For us in Australia it’s a pity that International Holocaust Remembrance Day falls on 27 January. Just after Australia Day – a challenging marker for our First Nation’s people. Most Australians enjoy a welcome break from work and politics, especially this year given the enormous challenge of 2020 due to the global pandemic.
The day, 27 January, marks the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, where more than a million people were murdered by the Nazis. Not something to be ignored.
For many Australian families the Holocaust is a shared memory of horror and grief. That is as true for the Greek-Australian community as it is for other Australians. Nearly 60,000 Greek Jews died at Auschwitz, and many more in other places. Some of their descendants and relatives are living here in Australia with us today.
As the proud son of a Greek father and a Jewish mother, I am very conscious of the long and shared history of the Greeks and the Jews. Since ancient times as they still are today across Israel, Greece and Cyprus. And as importantly, as the shared diaspora in many countries, including Australia.
The Greeks and the Jews go back a long way. The Romaniote Jews have lived in Greece since Hellenistic times. Indeed, an inscription found in Oropos, which refers to “Moschos, son of Moschion the Jew”, dates from around 300 BCE. The remains of ancient synagogues have been found in Athens and on the island of Aegina. The Christian Gospels were written in Greek by Hellenised Jews. St Paul preached in the synagogue at Thessaloniki.
The biggest influx of Jews to the Greek-speaking world came after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Thousands of Spanish Jews fled to the safety of the Ottoman Empire and settled in Constantinople and other Greek-speaking cities, eventually concentrating mainly in Thessaloniki. By the 17th century Jews were a majority of the city’s population, and Thessaloniki was the largest Jewish city in the world. They spoke Ispano-evraiki (Ladino), a mixture of Spanish, Greek, Turkish and Hebrew.
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After Greek independence, the Jewish communities in Greece became well integrated and enjoyed good relations with the Christian majority. Anti-Semitism was almost unknown. Sadly, this changed with the catastrophe of 1941, when Greece was occupied by German, Italian and Bulgarian forces.
Persecution of the Jews began at once and culminated in the deportation of 45,000 Jews from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz in 1942. There were also deportations from Ioaninna, Kerkyra, Rhodes and other places, but mainly in the north. Very few of those deported survived.
It should be a matter of great pride for all Greeks that Greek Jews led the revolt against the SS at Auschwitz in October 1944. It is said that before they were massacred, they sang the Greek national anthem.
Greeks everywhere should also be proud of the efforts that were made across the country to hide and protect the Jews from the Germans and their Greek collaborator regime. In Athens, the joint efforts of Archbishop Damaskinos and the police chief Angelos Evert succeeded in saving most of the Jews of the city. Damaskinos issued a famous public appeal, in which he said: “In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity: they are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion.” Similar actions saved many Jews at Zakynthos and other places.
After World War II the majority of surviving Greek Jews emigrated to Israel, which was not surprising given that Greece was close to starvation and plunged into a bitter civil war. But they retained close links to Greece. When Zakynthos was struck by an earthquake in 1953, the first relief came from Israel, organised by Jews from the island. They said: “The Jews of Zakynthos have never forgotten their Mayor or their beloved Bishop and what they did for us.”
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Relations between Greeks and Jews continue to be close. We are conscious of our long-shared history and of our enormous contributions to the history, religion and culture of the western world. It was Winston Churchill who famously said of the Greeks and the Jews “No other two races set such a mark upon the world.”
Today, Greece, Cyprus and Israel are working closely together to develop the energy resources of the eastern Mediterranean, and also on defence and security matters.
So even though International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not officially commemorated in Australia, we should use this occasion to recall the Greek Jews who perished in the Holocaust, and also the common experiences of the Greeks and the Jews throughout our long history, whether in our homelands or in the diaspora and the look forward to the future with promise.
The Hon. Philip Dalidakis served as Victoria’s minister for Innovation & the Digital Economy, Trade & Investment and Small Business. More recently, he served as executive general manager of Corporate Services at Australia Post (AP).