By Elias Levy
Damaskinos, Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, served as the Primate of the Autocephalous Church of Greece during the Second World War. Born in the village of Dorvitsa in Greece in 1890, the nephew of the Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Koroni, he served in the Greek Army during the Balkan wars, and was ordained to the holy Priesthood in 1917. He was later elected by the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece as Archbishop of Athens in 1941. Before his appointment as Archbishop, he was, among other things, instrumental in setting up the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. After the war, he was also Prime Minister and Regent of Greece until the return from exile of King George II.
While these are certainly achievements in their own right, he is venerated by many people for his courageous stand against the treatment of the Jewish Community in Greece by the Nazi occupiers, even risking his own safety and being under threat of execution by the Germans, but he stuck to his principles. When threatened by the Nazi authorities, he stood up for what he knew to be right. If only more people had such courage! There are many anecdotes about the heroism of the Holy Archbishop, and it is therefore all the more surprising that he is not as well-known as he really ought to be. One such story can be found in the testimony of a holocaust survivor from Greece, Dr Lily Molho, who tells of how her brother, Saul, escaped from the Nazis because Archbishop Damaskinos allowed the use of his official car to transport Jews into safety in the mountains1.
Although, very sadly, nearly 90% of Greece’s Jewish population were murdered during the Second World War, the fact that this figure is not much higher is largely as a result of the actions of Damaskinos.
He instructed the Greek clergy to supply false baptismal certificates to Jews in order to protect them, and to ask the congregations to hide their Jewish neighbours. Many did indeed do this, at tremendous risk to themselves. Of course there is no doubt that many such acts of bravery would have happened without the prompting of the Archbishop. However, Damaskinos was the only Christian leader of such standing openly to speak out. One can only imagine what might have happened if other leaders had followed his example.
Perhaps the best known of his actions is this public letter, which he wrote condemning the treatment of the Jews:
Mr Prime Minister
The Greek people were rightfully surprised and deeply grieved to learn that the German Occupation Authorities have already started to put into effect a program of gradual deportation of the Greek Jewish community of Salonika to places beyond our national borders, and that the first groups of deportees are already on their way to Poland. The grief of the Greek people is particularly deep because of the following:
According to the terms of the armistice, all Greek citizens, without distinction of race or religion, were to be treated equally by the Occupation Authorities.
The Greek Jews have proven themselves not only valuable contributors to the economic growth of the country but also law-abiding citizens who fully understand their duties as Greeks. They made sacrifices for the Greek country and were always on the front line in the struggles of the Greek nation to defend its inalienable historical rights.
The law-abiding nature of the Jewish community in Greece refutes a priori any charge that it may be involved in actions or acts that might even slightly endanger the safety of the Military Occupation Authorities.
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 or dogmatic differences.
Our Holy Religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: “There is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28) and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences.
Our common fate, both in days of glory and in periods of national misfortune, forged inseparable bonds between all Greek citizens, without exemption, irrespective of race.
Certainly, we are not unaware of the deep conflict between the new Germany and the Jewish community, nor do we intend to become defenders or judges of world Jewry in the great sphere of world politics and economic affairs. Today we are interested in and deeply concerned with the fate of 60,000 of our fellow citizens, who are Jews. For a long time, we have lived together in both slavery and freedom, and we have come to appreciate their feelings, their brotherly attitude, their economic activity and, most important, their indefatigable patriotism. Evidence of this patriotism is the great number of victims sacrificed by the Greek Jewish community without regret and without hesitation on the altar of duty when our country was in peril.
Mr Prime Minister,
We are certain that the thoughts and feelings of the Government on this matter are in agreement with those of the rest of the Greek nation. We also trust that you have already taken the necessary steps and applied to the Occupation Authorities to rescind the grievous and futile measure to deport the members of the Jewish community of Greece.
We hope, indeed, that you have clarified to those in power that such harsh treatment of Jews of other nationalities in Greece makes the instituted measure even more unjustifiable and therefore morally unacceptable. If security reasons underlie it, we think it possible to suggest alternatives. Other measures can be taken, such as detaining the active male population (not including children and old people) in a specific place on Greek territory under the surveillance of the Occupation Authorities, thereby guaranteeing safety in face of any alleged danger and saving the Greek Jewish community from the impending deportation. Moreover, we would like to point out that, if asked, the rest of the Greek people will be willing to vouch for their brothers in need without hesitation.
We hope that the Occupation Authorities will realize in due time the futility of the persecution of Greek Jews, who are among the most peaceful and productive elements of the country.
If, however, they insist on this policy of deportation, we believe that the Government, as the bearer of whatever political authority is left in the country, should take a clear stance against these events and let the foreigners bear the full responsibility of committing this obvious injustice. Let no one forget that all actions done during these difficult times, even those actions that lie beyond our will and power, will be assessed someday by the nation and will be subjected to historical investigation. In that time of judgement, the responsibility of the leaders will weigh heavily upon the conscience of the nation if today the leaders fail to protest boldly in the name of the nation against such unjust measures as the deportation of the Greek Jews, which are an insult to our national unity and honour.
Archbishop of Athens and All Greece2
The Archbishop published this letter openly, despite being threatened by Jürgen Stoop, the local SS Commander, with execution by firing squad. He replied to this threat with words which have become legendary; “According to the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church, our prelates are hanged, not shot.” He was, of course, referring to the murder of Patriarch Gregorios V by a Turkish mob in 1821 in Constantinople, and making known his view that were the German commander to carry out his threat, he would be acting in a way just as vicious and barbaric as that violent mob.
Archbishop Damaskinos was posthumously awarded the honour of “Righteous among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust Memorial Authority, and is relatively well known and respected by the Jewish community, but seems to be a complete stranger when it comes to the Orthodox, at least here in the UK. To me, this is a real shame. He is someone who should be recognised more widely, and who can be held up as an example to us all as a genuinely Christian way of behaving, especially given the recent rise in anti-Semitic sentiment in Greece.
Damaskinos is, of course, only one example of an Orthodox leader standing up for the principles of justice and truth. There are many, and, indeed, we will never learn of the great majority. Even in the dark days of the holocaust, the holy Archbishop of Athens was not the only Hierarch to make his voice heard. Metropolitan Chysostomos of Zakynthos, is known for having been asked, together with the local Mayor, to deliver a list of all the local Jews to the Nazi occupiers – and responded by sending a document containing only his own name and that of the mayor.
The late Patriarch Kirill of Bulgaria (d. 1971) was Metropolitan of Plovdiv during the war, and quite literally stood on a rail line in front of a train to stop the deportation of Bulgarian Jews. There are many other examples which I could give.
The most important message which we must take from the example of Archbishop Damaskinos is this: We must always stand up for what we know to be the truth of our Orthodox Christian faith. We must also remember, and this is particularly important in these times of hardship and mistrust, the words of the Apostle, quoted in the above letter; “οὐκ ἔνι Ἰουδαῖος οὐδὲ Ἕλλην, οὐκ ἔνι δοῦλος οὐδὲ ἐλεύθερος,οὐκ ἔνι ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ· πάντες γὰρ ὑμεῖς εἷς ἐστε ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ”. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”3.
The saintly Archbishop of Athens understood this phrase and followed it with bravery and action, which led to thousands of lives being saved.
May His Memory Be Eternal!
1. Oral Testimony of Dr Lily Molho, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
[accessed 13/11/13]3. Letter of St Paul to the Galatians, 3:28
Source: Thyateira November 2013