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The Holocaust in Greece, 1941-1944 (Part 1)

November 29, 2005


By Carl Savich

In his latest series on the Holocaust in the Balkans, Serbian-American historian Carl Savich sets the murder of almost 60,000 Greek Jews in the context of both the events of the Second World War and the wider context of the long and colorful history of Judaism in northern Greece. Today’s first part covers the history of Judaism in Greece up through the arrival of the Nazis in 1941. Part two tomorrow provides a city-by-city recounting of the Holocaust in several parts of Greece, and concludes with a short treatment of the resistance against the Nazis and the liberation.


In Greece, there were 59,185 Jewish victims during the Holocaust; 81 percent of Greek Jews were killed, while 8,000-10,000 survived. From 1941-1945, 60,000-70,000 Greek Jews were killed, most at the Birkenau-Auschwitz concentration camp. About 5,000 Jews live in Greece today, in Salonika (or Thessaloniki) and Athens.

Salonika, called “La Madre de Israel,” the Mother of Israel, had a pre-war Jewish population of 56,000, the largest settlement of Sephardic Jews, over 96 percent of which were killed during the Holocaust.

Jewish Settlement in Greece: A Brief History

The Greek Jewish community is one of the oldest in Europe and dates back to the early Hellenistic period, when Greek-speaking Jews resided in Rhodes, Corinth, Athens, Thebes, Salonika, Veria, Sparta, Crete, and Delos.

During the Roman and Byzantine periods, these Greek Jews were called Romaniot or Romaniote and were mostly urban. In the 12th through 14th centuries, the Romaniot settled in Ioannina, known as the “capital” of Romaniote Jewry, Corfu, Patra, Lirissa, Zakynthos, and Halkidha. Following the expulsion of the Jewish populations from Spain and Portugal, Beyazit II allowed them to settle in the Balkans. There was a large influx of Sephardim into Greece, particularly in Salonika, Rhodes, Kos, and Veria. Rhodes was known as “La Piccola Gerusalemi,” or the Little Jerusalem and contained the Juderia neighborhood. In Kastoria, there were Jewish fur traders. In Corfu there was a Jewish ghetto and the Kahal Shalom synagogue.

After two centuries, the Sephardic Jews outnumbered the Greek-speaking Romaniot Jews. The Sephardic Jews brought the Iberian Jewish culture of Spain and Portugal, Ladinismo, to Greece. They also spoke Ladino, a Spanish-Judeo language that incorporated Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish. Ladino became the official language of the Balkan/Greek Jewish community. The Greek-speaking Romaniots also differed in their religious customs with the Sephardim to the extent that they had separate synagogues and did not intermarry.

The Muslim Ottoman Turks sent administrators and officials into the occupied Balkan regions of Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria, and Greece. These Turkish administrators and officials from Anatolia brought their families and established Muslim communities where they were set up. After the Ottoman Turks conquered Salonika in 1430, Turkish Muslim settlements were established there to fill the houses of Greeks who were either killed, deported, or forced to flee.

Later, Sephardic Jewish families expelled from Spain were also brought in by the Turks to settle areas that were formerly Greek. A policy of the Ottoman Turks was to appoint Jews as civil servants and tax collectors in the Ottoman Empire. The Turks appointed Joseph Nasi, who was a Jew, as governor of the Cyclades in 1566. But because there was hostility to his appointment, he governed in absentia through a representative. The Sephardim Jews brought over by Beyazit II were identified with the Muslim Turks. This identification led to endemic anti-Jewish stirrings within the indigenous Greek Orthodox population. At the start of the Greek War of Independence, in 1821, there were massacres of Jews in the Jewish quarters of Athens, Tripoli, and Patra, along with massacres of Muslims. The remaining Jews fled with the Ottoman Turkish forces north to territory held by Turkish troops.

In the 1830s, Ashkenazi Jews settled in Athens, who came with the German King Otto. There were repeated outbreaks of anti-Jewish riots in the later 19th century when Jew were accused of murdering Christian children to use their blood in Jewish religious rituals. Following the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War, the Jewish communities in Greece partly migrated out with the Ottoman Turkish forces.

Still, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Salonika contained one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. Jews made up approximately half of the population and dominated the shipping, sailing, and chandlery trades; the harbor was closed on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, but open on Sunday.

Interestingly enough, there was also a population of Jews who had converted to Islam known as Donme (Turkish for “renegades”) or Ma’min. These were Jewish followers of Sabbatai Zvi, a “false messiah” of the 1670s, who had converted to Islam, but had maintained certain Jewish practices in secret.

The Holocaust in Greece

On October 28, 1940 Italy invaded Albania and gave an ultimatum to Greece. Ioannis Metaxas rejected it with an “ochi” or no. The Italian Army, along with Albanian forces, then invaded Greece but were driven back and forced to retreat. Germany invaded Greece on April 6, 1941, in an offensive known as Operation Marita. German troops took Athens on April 21. The strategic island of Crete, vital for Hitler’s plans to take North Africa, was taken by an airborne assault by the end of May when German troops were parachuted on the British-held island, despite very fierce local resistance.

The Nazis established three occupation zones, in Greece- German, Italian, and Bulgarian. The three zones of Axis occupation were as follows: the Italian Zone consisted of Epirus, the Dodecanese Islands, the Ionian Islands, as well as mainland Greek territory from the Platona line south to the Peloponnese, and the capital Athens as well. The German Zone consisted of western and Central Macedonia, a strip of land on the eastern edge of Greek Thrace along Turkish border, including Didimotikon, Souflion, and Orestias, as well as Crete, the major Aegean Islands and Thessaloniki. The Bulgarian Zone consisted of Thrace and eastern Macedonia.

The German army took Salonika on April 8. The Jewish population was targeted from the beginning. The first implementation of the Final Solution was in Salonika, known as the Malkhah Israel, “the Queen of Israel.” The German occupation forces revived anti-Jewish publications and encouraged anti-Jewish activities. On April 15, the Council of the Jewish Community was arrested, including the Chief Rabbi Zvi Koretz. The Germans constituted a new Council with the president Saby Saltiel.

Following the Axis occupation of Greece, a famine resulted in 1941 and 1942 because of a British naval blockade and due to the seizure of crops by German forces. Thousands died during the famine.

General George Tsolakoglu was subsequently made Prime Minister. In March 1943, Jewish deportments from Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia and Thrace began. From March through May 1943, Jews were deported from German-occupied Salonika and adjacent territories. The deportations from the Italian Zone began after its surrender in September, 1943, and subsequent occupied by German forces. They executed the Jewish deportments starting in March 1944, a process that lasted throughout the summer.

Part 2 of this article continues tomorrow.

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