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Synagonistis: Local exhibit tells story of Greek Jews who resisted the Nazis
Diplomatic Pouch / April 16, 2015

By Larry Luxner

Anti-Semitic views are more prevalent in Greece — the cradle of democracy — than in France, Germany or even Iran, according to a recent survey by the Washington-based Anti-Defamation League. The ADL poll shows that 69 percent of Greeks harbor ill feelings towards Jews, making it the most anti-Semitic country in Europe.

Painful austerity measures enacted in the wake of Greece’s eurozone bailout haven’t helped things. Last year, while still in the opposition, a regional candidate in the left-wing Syriza party accused then-Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras of involvement in a Jewish conspiracy.

And on the extreme right, Ilieas Kasidiari of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party candidate Ilias Kasidiaris — whose shoulder is tattooed with a large swastika — won 16 percent of the vote in race for mayor of Athens.

Yet it’s not all that black-and-white. Anti-Semitism in Greece is more nuanced than the numbers suggest, with negative stereotypes of Jews far more commonplace than outbreaks of violence, as is the case in France. Before leaving office, Samaras acted against Holocaust deniers, jailed many of Golden Dawn’s leaders and introduced school education programs together with the Jewish community.

“Anti-Semitism in Greece is a pan-European phenomenon,” Christos Failadis, press counselor at the Greek Embassy in Washington, told the Diplomatic Pouch. “In Greece, most of it was based on religious concepts, though recently because of the financial crisis, Golden Dawn has exploited this. All of our governments have been against the rise of anti-Semitism and we maintain a close friendship with Israel.”

And now, a traveling exhibit organized by the Greek government and financed largely by the German Embassy in Athens shows, in painstaking detail, what happens when anti-Semitism gets out of hand.

“Synagonistis: Greek Jews in the National Resistance,” opened April 1 at the Washington Hebrew Congregation and runs until May 26.

On April 21, the synagogue will host a reception for Zanet Battinou, director of the Jewish Museum of Greece. Also present will be Greek Ambassador Christos Panagopoulos and an array of local Jewish and Greek-American community leaders.

The idea for the exhibit came from Failadis, who had organized a similar show in 2001 in Strasbourg, France, when he was Greek press attaché to the Council of Europe.

“I really wanted to bring to Washington an exhibit like this, but it was a really difficult time because of the eurozone crisis,” said Failadis, who also served at Greek missions in Albania and China before his 2013 transfer to the United States. “Thanks to our sponsors like the American Hellenic Institute, B’nai B’rith International, AHEPA and the American Friends of the Jewish Museum of Greece, we were finally able to do it.”

The exhibit itself consists of 30 information panels, arranged on the walls of the synagogue’s Kreeger Lobby. Through photographs, documents and other archival material, it tells the story of “those who never wore the yellow star” — a reference to the obligatory Star of David the Nazi regime forced Jews throughout Europe to display prominently whenever they appeared in public.

An accompanying 32-page guide written by historian Jason Chandrinos tells the story of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, which had 56,000 members at the outbreak of World War II. By war’s end, 98 percent of those Jews had been exterminated in the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“The first deportations took place in the Bulgarian occupation zone, which included Eastern Macedonia and Thrace,” said the guide. “In a single operation, on March 4, 1943, about 4,200 men, women and children from Drama, Serres, Kavala, Xanthi, Komotini and Alexandroupoli were taken from their homes by Bulgarian soldiers and gendarmes and were deported to Treblinka death camp, while their properties were plundered. Only a few days later, on March 15, the first train left Thessaloniki for Auschwitz-Birkenau with 2,800 passengers.”

That would be the first of 19 transports that would wipe out the city’s Jewish community. In March 1944, mass arrests and deportations started in all other Jewish communities including Athens, Ioannina, Larissa, Trikala and Volos. The last to be deported, in the summer of 1944, were the Jews of Crete and Rhodes.

In all, 62,000 Greek Jews — 82 percent of the total prewar population — died in the Holocaust. Their businesses were seized, and their synagogues were destroyed. When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, barely 10,000 Jews remained in Greece.

Yet “the widespread perception that the Jewish population of Europe were led blindly and obediently like sheep to the slaughter to Hitler’s death camps does not accurately reflect historical reality,” says Chandrinos.

“Synagonistis” proudly displays the faded black-and-white photos of some of the 650 Greek Jews who joined the resistance. Among them: Iossif Matsas of Ioannina, who fought as a partisan in the 16th ELAS Regiment in western Macedonia; Lt. Samuel Eskinatzis of Larissa, who commanded the 10th Company of the 54th ELAS Regiment in eastern Thessaly; and Loui Koen of Xanthi, a logistics officer in the 2nd ELAS Regiment.

While fighting the Nazis in the mountains, the Greek Jewish partisans also published newspapers on clandestine printing presses.

One of the exhibit’s panels tells the story of Avraam Kalef-Ezra, who aong with his younger brother Yehuda helped keep the people informed about the war’s progress.

“The printing and distribution of propaganda materials was of great significant for the remote villages of Epirus,” said Chandrinos, describing an area near the Greek border with Albania. “From the mountains, he repeatedly tried to convince the Ioannina [Jewish] community to escape from the city, and even got into conflict with Sabethai Kabelis, a community leaders who was submissive to the Germans. The tragic fate of the citizens of Ioannina, among whom was his mother, tormented him until his death in 1999.”

While some Greeks collaborated with the Nazis, others risked their lives to save Jews. One was Angelos Evert, Athens chief of police during the Nazi occupation.

“If you go to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, you will see there a photo of Angelos Evert,” said Failades. “He gave out hundreds of false identity cards bearing Christian names. Secret baptisms were conducted and recorded in a special register.”

In 1969, Israel’s Yad Vashem honored Evert as a “righteous Gentile” for his actions in saving Jewish lives; he died the following year. His son, Miltiadis Evert, was elected mayor of Athens in 1987, representing the conservative New Democracy party.

For more information on “Synagonistis,” visit http://www.whctemple.org.

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