CHRISOSTOMOS DIMITRIOU (1890-1958)
The Jewish community of Zakynthos
In 1943, the Jewish population of Zakynthos amounted to 275 people, who did not face any particular problems during the Italian Occupation. The Germans sought to record the members of the community in late December 1943, but thanks to stance of the bishop, mayor and other islanders Zakynthos’s Jews were not deported – a rare occurrence in occupied Europe.
The chief secretary of the Holy Synod, Chrysostomos Dimitriou, a doctor of theology who had studied in Munich, was elected Metropolitan of Zakynthos in 1934. From the start of his tenure as bishop, he maintained a friendly stance towards the island’s Jews and, as a result, was criticised by Greek Orthodox fanatics. During the Italian Occupation, he engaged in charitable activities for his flock and managed to secure the release of prisoners. He was arrested by the Italians and deported to Athens for a year. He returned to his see on 23 November 1943, that is, after Zakynthos passed into German Occupation. Owing to his knowledge of German, he made immediate contact with the Occupation authorities on the island.
Support and solace
In late December 1943, Mayor Loukas Karrer received an order from the Germans to submit a list of Zakynthos’ Jews. A meeting between Chrysostomos, the military commander, Karrer and the Jewish community’s president, Moshe Gani, followed, where the bishop and mayor claimed that most Jews had already left the island because of the war and the bombardments. Commander Lüth ordered the immediate checks on all Jews, requiring them to report in daily and insisted that a list of names be turned over instantly to him. Chrysostomos then handed in a document with only his and the mayor’s names.
It is said that Chrysostomos also sent a telegram to Hitler, reminding him that they had met in Munich as well as assuring him that the “Jews of Zakynthos belonged to his flock” and were completely harmless. On that basis, an order was issued to keep the Jews in Zakynthos, under the responsibility of the metropolitan and the mayor. The order, nor a copy of it, has survived.
The community president, Moshe Gani, announced to community members his intention to go into hiding and advised them to act according to their conscience. Two-thirds of the them fled to the villages; only the elderly and infirm remained in the town of Zakynthos. Some of the Jews in hiding would sneak back on Fridays to go to synagogue, covering the windows and being as quiet as possible. This, plus the fact that a list of Jews was not compiled, even in the summer of 1944, are sufficient indications that Lüth showed more indifference than anti-Jewish zeal.
In August 1944, a new military commander arrived who not only replaced Lüth but even put him under detention. He also intended to deport the Jewish population. Chrysostomos assured him that the Jews had already abandoned the town, but the latter demanded that Mayor Karrer, under threat to his life, have all Jews present themselves the following day. The signal was then given for a general flight of any Jews still in town, while the mayor himself also fled Zakynthos. The new commander asked for three vessels to be sent to Zakynthos for the deportation. These ships were used eventually by the Germans themselves to depart the island on 12 September 1944. Thus, Zakynthos’s Jews were saved.
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