Remembering the Jewish Saviors of the Holocaust, Too

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1941 photo showing the railroad tracks leading to the entrance of the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.
1941 photo showing the railroad tracks leading to the entrance of the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.Credit: AP

On the Jewish New Year in 1943, Rabbi Moshe Pessah, the chief rabbi of the central Greek city of Volos, was summoned to the German military governor of the city, Kurt Rikert. Rikert ordered the rabbi to provide a list of all the city’s Jews and their property within 24 hours, claiming that the list was needed in order to arrange food supplies to the residents during the occupation.

The rabbi was suspicious of Rikert’s motives and after conducting some investigations of his own, launched an unusual operation, along with Greek partners – some of whom have been declared Righteous among the Nations – in which 74 percent of the 900 Jews in Volos were saved. The Jews of Volos fared far better than those in other areas of Greece, where an average just 15 percent survived.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, B’nai B’rith and the Jewish National Fund will grant a “Jewish Rescuers Citation” to Rabbi Pessah’s descendents. The citation, created in 2011, is intended to right the historic distortion in which Jews who saved other Jews during the Holocaust were not recognized as Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Pessah, who had served as chief rabbi of Volos since 1925, was known for his piety and strict observance of Jewish law. He maintained close ties with local church leaders, and was both a Greek patriot and decorated army veteran, and a member of Zionist organizations.

Immediately after his meeting with Rickert, Pessah met with his friend Archbishop Joachim Alexopoulos. Later recipient of the Righteous Gentile award, Alexopoulos found out from the German consul in the city what was likely to happen to the Jews of Volos. Pessah then convinced the Nazi regime to grant him a three-day extension in submitting the list of names and property. During that time, he and Alexopoulos acted to spirit the Jews out of the city to the surrounding villages. Alexopoulos handed Pessah a letter of introduction addressed to the clergymen in the villages, urging them to protect the Jews in every way possible.

Pessah’s grandson Moris Eskenazi estimates that during the war about 800 Jews were hidden in the mountains and villages, and hundreds of Greeks knew of their whereabouts. “In order to save 1,000 people scattered over 25 villages and caves, there were hundreds, if not thousands who knew, and yet no one informed on them,” he says.

Eskenazi does not attribute this to the bishop’s letter, but to the people’s temperament. “A few of them are recognized, but what about the others? Many of these simple villagers not only knew, but gave half their bread rations to the hidden Jews.”

B’nai B’rith director Alan Schneider writes in his research that the Germans offered a hefty reward for Pessah. “But the villagers saw him as a holy man and they hid him in the forests and caves,” Schneider writes.

During his time in hiding, Pessah also cooperated with a partisan unit in the region in sabotaging Nazi installations and with Allied forces in the Mediterranean. Much of his family was deported and murdered by the Nazis and their allies, and his wife died during the war. Pessah, however, survived and returned to Volos to serve as chief rabbi after the war. Of the 900 Jews in Volos before the war, 117 died in concentration camps, five were killed during partisan operations and about 30 died of starvation and illness during the German occupation.

More than 700 Jews returned to Volos after the war. Under instructions from the archbishop, the city’s residents returned to the Jews their property.

Pessah will be represented at the memorial ceremony by his grandson Moris Eskenazi and great-grandson Dr. Ilias Pessach. 

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