The Consulate General of Greece in New York organized an event ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27th) dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Greek Jewry during WWII.
The Holocaust Remembrance Day of the Greek Jewry was held on January 21 at Hebrew Union College in Manhattan, NY and was sponsored by Atlantic Bank. Hellenic Film Society president James Demetro gave the welcoming remarks and served as Master of Ceremonies.
American Jewish Committee (AJC) Chief Executive Officer David Harris gave the keynote speech, following the greetings by Greece and Israel’s Consuls General, Konstantinos Koutras and Dani Dayan respectively, as well as the remarks by Rabbi Diana S. Gerson, Assoc. Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis.
The President of the American Friends of the Jewish Museum of Greece Mr. Solomon Asser delivered his greeting on behalf of the Greek-American Jews.
The speakers emphasized the importance of preventing the 21st century to be marred by the same atrocities stemming from bigotry and anti-Semitism.
Speaking to Greek Reporter, Atlantic Bank President and event sponsor Nancy Papaioannou stressed the importance of commemorating what really happened so we never repeat it.
Consul General Koutras stressed the need to stop stepping aside and start stepping in, whenever and wherever it may be that our brothers and sisters are victimized by a blow, a push, a slur, or by the writing on the wall.
Consul General Dayan underlined the responsibility of each and every one of us to learn from the lessons of the past century and use this collective experience as a shield against violence.
David Harris urged people not to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day ritualistically but in a meaningful way which will improve our civic reflexes. He said that “we can cry upon the dead, but we will not restore them to life”. He added, “left unchecked, evil will metastasize”. He finally applauded Greece, its leadership and its people for taking a stance on the matter then, and now.
The event closed with a musical performance by Chamber Music Hellas and mezzo-soprano Maria Zoi, with compositions by Mikis Theodorakis, Olivier Messiaen, Sergei Prokofiev and Maurice Ravel.
Speaking to Greek Reporter after the event, Consul General Koutras said: “Ant-Semitism is not only about Jews. It concerns all of us, it concerns the new generation that should be educated on the issue”.
“It is about the acts and attitude of people against fascism, religious hatred and fanaticism.” he added.
The Holocaust of Greek Jews
Thessaloniki was the cultural hub for Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492. The city counted 50,000 Jews, about two- thirds of Greek Jewry. Thessaloniki Jews were politically, economically, and socially well-integrated into Greek society.
During the German Occupation (1941-1944), Thessaloniki Jews suffered a terrible fate. The Nazis confined them to ghettos, forced them to wear a yellow star on their clothes and banned them from public spaces. Jewish newspapers were closed, and synagogues, businesses, and hospitals looted.
In 1942, German authorities, with the assistance pf local authorities, demolished an ancient Jewish cemetery counting about 350,000. Today, it is the site of the campus of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
On July 11th 1942, a day that would come to be known as “Black Shabbat,” Jewish men aged 18-45 were called to Eleftherias Square for forced labor and made at gunpoint to perform humiliating physical activities. A year later, some 54,000 Jews were sent to Nazi extermination camps, mainly Auschwitz-Birkenau. More than 90 percent of the city’s Jewish population was murdered.
In Thrace, the Bulgarian authorities deported Thracian Jews to the Treblinka death camp and fewer than 10 percent survived.
In Athens, the Italian occupation forces did not participate in the deportation of Jews to the camps. However, when Italy surrendered to the Allies on September 8th, 1943, its occupied zone was turned over to the Nazis who deported Jews to their death.
The local population participated little in the destruction of the Jewish community. About two thirds of Athens’ Jews survived the war due to the actions of Archbishop of Athens Damaskinos and Police Commissioner Angelos Evert who issued fake identification cards and implored Athenian citizens to help Jews.
On the island of Zakynthos, the city’s mayor and bishop hid all 275 Jews. Today, hundreds of Greeks are honored as “Righteous Among the Nations,” a title awarded by Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jewish populations from extermination at the hands of the Nazis.
Some 60,000 Greek Jews died during World War II, 86 percent of the total Jewish population, one of the highest percentages in Europe.