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40 years of active presence

Sunday, December 10, 2023


    ELIAS BARZILAΙ (1891-1979)

    The Jewish community of Athens

    According to the 1928 Census, Attica’s Jewish population did not exceed 1,800. It grew during the first months of the occupation, when Jews from Thessaloniki and other areas in the German-occupied zone settled in Athens. In 1943, the Jewish Community of Athens had 3,000 registered members but some 4,000 Jewish refugees from other cities also lived in the capital.

    The chief rabbi

    Elias Barzilai was born in Thessaloniki. His father, Pinhas Barzilai, had also been a rabbi and chairman of the Beth Din of Thessaloniki. Barzilai was educated locally and served at the Italia Hadash Synagogue. He received a scholarship to study at the University of Jerusalem and worked as a teacher and rabbi in Belgrade (1933–1934), perhaps also for a short period in Didymoteicho (1934), and later in Tel Aviv (1934–1936). In early 1936, he was hired by the Jewish Community of Athens because of his broad education and linguistic capabilities. He served until 1963, when he resigned.

    The call from Dieter Wisliceny to Barzilai (21 September 1943)

    “I was ordered to go to the Gestapo, and when I arrived there, at 14 Loukianou Street, I was surrounded by five Gestapo officers dressed in black and wielding pistols; I was ordered to do whatever they said, without question or hesitation. They ordered me to prepare, in 12 hours, a list of all Jews, including their names, home addresses (separate lists for Greek and foreign Jews), a list of their assets, their work addresses, the community offices, and anything related, and all bank accounts. Leaving the Gestapo office, I promised that everything would be done as they requested. This reassured them and they let me go until the next day.

    For me that night was a night of labour. In spite of the danger posed to my own life, I had two very important tasks to complete. First, to burn all the booklets of the community’s new members and, second, convene a meeting of all Jews at the synagogue to explain to them that they must abandon their homes immediately, saving whatever they could and getting far away, without letting the Germans nor their Greek neighbours know where they had gone. I telephoned those who did not come, using a coded metaphor (so the Germans wouldn’t understand) that ‘the patient is very ill, and the doctors recommend he leaves the city for the mountains’.”

    “I went to the Gestapo in the morning and informed them that I had not brought any list with me. Angered, the ruthless Wisliceny struck the table with his hand. That is when I took out the official document issued in 1942 by the German Special Police certifying that burglars had broken into the community offices and stolen the records [concerning the attack by the Hellenic Socialist Patriotic Organisation (ESPO)]. I added that a new register had not been compiled since and that their 12-hour deadline had not been enough for me to recall all the Community’s members names. So, they gave me 48 hours more.”

    Appealing to the archbishop and the collaborationist premier

    Immediately after leaving the Gestapo, the chief rabbi paid two visits, accompanied by members of the community. The first was to Archbishop Damaskinos and the second to Prime Minister Ioannis Rallis. From the former he sought help and refuge in the churches; from the latter, his intervention. Rallis made vague promises, while Damaskinos offered to facilitate Barzilai’s flight to the Middle East in cooperation with the British. He had a personal friendship with the rabbi but explained that as the Germans would not respect the sanctity of the churches, there was no point in the Jews hiding there.

    Damaskinos’ actions to save the Jews of Athens (September 1943)

    Damaskinos then proceeded to petition Altenburg “to not impose deportation measures on the Jews of Athens and the southern Greek provinces, which had come under German administration as a result of Italy’s surrender”. Altenburg replied that it was “absolutely impossible for him to intervene” as the order to expand the racial deportations had come from Adolf Eichmann. Damaskinos pleaded with Altenburg to exclude at least small children and war invalids but received only promises as delaying tactics. After that, Damaskinos issued a secret circular to all churches urging priests and Christian communicants to offer every assistance to the persecuted Jews. In addition, his secretary, Ioannis Georgakis, requested, on the archbishop’s behalf, that priests and monasteries aid the persecuted.

    The abduction

    The rabbi also contacted the Resistance. The National Liberation Front (EAM) undertook to help those Jews who would flee to the mountains. His “kidnapping” was orchestrated that same day, giving the flight signal to Athens Jews, or at least those who could either afford to hide in the city using false IDs (albeit surviving without food rations and renting a home without rent protection) or to leave it.

    On 8 October 1943, the Germans issued an order for all Jews to return to their homes and present themselves at the community every day on penalty of death. The Germans also took over the community offices and tried to set up a community network to trap as many as possible. As time passed and nothing happened, the fear subsided. As a result, some 800 Jews were caught and deported on 24 March 1944.

    In the mountains

    After moving them from place to place, EAM eventually brought the Barzilai family to the inaccessible village of Krokylio in Fokida, which was located at an altitude of 850 metres. The family remained there, under EAM’s care, for around six months. They were then moved to Velouchi and, finally, to the village of Petrino in Karditsa, near the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) headquarters, where they remained until Liberation.

    In letters from “Free Greece”, Rabbi Barzilai wrote in June 1944 that “EAM–ELAS’s aid in saving the Jews […] has been significant. Its organisations have offered tangible examples of true patriotism, humanism, and philosemitism.”

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