Prior to World War II, Greece had a thriving Jewish population with deep historical roots; its first organizaed communities were established as early as 400 B.C.E. Along with the presence of Sephardic Jews, who represented the majority of the community, Greece was also home to the Romaniotes, a discrete Jewish population that is today recognized as the oldest Jewish community in Europe.
But on Oct. 28, 1940, fascist Italy, a member of the Axis powers, invaded Greece. That night, 6-year-old Yolanda Avram and her 2-year-old brother, Yannis, were suddenly awakened by the urgent voice of their father ordering his wife, “Pack the suitcases, Karola.” Salvator Avram, president of the Jewish Community of Larissa, sent his family into the mountains, fleeing the invading armies. The Avram family went into hiding and was sheltered by strangers who risked their lives to save this Jewish family.
Greece resisted the Italians and continued fighting for six months, but in April 1941 the Germans invaded and occupied Greece, and Greece surrendered. Thus began four years of Nazi persecution and murder of Greek Jews.
For two years, the Avram family was able to stay together as they hid. But then, due to the danger, they had to separate. At the age of 8, Yolanda went into hiding without her family. She had to assume multiple identities as she was urgently moved from one rescuer family to another. Each time, she had to learn and then pretend to be a different person with a different name, history and relationship to the rescuers. She knew, at that tender age, that any mistake would reveal her as a Jew and jeopardize her life, the lives of her real parents and those of her rescuers.
Yolanda, her brother and parents all survived the war years. Yolanda came to America on a Fulbright scholarship, earned a master’s degree in chemistry and later got a Ph.D. in sociology. She married and built a home, a family and a professional career. In 1996, she returned to Greece as the associate producer of the documentary “It was nothing, it was everything,” a film about 10 Greek rescuers.
Yolanda Avram Willis, now living in Pittsburgh for many years, tells the story of her family’s wartime experiences in her new book, “A Hidden Child in Greece, Rescue in the Holocaust,” which was launched July 23 at a book talk and signing at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
Holocaust Center director Lauren Bairnsfather introduced Willis, pointing out that the Sephardic experience during the Holocaust — which is not often discussed — had different dimensions than the Ashkenazi one.
Willis read vignettes from her book to an enthralled standing-room-only crowd, answered questions and autographed copies. Willis’ love of Greece and appreciation and affection for her Greek rescuers was evident throughout the talk. Though the topic was sad, Willis’ animated presentation contained surprising flashes of humor that made the audience laugh more than once.
Willis pointed out that her book is not just the story of the Avram family. Rather, it tells of the gentile Greek citizens who helped them and the Jewish and non-Jewish partisans who resisted the Nazis. At her urging, eight of Willis’ rescuers were recognized by the Yad Vashem Museum in Israel as Righteous Among the Nations.
According to Yad Vashem, “Attitudes [of European gentiles] toward the Jews during the Holocaust mostly ranged from indifference to hostility.” In contrast, Willis noted that within the Greek community, “there was a general commitment to help Jews. Since the Germans were the enemy, and they were after the Jews, we’ve got to save them.”
The first part of the book includes her personal memoirs of the war years and her life afterward, writing of her excitement and gratitude at being able to bring her children and grandchildren back to Greece to meet her rescuers and their rescuing families. The second part of the book recounts many amazing resistance and rescue stories, especially those involving Greece’s national church, the Greek Orthodox Church.
Willis explains that the head of the church, Archbishop Damaskinos, “mobilized the Church of Greece” to aid Jews. He instructed his priests and their congregations to shelter Jews: “If they knock on your door, you must help them,” he said, adding, “No conversions should be attempted in connection with their rescue while Jews are under a death sentence.”
In one of many true stories involving the church leaders, Damaskinos aided in the escape of the chief rabbi of Athens. In another, the head priest and the mayor of an island refused to give the Nazis a list of the local Jews and put only their own names on the list of “the Jews of Zakynthos.”
The story of Greek Jews’ experiences during the Holocaust is a tale of contradictions. Almost 85 percent of the Jews of Greece were murdered, most of them at Auschwitz-Birkenau. According to the Kehila Kadosha
Ioannina Synagogue and Museum, “Out of all of the countries occupied by the Nazis, Greece lost the largest percentage of its Jewish population.” A community that had gone back over 2,000 years was almost totally destroyed.
On the other hand, Greek citizens across the country — from the chief of police, who warned Jews to escape, to the local policemen who gave Jews false IDs, from the mayor to the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, from the neighborhood priests to the countless residents who knew where Jews were hiding and never told — refused to cooperate or collaborate with the occupying Nazi powers.
Willis sees herself as charged with a mission. “I have to bear witness to what happened in Greece, to tell the rescue stories.”
As for her family’s survival, Willis said, “This was the hand of God.”
“A Hidden Child in Greece” can be ordered from Willis’ website, yolandawillis.com, or purchased at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. PJC
Simone Shapiro can be reached at email@example.com.