Saving the Jews of Katerini during the Shoah
Posted by Abravanel, the Blog στο 02/09/2008
Katerini is a small town on the foothills of Mt.Olympus (map). In 1940 it housed a population of around 17.000 people and in this number were included 30 to 40 Jews. The story of their fate during the Holocaust/ Shoah has never reached the surface despite the fact that it is one that renders honour to the part of Greece that denied collaborating with the Germans or gaining profit from the plight of their jewish compatriots.
At the eve of WW2 Katerini housed a population of 7 Jewish families that mainly came from Larissa’s important Jewish Community. Themselves did not constitute legally a Community and were dependent of Thessaloniki’s and Larissa’s synagogues and rabbis. Although of sephardic origin most, they spoke both djudeo-espanyol and greek fluently and were well integrated into the town. Some were small time peddlers who went around the villages to sell clothes, pots etc. A couple had small grocery shops in town. And a couple more were metal artisans. Despite the common rumors that circulated inside the town, like the blood libel where Jews used the blood of christian children to make matza for Pessach, there was virtually no strife.
On October 28th 1940 Italians invade Greece and the male Jews of Katerini leave the town to join the Greek Army – many of them get wounded, while we do not know of any dead. On April 1941 the German Wehrmacht crushes the greek resistance and Greece becomes occupied by Germany, Italy and Bulgaria. Like Thessaloniki 15 months of relative calm follow while Katerini suffers much less of the famine which becomes endemic in Athens. This period fisnishes when the first anti-jewish measures are adopted in Thessaloniki and serve as an alarm for the Jews in the rest of the country.
The arrest of the whole Jewish Community of Thessaloniki, the institution of the 3 ghettos inside Thessaloniki is followed by german orders to arrest all the Jews in german occupied territories. Katerini is just a small town and warrants only a tiny german presence, so for the order the civilian telegraph service is used. The telegrapher reads with disbelief the telegram which orders the arrests and decides… He rushes and informs his Jewish friend David Iosafat and tells him he would stall the telegram for as much as possible, maybe even 24 hours. Immediately the heads of the families gather and take a vote – the result was to escape to the mountains where the Resistance already existed. Two brothers, Michel Ammar and his brother decide to stay. The others leave all their belongings to their neighbours and head, in horse-drawn carriages, for Mt.Olympous which was already was EAM (communist led Resistance) territory. It should be noted that all this happened with the tacit agreement of Police Chief Papageorgeiou which should have helped or performed the arrests, (although we do not know if he was the one that eventually captured the Ammar brothers). Also Mayor A.Vasileiadis and the german comander Eval are rumored to have known; still their role is not certain and in any case peripheral to the one of the anonymous telegraphist – a true Righteous Among the Nations. The brothers who remained were arrested, sent to Thessaloniki and then to Auschwitz – one of them survived and emigrated to Israel after the war. Other sources tell us also of another person who remained and was shot when arrived in Thessaloniki.
Up in the mountains life was not easy. Local peasants other times were glad to help, while others pretended the «jewish gold» or even robbed them. Eventually the men joined the Resistance while the women tried to keep alive their children working in any way possible. Some of them died, either during germans incursions or because of the hardships, (a common fate for both Christians and Jewish Greeks of the area).
The end of the war found them with losses but alive, much better than the total extermination their brothers had faced in Thessaloniki less than 100km away. Their return to Katerini was not a smooth one because of the Civil War between communists and royalists in Greece, (ironically them being Jews protected them since the communists acknowledged their participation in the Resistance while the royalists acknowledged that this was their only way to survive). Still their property like homes or shops was returned to them, although of course mobile goods like cloths, pottery were lost.
Civil War forced many Jews of Katerini to move out. Some of them returned, although eventually all of them moved to the bigger urban centers like Thessaloniki or Athens. Today to the best of my knowledge (and some internet searching) a Jewish family still lives in the town of Katerini.
A (lengthy) epilogue:
I began writing this epilogue as an answer to those who claim stupidly that «all Greeks saved the Jews» or that «Greeks collaborated with the Germans in deporting the Jews». I cannot and shall not accept the courage of the Righteous to serve to cover the evil of others who collaborated with the germans and after the war worked to loot and erase jewish presence. Also I dislike the easy judgments passed on my entire country, based on the deeds of some criminals. What happened in Katerini is what real people did to save the jews but what happened in Katerini did not happen everywhere.
The anonymous telegrapher from Katerini is not the same as the Governor of Macedonia Simonidis who pressed the germans to have the permission to destroy half a million jewish tombs and categorically refused to utter a single word after the Jews pleaded with him. The civilian authorities of Katerini cannot be compared to the Mayor of Corfu who issued a declaration of thanking the Germans for getting rid of the Jews. Nor can the people of Katerini who did not loot jewish property, can be compared to the 12.000 thessaloniceans who officially (the infamous μεσσεγυούχοι who even formed an association to defend themselves from their victims!) looted jewish property and can described as nothing less as collaborators. Exploiting the memory of these people, to whom Greek Judaism shall remain eternally grateful, is nothing less of a sacrilege and pure hypocrisy.
Official historiography and greek public opinion is quick in accepting the eternal honor the Righteous bestowed Greece. But they should be even more quick in condemning the acts of persons who betrayed the greek people and profited from the extermination of their fellow greeks – even if this means staining the «reputation» of a city. Only accepting what happened then and stating clearly that these are not the values which represent them today and transforming this certainty into deeds is the only way out. Failure to do so make them moral heirs of the evil inheritance of these collaborators – nothing less. If they have problems interpreting what «help the Jews» means, let them look at Katerini…
It is unfortunate that the staggering majority of Greece’s Jews found themselves in a city which did not help them and a small but significant part was glad to get rid of them; while actively and of it’s own initiative worked to erase their memory while they were becaming ashes in the crematoria of Auschwitz. It is unfortunate because it overshadows the efforts of many more Christian Greeks who altruistically helped their jewish compatriots. These were not few and Jews of Athens, Katerini, Volos, Larissa and many other places know them are shall forever be thankful to them. Even in Thessaloniki, amidst the indifference, Righteous ones arose and did what their faith and heart commanded them. And while others refused to speak at no personal expense, others like ArchiBishop Damaskinos risked their own neck to save them. Only plain stupidity or downright malignancy can forget these people and declare that an entire country is the worst offenders the Jewish Greeks have ever known.
But personally I shall never let the sacrifice of these men serve to mask the evilness of the others, which is denied in Greece today. There can be no «greeks saved the jews», a feel-good, empty proposition which serves to cancel individual responsibilities and individual valor. Hell, sometimes I wonder what those people would have to say when paralleled with collaborators, thieves and murderers – I imagine they would spit them and then spit on the people who dare make this comparison.
This post shall serve only as the beginning of a series of posts which shall review clearly the story of the Shoah in Greece, so that the disgusting exploitation of the Righteous one seizes. And again I repeat: if someone has problems interpreting what «help the Jews» means, let them look at Katerini…
«In Memoriam», Ιωσήφ Νεχαμά 1974 ΙΚΘ
«The Story of the Greek Jews During the Second World War», Michael Matsas 2007 Pella Pub.
Περιοδικό Χρονικά, ΚΙΣ
«Ισραηλιτική Κοινότητα Θεσσαλονίκης», ΙΚΘ
Περιοδικό Αλεφ, IKA
(Κατερίνη, Ολοκαύτωμα, Σοά, εβραίοι, ισραηλίτες, Αουσβιτς, Ιωσαφάτ, Αμμάρ, Παπαγεωργείου, Βασιλειάδη)