by Photini Tomai*

On November 1st, 2005, the United Nations Assembly unanimously designated this day, to urge the nations of the world to observe it so that future generations will be spared acts of genocide. To this day, USA, Canada, Australia, the OSCE countries, among which Greece too, commemorate the Holocaust on 27 January.

For Greece, this day was established in 2004 with a law voted by the Greek Parliament; a presidential decree passed in 2005 regulates the commemorative events that occur on that day each year. Wreaths are laid on behalf of the government, the political parties, the armed forces, as well as resistance organizations, and victims and survivor’s associations, not only at memorial sites in Athens but also in cities throughout the country where Jewish communities flourished in the past.

Why this day?

It was Saturday afternoon, January 27th, 1945, when the 100th Division of the Red Army reached the gates of the Auschwitz camp. They could not believe their eyes when they saw the mounds of bodies, and 7,000 leftover inmates who were slowly dying from starvation and illness.
It is not without reason that words like Auschwitz or Birkenau are considered synonymous with horror and death. Among the innumerable victims who were sacrificed on the altar of the Hitlerian minotaur from all over Europe, 65,000 were Greeks and a few dozen were Christians Greeks, arrested either for resistance or for aiding their Jewish compatriots to escape. And what was their crime? They had been born Jewish. The fate that awaited them all was nothing but hellish torment.

A trilogy of books about the history and fate of Greek Jews, based on documents and data kept at the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and edited by Photini Tomai: Documents on the History of Greek Jews (Kastaniotis 1998), Greeks in Auschwitz/Birkenau (Papazisis 2009) and The Greek Righteous among the Nations (Militos 2016)

Why in Auschwitz?

Before WWII, there was nothing that indicated that in the quiet and peaceful Polish town of Oświęcim as the Poles call it, just 60 km southeast of Krakow, a giant machine would be assembled, a huge death factory with two camps, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, 3 km apart. Several other German industrial enterprises such as Krupps and Siemens- Schuckert, built new industrial plants in the area. Each of them had its own subcamp.

The Distinctive Presence of the Greeks at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Beginning with the first deportation of Greek Jews from Thessaloniki in March 1943, a part of Greece was literally living and dying on the dark
and frozen Polish soil, in a climate too foreign to the Greeks who were accustomed to sun and open skies.

It is no exaggeration to say that the behavior of Greeks threatened even the extremely well-organized SS presence in the camp, one example being the uprising on October 7th 1944.

Italian intellectual Primo Levi, a former inmate, writes in his memoirs: “The spirit of solidarity that distinguished the Greeks, their repugnance for violence, their dignity, made them the most nationally united group in the camp, and for that reason the most civilized”.

The last deportation to Auschwitz occurred in August 1944. It was the Jews of Rhodes island – 1,600 souls.
The death toll, however, was extremely heavy: out of 56,000 Jews from Thessaloniki, only 1,950 made it home.

In total, of the 77,377 Greek Jews who lived before the war, only 10,226 survived, others who returned half-alive from the concentration camps, and those who had either managed to stay hidden in Christian houses or had joined the resistance groups of ELAS and EDES fighting the Germans in the mountains.

The Greek Righteous among the Nations

They have been called ”next door saints” and “conspirators of goodness”. People who in a climate of fear, unbelievable brutality, and barbarism on a global scale, unknown until that moment, risked everything to save others from death. Many of them shared the same tragic faith with those they were trying to save, accompanying them to destruction.
Simple people who from one moment to the next became heroes in the full meaning of the word. The exact number of them will remain forever and for several reasons unknown. So far, 338 Christian Greeks who rescued their compatriots Jews have been honored with this title from the State of Israel. Because “whoever saves one life, saves the entire world” according to Talmud.

Why now?

In the more than seventy years that have passed since the Holocaust, many books have been written, abroad as well as in Greece, on the greatest collective crime that haunts humanity’s conscience.
The Holocaust has been examined from every aspect: social, political, philosophical, theological, and so on.
It has inspired men and women of literature all over the world, it has provoked discussion over faith in God, the meaning of good and evil, the consequences of intolerance, racism, and anti-Semitism, as well as the attitude of the international community, organized religions, media outlets and individual distinguished persons.
Still, there are those who deny that Holocaust has ever happened.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise again in Europe, it is in the news.

Jews are increasingly concerned about their security, as Yazidi, Baha’i and other minorities in the Arab countries, and Christians in Africa. Just like WWII victims were also Gypsies, homosexuals, communists, prostitutes or disabled persons. With only one difference, as the late Elie Wiesel, Nobelist, put it: “not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims”.

Today, we live in a globalized environment. It is an environment that would be inconceivable without respect for our fellow man and the ways they differ from us.
The inhumane conditions that violence begets are not one-sided. We have in our hands the solutions to prevent them. Our weapon is knowledge. There is a story by a survivor, which in my involvement as Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues in the Greek Foreign Ministry for two decades, stroke me mostly.

An SS office tells a young Jew: “One day you will speak of all this, but your story will fall on deaf ears. Some will mock you; others will try to redeem themselves through you. You will cry out to the heavens and they will refuse to listen or to believe… You will possess the truth, but it will be the truth of a madman”.
Not even the killers ever imagined that there could come a time that the merchants of images and the brokers of language, as Elie Wiesel so accurately named them, would set themselves to speak for the victims. Let us all preserve their memory and prevent this from happening again.

*Photini Tomai, Ambassador Ad. H., ret. by April 2018, is a historian, author and archaeologist

This article is included in the coming issue of Greek Business File, available on newsstands from February, 1st