopardy at a time when the hardships and horrors of everyday life were already tremendous, they showed that compassion and sensitivity to others' pain and suffering are human values which are able to withstand the most adverse of conditions.
Even in this day and age, when the absence of such values is considered commonplace, we can not help but be moved by this fact and filled with optimism about human nature.
After the war, usually at the instigation of those who had been saved, the efforts and altruism of most of these people was officially recognized by the state of Israel, and they were awarded the title of “Righteous Among Nations” by the Yad-Vashem Institution. The sequence of events of that time is more or less familiar. The Greek-Italian War of 1940-41 was succeeded on April 6 by the German invasion. By April 9, the Germans had already entered Thessaloniki. On the 27th, they arrived in Athens, and the occupation of the whole of Greece was effected with the Battle of Crete, which lasted from May 20 to June 1.
Thessaloniki, home of the largest Jewish community in Greece, became German-occupied territory right away. That is where the first systematic persecution of Greek Jews began, when all male members of the Community were gathered together and humiliated in Plateia Eleftherias (Liberty Square) on July 11, 1942. Forced labor was imposed upon them, and a little later, they were confined to ghettos. Their property was systematically plundered. The culmination came in 1943, with the dispatches by rail under the most appalling conditions. Ninety-seven percent of the city's Jews never came back from the extermination camps. Only a few had foreseen the evil which was in store and managed to hide in time and save themselves.
The Athens area was under Italian administration until September of the same year. Anti-Semitic laws did not apply here; so many Jews from the German-occupied parts of the country were able to find temporary refuge there, hoping it would be impossible to trace them in the densely populated city. However, when Italy capitulated and the Bandoglio government was formed, the Germans took over the former Italian-administered territory and set about their monstrous task there, too, with nothing and no one to stand in their way. The difference, however, was that, to a greater or lesser degree, the Jews in Athens had advance information about the fate of others of their faith and, at lease those with enough prudence, took steps to hide. There were many cases of Christians who willingly helped their persecuted fellow human beings.
Unfortunately, as in so many other cases, it is no longer possible to interview many of these people and record what their motives had been, and what prompted them to make such difficult and astoundingly dangerous decisions. They were already adults at that time, and after so many years, most of them are no longer with us.
Great as a disappointment the loss of their personal accounts may be, as they would most certainly have been of exceptional interest, so much the greater is the need to keep the memory of these events alive through the personal accounts of those who benefited from their unfolding before them as spectators whose powers of observation were not affected by worries, anxious calculations, and their parents' struggle to save the family now makes it possible for us to record a sizeable and interesting part of the history of those difficult times.
The research conducted for the purpose of this exhibition harbors no pretensions of being a complete and systematic scientific study. It is based on interviews and written accounts, and is more like the children's own direct, living record of their experiences and memories of the time they were hunted and in hiding. The aim was to present these accounts and make them known to a wider audience, one which reaches beyond the community of those who have made history their profession.
Attention should be drawn to the particularly intense emotional expression, which these experiences characteristically have the power to provoke, even now. In many cases, the people giving the interviews were unable to hold back their tears. The anxiety over survival, which parents transmitted to their children during their struggle to stay alive, is one of the most noticeable features of these accounts. The same could be said of feelings of loneliness and separation from loved ones when concerns over safety drove families to split up and hide in separate hiding places.
It was, of course, far from easy for children between the ages of three and sixteen to be so abruptly separated from their loved ones for months on end. Feelings of loss, and in some cases rejection, even if unfounded, gripped their innocent souls. The constant need to play a role, which was necessary for their survival, coupled with sudden separation from their real parents and long periods of time spent with strangers, towards whom they had to behave as they would to their parents, frequently led to confusion, which in many cases went on after the occupation was over.
Another feature of the accounts is the strong expressions of gratitude the now adult hidden children of the time feel towards their saviors. This is true even when the saviors are not known or contact has not been maintained. Indeed, it is usually following the initiative of those who were saved that YadVashem awards the saviors. But the overriding emotion running through almost every single account is fear: fear of everything and everybody which could betray the children themselves or their families. It was the fear of even pronouncing their own names, which was not overcome for a long time after the liberation and which, in many cases, left indelible marks on their personalities, and even on their whole adult lives.
Note: Mr. Menexiadis was a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Athens in 2006