Balkanalysis on Twitter

The Holocaust in Greece, 1941-1944 (Part 2)

November 30, 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. Yesterday’s first part covered the history of Judaism in Greece up through the arrival of the Nazis in 1941. Today’s second installment 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.


The first deportations of Jews occurred in Macedonia and Thrace, in the Bulgarian zone of occupation. German official Theodor Dannecker proposed that 20,000 Jews from the Bulgarian zone be deported to Germany. In February 1943, Peter Gabrovski, the internal affairs minister of Bulgaria, agreed to this number proposed by Dannecker. The deportations were organized by Yaroslav Kalitsin, head of the administrative section of the Bulgarian Commissariat for Jewish Affairs or the Komisarstvo za Evreiskite Vuprosi. The Jewish victims were assembled at Gorna Dzhumaya, and Radomir. The deportations began at 4:00 a.m. on March 4, 1943. The Jews of Thrace, Macedonia, and eastern Serbia under Bulgarian occupation were arrested and assembled at transit camps which consisted of former tobacco warehouses. About 200 Jews survived by being drafted into forced labor battalions or by escaping to the Italian zone.

The main group, however, was taken to Bulgaria proper from where 4,100 Jews were sent by train and boats to Vienna; from there they were transported to Treblinka and the gas chambers. There was widespread popular opposition to the Final Solution in Bulgaria, and there remains considerable debate as to how much responsibility Bulgarian officials bore for the genocide. The initiative and implementation of this deportation order was made by German officials, particularly Danneker. Moreover, it was restricted to areas not part of Bulgaria before the war, i.e., Macedonia, Thrace, and eastern Serbia.

In the Italian zone, the Final Solution was not enforced.

In the German zone of occupation, anti-Jewish measures were enforced immediately. The deportations to the death camps began in spring 1943, and saw a gradual and incremental buildup to the Nazis’ program for the Final Solution.

In 1941, Salonika or Thessalonika, part of the German occupation zone, had a population of 56,000 Jews, making it the largest Sephardic community in the world. In June of that year, the Jewish Affairs Commission (Judenangelegenbeiten) or Einsatzstab Rosenberg/Rosenberg Commando arrived in Salonika and seized and confiscated the Jewish libraries and archives in Salonika and Athens. Private libraries, manuscripts, liturgical art, rabbinical and Beth Din libraries were seized. These materials were then sent to the Institute for Jewish Studies in Frankfurt.

The city was part of the German zone of occupation where the Final Solution was enforced. Dieter Wisliceny and Alois Brunner were put in charge of the deportations in Greece. The deportations were organized with the assistance of the Jedenrat or Jewish Council headed by Chief Rabbi Zvi Koretz, who appointed the president of the council in December, 1942.

In the summer of 1942, persecutions of Jews began to be accelerated. On July 11, 1943, all Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 45, some 9,000 altogether, were conscripted into forced labor with the Organization Todt labor battalions. They were assembled in Liberty Square for hours in the heat and humiliated by being forced to perform exercises on command. Many died from exhaustion. The Salonika Jewish community sought to ransom them but was unsuccessful. What also resulted was that the Jewish cemetery in Salonika was destroyed. Jews were also forced to wear the infamous “Yellow Star.”

In February, 1942, the Nuremberg Race Laws were applied to the German zone in Greece through the efforts of Maximilian Merton, the adviser to the German military occupation administration. The Jewish population of Salonika was concentrated in three districts: 1) the 151 quarter, 2) the Hagia Paraskevi district, and, 3) the Baron de Hirsch transit camp.

On March 15, 1943, the deportations began. In March and April, Salonika Jews were transported from the Hirsch camp to Auschwitz by rail. The first transport consisted of 2,500 Jews loaded onto 40 freight cars. Every three days, railroad cars containing 2,000 Salonika Jews would be transported to Auschwitz. There were transports or convoys on March 17, 19, 23, and 27. In April, convoys left on April 3, 5, 7, 10, 13, 16, 20, 22 and 28. Two transports left on May 3 and May 9. A total of 48,000 Jews would be deported to the concentration camps, of whom 37,000 were sent to the gas chambers upon arrival while 11,000 were selected for forced labor. In Salonika, 96 percent of the Jewish population would be killed. Today, 1,200 Jews live in the city.

From April 30 to May 8, 1943, the German forces arrested the Jews of Orestias, Florina, Veroia, Souflion and Didimotikon. Some were then transported by ship to Salonika from where they were sent to Auschwitz on May 9. Most of them were sent to the gas chambers when they arrived. They were part of the 17th shipment from Salonika.

The last Jews to be deported from Salonika were sent to Bergen-Belsen in August, 1943. This transport included members of the Jewish Council or Judenrat, consisting of 74 members. The trains used in the transports were supplied by the German Army or Wehrmacht. The military jurisdiction fell to Army Group E under the command of General Alexander Lohr.


There had been Jewish settlement in Athens since the 3rd century B.C., and the pre-war Jewish population was 3,500. The city was located in the Italian occupation zone where the Final Solution was not enforced. As a consequence, Jewish refugees from Salonika settled in the city. On March 25, 1944, German forces arrested 1,690 Jews who were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Athens, 66 percent of the Jews survived. The Greek police chief of the city, Angelos Evert, and the Orthodox Archbishop, Damaskenos, issued false baptismal records and false ID cards to Jews in Athens and Piraeus. Many Jews were hidden in Christian homes. There are 3,000 Jews in Athens today.


There had been a Jewish presence in Ioannina or Yannina, the capital of Epiros province, since 70 A.D. In the 15 and 16th centuries, Sephardic Jews settled in the city. Under Italian occupation, the Jews were not threatened. But when the German forces took control of Ioannina, they arrested the president of the Jewish community of the city, Moses Koffinas. On March 25, 1944, the entire Jewish population of 1,860 was deported to Auschwitz.

Kastoria, a fur trading town located in southwestern Macedonia, had a pre-war Jewish population of 900, primarily Sephardic Jews. There is a record of Jewish settlement in the city even before the 15th century. The city was a major fur and leather processing center on a trading route much frequented during the Ottoman Empire period, in the mountains between Ioannina and Salonika. Jews too played an important role in the fur and leather trade of Kastoria.

On March 25, 1944, 763 Jews were rounded up and held at a school building awaiting deportation. They were without food and water. German soldiers are alleged to have raped Jewish schoolgirls held there. This group was then transported to Salonika and then to Auschwitz. Only 35 Jews survived. Today, it is believed that one Jewish family remains in Kastoria.


The island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea had a diverse population of 2,000 Jews before the war, consisting of Romaniotes, Sephardim, and Italian-speaking Jews. It hosted the Kahal Shalom synagogue and a Jewish ghetto created when the island was ruled by Venice in the 14th century. Corfu and the other Ionian islands never fell under Ottoman control, remaining dependencies of Venice.

German forces assumed control of the island after the surrender of Italy in 1943. The Germans began the implementation of the Final Solution on the island. The Jewish population of the island was rounded up by German Wehrmacht, police, and SS units and on June 10, 1944, 1,800 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, 200 Jews having been hidden in Christian homes. When they arrived at Auschwitz in July, 1944, 435 of the men chosen for the Special Detachment (Sonderkommando) opted to be killed immediately rather than help the Germans in the extermination process. Today, 80 Jews live on Corfu.


The history of Judaism on the southeastern island of Rhodes goes back to 300 B.C. In the 16th century, the Dodecanese island became a predominantly Sephardic community. The Kalal synagogue was built in 1675 and there was a Jewish quarter known as “Juderia.”

Rhodes was part of Italy in World War II, when some 2,000 Jews lived on the island. Under Italian control, they were not harmed. But when German forces occupied the island in 1943, the Final Solution was enforced.

On July 20, 1944, 1,700 Jews on the island of Rhodes were sent by boat to the far-off Greek mainland. Because there was no food or water, 23 died during the trip. They were then held at the Haidary transit camp from where they were transported to Auschwitz the Greek port city of Piraeus. At the Polish death camp, 1,000 were killed and 700 selected for forced labor. There were only 151 survivors. Today, 35 Jews live on the island.


Volos is a port city on the Aegean Sea, near Larisa and roughly halfway between Thessaloniki and Athens. There had been Jewish settlements there since the 14th century, and before the war, there were 882 Jews living there.

On March 25, 1944, German forces sought to deport the Jewish population. Efforts by the EAM resistance group, Orthodox archbishop Ioakim, and Rabbi Pessah prevented the deportations. Because of their actions, only 130 Jews were deported to Auschwitz.

Other Islands

On May 21, 1944, 260 Jews from Crete were arrested and subsequently deported from the northern port town of Rethymno. They all died when the boat sank under mysterious circumstances. On the Dodecanese island of Kos, where there exist a Jewish cemetery and tombstone dating from the 17th century, all of the 90 Jewish inhabitants were killed by German forces. On the Ionian island of Zakynthos, however, all 275 Jews were saved through the intervention of Orthodox Bishop Chrysostomos and the Mayor, Loukas Carrer.

Greek Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Based on data from the Birkenau-Auschwitz camp, a total of 54,533 Greek Jews were deported to the infamous death camp during the war, of whom 41,775 were sent to the gas chambers. Another 12,757 people, consisting of 8,025 men and 4,732 women, were assigned various duties in the camp. These duties included forced labor, the camp orchestra, the crematoria in 1943-44, medical experimentation on sterilization and experiments with twins. Some were assigned duty with the Sonderkommando, or Special Detachment.

In August, 1943, 300 Salonika Jews were sent to the Warsaw Ghetto as part of a labor battalion. In October, a second group consisting of Salonika Jews was sent. By July, most of the Salonika Jews had been transported to the Dachau concentration camp, though others remained in Poland.

On August 2, 1944, there were 292 Greek Jews at the Auschwitz I main camp, 929 at the Auschwitz II or Birkenau camp, and 517 at Auschwitz III or the Buna-Monowitz camp. There were 731 Jewish women from Greece at Auschwitz. Most of the Salonika Jews selected for forced labor died from typhus, dysentery, the extreme cold temperature, suicide, or from starvation. Those that survived were part of the death marches that began on January 17, 1945 to Bergen-Belsen, Stutthof, and Mauthausen. Of the 54,000 Greek Jews deported to the concentration camps, less than 2,000 survived the war.

However, there were tragic examples of resistance by Greek Jews at Auschwitz. In 1944, a group of 400 Salonika Jews refused their assignment in the Sonderkommando or Special Detachment because it would entail killing Hungarian Jews. They were sent to the gas chambers as punishment. In the summer of 1944, Albert Errera from Larisa, Greece, wounded a guard and escaped across the Vistula River. He was subsequently caught and then tortured until he died. On October 5-7, 1944, 135 Greek Jews who had been former Greek Army officers launched a camp uprising. Greek Jews also claimed that they blew up Crematorium III at Auschwitz; according to some accounts, they died singing the Greek national anthem.

In September, 1943, Jurgen Stroop, who had put down the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, was appointed Higher SS and Political leader of Greece and promoted to SS Gruppenfuehrer. Stroop assisted Wisliceny in rounding up 800 Athenian Jews who were arrested and then transported to Auschwitz. On March 24 and 25, 1944, Jews from all over Greece were arrested in large numbers: 352 from Arta, 90 from Chalkis, 272 from Preveza, 130 from Volos, 225 from Larisa, 763 from Kastoria, 1,860 from Ioannina, 50 from Trikkala, as well as 12 families from Patras.

Incidentally, the notorious Kurt Waldheim was an intelligence officer in the German Army at the time and saw service in Greece. He was photographed in 1943 with a group of 15 German officers at the famous Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens.

Resistance and Rescue

Italian officials in the Italian consulate in Salonika helped Jews flee to the Italian zone of occupation. The Italian consul Guelfo Zamboni, voice-consul Cavalliere Rosenberg, Mark Mosseri, and Valerie Torres issued fake consular documents to Salonika Jews which allowed them to settle in Athens. Orthodox Archbishop Damaskenos, Salonika lawyers, Orthodox religious leaders and educators all made appeals and efforts to stop the deportations. The Ioannis Rallis government protested German orders, as did Professor Nikolaos Louvaris, the education minister, who resisted the deportations. Constantine Logothetopoulos, the head of the government in 1943, wrote a letter of protest over the genocide to the German plenipotentiary in Athens, Gunther Altenberg, on March 23.

Over 600 Greek Orthodox priests and clergy were arrested, and they themselves were deported because of their brave efforts to protect Greek Jews. The Greek Orthodox Church, under the metropolitan of Athens, Archbishop Damaskenos, launched a resistance campaign that consisted of formal protests, encyclicals that called upon Orthodox clergy to protect Jews, as well as the issuance of fake baptismal certificates to Jews. Over 250 Jewish children were hidden by Orthodox clergy. As has been said, the Athens police also resisted the deportations by issuing fake ID documents to Jews.

Of course, there was also a guerrilla resistance movement in Greece. Active military resistance did not begin until 1942, led by the non-Communist, royalist partisan forces, known as the National Republican Greek League (Ellenikos Dimokratikos Ethnikos Stratos, or EDES) led by Napoleon Zervas. A second group was the National and Social Liberation Movement (Ethniki kai Koinoniki Apeletherosis, or EKKA) led by Colonel Dimitrios Psarros.

On the other side of the ideological spectrum was the nationalist, communist guerrillas known as the National Liberation Front (Ethnikon Apeletherotikon Metopon, or EAM), formed in September, 1941. Its military wing was the Popular Greek Liberation Army (Ellenikos Laikos Apelethorotikos Stratos or ELAS), established 2 months later and led by Athanasios Klaras, known as “Aris Velouchiotis.’ The Greek Communist leader, Nikos Zakhariadis, was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp by German occupation forces.


The pre-war Jewish population of Greece and the island of Rhodes, then part of Italy, was 77,178. During the Holocaust, approximately 61% percent of the Jewish population of Greece was killed. Salonika had the largest Sephardic community in the word with a population of 56,000, 96 percent of whom were killed during the Holocaust. From Salonika, only 2,000 Jews survived; 1,000 returned after the war, while another 1,000 emigrated. The majority of the Jewish populations in Thessaly, consisting of Volos, Larissa, and Trikkala, survived the Holocaust. By contrast, there were no Greek survivors from Bulgarian-controlled Thrace.

Today, Greece has a population of 5,000 Jews, most of who live in Athens, the capital, and in Salonika. Both cities have museums that document the long history, sometimes triumphant, sometimes tortured, of the Jews in Greece.


Benbassa, Esther, and Aron Rodrigue. Sephardi Jewry: A History of the Judeo-Spanish Community, 14th to 20th Centuries (Jewish Communities in the Modern World). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press (2000).

Bowman, Steven B, and Isaac Benmayor. The Holocaust in Salonika: Eyewitness Account (The Sephardi and Greek Holocaust Library, 1). NY: Sephardic House (2002).

Dwork, Deborah, and Robert Jan Van Pelt. Holocaust: A History. NY: W.W. Norton (2003).

Fromer, Rebecca. The House by the Sea: A Portrait of the Holocaust in Greece. San Francisco: Mercury House (1998).

Ibid, The Holocaust Odyssey of Daniel Bennahmias, Sonderkommando. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press (1993).

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. NY: Macmillan, 1990.

Mazower, Mark. Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-44. New Haven: Yale University Press (2001).

See also Mark Mazower’s recent work, Salonica: City of Ghosts.

2004-2009 Back Archives