New York.- Vicki James Yiannias
The recent book by Deno Seder, “Miracle at Zakynthos, The only Greek Jewish community saved in its entirety from annihilation”, about a small Greek community that refused to stand by while other communities and nations abandoned their Jewish populations during World War II carries a profound message at Christmas time.
“Perhaps the real miracle at Zakynthos was that not one of the 42,000 Christians on the island said a word to the Nazis about where the Jews were hidden. While historians may argue about the reasons why, the Orthodox ethos is probably the best explanation”, writes Seder.
On December 14 Kehila Kedosha Janina hosted the presentation of “Miracle at Zakynthos” to a highly engaged audience of about 50 people from the Greek-Jewish world, Greek Orthodox Christian world and the Lower East Side.
Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, Museum Director of Kehila Kedosha Janina, says, “The story of the saving of the Jews of Zakynthos is such an important story in the context of what happened to Greek Jewry. That’s why it is so important to get it right. As we move further away from the actual events and most of the eyewitnesses begin to leave us, we must pass on the truth of the events… it was so refreshing to read a book about an aspect of the Holocaust of Greek Jewry that was not rife with errors. Deno did his research and he was meticulous in his research. The book is a joy to read, unlike many other history books; a credit to the writing ability of the author. It should be on the bookshelf of every serious student of the Holocaust of Greek Jewry.”
Seder, who has a special interest in Greek art, history and philosophy, speaks with the GN about his important historical contribution, a seamless narrative that recreates the terror and suffering of the times.
GN: How do you describe the message of your book?
DS: The essential message of the book is that during a dark period of human history, on a remote island in the Ionian Sea, courage and humanity prevailed and lives were saved. The Holocaust happened because individuals, governments, churches and organizations made choices that summoned the darkest of angels to corrupt human thought and behavior, resulting in prejudice, intolerance, hatred and mass murder. The message of the book also defines what it means to be a responsible citizen, and the importance of showing empathy and compassion for all people.
GN: What do you feel is the single most important point it makes?
DS: The most important point of the book is that the legacy of Bishop Chrysostomos and Mayor Loukas Carrer is worth remembering, and the lesson worth teaching. And the larger point is that we must protect and preserve history so that future generations will learn about and remember the Holocaust.
GN: What do you find to be the most captivating part of the story?
DS: When the German commander demanded a list of all the Jews on the island, the Bishop and the Mayor submitted a list with two names — their own.
But perhaps the real “miracle” at Zakynthos was the fact that not one single Greek Christian–on an island of 42,000 people–said a word to the Germans about where the Jews were hiding. Not one word during the entire 3 1/2 year occupation.
GN: What part of your research did you find the most absorbing?
DS: The most absorbing part of my research was watching the video testimonies of survivors from Zakynthos. As I heard the translations from Greek and Hebrew testimonies, I was moved, often to tears, when learning of their hardships, their traumas, and their ultimate survival.
GN: One of the elderly at your presentation, who survived the Holocaust expressed to me in a very real and chilling way that what happened will happen again because the youth are not adequately aware of history. What educational or other measures do you think should or can be taken against this?
DS: Another guest at the presentation who was born after the war told me that while growing up in Athens, there was no mention of the Greek Holocaust in any of her school books. Fortunately, Holocaust education is being revived in Greece. For example, in June, 2014, the Jewish Museum of Greece organized the twelfth Seminar on Holocaust Education. It was designed for primary and secondary school teachers and was conducted under the auspices of the Greek Ministry of Education and Religion. The two-day seminar, open to the public, was held in Zakynthos. Participants were eager to learn about the Holocaust in Greece, about the saving of the Jews on their own island and about the men and women honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” — 321 Greeks, more than was awarded to citizens of Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia and Romania combined. And on the 27th of January each year, the Greek Parliament commemorates the National Day of Remembrance for Victims and Heroes of the Holocaust. On January 22, 2014, the Greek Ministry of Education and Religion issued a memorandum stating its aim “to contribute to the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust and to combat anti-Semitism and racism, to support the training of educators in teaching about the Holocaust in Greek schools, and to organize activities which promote greater sensitivity of the citizens in these issues”.
GN: what do you think were the reasons that the German people were so easily manipulated by Hitler?
DS: Historians, theologians and social scientists believe that the Nazis did not regard what they did as evil. Germans felt victimized and outraged after World War I and Hitler used this to gain power. The murderous atrocities of the Third Reich were facilitated by political and psychological factors, including the decline of individual responsibility. Soldiers were “just taking orders” and German citizens claimed no knowledge of the atrocities. During the post-war trials, responsibility for one’s actions was seldom expressed. Murderous behavior was not criminal and thus there was no guilt, no shame, no regret. Ordinary people obeying orders, the “banality of evil” as Hannah Arendt called it, was a social pathology. It allowed Nazi soldiers and German citizens to conform to mass opinion without considering the consequences of their actions, or inactions. It allowed the individual to follow the Führer without following his or her conscience. It allowed premeditated genocide.
GN: Where are you from in Greece? Do you go back to visit?
D.S. I am a first generation Greek American. My father was from Samos and my mother from Crete. I have visited Greece many times, most recently in October of last year when my wife and I went to Zakynthos and Athens to do research for the book. We met some lovely people in the mountain villages of Zakynthos, several in their eighties and nineties, who recounted inspiring stories of Greek Christians who risked their lives by hiding Jewish families in their homes during World War II.
- Why did you write the book?
D.S. In 1995, my wife organized an art exhibition at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. She is Hungarian and her exhibition, “Victims and Perpetrators”, featured artworks by Hungarian Jews that were discovered years after the war’s end. While visiting Yad Vashem before the opening of the exhibition, I came upon a memorial to the “Righteous Among the Nations” from Greece. It was an emotional moment for me, reading the names of these heroic individuals who showed such courage and compassion toward their persecuted Jewish friends and neighbors. It was at that moment that I was inspired to learn more about the Greek Holocaust, and when I read about Bishop Chrysostomos and Mayor Loukas Carrer and the only Greek Jewish community to be saved in its entirety from annihilation, I decided to write the book about Zakynthos.
GN: Is there anything else you would like to get across to the public?
DS: The story of Zakynthos is about moral issues and human behavior. It illustrates what it means to be a responsible citizen, to show empathy and to take action. It teaches that there can be no faith, creed, code of ethics, legal or political system that should endorse silence and indifference to the pain and suffering of other human beings. We must teach our children empathy and tolerance, by instruction and by example. And we must fight against injustice, prejudice, discrimination, racial and religious hatred wherever it exists.
For more information, including a video, go to: www.ZakynthosBook.com