This is a doubly significant day in the nation of Greece in that not only is the Annunciation of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) observed but also Independence Day. March 25 commemorates the start of the War of Greek Independence in 1821 against the Ottoman Empire and the tourkokratia or Turkish rule that is traced back to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The occasion is marked with much pomp, parades and speech making in Greece and where large numbers of Greek immigrants have settled all over the world. This week also marked the anniversary of another stirring witness to freedom and human dignity, this one by a heroic churchman.
On March 23, 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Greece, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, Damaskinos, signed his name on a letter addressed to the collaborationist Prime Minister K. Logothetopoulos. The letter, composed by the poet Angelos Sikelianos, was a courageous defense of the Greek Jews who were being rounded up and it was signed by other prominent Greek citizens. “The Greek people were rightfully surprised and deeply grieved to learn that the German Occupation Authorities have already started to put into effect a program of gradual deportation of the Greek Jewish community of Salonika to places beyond our national borders, and that the first groups of deportees are already on their way to Poland,” the archbishop wrote. “The grief of the Greek people is particularly deep … ” When the Germans continued with the deportations, Damaskinos called the police chief of Athens, Angelos Evert, to his office and told him, “I have taken up my cross. I spoke to the Lord, and made up my mind to save as many Jewish souls as possible.”
When General Jürgen Stroop, an S.S. officer and police official for Greece, found out about the letter, he threatened to shoot Damaskinos. The archbishop — evoking the fate of fellow hierarchs who had run afoul of the Ottomans — told the German officer that “according to the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church, our prelates are hung and not shot. Please respect our traditions!” Damaskinos was undeterred.
This account from the website of the Holocaust Museum describes how the Nazi occupiers proceeded with the deportations.
In 1940 the Jewish community [of Athens] numbered 3,500 and was dispersed throughout the city. With the occupation of Greece in 1941, control of the city was given to the Italians, and the Jewish community enjoyed three years of relative security. As in other regions under Italian control, Jews fleeing persecution in Thessaloniki sought safe haven in Athens.
The head rabbi, Elias Barzelai, had strong connections with the municipal government and the EAM (National Liberation Front). These connections and the support of the archbishop of Athens, Damaskinos, contributed to the rescue of 66 percent of Athens’s Jews. Athens Police Chief Angelos Evert issued false identification cards and Archbishop Damaskinos ordered the church to issue false baptismal certificates to those threatened with deportation. In Athens and the port city of Piraeus, Christians hid Jews in their homes. Both Archbishop Damaskinos and Chief Evert are honored at Yad Vashem, along with the mayor of Piraeus.
On March 25, 1944, German officials rounded up 1,690 Jews in Athens—many of whom were refugees from Thessaloniki—for deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau. After the war, Athens became the main center of resettlement for Jews returning to Greece, and the Jewish population increased to 4,940. Today Athens remains the center of Jewish life in Greece.
The complete text of the Damaskinos letter may be found here. Excerpt:
The Greek Jews have proven themselves not only valuable contributors to the economic growth of the country but also law-abiding citizens who fully understand their duties as Greeks. They made sacrifices for the Greek country and were always on the front line in the struggles of the Greek nation to defend its inalienable historical rights.
The law-abiding nature of the Jewish community in Greece refutes a priori any charge that it may be involved in actions or acts that might even slightly endanger the safety of the Military Occupation Authorities. In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity: they are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion or dogmatic differences.
Our Holy Religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: “There is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28) and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences. Our common fate, both in days of glory and in periods of national misfortune, forged inseparable bonds between all Greek citizens, without exemption, irrespective of race.
On the Yad Vashem site, read about Metropolitan Dimitrios Chrysostomos of the island of Zakynthos who was ordered by German occupiers in September 1943 to compile a list of names of all of the resident Jews. Chrysostomos took a piece of paper, wrote his own name on it and handed it over. “Here is the list of Jews you require,” he said.