When the fascist axis declared war on Greece late in October 1940, a lot of Jews, including many from Ioannina, were serving as ordinary military personnel, officers, or auxiliary personnel at the front, where they and their Christian compatriots gave the whole of Europe a lesson in the meaning of patriotism and self-sacrifice.
When Greece fell to the Axis forces, Ioannina was in the Italian occupied zone. There were at that time approximately 1950 people in the Jewish community. The Italian administration was lenient and placed no restrictions on them. So life carried on as normal for the city’s Jewish population. Of course, there were those among the young who joined the resistance forces and took to the surrounding mountains, more out of hatred of the fascist conqueror than out of hope of deliverance. Salvador Bacola and Yosef Matsa were among them and earned a mention here.
German forces led by General Jurgen von Stettner entered the city on 20th April 1943, taking over its occupation in July 1943. The Germans put malicious pressure on the Jewish community right from the start. They approached Sabbethai Kambilis, a prominent member of the Jewish Community who believed that the Jews would be safe from danger and persecution if they obeyed the orders issued by the forces of occupation. Despite initial German reassurances, things took a serious turn for the worse.
The Germans destroyed the new Kahal Kadosh Hadash synagogue. With the help of mayor G. Vlachleidis, the community hid the sacred vessels and cloths of the synagogue in the crypt of the city’s old Kahal Kadosh Yashan synagogue, which is how they survived. All those who foresaw the catastrophe tried to find a way to escape. The Christian clergy stood by the fugitives. Metropolitan Bishop Spyridon saved a lot of objects, including a number of sewing machines from abandoned Jewish homes. One ordinary cleric, Father Athanasios, produced fake police identity cards with Christian-sounding names on them and distributed them to as many Jewish people as he could. In mid March 1944 the Jewish families of Ioannina were catalogued and their homes marked with crosses.
In the small hours before dawn on 25th March 1944, the Final Solution was suddenly and without warning enforced in Ioannina. Those who dwelt outside the castle walls were made to gather in Mavilis Square while those dwelt within the Castle were made to gather at the Military Hospital, and from there, on that snow-covered 25th day of March 1944, these 1870 Romaniote Jews were uprooted after twelve centuries of Jewish presence in the city. Taking with them whatever they could carry in bundles weighing up to 40 kilos, they were transported in 97 covered lorries, to Trikala then Larissa, and from there, in shocking conditions, by train to Auschwitz. There, and at many other Death Camps, 92% of the Jewish people of Ioannina were annihilated.
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