The Agony of Greek Jews, 1940?1945

The Agony of Greek Jews, 1940?1945

by Steven Bowman

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The Agony of Greek Jews tells the story of modern Greek Jewry as it came under the control of the Kingdom of Greece during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In particular, it deals with the vicissitudes of those Jews who held Greek citizenship during the interwar and wartime periods. Individual chapters address the participation of Greek and


The Agony of Greek Jews tells the story of modern Greek Jewry as it came under the control of the Kingdom of Greece during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In particular, it deals with the vicissitudes of those Jews who held Greek citizenship during the interwar and wartime periods. Individual chapters address the participation of Greek and Palestinian Jews in the 1941 fighting with Italy and Germany, the roles of Jews in the Greek Resistance, aid, and rescue attempts, and the problems faced by Jews who returned from the camps and the mountains in the aftermath of the German retreat. Bowman focuses on the fate of one minority group of Greek citizens during the war and explores various aspects of its relations with the conquerors, the conquered, and concerned bystanders. His book contains new archival material and interviews with survivors. It supersedes much of the general literature on the subject of Greek Jewry.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Professor Bowman has, in meticulous detail, provided the English-language reader the most comprehensive and up-to-date narrative of this otherwise little-known Jewish community in southeastern Europe . . . Bowman's treatment of Salonika Zionists and efforts to get Jews into mandatory Palestine makes interesting reading . . . This book will certainly be the standard resource on the subject, at least for the foreseeable future."—Sanford R. Silverburg, Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) Newsletter

"The Agony of Greek Jews documents with meticulous attention to detail and a laudable ambition for breadth of coverage the stories of Jewish communities scattered across the territory of modern Greece at a time of rapid, often destabilizing, and eventually catastrophic change . . . The Agony of Greek Jews is as much an impressive historical register of Jewish survival in Greece against the odds as it is a uniquely detailed archive of memory for all those who perished in the Nazi camps or lost their lives while fighting against the brutal occupying forces."—Aristotle Kallis, H-Judaic

"Few books have been written in English on the Shoah of Greek Jews. Steven Bowman's book is original because it looks at the experience of Greek Jews during World War II, not in isolation as in many other accounts, but in the context of the war in Greece . . . The Agony of Greek Jews is a book rich in information."—Rosine Nussenblatt, Sephardic Horizons

"The Agony of Greek Jews is a welcome addition to the scholarship on Greek Jewry. Bowman's contribution to the understanding of each individual community's fate during the Holocaust and Greek Civil War is invaluable."—Katerina Lagos, California State University, Sacramento, East European Jewish Affairs

"Despite the nearly total obliteration of Greek Jewry in World War II, the Holocaust in Greece has been virtually ignored in historical literature in the English language. Bowmans volume, based on decades of research and deep familiarity with the region, its complexities, and its personalities, is an important corrective to this great gap."—Jane Gerber, CUNY Graduate Center
"Bowman's excellent readable book utilizes the latest documentary research, including records from foreign archives only now being made public. The newly released documents confirm the horrors of a story only partially known, shedding light on a tragic episode in a remote part of the German occupation of Europe. The rich fabric of Jewish culture in Greece has never fully recovered . . . Highly recommended."—E. N. Borza, Choice

Product Details

Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Stanford Studies in Jewish History and C Series
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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The Agony of Greek Jews, 1940-1945

By Steven B. Bowman


Copyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-5584-9

Chapter One

The Jews of Greece to World War I

The present work tells the story of the Jews in Greece during the period of the Holocaust. Although the destruction of Greek Jewry occurred from 1943 to 1945, the suffering lasted for a subsequent decade, and their adjustment to that experience continues to the present.

The physical attack on Greek Jewry began in 1941 with the Nazi conquest, but an economic, social, and political assault predated the vicissitudes of World War II. To understand the experiences of Greek Jewry during the Holocaust, it is useful to trace their varied encounters with the Modern Greek state. Hence, the introductory chapters summarize aspects of the prewar period to acquaint the reader with the decline of Greek Jewry, which paralleled a number of contemporary developments that seemed to promise a better future. Unfortunately, Greek Jewry was doomed to succumb to a renascent Greek nationalism that, like its Hellenic forebears, was strong enough to absorb (at least culturally) all the disputant ethni within the borders of the new state. The failure of the new Greek polity to Hellenize and integrate the newly acquired ethnic groups of the Southern Balkans was later exploited in the Nazi occupationpolicy of divide and control. Additionally the occupiers ex-acerbated the endemic stasis [civic strife] in Greek political society to their own advantage.

On the eve of World War II, there were still three distinct worlds of Greek Jewry, each with its own layer of polyglot culture and historical experience. These three areas corresponded to (1) the South, comprising the Peloponnese, Attica, and Boeotia of ancient times and called Morea since the late Byzantine and Ottoman periods; (2) the West, or Epirus and Akarnania; and (3) the North, with Thrace and Macedonia stretching southward into Central Greece (or Stereohellada). The islands of the Ionian and Aegean Seas were, until after World War II, heavily influenced by Italian domination, which effectively colonized the urban environment; Corfu and Rhodes exemplify this tradition, and Italian is still spoken by the older generation. Finally there was Crete: subject to Venice and then the Ottomans, it became part of the new kingdom of Greece in 1913. The Greek Orthodox population of these islands maintained their Greek identity during centuries of foreign domination; the urban Jewish populations, however, adopted in addition the language of the government in power.

The wealthy and sophisticated Hellenistic cities surrounding the Aegean attracted a large Jewish diaspora in the Roman period, but Jews may have been living in the area as early as the last days of the First Temple (6th c. BCE). The continuity of the Jewish settlement in the Peloponnese and Attica through the period of Roman domination is assured; however, data from the middle and late Byzantine periods are scarce and only suggestive of this continuity. On the eve of the fifteenth-century Ottoman conquest of Morea, Jews were still to be found from Thebes to Mistra; during the Turkokratia they were located in all the major centers from Patras to Kalamata and Tripolis to Corinth, with smaller settlements in Thebes and Euboea (Evvia).

Southern Greece

The sketchy and still untold story of the Jews in the South came to an end with the Greek Revolution of the 1820s. Marked as allies of the Turks, they fell victim to persecution and massacre by the insurgent Greeks. The massacres of 1821 are unique in the story of Greek Jewry and are a consequence of the animosity against Ottoman Turks with whom the Jews were usually allied during the Turkokratia and among whom they took refuge. The massacres were usually carried out by Albanian regulars who were seeking booty, occasionally by Greek Orthodox irregulars and others stired up by the hanging of the Patriarch Gregory V in April 1921 and the Ottoman-assigned role of the Jews in the disposal of his corpse. The butchering of the Jewish populations of the Morea from Vrachori to Tripolitza was recorded by contemporaries and only Patras and Chalkis escaped similar fates.

Aside from this incident, in general Jews within Greece and throughout Europe supported the Greek revolt, which fired the Romanticism of Europe. Many volunteered their political and public influence, while the Rothschilds, among others, contributed their money. In turn, the success of the Greek Revolution was to stimulate the incipient stirrings of Jewish nationalism, later called Zionism.

The newly established kingdom of Greece attracted Jews to its capital Athens from both Ottoman areas and Central Europe, a trend that would continue through the middle of the twentieth century. Among those who immigrated were Sephardi merchants from Smyrna (Izmir), on the east coast of the Aegean Sea, and Volos on its northwest coast, as well as Romaniots from Yannina (Ioannina) in the western Epirus. The Greek government finally gave official recognition to the growing community in 1889. By this time, a second generation of Greek Jews was matriculating from the University of Athens and entering professional life, especially law and journalism.

Central Europeans came as merchants and professionals to serve the new German king of Greece, Prince Otto of Bavaria. They included a Jewish dentist (Levi) and a Christian brewer named Fuchs (who introduced "Fix" beer); the best-known immigrant was Max de Rothschild, a financier who accompanied the new king to Athens. When the community was formally recognized in 1890, Charles de Rothschild became its president. German Jewish and Christian scholars immigrated to Greece to teach in the local university and schools and to excavate the antiquities of the new kingdom. Perhaps the most famous was Prof. Georg Karo, whose distinguished career as head of the Deutsche Archaeologische Institut spanned some twenty years (until the mid-1930s). The burgeoning state attracted numerous Central Europeans, among whom were talented Jewish scholars, businessmen, and technocrats.

In addition to Ottoman, Greek, and Central European Jewish immigrants, a number of entrepreneurs came under the aegis of the British Empire. The well-known case of David Pacifico, apparently a Portuguese Jew (he was the former honorary consul for Portugal) became the center of a cause célèbre when his house was sacked by an angry mob in 1847. Britain pressured Greece to compensate him and ultimately sent warships to seize Greek merchant ships in Piraeus as indemnity.

By the First Balkan War (1912), a small but wealthy and influential community of Athenian Jews led by Ashkenazim (Central European Jews) was well integrated into the Kingdom of Greece and active in Greek society. Some of them, moreover, were supporters of the Cretan revolutionary politician Eleutherios Venizelos, whose post-World War I political career was to have such a great impact on the Jews of Salonika. Venizelos maintained close relations with his patriotic Jewish colleagues and was described by his friend Moise Caime as a man who liked Jews and particularly respected the Jews of Salonika for their potential value to Greece; Caime thought him "a superior man who had no race or religious prejudice." The center of Greek politics was Athens, and though small in number the voices of Athenian Jewry were heard as lobbyists in the Greek parliament for the newly acquired Jews of Salonika during the interwar period.

Western Provinces

The Jews of the West, especially in Epirus ("the peninsula"), have a shorter recorded history than those in the South and North. Primarily merchants, they settled along the two major routes that crisscrossed Epirus: the Via Egnatia, built by the Romans to connect the Ionian Sea with Byzantium on the Bosphorus; and the north-south route from Naupaktos (Lepanto), Preveza, and Arta in the south through the metropolis of Ioannina into the villages of southern Albania and ultimately to Dyrrachium (Durrazzo), the western emporium of the Via Egnatia. Like the Jews of the South, the Jews of Epirus and Akarnania were Romaniot, that is, Greek-speaking citizens of the Byzantine Empire. They had their own synagogue rite and continue to speak a local patois of Judeo-Greek to the present day.

The recorded history of Ioannina Jewry begins in the early 1300s (although local legends place Jews there in the ninth or tenth century, if not even earlier in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus). Two chrysobulla ("golden charters") of the Byzantine emperor Andronikos II are extant: one dated 1319 promising protection to the Jewish immigrants to the city, and one dated 1321 confirming the rights of the Church over some local Jews. Along with these two named groups we must assume another preexisting group of Jews, of whom nothing is known, but whose presence in such a commercial and political center is not to be doubted. In later years, immigrants from Corfu and Italy added their contributions to the complexity of Ioannina's Jewish community. Among the latter was the extensive Matsas clan, which brought with them from Italy kaskaval cheese and held a family monopoly of the product into the twentieth century. Intermarriage with Sephardim from Salonika and Central Greece and the arrival of a few North African Jews added more traditions, but soon all spoke and prayed in a seemingly homogeneous community. The Jewish community lived alongside the Ottoman governors inside the walled kastro, a practice repeated throughout the smaller communities of Greece during the Turkokratia.

By the end of the nineteenth century, there were some fifteen hundred Jews in Ioannina with an equal number in the other towns of the vilayet (the administrative district) of Ioannina. The burning of the main marketplace in 1869, allegedly by the Turkish governor, who wanted to modernize the city, was a tragedy for the Jews, proportionately as disastrous as the great fire of Salonika in 1917 was to their Sephardi co-religionists. More than half of the Ioannina Jewish community, some 840 people, were left homeless; most of the stores were also burned. Three years later, a series of riots against the Jews contributed to further decline of the community. With the opening of a highway between Ioannina and Preveza, the hinterland villagers of Epirus and the Jews of Ioannina took the opportunity to emigrate. They left to join their co-religionists in Alexandria, Egypt, and were also drawn to the great mecca of the fin de siècle, New York City. Despite this emigration, there were still some four thousand Jews in Ioannina, according to the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) bulletins of 1904. In the following year, five hundred Jews emigrated to Bucharest, Alexandria, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and New York. Another thousand followed in 1906. The community thus lost its most energetic element and was left with a more conservative and religious population that predominated through the next generation. A similar emigration pattern was to affect the energy level of the Salonika Jewish community during the first part of the twentieth century.

The Jews of western Greece shared with the Jews of the South a Greek-speaking environment. The former still lived a traditional life under Ottoman control, which lasted into the twentieth century. The latter area, however, developed within a thriving neoclassical civilization, which despite its Germanic king (a Danish house supplanted the Bavarians in 1863) prided itself as a parliamentary democracy. The Jews of Athens (at least those raised and educated in the new environment) considered themselves Greeks of the Israelite persuasion (in Greek, Israelites) and adopted an emancipated (secularized) veneer in public. Despite the predominance of Orthodox Christianity in Greek society, Athenian Jewry did not consider themselves outsiders. The Jews of western Greece, however, suffered the vicissitudes of ethnic tensions with the subject Greek Orthodox that occasionally exploded in local blood libels. The hysteria of these canards, which slowly spread west through the Ottoman Empire beginning with the Damascus Blood Libel of 1840, reached Corfu in 1891, twenty-seven years after the island was ceded to Greece. However, just as with the Ottoman regime that preceded it, the Greek government extended formal protection to Jewish citizens, an attitude and policy that continued throughout the twentieth century.

The Balkan North

The situation in northern Greece was quite different. The Greek-speaking traditions of the Jews of Macedonia, Thrace, and Central Greece, prominent in Hellenistic times and continuing through the Byzantine period, virtually disappeared with the Ottoman conquests of the fifteenth century. In 1455, the conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmet II, ordered the resettlement of the Greek-speaking Jewish communities of Thrace, Macedonia, and Central Greece to his new capital. All of the tiny Jewish communities along the Via Egnatia from Kastoria to Thessaloniki (later known to Jews as Salonika) and east to Constantinople, as well as south along the Aegean coasts, were forcibly removed and identified for the next few centuries as sürgün, that is, forcibly deported, and hence not free to relocate. In the 1470 census of the capital, the Romaniot Jews numbered some fifteen hundred families, or nearly 10 percent of the city's population.

In the wake of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the forced baptism of the Jews in Portugal in 1498 (many of them Spanish refugees), Iberian Sephardim migrated eastward to the Ottoman Empire, where they were encouraged to settle in those areas devoid of Jews. Hence, along the northern tier of Greece, in that string of towns along the Via Egnatia with Salonika as its center, a transplanted medieval Spanish civilization flourished both commercially and intellectually until the twentieth century. Beginning in the fourteenth century, Ashkenazi refugees from Central Europe sought refuge in the Balkans. They were joined from the seventeenth century on by continuing waves of Jews from southern Poland and Russia. Ottoman Jewry came to comprise the two major branches of European Jews-Ashkenazim and Sephardim-who intermingled in the homeland of the Greek-speaking Romaniots. There, under Sephardi cultural dominance, they flourished and produced a vibrant renaissance of Jewish creativity that was intimately linked with the fate and fortune of the Ottoman realm that welcomed them. From Salonika, Sephardi Jews radiated north to Bulgaria and Rumania and south to Ottoman Palestine (both frontier provinces of the Ottomans), but their main settlements ringed the Aegean Sea from Larissa in Central Greece to Izmir in western Turkey. The islands of the Dodecanese, which stretch like a string of pearls off the western coast of Turkey, soon supported colonies of Sephardi Jews; the most important among them was Rhodes.

The flow of refugees from Russia to Greece after 1881 put a burden on the local communities from Corfu to Rhodes and from Salonika to Crete. These communities were already somewhat impoverished as a result of the general economic decline in the eastern Mediterranean, a situation that further stimulated the exodus of wealthy and enterprising Jews to more settled areas of the Balkans and Egypt as well as France and the United States. This exodus continued at an accelerated rate even beyond World War I.


Excerpted from The Agony of Greek Jews, 1940-1945 by Steven B. Bowman Copyright © 2009 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Steven B. Bowman is Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati.

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