This Day in Jewish History

1943: Chief Rabbi of Athens Flees From Nazis, Saves the Day

Rabbi Elias Barzilai either sent out a coded message to fellow Athenian Jews urging them to escape, or was kidnapped by a resistance group fearing that he might reveal names to the Germans

German soldiers raising the Nazi flag over the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
Theodor Scheerer / Wikimedia Commons

On September 25, 1943, Elias Barzilai, the chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Athens, fled the city one step ahead of the Germans. His actions caused the majority of his fellow Athenian Jews to also go into hiding, thus saving some 80 percent of them.

If that episode sounds a bit vague in its description, it’s because to this day it’s not clear if Rabbi Barzilai initiated his departure for the countryside — as he claimed after the war — or if he was kidnapped by Jews associated with the resistance, who feared he might be forced to turn over the identities of all the Jews living in the Greek capital to the Nazis.

After the surrender of Italy to the Allies, on September 8, 1943, the Germans took control of the zone in southern Greece that had been under Italian occupation. Fresh from their operation in Thessaloniki, where 90 percent of the 50,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz, the Rosenberg Commando of the SS, headed by Dieter Wisliceny, set up shop in Athens.

Within a day, Wisliceny — who would be assisted by Gen. Jurgen Stroop, infamous for having overseen the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto a few months earlier — summoned Barzilai to his office and demanded lists of all the Jews, both Greek and foreign, then living in Athens.

When the chief rabbi explained, as he later claimed he had done, that the records had all been destroyed a year earlier, Wisliceny told him he had three days to recreate the lists and produce them.

Rabbi Barzilai was apparently aware that something ominous had happened to the Jews of Thessaloniki, even if their precise fate was not yet known, and he was determined not to operate according to the same sort of passivity that had characterized the behavior of that city’s chief rabbi, Zvi Koretz.

Barzilai met with the Greek Orthodox archbishop of Athens, Damaskinos Papandreou, and asked for his help in preventing the deportation of Athenian Jewry.

According to Mordecai Paldiel, author of the book “Churches and the Holocaust,” the archbishop told the rabbi it wasn’t within his power to stop the Germans from carrying out their plans, and that his suggestion was that the Jews go into hiding.

Although it wouldn’t be possible for Jews to be given refuge en masse in Greek churches, Archbishop Damaskinos did offer to send out an order to churches, convents and other institutions that Orthodox clergy were to do whatever they could to help individual Jews.

‘The old man is sick’

Steven B. Bowman, in his book “The Agony of Greek Jews, 1940-1945,” reports that Barzilai claimed after the war that he had returned home, having decided to get the word out that the Jews should literally head for the hills, sending out the coded message that “The old man is sick and needs to go to the mountains to recuperate.”

The other version of the story, recounted by Baruch Shibi, a high-ranking Jewish member of the resistance, is that he and several Jewish colleagues active in EAM/ELAS (the country’s principal resistance organization and its military wing) were concerned that Rabbi Barzilai might buckle under Nazi pressure. Wanting to avoid the mere possibility of his cooperating with the occupiers, they decided to take prior action by “kidnapping” the rabbi, and spiriting him out of the city.

Indeed, that is what happened over the weekend of September 23-25 when, with the assistance of Archbishop Damaskinos, two men came to Barzilai’s door and told him to gather his possessions together. He was driven out of Athens in the archbishop’s car, then transferred to a Greek mail truck often used by the underground for cover, before the final stage of his journey on the back of a donkey. He and his family spent the remainder of the war under the protection of the EAM resistance in the hills of central Greece.

More significantly, thousands of Athenian Jews followed the rabbi’s example. Of the estimated 8,000 Jews living in Athens before the war, fewer than 1,000 were eventually arrested and deported by the Germans, many of them people who weren’t in a physical condition that would have allowed them go into hiding.