- The Greek-American Dino Seder lives in Washington, where he is the managing director of the "Deno Seder" production company. He developed a special interest in Greek art, history and philosophy. When his wife, Anita Semjen, organized an exhibition about the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Dino Sender heard and learned about the "righteous of the nations" from Greece and was inspired to write The Island of the Righteous , the story of the rescue of all of the Jewish community of Zakynthos from the Nazi atrocities during World War II. It is the story of two brave men, Metropolitan Chrysostomos and Mayor Loukas Carrer, who managed to save all the Jews of Zakynthos by hiding them in Christian families.
How did the idea of writing the book "The Island of the Righteous " (En Plo Publications) begin?
In 1995, my wife organized an art exhibition at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. She is from Hungary and her exhibition on Victims and Victims featured works of art by Hungarian Europeans that had been discovered years after the war had ended. While visiting Yad Vashem before the opening of the exhibition, I saw a monument from Greece with the inscription "To the righteous among the nations". It was shocking to me to read the names of these heroic people, who showed such courage and compassion towards persecuted friends and neighbors. At that moment I formed the idea in my mind that I needed to learn more about the Holocaust of the Jews of Greece and when I read about Metropolitan Chrysostomos, Mayor Loukas Karrer and the only Jewish community in Greece that was saved in its entirety from extermination, I decided to write this book about Zakynthos.
What exactly happened in Zakynthos during World War II?
The island was occupied first by the Italians, who showed their cruel face, and then by the Germans, who behaved horribly. Residents were executed for trivial offences, such as breaking curfew or allegedly insulting a German officer. And as if the German brutality wasn't enough, hunger struck the island as well as the whole country. In Athens about 500 people died every day. The occupying Prime Minister Konstantinos Logothetopoulos did little to help the Greeks, Christians and Jews. In Greece, racism and anti-Semitism had little impact, which explains the inability of the Greeks to accept the inhumane behavior of the Germans. As George Ioannou wrote: "The Germans suddenly introduced into what can be described today as the idyllic atmosphere of a Balkan civilization the abysmal passions and idiocies of Gothic Europe." Metropolitan Chrysostomos was loved by all. He had studied in Munich, where he obtained degrees in philosophy, law and theology, spoke four languages and believed that God had gifted him with free thinking and a purpose in life, the protection of the weakest, the Greek Jews, in that dark period.
How many Jews lived on the island?
During the war, 275 Greek Jews lived in Zakynthos. The Christians and the Jews of the island spoke the same language, had the same values, lived and worked together for centuries. The Jews of Greece served in the Greek army and later participated in the National Resistance during the Italian and German Occupation. A Jewish survivor, Malvina Messina, recalled in her testimony: “They were really good people. They knew we were Jews, but they helped us and never betrayed us. They let us live with them and gave us food and clothes. They loved us very much and we felt the same about them."
Why did the Germans ask for lists of the names of Greek Jews?
The Germans wanted lists of the names of the Jews to be loaded onto ships bound for Piraeus and from there by train to Auschwitz. The whole process was part of Hitler's planning for the "final solution", the extermination of the Jews.
What actions did the mayor Lukas Karrer and the metropolitan Chrysostomos take to save the Jews?
They provided all Greek Jews with false identity cards and baptismal certificates. They fearlessly negotiated with the Germans to rescue Jews and cooperated with resistance groups to resettle them in remote mountain villages, where they hid in Christian homes. They risked their lives to save their countrymen.
Is it true that the mayor and the metropolitan handed over a list with only two names, theirs? None of them were afraid of the Germans?
Yes, the list only contained their names. As reported in the memoirs of the metropolitan's son-in-law, Dionysios Stravolaimos, Chrysostomos said to the German commander: "According to your orders, you can arrest me and not them, and if that does not satisfy you, I can prove to you how close I am to the innocents Jewish families. I will follow them on their dramatic course and enter the gas chambers and crematoria with them." About 600 priests were imprisoned, exiled or killed because of their solidarity with the Jews of Greece. The metropolitan knew the consequences, but remained faithful to his decision.
There are testimonials that are praiseworthy from the inhabitants of Zakynthos. How did this solidarity with the Jews develop?
Over the centuries, the Jews were culturally assimilated into Greek society. In addition, the Orthodox ethos placed special emphasis on the importance of human relationships, good deeds and love towards all people. The metropolitan begged his flock: "...to be seen as good Christians, save a Jew". Most of the inhabitants of the remote villages of the island had never met an Israelite, but they felt it a Christian duty to rescue these people.
I was moved by one resident's response: “You have to stay. After all, my son, why should our lives be more precious than yours?'
The only Jewish community that was saved in its entirety was that of Zakynthos. When I read about the courage and humanity of these Greeks, I felt proud of my Greek ancestry. Everyone knew where the Jews were hiding, yet no one said a word – another "miracle" of Zakynthos. The inhabitants of this island have given us an example of truth and justice, which has the same value today as it did seventy years ago. Bishops, priests, nuns, many (not all) public officials and citizens of Greece risked their lives protecting the lives of their families, friends, neighbors, regardless of their religious beliefs. Archbishop Damascene was not afraid and spoke openly against the Germans, using the saying of the Apostle Paul: "...there is no longer a Jew or a Greek".
Was there any similar rescue of the Jews in other parts of Greece?
Unfortunately, no. In areas like Thessaloniki or Ioannina, the rabbis convinced people to stay in their homes wearing the yellow star, to obey the Germans to be safe. The majority of Jews from these cities were killed. Whether these rabbis were complicit or simply naive is something for History to judge.
Your book is well written and, most importantly, emotionally charged. Should a nation remember its history?
Yes, as Edmund Burke wrote: "Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it." On January 22, 2014, the Greek Minister of Education and Religious Affairs issued a memorandum underlining "...the need to contribute to the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust and the fight against anti-Semitism and racism by supporting the training of teachers on issues related to the Holocaust, as well as the organization of activities to raise the population's awareness of related issues". Accordingly, the curriculum of schools in the USA includes materials related to the Holocaust, the history of human rights as well as lessons related to citizenship, tolerance, compassion for fellow human beings regardless of race, origin or religion.
What particularly impressed you during the process of finding the sources and leading up to the publication of your book?
Two things: The manifestation of evil with all that accompanies it (hate, ignorance, intolerance, violence, crime). And on the other hand, the kindness of the human spirit that fights against the domination of evil.
What would you say today to the modern Zakynthians?
Don't forget and be proud of your heritage!
Translated from English: Apostolos Spyrakis
The island of the righteous
The chronicle of the rescue of the Jews of Zakynthos from the Nazi atrocities
translation: Polixeni Tsaliki-Kiosoglou