Despite the country’s deep recession, Greece has avoided slipping into Holocaust revisionism. It remains committed to honoring the loss of its Jews, though right-wing populism parties led by Golden Dawn remain a concern.
The Greek government has made strides to repent for the government’s complicity and
individuals’ participation in the genocide of the Jews.
Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris officially apologised in 2014 for the responsibility of his predecessor authorities in deporting the city’s tens of thousands of Jews. The mayor is working with the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki to establish the new Holocaust Museum, currently under construction.
The Greek government collaborates with Jewish organizations to organise regular Holocaust commemoration events. Museum and memorial visits are encouraged for schools, and thousands of schoolchildren visit Jewish and Holocaust museums around Greece.
Like many other European countries, Greece recognizes January 27th as Holocaust
Remembrance Day and annually holds commemorative events that are organized and attended by both government officials and members of the local Jewish community. March 15th is also recognized legally as a day of remembrance, marking the deportation of Jews from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz.
Holocaust denial and revisionism remains a problem outside of the government, particularly in the far-right Golden Dawn party. The Anti-Defamation League ranks Greece as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe, but Jewish groups claim this reflects Greeks’ beliefs in anti-Semitic stereotypes and note that the country has recorded few actual incidents of anti-Jewish violence.
The Holocaust in Greece
Fascist Italian forces invaded Greece on October 28, 1940, only to be pushed back by Greek troops. A stalemate ensued. The next year on April 6, 1941, Hitler ordered German troops to invade Yugoslavia and Greece.
The Axis Powers conquered mainland Greece within a few weeks. although resistance on the islands lingered for a few more months. The Greek government fled the country, continuing to operate in exile first in Crete and eventually in Cairo. Germany installed a puppet government with General Georgios Tsolakoglou as Prime Minister.
The Axis powers divided the country into three zones: Italy held Athens and the majority of
mainland Greece, Bulgaria took Western Thrace and North Macedonia, and Germany controlled Western Macedonia. The three occupying powers had different priorities and plans regarding Greece’s Jewish population, which meant that the fate of Greece’s Jews varied by region.
Germany occupied Thessaloniki, formerly known as Salonica, the cultural hub for Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492. The city counted 50,000 Jews, about two- thirds of Greek Jewry. Thessaloniki Jews were politically, economically, and socially well-integrated into Greek society.
Thessalonikan Jews suffered a terrible fate. Germans confined them to ghettos, forced them to wear a yellow star on their clothes and banned them from public spaces. Jewish newspapers were closed, and synagogues, businesses, and hospitals looted. In 1942, German authorities demolished an ancient Jewish cemetery counting about 350,000 graves with the assistance of the local authorities. Today, the campus of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki sits on its remains.
On July 11th 1942, a day that would come to be known as “Black Shabbat,” Jewish men aged 18-45 were called to Eleftherias Square for forced labor and made at gunpoint to perform humiliating physical activities. Some 54,000 Jews were sent to Nazi extermination camps in 1943, mainly Auschwitz-Birkenau. More than 90% of the city’s Jewish population was murdered.
The Bulgarian authorities in Thrace deported Thracian Jews to the Treblinka death camp and fewer than 10% survived. Italian forces in Athens largely ignored Germany’s plan to eliminate the city’s Jews. Some Italian generals even protected Jews. Although the situation in Athens was much safer for Jews than in the north, Italy surrendered to the Allies on September 8th, 1943 and its occupied zone were turned over to the Nazis who deported Jews to their death.
The local population participated little in the destruction of the Jewish community. About two thirds of Athens’ Jewish population survived the war due to the actions of Athens’ Archbishop Damaskinos and Police Commissioner Angelos Evert who issued fake identification cards and implored Athenian citizens to help Jews. On the island of Zakynthos, the city’s mayor and bishop hid all 275 Jews. Today, hundreds of Greeks are honored as “Righteous Among the Nations,” a title awarded by Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jewish populations from extermination at the hands of the Nazis.
Some 60,000 Greek Jews died in the Holocaust, about 86% of the total Jewish population, one of the highest percentages in all of occupied Europe.
- 1945: KIS established (Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece)
- 1946: Greek government relinquishes right to inherit Jewish property, sets up fund to
return property to Jewish community.
- 1949: OPAIE established by Royal Decree (restitution fund)
- 8 May 1947: Ministerial Council votes on granting 8 million drachmas to “fill urgent
educational and religious needs of the Jewish communities” (207, “Righteous”)
- 1945-46: jailed Prime Ministers for collaboration: Tsolakoglou (1945, died in prison),
Logothetopoulous (1946, released in 51), Rallis (1946, died in prison)
- 2003: Greek Deputy Minister of Interior, Nikos Bastis declared January 27th to be
Holocaust Remembrance Day in Greece
- 2009: Greece endorse Terezin Declaration (program of activities geared towards
ensuring assistance, redress and remembrance for victims)
- 2011: Greek government gives Jewish community EUR 10 million for confiscation of
land (https://www.nj.gov/education/holocaust/curriculum/greece/Unit6.pdf page 3) (Law
- 2014: Thessaloniki Mayor Yannis Boutaris apologises for responsibility of local
- 2014: Anti-Racism law passed
- 2016: Special Envoy for Holocaust issues Photini Tomai appointed
- 2018: PM lays foundation stone for Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki
The Greek government has made extensive efforts to remember and commemorate the
Holocaust. It emphasizes Greece’s historical position as resistors to German occupation and its role as protector of Greek Jewry.
Postwar Greek governments put Greek war criminals and collaborators on trial. A special court convicted the three Prime Ministers of the German-instituted Greek puppet government, Georgios Tsolakoglou, Konstantinos Logothetopoulos, and Ioannis Rallis. Another court handed down a 25 year sentence to Max Merten, a German officer responsible for the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews from Thessaloniki to extermination camps.
These tough punishments soon were lightened. Tsolakoglou’s sentence was commuted from death penalty to life imprisonment. Logothetopoulos was released from prison in 1951. Merten was granted amnesty and extradited to West Germany in 1959. That same year, Greece passed a law ordering the cessation of all war crime trials.
Since 2014, Holocaust negation and denial is illegal, punishable by jail and fines. The
Parliament also voted in 2017 to pass a law of return that made descendants of Greek
Holocaust survivors eligible for Greek citizenship, expanding on a 2011 amendment that
reinstated citizenship for all Jews born in or before 1945.
Greece recognizes crimes of other individual Greeks and local authorities who collaborated with the occupiers. In 2014, Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris issued a formal apology for his predecessor’s role in registering and deporting the city’s Jews. When Mayor Boutaris took the oath for his second term, he wore a yellow “Jude” star reminiscent of the ones that Nazis forced Jews to wear.
In 2018, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, along with the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, laid the foundation stone for Thessaloniki’s new Holocaust Museum which is expected to be completed by 2020. The museum will be built at the Old Railway Station from where 55,000 Jews were deported.
Greece’s school curriculum mandates Holocaust education. The Ministry of Education
recommends to all schools that students visit the Jewish Museums in Athens and Thessaloniki and the various Holocaust memorials across the country, though this is not a requirement and participation in these activities is decided at the school level. Academic, economic and cultural achievements of Greek Jews pre-World War II are included in courses about Greek history, literature, politics, and culture.
School museum visits at the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens and the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki rely on testimony from local survivors. Museum curators show children the lists of names of the thousands of Jews deported and systematically killed and share photos, videos, and objects that convey the scale of Jewish loss. Young children visiting the museum often learn about the stories of resistance fighters who risked their lives to save Jewish children.
The Jewish Museum in Athens will soon be starting training programs for police, border guards, paramedics, and firefighters. Although voluntary, these programs are recommended for all law enforcement officers. In October 2017, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki organized a workshop for secondary education professors and high school history teachers.
In November 2003, Deputy Minister of the Interior Nikos Bastis declared January 27th to be Greece’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this day, Greek cities that were home Jewish populations hold commemorative events funded by the government. The Ministry of Education instructs all Greek schools to participate in Holocaust remembrance activities for two hours.
These include showing a video, giving a speech, or hosting a Holocaust survivor or a tour guide from one of Greece’s Jewish museums.
March 15 is recognized as another important commemorative day in Greece. It marks the day that the first deportation to Auschwitz left from Thessaloniki. Each year, the government and the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki organizes a march from Eleftherias Square, where Germans once forced Jewish men to perform embarrassing physical labor, to the Old Railroad Station from where Jews were deported.
The Greek government funds Jewish community groups, commemorative events, Holocaust museums and memorials. It also has appointed a Special Envoy for Holocaust issues. Many memorial sites commemorate locations where Jews and other Holocaust victims were deported or killed, or where Jewish cemeteries, schools, or synagogues once stood. Almost all Greek towns with historical Jewish populations devastated by the Holocaust have erected a monument or memorial.
In 2016 the Greek Parliament unveiled a monument to memorialize the eight Jewish Parliament members deported and murdered by the Nazis.
The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece has started sponsoring an annual contest. Students produce a report or video on the Holocaust, and winners receive a trip to Auschwitz. The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece has started sponsoring an annual contest. Students produce a report or video on the Holocaust, and winners receive a trip to Auschwitz.
Greece has an extensive and easily accessible collection of wartime archives. Jewish
community groups, university departments, museums, and government agencies manage them.
Unfortunately, a large part of information is missing about prewar Jewish communities, since the occupiers destroyed many documents.
The government requires an application to make copies of archival materials and there are laws in place regarding the accessibility of personal or sensitive data. Many museum and Jewish community archives are either digitized or in the process of digitization. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs files are digitized. There have been no notable legal cases in which access to materials has been denied.
In 2009, the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki published a list with more than 37,500 names of Thessalanokian Jews deported to concentration camps. Another important endeavor in remembering the tragedy that befell Greek Jewry is the Jewish Museum of Greece’s Oral History Archive, which contains the oral testimonies of more than 115 Holocaust survivors to preserve their stories.
After the war, the Greek legal system made extensive and immediate efforts to provide
Holocaust survivors and families of victims with financial and legal restitution. In 1945, the
Greek government implemented Compulsory Law 808, which ordered “the immediate return, by the trustees, of Jewish properties to their rightful owners or their inheritors.” A year later, Greece passed Compulsory Law 846, in which the government waived its right to inherit heirless property that had been seized from Jews, opting instead to use these items of property for “special humanitarian purposes, mainly to serve the needs of the Jewish community.”
Restitution continues into this century. In 2011, the Greek Parliament voted to provide the
Jewish Community of Thessaloniki with EUR9,943,697 as compensation for the Nazi
destruction of a historic Jewish cemetery.
Holocaust denial and revisionism is most visible in the far-right party Golden Dawn which
currently has 15 members in Greek’s 300 delegate parliament. Polls show its support falling and now stands at only 6 percent of Greek voters.
Golden Dawn is ultranationalist and xenophobic, engaging in violence against immigrant
communities and scapegoating Jews for Greece’s recent economic crisis. In 2000, party
supporters vandalized Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and Holocaust memorials in
Thessaloniki and Athens, tagging the sites with Golden Dawn’s symbol. Golden Dawn lawmaker Ioannis Lagos called International Holocaust Remembrance Day “unacceptable,” and demanded that the government acknowledge the “real” Holocaust of Greek victims.
Greek civil society emphasizes the country’s active Nazi resistance movement and cases of Greeks saving Jews. It honors the heroes in the fight against fascism, while sometimes falling short in acknowledging the Jewish victims. It fails to account for local Nazi collaborators and the fact that Greece has one of the highest death rates among its Jewish population in all of Europe.
The Greek Orthodox Church highlights examples of figures such as Bishop Chrysostomos of Zakynthos, who saved the town’s 275 Jews, and Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, who helped issue fake identification card for Jewish citizens.
About 5,000 Jews live in Greece, with about 3,000 in Athens, 1,000 in Thessaloniki, and 1,000 in smaller towns such as Larissa, Volos, Corfu, and Ioannina. Before the Holocaust, Jews lived in 29 communities across the country. Greek Jewry is represented by the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece. The community combats anti-Semitism in Greece, cooperates with non-Jewish organizations, organizes educational programs, and cares for Jewish sites in places where there is no longer an active Jewish community.
-Author: Ilana Luther