MONDAY, MARCH 13, 1944 - 9:45 AM
Perhaps Moses should be telling this story, but I think not. Everyone in it, even the Jews, is a Greek first. So I will be the one to tell it. It has an ending much like many of our Greek fables, though Shakespeare might insist it is copied from him. Nonsense.
On this one cold, wet March morning in 1944, Theo Kantos turned onto Ermou Street. Just as he did every morning, he shielded his eyes from the Acropolis high above, where the huge, humiliating Nazi flag flapped in the biting wind. German troops raised it on the day they entered Athens three years earlier at the start of the occupation. The sight of that swastika right next to the Parthenon sent a shudder slithering through Theo's slender body.
He made up his mind to have it out today with his older brother, Solomon. Danger stalked every Jew in Athens now more than ever. The two of them had to find a place to hide their families, and he wasn't going to listen to any more of Solomon's procrastination.
When he walked into the dress shop, only the gray light through the big front window illuminated the inside. He flicked on the switch for the chandeliers overhead, and then hung his overcoat and hat on the brass coat tree near the front door. Solomon was putting a new dress on a hanger. Actually, it wasn't new. New dresses were scarce as chickens' eggs since the war started. These were worn garments women sold or traded for someone else's worn garments. Their shop, one of the few in Athens selling ready-made dresses, was a shadow of its fashionable past. Today dresses occupied only half of the store, the other half displaying everything from used pots and pans to tarnished silver candelabras - anything that might make a little extra money. The smell of mildew suggested a deteriorated warehouse, particularly on such a dreary day.
Before the war, Theo and Solomon made a handsome living. They shared the profits equally, though their father left one percent more of the ownership to Solomon than to Theo so the older brother always had the final say in all decisions. Solomon was the wise one, the strong one. Theo followed even when he disagreed, usually showing his objection only by his silence. Solomon rarely noticed.
This time was different. Gestapo agents now arrested anyone suspected of being a Jew, their tactics ever-more clever and unscrupulous. They snatched children from Hebrew school and then arrested the parents when they came to claim them. The sole kosher butcher and the kosher bakery became nectar to draw the bees. At roadblocks, Nazi troops would speak some Hebrew or Ladino words to see if they drew a smidgen of recognition. A few Jewish men disappeared without explanation, their families left to the agony of not knowing what happened to them.
The lives of Solomon's family were as much at stake as Theo's. He had to make Solomon see that. He approached his brother cautiously, measuring how to bring up the touchy subject.
"So, does the synagogue have any Passover matzo yet?" Solomon greeted him.
"I forgot to check," Theo said, immediately defensive.
"Forgot? How can you forget matzo for Passover?" Solomon peered over the top of his horned-rimmed glasses, scolding.
"Things are getting worse. We have to talk about an escape plan."
"Again you want to talk about this nonsense? The Germans are losing. It won't be long now."
Solomon's assertion was premature, but nonetheless not entirely wrong. The Russians crushed the Germans at Stalingrad and pushed them back into the Ukraine. The Americans and British pushed them out of Africa. Then the Italians surrendered last September and deposed Mussolini. That was not entirely good news because, when the Italians surrendered, the Nazis took control of Athens from them.
"Sometimes I think you're the only Jew in Athens who doesn't know we're being hunted," Theo said.
"It wasn't so bad when the Italians were running things," Solomon said. He shrugged as if to dismiss the change as a minor annoyance.
"This SS General they put in charge, Stroop. He's the bastard who liquidated the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw." Theo's voice quivered a little. "Massacred them all."
The older brother gave the younger brother a patronizing pat on the shoulder. "Remember what our father used to say: He who becomes a sheep is eaten by wolves. So don't be a frightened sheep."
"Stroop's pressing every Christian in the city to identify at least one Jew."
"We're Greeks first, then Jews. The Christians aren't going to turn us in." As if to contradict him, just then a police car raced past the store, its high-low siren wailing.
Solomon stroked his bushy, grey-speckled mustache, paused, and then walked over to the cash register behind the glass-topped jewelry counter. He opened the drawer and began counting the money. Theo followed him.
"Drachmas," Solomon spit. "The way prices are going up you can't even buy a loaf of day-old bread for two million of them."
Theo pressed on. "General Stroop ordered Rabbi Barzilai to turn over the list he kept of every Jew in Athens. Instead, he went back to the synagogue and destroyed it. Stroop would have killed him, but the partisans hustled Barzilai out of Athens. They've hidden him somewhere."
"Leaving us to take care of ourselves. Some rabbi." The ash from Solomon's cigarette dribbled onto his rumpled white shirt.
"Better than having the Gestapo torture him. They say it's dangerous to go to synagogue. German agents are watching, making a new list."
Copyright 2015 Alan Fleishman. All rights reserved.
Cover photo used under license from Shutterstock: © spfotocz