By Dr. Michael Matsas*
The Jews of Corfu, like the other Greek Jews, did not know what the Germans were doing to the Jews outside of Greece until the end of the war. The British and Americans knew everything but remained SILENT, although they had the means to inform the Greek Jews.
On May 2, 1944, Burton Berry, the American Consul in Istanbul, Turkey, sent this message to the U.S. State Department – “Mr. Michael Boyiadjoglou, a tobacco merchant, arrived in Istanbul and reported the following: On April 30, while on a train from Athens to Thessaloniki, Mr. Boyiadjoglou talked with three German officers who said that they were on their way to Corfu where they were to deport all the Jews. These officers left the train in Larissa.”1.
The U.S. official who received this message in Washington could have contacted the British military mission closest to Corfu. This mission was assisting the Greek Resistance which could have asked the Jews to disperse in the many mountain villages of their large island. From May 2 until June 8, 1944, when the Germans ordered the Jews to return to their homes, there was plenty of time for the Jews to save themselves.
This official did not take any action. He classified the message as “Top Secret” and buried it in the archives. In 1975, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, I discovered it in the FDR Library in Hyde Park.1 I became very angry and very sad. You keep top secrets from your enemies. Were the Jews of Corfu the enemies of the United States? Were they the enemies of President Roosevelt who was beloved by the Jews of America?
Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, a great grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the following about his famous ancestor, “If he knew about the slaughter of the Jews in Europe and he did not act, that is very serious, inexcusable.”2
The German commander of Corfu was Colonel Emil Jaeger. When he was informed about the impending deportation of the Jews of Corfu, he attempted to disobey the order. In a lengthy report that he sent to Berlin, he explained the reasons that this order could not be obeyed. He wrote, “the vessels which at present are at our disposal are totally inadequate. In case that additional vessels were available, they should first be used to 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 (emphasis mine).”3
On June 11, 1944, three hundred women, many of them pregnant, were placed on barges pulled by motorboats which arrived at a nearby port of Igoumenitsa on the Greek mainland. Waiting trucks transported them to Athens. From Athens they were sent to Auschwitz.
Dr. Miklos Nyiszli described their arrival in the death camp: When they arrived at the loading platform, half of them were already dead and half in a coma. The victims were kept for 27 days without food or water. All of them were sent to #2 crematorium.4 Armandos Aaron of Corfu told me his story:
Only 50-60 Jews escaped arrest. On June 9, 1944, at 5am, the Germans knocked at every Jewish door and ordered everyone, including the sick and invalids, to go to Army Square. The Greek police helped the Germans. The captives were taken to the nearby old fortress where they were forced to surrender their valuables and the keys to their homes.
Eventually, the homes were looted by the Germans and the people looted the rest. The rest of us, 1,600 people were also put on barges, pulled slowly by motor boats on the way to the city of Patras. In Patras, when the Germans went to have lunch, we were guarded by their Greek collaborators of the security battalions. A man I knew from Corfu was passing by and the Greek guard gave us permission to talk. I found myself a couple of feet away from my place when the Germans were returning and my friend instantly disappeared. I started moving forward like a blind man. I was afraid I would be killed in front of my parents. A young barber asked me, where do you go friend? Come into my shop. You are filthy. I am going to clean you and tonight you can stay in my home. Tomorrow morning, I will show you the way to partisan territory. This is how I became a partisan of ELAS and survived.5 Two sisters, Finetta and Cleio, from Patras married two brothers from Corfu, Matathias and Menahem Cohen. One of the Greek guards recognized the sisters and he remembered how grateful he was to their father who helped him in the past. He told them that he could save them and their families. They asked what about their mother-in-law. He said that he could not move around with an 85-year-old lady. The girls refused to abandon their mother-in-law. They all died in Auschwitz.6
This is how the beautiful island of Corfu which was the summer resort of emperors and kings and which was the birthplace of Prince Philip of England and where the Jewish communities of Corfu was one of the oldest in Europe has almost no Jews there anymore.
1) FDR Library, War Refugee Board, Container No. 26, p. 109.
2) Joseph Berger, “Roosevelts and the Quirks of Destiny,” New York Times, March 16, 2005.
3) NOKW 1915 Nos. 3784/44 and 6493/44 -Records of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.
4) Dr. Miklos Nyiszl, Auschwitz (Greenwich, CT, 1960), p. 83.
5) Mark Mazower identifies George Mitsialis as the man who saved Armando Aaron. Inside Hitler’s Greece, 1993,
6) Story told to me by Joseph (Pepos) Yohanas of Patra, June 1976.
Dr. Michael Matsas was born in 1930 in Ioannina, Greece, and from October 1943 to October 1944, he survived WWII in the free Greek mountains with his immediate family. He graduated as a dentist from the University of Athens in 1953 and served as a dental officer for three years in the Greek Army. In his last year, he was the dentist of the Military Academy of Athens. He is the author of The Illusion of Safety: The Story of the Greek Jews During the Second World War, second edition, Vrahori Books, 2021.