BY VIC ALHADEFF
March 18, 2017
At 11.30am tomorrow, Yiannis Boutaris will lead a march through Thessaloniki. Sporting tattoos on his arms and a tiny diamond earring, the fiercely independent mayor of Greece’s second largest city brazenly wore a symbolic yellow star — which the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust — to protest against the election of neo-Nazi Golden Dawn members to his city council.
Thessaloniki and Zakynthos are not names that readily spring to mind in relation to the Holocaust, as most survivors who found a home in Australia originated in eastern Europe. But given what transpired in those key Greek locations encapsulates both extremes of human behaviour — evil and humanity — they comprise a stark and compelling prism through which to mark the day deportations to Auschwitz began from Thessaloniki, resulting in the annihilation of 50,000 Jews.
I recently visited both places, vicariously immersing myself in the diametrically contrasting experiences of their Jewish communities — one decimated by the Nazis while the other, a few kilometres to the southwest, entirely saved by the extraordinary courage of the local villagers and their leaders. The shattering difference between their fates stands as a beacon of the power of ordinary people to make a difference.
I also met Lena Carrer, daughter of Loucas Carrer, heroic wartime mayor of the picturesque island of Zakynthos — one of two civic leaders who, incredibly, gave the Gestapo their own names instead of those of their Jewish compatriots that the Nazis had demanded. More of that poignant encounter later.
Thessaloniki was established 2331 years ago. Falling at different times under the rule of the Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Crusaders, Venetians, Ottomans and Greeks, it was home to a flourishing community of 52,000 Jews when German troops seized the city. The Jews had lived in harmony with the other major communities — the Greeks and Turks — with their dominant role in the city’s cultural and economic life earning the city the nickname of “Jerusalem of the Balkans”.
That world crashed down in 1941, however. German forces destroyed 56 synagogues and the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe comprising 350,000 graves, closed the Jewish newspapers, raided Jewish properties, ransacked archives and obtained the names of all 52,000 Jews from the chief rabbi.
The following July, 9000 Jewish men were ordered to gather in Eleftherias Square (Liberty Square) and perform humiliating exercises in the blazing sun for the entire day. Those who collapsed were beaten, while the strongest were dispatched to forced labour camps for the German army. Most civilian onlookers watched in silence, some even applauding the grotesque spectacle.
The draconian Nuremberg Laws were enacted, forbidding Jews from using public transport, eating in restaurants and buying or selling property, and ordering them to wear a yellow star. And all 52,000 were relocated to four ghettos, walking to the cramped quarters in full view of their fellow citizens. From there they were marched to the railway station to be deported to Auschwitz — and it is that first deportation, on March 15, 1943, that Boutaris will re-enact tomorrow, symbolically leading a march from the Holocaust memorial at Liberty Square to the now disused station. As the final stage in the Nazis’ demonic machinery of destruction, 19 transports ferried them to death camps — 18 to Auschwitz, one to Bergen-Belsen — on a gruelling eight-day journey. Only 1950 people survived.
On nearby Zakynthos, meanwhile, where dark-green olive trees cover the terrain, a dramatically different scenario played out. Ordered to provide the governor of the German garrison with the names of the island’s 275 Jews, the mayor, Carrer, and Bishop Chrysostomos did the unthinkable: in the knowledge that their defiance could mean a firing squad, they handed the Nazis a piece of paper that they said contained all 275 names. It didn’t. It carried just two names — their own. In the meantime, they urged local villagers to hide the Jews in their churches, their farmhouses, even their wells. The entire Jewish community of Zakynthos was saved through those remarkable acts of courage. Not one person was betrayed.
Meeting in the Carrer home on Zakynthos, I asked Lena how she felt about her father’s extraordinary courage. Nonchalantly brushing aside any suggestion of heroism, she responded: “It was a natural thing to do.
“I always admired my father. He always had strong beliefs about what was right. He didn’t speak about what he had done when I was young and he never asked for recognition. But as I grew up, I became increasingly aware of the importance of his actions. I’m so happy that he did not send anyone to Auschwitz. I would not have been able to live with myself if he had.”
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.
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