The Agony of Greek Jews
By Steven Bowman
Reviewed by Rosine Nussenblatt
Steven B. Bowman
The Agony of Greek Jews, 1940-1945
Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
325 pages, Notes and Index
Few books have been written in English on the Shoah of Greek Jews. Steven Bowman’s book is original because it looks at the experience of Greek Jews during World War II, not in isolation as in many other accounts, but in the context of the war in Greece.1 He examines the fate not only of the overwhelming majority of Greek Jews who were deported and died in death and labor camps, on foreign soil, but also of those Greek Jews who remained in Greece, died or survived within the ranks of the Resistance. This question of survival is a thread throughout the book. Its originality also stems from the variety of sources. He draws on Yad Vashem studies, on survivors’ monographs and on interviews of survivors, some done relatively soon after World War II, such as the ones by Myriam Novitch in 1959, or more recent studies, including his own resulting from many years of research. He touches upon Greek Jewish military history in the war against Italy as well as the little known fact that a number of Jews from Palestine, originally from Greece and incorporated in the British forces, fought in Greece; many were trapped there when the British troops retreated.
Bowman starts by reminding the reader of how the Modern Greek state was founded and who the Greek Jews are. It took well over one hundred years for modern Greece to come into being within its present borders. Thus, the various Jewish communities of today’s Greece fared differently depending on their geographical location. He distinguishes three geographical regions where Jews lived. There were the Jews of Southern Greece, where the Greek revolution started in the 1820s.2 There were the Jews from the western provinces, especially Epirus, who were mainly Romaniote. These Jews, having inhabited the region since Roman, and Byzantine times, were Greek-speaking. In the Balkan north, which included the town of Salonika, the Jews were mainly Sephardim. The Sephardim came from the Iberian Peninsula and also from parts of Italy that were under Spanish rule. Sephardim spoke Judeo-Spanish and were the majority. The separation between these two groups was not rigid and depended on their place of residence. Romaniote became Sephardim while more rarely some Sephardim became Romaniote. A minority of Ashkenazim came at different times. These Jewish communities under the Ottomans enjoyed substantial autonomy.
The chapter, “Germans and Jews in Greece,” is devoted to the “decline of Greek Jewry, alongside the penetration of German political, economic and military inroads after World War I.” During the interwar years, Bowman writes that German influence increased in Greece due to cultural and scientific exchanges. Trade between the two countries increased as well and Germany became an important supplier of weapons to Greece. In the political sphere, monarchists in Greece were sympathetic to Germany unlike republicans. In August 1936, with the advent of the Metaxas dictatorship, the ties between Germany and Greece were reinforced. Bowman, for this period, refers principally to Salonika, where most Greek Jews lived. Salonika’s Jewish community had been going through an economic and political decline since before the beginning of the 20th century. In 1917, a great fire brought the destruction of many communal buildings, synagogues and hospitals, and also homes. The reconstruction of the city with the goal of Hellenizing and modernizing it, combined with a very large influx of Greek Orthodox from Asia Minor following an exchange of population with Turkey, shifted the balance even more in favor of the Greek Orthodox in the 1920s. Rising antisemitism in Greece, but especially in this city, difficult economic conditions, and Zionism, fueled Jewish emigration. Palestine, France and the United States were favored destinations. Palestine was of course the destination of Zionists; France was attractive because many Jews, especially those born under the Ottoman Empire, had studied in the schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Salonika.
The period from the Italian invasion of October 1940 to the beginning of the first deportations of Jews in 1943 spans several chapters. The author discusses the role of Greek Jews in the military during the fight against Italy: “Greek Jewry still commemorates the loss of 613 dead and 3,743 wounded, a 34% casualty rate, nearly three times more than the overall 12 % Greek casualty rate.” In a note, he adds that the question of numbers still needs to be examined. In any event, mortality was high and the number of wounded as well. He also examines the situation, after the German and Bulgarian invasions of Greece of April 1941 following the defeat of the Italian army, and that resulted in three zones of occupation in Greece. Salonika, home to the largest Jewish community of Greece, was taken over by the Germans while Bulgaria controlled Thrace and most of Macedonia. Italian troops remained stationed in various places including Athens.
Bowman does not always follow chronological order in his analysis and the back and forth in some of the chapters makes the reading a bit difficult. This is for example the case for his description of the role of Salonika’s chief Rabbi, Zvi Koretz, which spans several chapters. In the context of Rabbi Koretz’s lack of protest against forced labor for Jewish men in 1942, the author writes: “The Jewish leadership cannot be blamed. Its community council, rabbis, and teachers were not aggressive leaders.” He continues to say that the community ethic was to make things run better, not to revolt. Koretz, who died after his liberation from Bergen-Belsen, a camp where living conditions were very harsh and became harsher over time, but that was not a death camp, is a controversial figure. Some historians, who feel that he has been made into a scapegoat, have reassessed his role lately. Many people, however, would find Bowman’s judgment excessively lenient. While Koretz is not responsible, of course, for the deportation of his coreligionists (the Germans as well as the Greek collaborators being the ones responsible), he was, however, an important part of the web that anesthetized and entrapped the Jewish community of Salonika in order to send it to its death.
Bowman paints a rather detailed picture of Jewish life in Salonika under German occupation, from April 1941 to March 1943. For example, he describes in more detail, as is rarely done elsewhere, the forced labor of Salonika Jewish men in the second half of 1942. He also wonders why there was no protest by Jews or non-Jews. Mentioned earlier is his assessment of the leaders of the community including Koretz. Why were there minimal protests by the Orthodox Greeks in Salonika? Bowman does not really address this question here.
In Eastern Europe, Jews were massacred following the advance of the German army, the Wehrmacht; in Western Europe, it took more time to apply the ‘Final Solution’ and this was the case in Greece as well. Slightly less than two years elapsed between the invasion of Salonika by German troops on April 9th, 1941 and the departure of the first transport from this city to Auschwitz on March 15, 1943. Bowman thus devotes space to the following question: “When was the decision made to implement the Final Solution in Salonika and its environs?” placing the timing of the demise of Salonika Jews within the war context. Salonika Jews were a “security risk” given the preparation for an anticipated Allied attack. The German army was headquartered in a city where over 50,000 inhabitants were Jewish. Bowman writes that it was in the interest of the Allies to let the Germans think that an Allied invasion would come in the Balkans.
By early 1943, the fate of the majority of Greek Jews, the Jews of Salonika who had suffered the great, general famine of 1941/1942, and who had seen their ancient cemetery desecrated and destroyed, was sealed. The role of Koretz is again discussed, as well as the role of the leaders of Eichmann’s Sonderkommando, who were in charge of the deportations, i.e. Alois Brunner and Dieter Wisliceny. Some protested, such as the Archbishop of Athens and Greece, Constantin Damaskinos, who sent a letter to Konstantinos Logothetopoulos, acting prime minister (Bowman inserts the letter in his narrative). One actor in the 1943 spring drama is, however, missing in Bowman’s account. It is the Greek authorities. Bowman fails to ask whether the local Greek authorities in Salonika, and those higher up in Athens, knew in advance of the impending deportations, and if they did, what did they do? Andrew Apostolou, historian of the Holocaust in Greece, writes in his article entitled “‘The Exception of Salonika’: Bystanders and Collaborators in Northern Greece”’3 that Vasilis Simonides (Greek governor of Macedonia in Salonika) provided the Germans with Greek policemen to guard the ghettos and participated in the looting of Jewish assets. Simonides did not mention the impending deportations to his superiors in Athens, but in Athens, Logothetopoulos, the acting prime minister had already been informed in January by someone else of the same.
For Bowman, three entities had the potential to help the Greek Jews during the war. These entities were the Italian army until the Armistice, the Greek Resistance and the British Army. These three entities were not to be of much help for the bulk of Greek Jewry, i.e. the Jewish community of Salonika since it was under German occupation, and Greek Resistance in the Salonika area started only in earnest after their deportation. A number of Jews from that city escaped deportation in 1943 because they were able to reach Athens, but many were caught later in Athens for in September 1943, the Italians surrendered to the Allies and the city came under German control. In the summer of 1943, Jews with Italian passports living in Salonika were able to reach Athens thanks to Sam Modiano (a Jew with an Italian passport), who organized this rescue with the help of the Italian consulate in Athens. The author gives a detailed account of how this escape route was organized. He also discusses the attempts at rescue by the Jewish leadership in Palestine and the role of the CICR in Geneva as compared to the role of their delegate on the ground and the Red Cross organizations of neutral countries. One might ask: Could some Jews have found refuge in Turkey? It would have been interesting for Bowman to mention the policy of the Turkish government towards Jewish refugees (after all Turkey had a border with Greece). The independent and courageous role of Salahattin Ulkumen, the Turkish consul in Rhodes who saved several Jewish Turkish citizens is, however, mentioned in a subsequent chapter, as well as the smuggling of Greek Jews from Evvia, Greece to Çesme, Turkey by ELAS (the military arm of EAM, the left-wing National Liberation Front, one of the major Resistance groups in Greece) and Palestinian Jews.
Bowman devotes a chapter to describing the two stages of the deportations in Greece. First, there were the deportations of spring and summer 1943, from Salonika as well as other smaller communities (Didimotiko, Florina, Hania, Katerini, Langada, Naoussa, Nea Orestias, Soufli and Veria)4 in the German occupied zone and from Thrace and Eastern Macedonia (Drama, Kavalla, Xanthi, Serres, Komotini, Alexandropouli) in the Bulgarian occupied zone. Second, came the 1944 deportation of Jews from territories that had been controlled by the Italians (Athens, Agrinion, Arta, Corfu, Halkis, Ioannina, Karditsa, Kastoria, Larissa, Patras, Preveza, Rhodes-Kos, Trikkala, Volos and Zakinthos). In the German occupied zone, Bowman gives a detailed account of the deportations to the Auschwitz death camp where the overwhelming majority of Jews of Salonika were killed on arrival. Nineteen transports left from Salonika. The Judenrat (leaders of the community under the occupation), notorious Jewish collaborators and foreign Jews, i.e. those with Spanish nationality,5 were sent to Bergen Belsen in Germany, a concentration camp with very harsh conditions and a high death rate, but not a death camp where Jews were systematically eliminated or worked to death. Bowman gives a short description of each transport, with some information on the fate of particular individuals on some of the transports. For example, he records that “After 5 months of forced labor, Bienvenida Pardo (nº 38861) was assigned to Block 10, the medical experiment barracks at Auschwitz.” He also discusses the existence of a “lost transport” not accounted for by Michael Molho and Joseph Nehama in their lists of transports from Salonika.6 While this subject is certainly of interest to historians, it might probably be less so to most readers. In the Bulgarian zone, Jews were deported to Treblinka 2 (Poland), a death camp where they were all killed. Their ordeal included a trip by train, then by barges on the Danube from Lom (Poland) to Vienna (Austria), where the mainly Bulgarian guards remitted them to the Germans; they were sent by train to Treblinka 2 where they were killed. Three transports left from Athens between April and August 1944.
In the chapter entitled “Abnormal Deaths in a Foreign Land,” Bowman offers testimonies by Greek Jewish survivors or information on Greek Jewish inmates in concentration camps from other sources. He follows their destinies: some Greek Jews were sent to smaller labor camps, such as the Jaworzno camp, to work in coal mines and others were sent to Warsaw to clean up the ruins of the Ghetto after its uprising in the fall of 1943. Some Greek Jews, mainly from Salonika and Ioannina, were also sent to Mauthausen, a death camp for political prisoners near Linz in Austria. Survivors also told of being sent to some of the sub labor camps of Mauthausen. Many Greek Jews, like other inmates, died in the forced marches at the end of the war. As for the fate or Greek Jews in Auschwitz, he notes that, out of a total of approximately 60,000 Greek Jews who ended up in Auschwitz, 18 percent (about 12,750) were selected for labor, but only about 2,000 survived. While the sheer number of Polish Jews killed in the Shoah is enormous as compared to the number of Greek Jews, the percentage of those killed in both countries is almost the same.
The Resistance of Greek Jews has, understandably, a large place in the book since it has been the focus of Bowman’s research. It is a complicated story because the history of the Resistance in Greece is itself complicated. It involves various political groups with different political agendas, but a common goal. Besides Greeks, either Orthodox or Jewish, there were also individuals of other nationalities stranded by the war; Italian soldiers, for example, who joined the Resistance. There were also other players, the Allies and the British in particular. The Allies had spies in the country to establish links with the Resistance and to provide supplies. The goal of all these players was not to save Jews, but to win the war. A few who spoke Greek and joined the Resistance could have some hope of survival. Bowman probably mentions this because, in Salonika, older people might not have been fluent in Greek. Bowman says that he is aware of only one instance of a specific military operation of the Resistance to save Jews. The military commander was a lieutenant by the name of Marko Carasso (a Jew). This is, I believe, in sharp contrast to the attitude of the Greek Orthodox noncombattants who took great personal risks to hide Jews.
Bowman describes how after the war there was a bitter homecoming for the survivors of the camps who came back to Greece. It was a country almost empty of Jews and they found it difficult to reclaim their property. It was also difficult for the Resistance fighters, Jews and non-Jews, who were on the wrong side of the political spectrum at the end of the war, i.e. the Resistance with a leftist ideology.
In his conclusion, Bowman underlines his position. Jews were unprepared for “the savageries inflicted on them by the Germans and the Bulgarians” because of their history of self-government and “accommodation” to the local authorities. While it is true that no one, in fact, could have expected the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews, one may ask the following question: Did the Jews of Salonika ever imagine that their local government would fail to help them? Bowman points rightly to the Germans as being the main perpetrators, but he does not mention another player, the Greek local governments and the central government in Athens (there was another Greek government in exile which protested). Even if, in Athens, a Jewish community of several thousand, the local authorities as well as religious authorities did give some help in 1944, it remains a fact nevertheless that in most places the Greek Jewish communities were destroyed that same year, one year after the deportations from Salonika.7 Bowman adds: “Survivors and commentators have attempted to place blame on neutral nations and the Allies for their passive role during the destruction of the Jewish communities.” Bowman seems to disagree. I believe, however, that the role of neutral nations and their allies does deserve scrutiny. In Switzerland, for example, it is not only historians, but the country as well that has revisited its role vis-à-vis the Jews during the war, at first somewhat reluctantly. Neutral countries, Spain and Turkey, had nationals on the ground in Greece and their policies to protect or not, belong, I believe, to this narrative as much as the role of the Greek government. It is the same for the Allied governments. Bowman adds that the: “Greeks contributed to rescuing and protecting Jews, alongside their rejection of Nazi policy.” Some did, some did not. I suggest that Bowman may emphasize the help that Greek Jews received in their country because his research, stemming mostly from accounts from survivors, may have an inherent bias. After all, most of those who survived in the mountains of Greece or hidden in cities owed their lives to the help of non-Jews. Jewish men and women were accepted in the Resistance if they did not declare themselves to be Jewish and also if they were of the right political persuasion, as Bowman recognizes.
The Agony of Greek Jews is a book rich in information. I found it slightly challenging to read because of the way it is organized, expecting the reader to go back and forth a lot, to the notes or other chapters, for content. Foreign terms are numerous and not systematically translated or explained. The reader familiar with the destruction of Greek Jewry will certainly appreciate reading about Greek Jews in the context of the war in Greece. The author also succeeds in painting a vivid history of the “Agony of Greek Jews” by including information on the fate of many individuals, who were sent to death or labor camps or who joined the Resistance; those who fought and died, and also those who survived.
1Steven B. Bowman is Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati. This book is the second on the Shoah of Greek Jews.
2 Entire Jewish communities of this region were annihilated in the process.
3 Andrew Apostolou, “’The Exception of Salonika’: Bystanders and Collaborators in Northern Greece,” Holocaust Genocide Studies (2000) 14:2, 165-96.
4 The names of the various communities in the three occupation zones come from Michael Matsas’ book: The Illusion of Safety: The Story of the Greek Jews During the Second World War. New York: Athens Printing Company, 1997.
5 There were about 500 Jews with Spanish citizenship in Salonika. Most survived the war. A first transport reached Spain while another one ended up in Bergen Belsen.
6 Both men were Greek Jews from Salonika and early historians of the Holocaust in Greece.
7 Help was given, for example, in Zakinthos and in Volos.