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GreeceHow Zakynthos Saved Its Jews from the Holocaust

How Zakynthos Saved Its Jews from the Holocaust

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By Robert Zaller

The island of Zakynthos, the next to southernmost of the Seven Islands archipelago in the Ionian Sea, is among the most beautiful and cultured in all of Greece. Its great national poets, Dionysios Solomos, Ugo Foscolo, and Andreas Kalvos, celebrated the coming of Greek independence. Their tradition continued into ours with the twentieth-century author, Grigorios Xenopoulos, and into this century with the poet and playwright he mentored, the Hellenic News’ own Lili Bita, and my beloved late wife. Lili had many stories of Zakynthos to tell me, many of them in the wonderful memoir she wrote, Sister of Darkness. One of those stories she lived through herself as a child, and thought it would particularly interest me. It is now a rather famous one, the subject of books and films. And there is no better time for me to tell it than now, on Greek Easter, when Christianity celebrates the hope of humanity and what salvation can mean here on Earth.

Jewish populations were distributed widely throughout the Roman Empire after the expulsion from their historic homeland. They remained so during the Byzantine period, and with the Ottomans particularly encouraging their settlement in Saloniki, they were instrumental in developing the commercial, financial, and industrial preeminence of the city. This made the Jewish community particularly vulnerable to the Nazis after their conquest of Greece. One of its few survivors was the famed stage director Karolos Koun, with whom Lili would study drama after the war. For at least a time, however, the Jews of the Seven Islands had a degree of protection, as Fascist Italy was assigned their occupation and Mussolini offered at least passive resistance to the Holocaust. With his fall in 1943, however, Germany replaced the Italians, and immediately demanded a census of the Jewish population, for ultimate deportation to Auschwitz.

As elsewhere, the Germans operated in Zakynthos through local community leaders, the island’s bishop, Dimitrios Chrysostomos, and the mayor of its capital, Loukas Carrer. Chrysostomos had had a controversial career. As a student of theology in Munich, he had met the young Adolf Hitler, with whom he exchanged political views. Named Secretary of the Holy Synod of the Greek Church, he was temporarily suspended for heterodoxy. In the mid-1930s, he joined the Old Calendarists, a sect that insists on the traditional Julian calendar of Church observances to the present day. This, too, put him in trouble, and he was once again suspended from his Metropolitan functions in 1942-43 and sent to Athens. He had only recently returned to Zakynthos when the Germans arrived.

The purpose of the census demanded of Chyrsostomos and Carrer was clear. Some 50,000 Jews had already been sent to Auschwitz from Saloniki; the fate of those of Zakynthos would not long differ. Chrysostomos tried to defer the census, and was reported to have written directly to Hitler, asserting that he had been given full authority over the Jews of Zakynthos, that they were well-regarded by the general population, and that any attempt to alter their status would provoke civil unrest. This letter has not survived, although there is testimony that it was indeed written. It was, obviously, an act of extraordinary defiance if sent, but Chrysostomos was known among his colleagues as long supportive of the Jews, and his superior, Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, made a powerful declaration of his own: “I have taken up my cross, I spoke to the Lord, and made up my mind to save as many Jews as possible.”

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These pronouncements were epochal as statements of moral sentiment, but they could have little practical effect in themselves: the Holocaust would be especially severe in Greece, killing more Jews than almost anywhere else in Nazi-occupied Europe. Chrysostomos, who spoke German well and had impressed the military commandant of Zakynthos as a man with authority over his flock, was not a man to be lightly brushed aside, but it seemed he could do little to divert the Final Solution on a single island. With Carrer, however, he did.

While delaying the census as best he could, Chrysostomos alerted the Jewish community to it, urging them to flee the ghetto in Zakynthos town where they lived and ordering his own faithful to shelter them or assist their escape to remoter parts of the island. When the census was finally demanded, he presented the commandant with a sheet of paper containing two names: his own, and Loukas Carrer’s.

For such insubordination, both men could easily have been shot. It’s not clear why they weren’t. Perhaps the commandant realized that, with the Jews already in hiding, searching them out would be no easy task for a limited garrison with no reinforcements likely. Perhaps the possibility that Chrysostomos might write personally to Hitler gave him pause too. In any case, making a martyr of the bishop would not have made German governance easier. There was more than one example of accommodation between occupiers and occupied on the Greek islands. On Psara, the site of a famous massacre in the Greek War of Independence, Lili and I heard stories of how islanders had provided intelligence to the British navy while the Germans looked the other way. The resistance of Crete was famous.
Still, the deportation order hung over the island, including the stipulation that anyone caught sheltering a Jew would be executed. That the Jews remained safe in hiding for nearly a year was a tribute to the humanity and courage of their fellow islanders, and to the diplomacy, resourcefulness, and immense moral authority of Chrysosthomos himself. A last attempt to enforce the order was made in the late summer of 1944, but with little result. A month later, the Nazis evacuated Greece as Russian and Allied armies advanced. Virtually all of the 275 Jews of Zakynthos had survived.

After the war, the Jewish community endowed a stained-glass window in the island’s Church of St. Dionysius in gratitude to Chrysosthomos, still its bishop. But many of its members migrated, some to Athens and some of the new state of Israel. When the great earthquake of 1953 struck, Zakynthos town was almost wholly destroyed, including its Jewish Quarter, where a synagogue had stood since 1489. But Israel did not forget Chrysosthomos and Carrer, and in 1978 a plaque was installed in their honor in Yad Vashem, where Israel honors the Righteous Among the Nations, the gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust. A monument to Chrysosthomos and Carrer also stands in the rebuilt Zakynthos town of today. It honors by implication all Zakynthians too, as it should.

I’d add a postscript to the story. In 2009, Leora Goldberg, a Jewish visitor to Zakynthos who previously knew nothing of its history, mistakenly received $10,000 in euros from a bank teller when cashing a $1000 traveler’s check. When she discovered the mistake and came back to return the excess, the bank manager offered her a dinner in reward for her honesty. Goldberg declined, saying she’d learned of a debt to the island she could never repay. Another bank official came up to her at that, and introduced himself with tears in his eyes. “I,” he said, “am the grandson of Loukas Carrer.”
Memory lives.

The copyrights for these articles are owned by the Hellenic News of America. They may not be redistributed without the permission of the owner. The opinions expressed by our authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hellenic News of America and its representatives.

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