The Holocaust in Greece was the deportation and murder of the Greek Jews, mostly a result of their deportation to Auschwitz concentration camp, between 1943 and 1945. Between 83 and 87 percent of Greek Jews were killed during the Holocaust, among the highest death rates in Europe.
Prior to World War II, some 72,000 to 77,000 Jews lived in 27 communities in Greece. The majority, around 50,000, lived in Salonica, a formerly Ottoman city captured and annexed to Greece in 1912. Most Greek Jews were Ladino-speaking Sephardim with some being Greek-speaking Romaniotes. Greece was occupied by Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria following the Battle of Greece in April 1941. During the first year of the occupation, the authorities did not enact any systematic measures that targeted Jews per se.
In March 1943, just over 4,000 Jews were deported from the Bulgarian occupation zone to Treblinka extermination camp. From 15 March through August, almost all of Salonica's Jewish population was deported to Auschwitz concentration camp. In 1944, Athens, Ioannina, and the Greek islands were targeted for deportation. Around 10,000 Jews survived the Holocaust either by going into hiding, fighting with the Greek Resistance, or surviving their deportation.
After the end of World War II, surviving Jews faced obstacles regaining their property from non-Jews who had taken it over during the war.
Main article: History of the Jews in Greece
The Greek-speaking Romaniotes are the oldest Jewish community in Europe, dating back possibly as far as the sixth century BCE. In the fifteenth century many Ladino-speaking Sephardim settled in the Ottoman Empire, including areas that are now Greece, after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century. Numerically and culturally, they came to dominate the earlier Romaniote community. The prewar Jewish communities of Southern Greece, Western Greece, and Northern Greece each had a different history.
Prior to the Balkan Wars, no more than 10,000 Jews lived in Greece; that would increase eightfold as a result of the new territorial acquisitions. Jews occasionally faced antisemitic violence such as the 1891 riots in Corfu and the 1931 Campbell pogrom, carried out by the National Union of Greece (EEE) in a suburb of Salonica. As a result of economic decline many Jews left Greece after World War I. At first wealthy merchants left, for Europe, Latin America, and the United States. In the 1930s, many poorer Jews emigrated from Salonica to Mandatory Palestine. Under heavy pressure to Hellenize, Jews in Salonica gradually assimilated to the Greek majority and some young Jews even acquired Greek as their first language. Historian Steven Bowman states that while the physical destruction of Greek Jews took place from 1943 to 1945, "an economic, social, and political assault predated the vicissitudes of World War II". The political fragmentation of Salonican Jews in opposing factions of conservative assimilationists, Zionists, and Communists hampered its ability to cope. In 1936, the fascist but not antisemitic Metaxas dictatorship overthrew unstable parliamentary politics. Upon the outbreak of World War II, some 72,000 to 77,000 Jews lived in 27 communities in Greece.
Main article: Axis occupation of Greece
Early in the morning of 28 October 1940, Italy gave an ultimatum to dictator Ioannis Metaxas: either allow Italian troops to occupy Greece or else war. Metaxas refused the demand, and Italy immediately invaded Greece. The Jewish community reported that 12,898 Jews fought for Greece in the war and lost 613 dead and 3,743 wounded, most famously Mordechai Frizis. During the winter of 1940–1941, Italians and Greeks fought in Albania, but in April 1941, Germany joined the war and occupied all of mainland Greece by the end of the month. A group of generals opposed to the war mutinied and capitulated to the Germans on 20 April, in effect a military coup. The generals announced a new government with German backing on 26 April.
In mid-1941, Greece was partitioned into different occupation zones: the Germans occupied strategically important areas; Macedonia including Salonica, the harbor of Piraeus, and most of Crete, while allowing the Italians to take almost all the Greek mainland and many islands. Bulgaria occupied Western Thrace and eastern Macedonia, where it immediately undertook a harsh Bulgarianization program sending more than 100,000 Greek refugees westward. The collaborationist Greek government began to see Bulgaria as the main threat and did all it could to secure German support in restraining Bulgaria. In 1943 parts of eastern Macedonia switched from the German to the Bulgarian occupation zone, but the region was not permanently annexed by Bulgaria.
Immediately after the occupation, German police units made arrests based on lists of individuals deemed subversive, including Greek Jewish intellectuals and the entire Salonica Jewish community council. The Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce surveyed Jewish assets a week after the occupation. To curry favor with the Germans, Prime Minister Georgios Tsolakoglou announced that there was a "Jewish problem" in Greece—the term was not a part of prewar discourse in Greece—adding, "this question will be definitively solved within the framework of the whole New Order in Europe".
Confiscation of all kinds of property from both Jews and non-Jews was undertaken on a massive scale; wealthy Jews were arrested and their businesses expropriated. During the first year of occupation, Jews shared in the same hardships as other Greeks including the 1941 Greek famine and hyperinflation. Black market activity was widespread despite being punishable by immediate execution. Greek Jews were disproportionately affected by the famine as many were members of the urban proletariat and lacked connections to the countryside. In Salonica, German occupation forces tried to exacerbate the divisions between Greek Jews and the Christian population, encouraging the newspapers Nea Evropaand Makedonia to print antisemitic material and reviving the EEE, which had been banned by Metaxas. In the Bulgarian occupation zone, hundreds of Thracian Jews were forced into Bulgarian labor battalions, thus escaping famine and the deportation of Thracian Jews in 1943.
Greek collaborators provided the names of alleged Communists to the German authorities, who held these as hostages and shot them in reprisal for resistance activities. Jews were overrepresented among the victims. In the second half of 1941 Jewish property in Salonica was confiscated on a large scale to rehouse Christians whose residences had been destroyed by bombing or who had fled the Bulgarian occupation zone. In February 1942, the collaborationist government acceded to German demands and fired high-ranking official Georgios Daskalakesbecause of his alleged Jewish ancestry. Shortly thereafter it agreed to ban all Jews from leaving the country at German request.
On 11 July 1942, 9,000 Jewish men were rounded up in Eleftherias Square in Salonika in a joint operation of Germany and the Greek collaborationist government. The assembled Jews were publicly humiliated and forced to perform exercises. After this registration, as many as 3,500 Jewish men were drafted into labor battalions by Organization Todt. Greek gendarmes guarded the forced laborers as they were transferred to work sites and former Greek military officers oversaw the work projects. Conditions were so harsh that hundreds of Jews lost their lives. Some tried to escape, but the Germans shot others in retaliation. Neither the Greek authorities nor the Orthodox Church made any protest. As a ransom for the laborers, the Jewish community paid two billion drachmas and gave up the Jewish cemetery of Salonica, which the city administration had been trying to wrest from them for years. The cemetery was destroyed by the municipality of Salonica beginning 8 December and many tombstones were used by the city and the Greek Orthodox Church for construction. By the end of 1942, more than a thousand Jews had fled from Salonica to Athens—mostly the wealthy, as the journey cost 150,000 drachmas (£300 sterling).
Greek Jews living in Paris, Lyons, and Marseilles were deported in 1942 during the Holocaust in France; no protests from Greek diplomats are known. Historian Christopher Browning argued that German dictator Adolf Hitler personally ordered the deportation of Salonica's Jews on 2 November 1941, citing a passage in Gerhard Engel's diary stating that Hitler "demands that the Jewish elements be removed from Salonika". Salonica's chief rabbi, Zvi Koretz, was interned in Vienna from May 1941 and January 1942—a year before the deportation process began in Salonica.
Building defenses for a possible Allied attack in the northern Aegean coincided with preparations for the deportation of Salonica's Jews and the deployment of German advisor Theodor Dannecker to Bulgaria, in order to ensure that Western Thrace was also cleared. Hitler believed that Jewish populations would hamper the Axis defenses in the event of invasion. According to historian Andrew Apostolou, the prospect of Allied victory led the Greek leadership to hedge their bets, continuing to cooperate with the Germans to ward off Bulgarian aspirations while creating exonerating evidence in case the Allies won. Both the collaborationist administration as well as postwar governments used the war as an opportunity to Hellenize northern Greece, the same area, from Corfu to the Turkish border, that was most deadly for Jews during the Holocaust. This period also saw the expulsion of Cham Albanians and displacement of many ethnic Macedonians.
Overall 60,000 Greek Jews were deported to Auschwitz of whom around 12,750 were spared from immediate gassing and no more than 2,000 returned home after the war. Jews were not aware of the extermination camps and expected to be put to forced labor in Poland. The trains were packed so tightly that there was not space to sit down, and the journey took three weeks. As many as 50 percent died en route, some went mad, and most were not able to stand upon arriving at Auschwitz.
Main article: The Holocaust in Bulgarian-occupied Greece
|Silent film of the deportation of Jews from Kavala, Serres, and Drama in Bulgarian-occupied northern Greece, March 1943|
Before dawn on 4 March 1943, 4,058 of the 4,273 Jews in Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia and Western Thrace (Belomorie) were arrested. This roundup was planned on 22 February, and entailed the Bulgarian Army sealing off neighborhoods so that the police could conduct arrests based on lists of names and addresses. The Jews were then transferred to camps in Gorna Džumaja and Dupnica, held there for a few weeks, and then deported to Treblinka extermination camp via the Danube. In less than a month 97 percent of the Jews in the Bulgarian occupation zone were murdered; none survived. Dannecker reported that the deportation "was carried out without any particular reaction from local people". Bulgarian authorities saw the removal of non-Bulgarian ethnic groups including Jews and Greeks as a necessary step in clearing room for Bulgarian settlers.
Preparation of the deportation of Salonica's Jews began in January 1943. The prime minister of the Hellenic State, Konstantinos Logothetopoulos, was notified by German official Günther Altenburg on 26 January, but there is no record of him taking action to prevent the deportations, except two letters of protest after they had already began. Despite the letters, the Hellenic State continued to cooperate with the deportation. The Italian occupation authorities and consul Guelfo Zamboni vigorously protested, issued Italian citizenship to Greek Jews, and arranged travel to Athens for hundreds of Jews with Italian or foreign citizenship.
On 6 February, the SS group tasked with the deportation arrived in the city and set up headquarters at 42 Velissariou Street in a confiscated Jewish villa. Its leaders, Alois Brunner and Dieter Wisliceny stayed on the first floor while wealthy Jews were tortured in the basement. They had arrived with a series of anti-Jewish decrees intended to establish the Nuremberg laws and issued the first decree, requiring Jews without foreign citizenship to wear the yellow star, the same day. The Nazis set up the Baron Hirsch ghetto next to the train station, enclosed in barbed wire on 4 March. The ghetto was guarded by regular Greek policemen while internal order was the responsibility of a Jewish police. The first Jews transferred there were fifteen Jewish families from Langadas but the area was filled with as many as 2,500 Jews at a time.
Some Jews managed to escape to the mountains and join resistance groups or flee to Athens, but most were not able to. The first transport from Salonica left on 15 March 1943. Most Jews were deported by mid-June, but the last of the transports departed on 10 August, carrying 1,800 Salonican Jewish men who had been engaged in forced labor projects. Altogether about 45,200 Jews were deported from Salonica to Auschwitz and another 1,700 from five other communities in the German occupation zone that were deported via Salonica: Florina and Veria in western Macedonia and Soufli, Nea Orestiada, and Didymoticho in the strip along the Turkish border. Around 600 Jews, mostly Spanish citizens and members of the Jewish Council, were instead deported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Overall, 96 percent of Jews from Salonica were killed.
Following the cessation of all Jewish businesses on 6 March, it was discovered that 500 of 1,700 Jewish merchant agencies was involved in foreign commerce and their shutdown would cause commercial loss to German firms, leading to a decision to continue to operate the businesses to new ownership. At the end of May, a Greek government agency called Service for the Custody of Jewish Property was set up to oversee the property of deported Jews. Greeks expelled from Bulgarian-occupied areas were allowed to live in some of the formerly Jewish housing while many Germans and Greece became wealthy from the proceeds of expropriated assets. Historian Kostis Kornetis states that "the elimination of Jews from Thessaloniki’s economic life was eventually welcomed by both elites and the general public".
In September 1943, Germany occupied the Italian occupation zone following the Armistice of Cassibile. The remaining fifteen Jewish communities were all smaller than 2,000 people and located near ports or major roads. Jürgen Stroop was appointed Higher SS and Police Leader of occupied Greece, partly to facilitate the deportation of Athenian Jews. Stroop ordered the chief rabbi of Athens, Elias Barzilai, to produce a list of Jews. Barzilai said that the community register had been destroyed during a raid by the collaborationist Hellenic Socialist Patriotic Organization (EPSO) the previous year. Stroop ordered him to make a new list but instead, Barzilai warned Jews to flee and absconded with the help of Archbishop Damaskinos. On 4 October, Stroop instituted a curfew for Jews and ordered them to register at the synagogue. Despite the threat of death penalty for Jews failing to register and any Christian helpers, only 200 registered while many others followed Barzilai's example and fled. Without sufficient troops and faced with the opposition of the collaborationist Greek government headed by Ioannis Rallis, the Nazis had to put off deportation operations until the next year.
In January 1944, Adolf Eichmann replaced Wisliceny with Anton Burger, tasked with deporting Greece's Jews as quickly as possible. In March 1944, the Jewish holiday Passover was used as a cover for coordinated roundups around Greece carried out by the Geheime Feldpolizei and Greek gendarmerie. On 23 March, unleavened bread was distributed at a synagogue in Athens—the 300 Jews who had tried to collect the bread were arrested and others hunted down later that day based on registration lists. On 24 March, Jews from all the remaining communities in mainland Greece were arrested, including Patra, Chalkida, Ioannina, Arta, Preveza, Larissa, Volos, and Kastoria, and imprisoned in prearranged locations. On 8 April, nearly five thousand Jews were deported via Athens, arriving in Auschwitz nine days later.
After the Passover roundup, the Nazis focused on the Jewish communities of the Greek islands. On 8 June, the Jews of Corfu were rounded up and deported by ship and rail to Haidari concentration camp outside of Athens. The mayor of Corfu stated, "Our good friends the Germans have cleansed the island from the Jewish riffraf"—the only case where a Greek official publicly approved of the deportation of Jews. The Corfu Jews were deported from Haidari to Poland on 21 June. The entire Cretan Jewish community, 314 people in Chania and 26 in Heraklion, was rounded up on 20 May and departed the harbor on Souda Bay on 7 June. All were killed when their ship was sunk by the Allies.
The Dodecanese islands were part of Italy before the war. In late 1943, the British briefly occupied Kos and evacuated thousands of Greek Christians, but not the island's Jews. On 23 July 1944, 1,661 Jews from Rhodes were forced to board a boat that took them to Piraeus. In Leros the boat stopped to load another 94 Jews from Kos. Together with around 700 to 900 Jews captured in and around Athens, they were deported to Auschwitz on 3 August, arriving 16 August. Only 157 (9 percent) Jews from Rhodes and Kos returned. This operation, the last deportation during the Holocaust in Greece, was carried out two months before the end of the Axis occupation.
Italy not only refused to allow deportation of Jews from the areas it occupied, but also protected Jews in other occupation zones who were Italian citizens. Italian diplomats helped many Salonican Jews avoid deportation, often by issuing them false certificates allowing them to travel to the Italian-occupied zone. Regional survival rates varied greatly due to a variety of factors, such as timing, the attitude of the local authorities, and the degree of integration of Jewish communities.
After the deportation of the Jews of Salonica, thousands of Jews in other parts of Greece joined the resistance or went into hiding. In many parts of Thessaly, Central Greece, and the Peloponnese (including Athens), Holocaust deaths were relatively low. The activities of the left-wing resistance in Thessaly are credited with the higher survival rate. Some smaller Jewish communities including those of Karditsa and Agrinio (around 80 people each) entirely escaped to the mountain villages controlled by ELAS; 55 Jews from Veria were hidden in the nearby village of Sykia for fifteen to seventeen months. At least two-thirds of the Jews living in Athens and Larissa before the war survived.
Archbishop Damaskinos issued strongly worded protests against harm to Greek Jews and issued many false baptismal certificates. The chief of police in Athens, Angelos Evert, saved hundreds of Jews by issuing false papers. The 275 Jews of Zakynthos were entirely spared because the local mayor and Orthodox Christian prelate turned over their own names when ordered to submit a list of Jews. The Austrian garrison commander (from the 999th Light Afrika Division) did not press the issue, as he preferred to keep the boats available in case of evacuation of Axis forces, and ultimately the Jews survived the war hidden by Christian families on the island. Historian Giorgos Antoniou states that "the line between selfless and selfish assistance is more often than not hard to distinguish", and robbery of Jews in hiding was "not rare". Few Jews served in the right-wing EDES resistance organization; the vast majority of the 8,500 to 10,000 Jews who survived in Greece received assistance from ELAS and EAM. Unlike the other resistance organizations, ELAS publicly appealed to Greeks to help their fellow citizens threatened by racial persecution. It readily accepted Jewish volunteers into its ranks.
Throughout the German occupation of Greece, British intelligence worked to hinder the smuggling of Jews to Çeşme in Turkey via Euboea. Greek smugglers charged Jews 300 Palestine pounds per boat carrying around two dozen Jews, but later ELAS and the Haganah negotiated a price of one gold piece per Jew. By June 1944, 850 Jews had escaped to Çeşme.
About 10,000 Greek Jews survived the Holocaust, representing a death rate of 83 to 87 percent. This was the highest Holocaust death rate in the Balkans and among the highest in Europe. Many Jews found it difficult or impossible to regain properties taken over by Greek collaborators during the war. In Salonica, 15 percent or less of Jewish property was returned and only 30 Jews were successful in recovering all their real estate. Three Greeks were condemned to death for their participation in the Holocaust in Greeks, all in absentia.
The difficulties faced by Jews in the postwar period motivated emigration. Their distinct religion in a state that is often defined by Greek Orthodoxy, as well as sympathy for the political left for the help it offered Jews during the occupation—marginalized after the Greek Civil War—contributed to the increasing alienation of Jews from Greek society. As of 2021[update], around 5,000 Jews live in Greece, mostly in Athens (3,000) and Salonica (1,000).
The Holocaust in Greece, long overshadowed by other events such as the Greek famine, Greek resistance, and Greek Civil War, was clouded in Greek memory by exaggerated beliefs about the degree of solidarity shown by average Greek Christians. Another reason for lack of attention to the Holocaust is the relatively high level of antisemitism in Greece, which is considered higher than in any other country in the pre-2004 European Union. Pro-Palestine sympathies in Greece led to an environment where Jews were not distinguished from Israel and antisemitism could be passed of as a principled anti-Zionism. Historian Katherine Elizabeth Fleming observed that often, "the story of the destruction of Greece’s Jews has served as a vehicle for the celebration of Greek Orthodox kindness and valor". Fleming states that while some Greeks did act heroically in rescuing Jews, "at times, Greek Christians were complicit in the destruction of Jewish lives; many more were unmoved by it; and no small number welcomed it". Questions of Greek collaborationism were taboo for scholars and only began to be examined in the twenty-first century.
Holocaust denial is illegal in Greece but promoted by some Greeks, especially the extremist Golden Dawn party. Athens was reported to be the last European capital without a Holocaust memorial, prior to its completion in 2010. Holocaust memorials in Greece have been repeatedly vandalized.