An Exhibit: Synagonistis: Greek Jews in the National Resistance
April 1, 2015 – May 26, 2015
Washington Hebrew Congregation, Washington DC.
Reviewed by Rosine Nussenblatt
Seventy years have passed since the end of World War Two. Many institutions have been, and still are, recording the testimonies of survivors of the Shoah, who either survived the camps or succeeded in hiding from the Nazis. Over several years, the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens, with the help of a young Greek historian Jason Chandrinos, has been collecting many interviews of former Jewish members of the Greek Resistance, ‘andartes’ in Greek, and has brought to fruition this exhibit at the Washington Hebrew Congregation. The Museum of Greece has also gathered documents and numerous archival pictures from institutions such as the Library of the Hellenic Parliament, Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as well as the Communist Party of Greece, a political party whose members were prominent from early on in the Resistance movement. It also includes pictures from private collections. The gathering of all of the above is rather unique as well as the decision to take it outside of Greece for the benefit of an American audience.
In the Kreeger lobby of the Washington Hebrew Congregation were exhibited a number of large posters where the narrative is both in English and in Greek. A 32- page guide in the form of a newspaper is a great adjunct to the visit. The day I visited the exhibit, there was a Greek-speaking volunteer guide available to answer questions.
To understand the context of the Resistance Movement in Greece, space is devoted to the role of Greek Jews in the Greek-Italian War (1940-1941), the Shoah of Greek Jews, and a general view of the Resistance in occupied Greece. A picture of a proud and handsome young man in uniform, a professional lieutenant of the Artillery caught my attention. Iossif Samouel Barouch was born in Corfu. He distinguished himself on the Albanian front, but most importantly, he participated to the Sonderkommando revolt of October 7th, 1944 in Auschwitz. He did not survive and died in the Ebensee concentration camp in May 1945. Many pictures illustrate the text and I was tempted to concentrate mainly on the pictures and their captions. Here were individuals who fought bravely coming from various cities in Greece such as Larissa, Volos and Kavala. The men killed, wounded and maimed, were many; for example, the 50th Thessaloniki Infantry Regiment had 64 Jewish fatalities out of 372.
The Holocaust of Greek Jews is touched upon with pictures of Jews mainly from Salonika where the largest number of Greek Jews lived. It is estimated that more than 45,000 Jews from Salonika were deported to Auschwitz in 1943. The poster about the Resistance in occupied Greece gives an idea of the various groups who fought against the occupiers. Amongst them were EAM, The National Liberation Front established by the Communist Party, EDES, the National Republican Greek League and ELAS, the Greek People’s Liberation Army. It is estimated that 30,000 partisans died in combat or were murdered or executed and 800 villages were burned in retaliation.
The Resistance of Greek Jews is also placed in context within the Resistance of Jews against the Nazis in other countries such as Poland with the Revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto or the partisans in France.
In 1941, Greece had fallen under the rule of Germany, Italy and Bulgaria. The Germans occupied Salonika in April of that year while the Italians controlled Athens. After Italy surrendered to the Allies on September 8, 1943, the Germans occupied all of Greece. In Salonika, the Germans gradually intensified the persecution of the Jewish community that was already suffering from famine like other Greeks. Arrests, confiscations of property and forced labor for men in the summer of 1942 had much weakened the community. Joining the partisans was difficult and meant abandoning their families in a very dire situation; it was a difficult decision to make. It is estimated that about 400 men and women from Salonika were able to reach partisan-held territories. Amongst them was Isaac Moissis who had succeeded in escaping from forced labor. He became Kapetanios [partisan leader] and as such led many in battle. The exhibit mentions the names of the partisans and some of their battles. Jews also fought in other parts of Greece, Thessaly and Roumeli (Central Greece). Many were wounded or killed in battles or skirmishes; some were taken prisoner and murdered. It is in the mountains of Greece that the Resistance carried the fight. Some members of the Resistance movement also created an escape network for a number of Jews by sea from Evia, the second largest island of Greece, to Turkey, with the help of the British, the Haganah and the Jewish Agency in Istanbul.
Amongst the surviving Jewish veterans of the National Resistance the following individuals were interviewed: Vital Elion, Dandles Alchanatis, Alvertos Valenstein, Sara Yeshua-Fortis, Mois Yussuroum, Loui Kohen, Samuel Cohen, Elias Kones, Iakovos Koumeris, Salvator Bakolas, Iakovos Balestras, Dora Bourla-Handeli, David Brudo, Esdras David Moissis, Iossif Nissim, Elli Sakki-Dekastro, Zakinos Rousso, Minas Sabetai, Avraam (Ebbis) Svolis, Allegra Felous-Skyfti and Raphael Frezis.
The emphasis of the exhibit is on the individuals who fought for years in the mountains of Greece. Many fighters were leftists and amongst them were Jews who kept fighting in the civil war that tore apart Greeks after World War Two ended. When the civil war ended, some were imprisoned and some were eventually banished from Greece or even executed.
In the guide to the exhibit mentioned above, there is a non-exhaustive list of Greek Jews in the National Resistance: the list mentions their names, first names, and places of birth, the organization they belonged to as well as the place of action where they fought. In this list, one finds the journalist Baruch Shibi from Salonika, a member of EAM who, in September 1943, organized the escape of Athens’ Rabbi Elias Barzilai to the mountains. This action helped other Jews make the decision to try to escape or go into hiding. Another list is of the fallen Greek Jewish resistance fighters; one can learn, besides their surnames and first names, where they were born and where and when they died and, when known, their affiliations and sometimes the circumstances of their deaths. In this list, one finds Daisy Benveniste, born in Salonika, who was tortured to death by the Greek security police in Athens. Another list is for those “Killed or Executed in Reprisal Actions.” In this list, there is Isaak Ovadias, born in Larissa and killed during anti-partisan operations in Thessaly.
The exhibit makes clear that there is a need to tell the story of the Jewish Resistance fighters because, contrary to those who believe that Jews were led silently to slaughter, Jews did take up arms when they could to protect themselves and defend their country. This travelling exhibit is a late recognition of their sacrifice, but a successful attempt to portray the Jewish Resistance fighters of Greece and bring to light their role in World War Two.
Rosine Nussenblatt is the former editor of la Lettre sépharade English edition.