So many stories have been told of the Holocaust that we have become numb to the horror of it. Why then write still another one? I struggled to answer that all the time I was working on Odyssey of Chaos. On many days I considered ditching what I had written and looking elsewhere for the subject of my next book. So why did I keep going?
To begin with, it's personal. My wife Ann and I first met my Greek cousins twenty-seven years ago during our initial visit to Athens. They lived through the Nazi occupation of Greece depicted in my tale and were among the relatively few Greek Jews who survived. Secondly, as familiar as people are with much of the Holocaust, most are unaware of the unique disaster that befell Greece. Though my story may be of little consequence in the grand chronicle of this calamity, all that is known should be shared in some way.
On our more recent trip to Athens, my cousin Fortuni Koen again invited us to her apartment for dinner with her sister Mary Sabas and Mary's husband Victor. Ever since our first visit, I had one burning question I wanted to ask but feared doing so would stir ugly memories. Namely, nearly ninety percent of Greece's Jews perished in the Holocaust, close to 70,000 people, the highest percentage of Jews lost in any country. Yet all but one of my Greek cousins survived. Why? That's what I wanted to know.
Our entire family on my Grandmother Esther's side was originally from Ioannina (pronounced Yannena), a town in northwestern Greece, three hundred miles from Athens. My grandmother was born there in 1889. Greece had won its independence from the Ottoman Empire, present day Turkey, in 1834. But Turkey still ruled the contested area where Ioannina was located.
According to my grandmother, her mother's family, the Koens, was one of the most prominent and wealthiest in Ioannina. Her grandparents, Albert and Anna, presided over the large extended family spawned by their three sons and two daughters. The Koens had made their fortune by supplying the Turkish army with food and provisions. Apparently, the local pasha (governor) resented their wealth and influence. One day he refused to pay Albert the substantial sum he was owed and took the money for himself. He likely used his high governmental position to threaten the family. The result was that they lost their wealth and the business which they depended on.
Their livelihood now gone, and shunned by many of the local Greeks who fiercely opposed the Turks, the entire extended family decided to leave Ioannina. My great-grandparents, Eva and Mordechai, came to America in 1903, bringing with them my grandmother Esther and her younger sister. Most of the rest of the family eventually settled in Athens.
Around the dinner table, Fortuni, Mary, and I shared this and other family stories as they had been passed down over the many decades on the Greek side and the American side of the Atlantic. I was fascinated by how closely the two versions coincided.
I tried to steer the conversation toward the war years, but couldn't. Then sometime between courses, I found myself alone with Fortuni for a few moments. Ann wandered over about the time I summoned the courage to ask Fortuni how she and the rest of the family survived the war. She did not hesitate to answer my question, but neither was she eager to talk about it.
They were hidden by a shepherd in the two-room cellar of his hut on the slope of Mount Imitos in the hills to the east of Athens. Their little band included Fortuni, Mary, both grandmothers, Grandfather Solomon, their mother Anna, and Anna's two sisters. They lived in constant terror of being discovered, made worse by German use of a field nearby as a firing range. When they heard the lorries driving by, they feared troops were coming to capture them, and when they heard the shooting they were sure it was intended for them.
Meanwhile, Fortuni and Mary's father Leon and their Uncle Albert joined the partisans, fighting the Germans about sixty miles away. Their mother Anna served as a courier for the partisans going back and forth with messages, mostly on foot, periodically stopped by German guards at the barricades.
I had questions for Fortuni but didn’t want to interrupt her while she was in the middle of such an intense narrative. She told us about tricks the Nazi’s used to lure Jews out of hiding. Luckily, her family had relatives living in other parts of Greece that had already been occupied by the Germans. These relatives warned the Athens cousins about German subterfuge. One such ruse was that around the Passover holiday they promised to issue free matzo to all those Jews who gathered at a designated place. The orthodox Jews were particularly eager to get their matzo. When they showed up they were captured and forced to reveal where others were hiding. The matzo episode I relate in Odyssey of Chaos really happened.
Fortuni seemed to want us to understand the good and the bad that existed among the Greeks during World War II. On the one hand, their many Christian friends saved them, providing refuge and sustenance. On the other hand, there were those Greeks who took advantage of the plight of their Jewish neighbors and stole from them. She told us about her Uncle Albert, who we met on our first visit. He had been a wealthy man before the war. However, while they were all off evading or fighting their Nazi pursuers, a Greek stole everything Albert owned, including his store. She emphasized that it was another Greek, not the Nazi’s, who took it.
A worse fate befell her Uncle Jacob, her mother's brother. At the time the family went into hiding, Jacob was working with a business associate to dispose of merchandise from his store before the Germans could confiscate it. The associate set up a meeting with a supposed buyer. Instead, the Germans were waiting for Jacob. Anna, unaware of this, telephoned the associate to find out where Jacob was. He told Anna that Jacob hadn't shown up for their meeting. He asked her where they were hiding so he could deliver the money from the sale of the merchandise. At that instant, she understood what had happened and immediately hung up the phone without revealing the hideout. They never saw Jacob again or learned of his final fate. Much of this I learned recently from Mary's son, Gabriel Sabas.
The night of our visit, Mary's husband Victor, a very nice and gracious man in his late seventies, re-entered the room about the time Fortuni was winding up her account. “Victor had real problems with the Nazi’s,” Fortuni said when she saw him. “They took him back to Germany.” Tears welled in her eyes. “He still has a number on his arm.” She said something to Victor in Greek. He held up his left arm so we could see the tattoo. Though he wore a short sleeve shirt, he likely kept the tattoo hidden because I hadn't noticed it until that moment. The numbers were a bit blurry after so many years, but still big, clearly legible, and chilling. Victor was a young man of twenty-one in 1944, probably strong enough to be of use to the Germans in a slave labor camp. One can only guess how or why he survived. Or how he could be the kind, gentle soul he was when we met.
His son Gabriel recently told me more about Victor's ordeal. When the war started, Victor lived in the town of Arta, about two hundred miles northwest of Athens, near the sea. This section of Greece was first occupied by the Italians, who refused to apply the racist Nuremberg laws. But when Italy surrendered to the Allies in March of 1943, the Germans rounded up Victor, his family, and all of the other Jews in town. They brought them to Athens, and from there shipped them to Auschwitz. All eight in Victor's immediate family died in that horrific concentration camp - his parents Gabriel and Ester, younger brother David, older brother Joseph, Joseph's wife Stameta and their infant son, Victor's sister Assimo, and Assimo's son. All but Victor and David were executed immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz. David died later.
In January of 1945, as the Soviet army neared Auschwitz, the Nazis slaughtered thousands in a desperate attempt to cover up what they had done. The remaining 60,000 prisoners were marched west, guards shooting anyone who couldn't keep up. Some 15,000 were killed along the way. Ultimately, Victor was shipped by train to the concentration camp at Dachau, outside of Munich. There he was liberated by the U.S. Army in April 1945.
My cousin Gabriel said his father never spoke of his ordeal to his family, though he had recurring nightmares throughout his life. Then in the late 1990's he had to file official documents of some sort, perhaps testimony in connection with reparations or other legal action against the Germans. Gabriel and his younger sister Ester helped Victor fill out the paperwork. That's when he first told them many of these details. He most remembered the concentration camps for his desperate hunger, the bitter cold, the beatings, and the dogs. Victor is gone now, but I can't forget this gentle man and what he endured.
I still remember how clearly difficult it was that evening for Fortuni to talk about what had happened, but she did want Ann and me to know. Nonetheless, she reached a point where she did not want to talk about it any further and abruptly turned the discussion to more pleasant topics.
Odyssey of Chaos was inspired by Fortuni's depiction of their escape from the clutches of the Nazis. In most other ways, the characters and the plot are largely a product of my imagination. The historical events and prominent figures, however, are true and thoroughly researched.
A couple of facts bear mentioning. Nearly one hundred percent of the Jews in the Greek city of Salonika (Thessaloniki), some 56,000, were murdered in the Holocaust. They were the largest concentration of Jews in Greece, made up predominantly of Sephardics. Their forbears settled in Salonika following their expulsion from Spain during the Catholic Church's Inquisition of 1492. Over the centuries, these Sephardics maintained their own distinct culture. They spoke primarily a Judeo-Spanish dialect, rather than Greek, and lived clustered together in the same part of the city. Thus they were easy for the Germans to identify and round up for deportation.
The Athens Jews, on the other hand, were highly integrated into Greek society, a prime reason why so many of them survived. They were mostly Yanniotes from Ioannina (also known as Romaniotes) who had been in Greece since before the time of Christ. Greek was their first language and, though they attended synagogue and practiced their religion freely, they were diffused throughout the Athens citizenry. When the Gestapo began rounding up the Jews, most Greeks looked upon them as friends and neighbors and often came to their aid, some in a big way. The numbers are inexact, but an estimated two thousand of Athens' Jews survived out of a pre-war population of about thirty-five hundred.
In telling her family's story of survival, Fortuni revealed the treachery and the goodness that existed side by side among the Greek Christians. I have tried to reflect that in my story. The Greek collaborationist government of Prime Minister Ioannis Rallis openly aided the Nazis, victimizing its own citizens. Rallis justified it as necessary in the larger fight against what he maintained were the more treacherous communists. On the other hand, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Athens, Damaskinos Papandreou, and Police Chief Angelos Evert stood in courageous opposition to Rallis and the Nazis. Archbishop Damaskinos, at ultimate personal risk, commanded his priests to actively hide Jews. Chief Evert ordered the issuance of false identity papers to the Jews of Athens. Both men have been declared Righteous Among Nations. This is a formal honor bestowed by Israel on behalf of the Jewish people to recognize non-Jews who during the Holocaust jeopardized their own lives to save Jews.
In 2013, Ann and I visited the beautiful Greek island of Zakynthos, not then knowing the noble history that marked its people. During the war, the 40,000 truly righteous Christians who lived on the island hid their entire population of Jewish neighbors from the Nazi roundups. As a result, all two hundred and seventy-five of the Zakynthos Jews survived. After the war, many immigrated to Israel. In August of 1953, the island was hit full force with a devastating 7.3 earthquake. Nearly every building was destroyed, the entire island reduced to rubble. Thousands were killed or severely wounded. Ships from the American, British, and Greek navies raced toward the island. But the first ships to enter the harbor, loaded with food, medical supplies, and hope, were ships of the fledgling Israeli navy. They had not forgotten.
Copyright 2015 Alan Fleishman. All rights reserved.
Cover photo used under license from Shutterstock: © spfotocz