The Greek War Relief Association and Its Efforts to Save Greece in World War II (WWII))


By Stavros T. Stavridis

Published in The National Herald, November 4, 2017


I am excited that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group. 


When Italy attacked Greece in October, 1940, the GreekAmerican community came to the rescue of the homeland by creating the Greek War Relief Association (GWRA) with headquarters based in New York. 

The GWRA was founded by Greek businessmen, bankers and professionals with Spyros P. Skouras, who became president of 20th Century Fox in 1942; Tom Pappas owner of a supermarket chain; Harry Rekkas, a Chicago businessman; Evangelos Hardaloupas, a banker; Theodore J. Eliasco, a banker; Kyriakos P. Tsolainos, Founder of the Hellenic-American Chamber of Commerce in 1947; Stephen C. Stephano, owner of a cigarette manufacturing company; and George C. Vournas, a Washington, DC lawyer and AHEPA president. Their mission was to unite the Greek-American community behind the Greek war relief effort and to engage the American people in the same direction. 

As an Associaton, it had a Board of Directors in Harold S. Vanderbilt, the most Reverend Athenagoras, Skouras, Tsolainos, Joseph J. Larkins, Van A. Nomikos, oilman William J.Helis, and Lytle Hull. The inclusion of American directors gave the GWRA an air of a mainstream American organization. A women's division also played its role in the relief effort. By midMarch 1941, GWRA had collected the total sum of $2,750,000 for Greek relief. 

King George 11 of Greece wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt on the suffering of his people and appealed to the generosity of the American people at a critical moment in his nation's history. The King mentioned that the GWRA was "further proof that philhellenism continues to inspire Americans of today in their lofty ideals...Americans today are aware that the Greek nation is again fighting for the principles of justice, truth and liberty, without which life for us is inconceivable." Roosevelt assured the Greek monarch that the American Red Cross had sent funds and relief supplies to Greece and the United States would do everything in its power to assist her. 

Greece needed military supplies to defend itself as discussions were taking place between the Greek, British, and American governments on this issue. There were some confusion and misunderstanding during these consultations. On March 31, 1941, there were 30 U.S. Grumman fighter planes ready to be shipped to Greece under the provisions of the Lend-Lease Act. This order was never fulfilled due to the German invasion and occupation of Greece.

Vanderbilt, a director of the New York Central and several other railroads and national honorary chairman of GWRA, was charged with the task of raising 10 million dollars for assistance to Greece. The involvement of such a prominent individual from one of America's elite families could only help GWRA’s relief activities. Vanderbilt acknowledged the contribution of Greece to democracy and its "noble heritage to humanity." He cited "the noble traditions of Thermopylae and Marathon" where the Greeks were fighting a vastly superior foe with the same heroism as she did some 2,500 years ago. She was fighting for "the ideals of democracy and the individual rights of free men today." 

Some of the contributions came from the Benevolent Society Pergamians of Brooklyn $1,500, S.R Kent and the association's chapter at Charlottesville, VA contributing $1,000 each, Pontos Democratic Club of Jersey City $1279, Greek community of Lodi California, Greek community of Jamestown, PA, Friends of Greece in Texas, American Sympathizers from Philadelphia, Cleveland H. Dodge Foundation in New York, and Z.Y Couyoumdjian. There was a steady flow of funds during the duration of the Second World War from Greek-Americans and the American public. These funds were used to procure ambulances, medical and food supplies which then forwarded to Athens. 

The German invasion of Greece in April, 1941 closed the door for further direct communication. Greece faced a critical shortage of food and other supplies, which were urgently needed to help a starving population. GWRA contributed to the relief of refugees in Turkey and Egypt and also conducted negotiations with various governments "involved for shipments of food from Turkey and the United States for the relief of the population of Greece." In late 1941, the Turkish ship Kurtulus made two trips to Piraeus from Turkey carrying food supplies and later the Turkish government having its own food shortages ceased its food shipments to Greece. Overall, Turkey's relief supplies to Greece was comparatively very small. 

King George accompanied by prime minister, Emanuel Tsouderos visited the United States in June, 1942. The King visited GWRA headquarters thanking them personally for their assistance and Tsouderos went to Washington seeking financial and military aid. However, the United States would seek the advice of the British government in this matter. It is worth noting that Skouras had a conversation with the king, where the latter raised the possibility of bringing Greek children to the United States from Greece for the duration of the war. An impractical suggestion with the Atlantic sea lanes patrolled by Nazi U-boats and the issue of U.S. immigration quotas.

 As GWRA received horror stories of people dying of hunger and disease in Athens, Thessaloniki, and other cities and towns, food and medical shortages had reached a critical state. Without the provision of additional supplies, the Greek people faced a catastrophe of biblical proportions. A new campaign by GWRA to raise $12 million was launched for relief purposes. How was this problem to be resolved with the British and German naval blockade of Greece? 

The U.S., British, and Canadian governments were ready to swing into action authorizing monthly shipments of 15,000 tons of wheat from North America to Greece on an understanding that a neutral organization would be appointed to receive the necessary control and distribution facilities from the occupying powers. In particular, Canada played a prominent role in its wheat exports to Greece. 

Following that announcement, negotiations conducted by the Swedish, German and Italian government agreed to this proposal. The belligerent powers granted safe conduct for the Swedish ships to undertake this humanitarian task. GWRA charted three Swedish ships, the Formosa, Eros, and Camelia, in July, 1942 and upon their arrival in Greece distribution of supplies would be carried out by representatives of the Swedish and International Red Cross. This would ensure that food and medical supplies reached the Greek people. 

From 1942 to 1944, Skouras stated the GWRA had sent 75 million dollars of food aid and the overall success of the program was due to the united efforts of the GWRA, US, British, Canadian and Swedish governments, the Swedish and Greek Red Cross and the GWRA fund of Canada. 

The GWRA’s patriotic effort was instrumental in saving the lives of thousands of Greek civilians from hunger and disease during the German and Italian occupation of Greece. 

Stavros T. Stavridis is a historical author, history professor, and historical consultant.