On 23 February 2020, the Jewish Community of Athens and B’nai B’rith ‘PHILON’ organized their annual event in memory of Rabbi Elias P. Barzilai. The event took place at the Beth Shalom Synagogue of Athens. Director of the B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem Alan Schneider gave the following speech:
‘Nissim Benmayor, grandson of Rabbi Eliyahu Pinchas Barzilai; Mara d’atra my dear friend Rabbi Gabriel Negrin of Athens; Victor Batis, devoted President of the Philon B’nai B’rith lodge of Athens; members of the Greek Jewish community and B’nai B’rith members; members of the Israel-Hellenic Forum; dear friends
It is a distinct honor for me to be here with you this evening to pay homage to the memory of Rabbi Eliyahu Pinchas Barzilai, the chief rabbi of Athens during the terrible years of the Second World War, the Italian and German occupation of Greece and the Holocaust.
I have travelled from Jerusalem specially to present the Jewish Rescuers Citation in recognition of Rabbi Barzilai’s courageous actions to foil the German intention to arrest, despoil, deport and murder the Jews of Athens, as they were engaged in doing to the Jews all over Greece. On September 21, 1943 – at great personal risk – Rabbi Barzilai succeeded in denying the Germans access to the Jewish community membership lists. He faced down and outwitted SS Captain Dieter Wisliceny who ordered him to produce a list of all Jews in the city including their addresses and assets. Instead Rabbi Barzilai burned the booklets of the community’s new members (the old ones had been destroyed in an ESPO attack on the Jewish community’s office in July 1942). He also convened a meeting of all Jews at this very synagogue during which he urged them to abandon their homes immediately and secretly get as far away as possible; those who did not attend the meeting received a telephone call from the Rabbi who encouraged them, using coded metaphor, to leave the city for the mountains. Rather than compiling a new list as he had promised the German that he would, the Rabbi went from the Gestapo headquarters directly to Archbishop Damaskinos (who was recognized posthumously as Righteous Among the Nations for his many courageous actions to rescue Jews) and to Prime Minister Ioannis Rallis to ask for their assistance. He also appealed to the Resistance and as a result of his intervention the National Liberation Front undertook to help those Jews who would flee to the mountains. His “kidnapping” was orchestrated on September 22, giving the signal to the Jewish of Athens to flee. Through his actions with many courageous Christians, 66% of Jews living then in Athens, including thousands who had fled from Thessaloniki and other regions, survived, whereas some 80% of all Greek Jewry perished.
The Jewish Rescuers Citations was established in 2011 by the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem – chaired by Dr. Haim Katz – and the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust – founded and chaired by Dutch Holocaust Survivor Haim Roet – in order to recognize those Jews, like Rabbi Barzilai, who went beyond the call of duty and endangered their own lives in valiant attempts to rescue fellow Jews from death during the Holocaust – in some cases forfeiting the opportunity to save themselves. Through this initiative we seek to correct the generally held misconception that Jews failed to come to the aid of fellow Jews during the Holocaust. Prominent members of the academic community such as Prof. Yehuda Bauer and Dr. Nechama Tec now recognize this distortion but have yet to thoroughly research the phenomena of Jewish rescue. As concluded by the eminent Holocaust historian Dr. Nechama Tec “While there were Jews who selflessly rescued others, as a subject of systematic study they have remained unnoticed.”
And Prof. Patrick Henry – a non-Jewish American historian closely affiliated with our committee- wrote in the Introduction to his seminal book “Jewish Resistance to the Nazis” which he edited in 2013, as follows:
“Although the myth of Jewish passivity during the Holocaust has been thoroughly discredited in the scholarly world, it lives on in the popular mentality and is often expressed in such phrases as “the Jews were led to the slaughter like sheep.” The myth still finds its way into the media and often goes unchallenged… It is important to understand not only the role that Nazis played in the dissemination of this myth, but that, in the twisted Nazi psyche, this blaming of the victim somehow exculpated the killers from their crimes. This myth also served to justify the bystanders. If the Jews did nothing to save themselves, why should others have risked their lives to help them? … When we consider, on the one hand, the extent of Jewish resistance throughout Occupied Europe (in every Nazi-occupied country, in the forests, the ghettos, and the camps) and, on the other, the hopelessness of the situation in most cases (the lack of arms, of training, of a home country, the general indifference or hostility of the surrounding populations of non-Jews) and the vicious, stunningly disproportionate reprisals taken by the Nazis, it is less surprising that not all Jews resisted than it is that so many did in so many different places and in so many different ways… Given the preponderance of evidence of Jewish resistance, it is simply unconscionable to continue to speak in general terms of “Jewish passivity.” Doing so violates the historical record and plays into the hands of antisemites who claim that Jews brought their misfortunes upon themselves. Here in the realm of rescue, particularly when compared to the acclaim granted non-Jewish rescuers, the tremendous role played by Jews in the rescue of other Jewish persons, often working in Jewish organizations and in conjunction with non-Jews, has not received sufficient academic study and appropriate public recognition. We highlight the fact that rescue was another form of resistance, that Jews played an active and significant role throughout occupied Europe in the rescue of other Jews, and that, like collaboration, rescue had many faces: hiding in one’s home country, in adjacent forests, or crossing borders to safety. Even armed resisters recognized the importance of rescue and other forms of unarmed humanitarian resistance which, in the final analysis, saved more Jews than armed resistance”.
Prof. Henry concludes that Jews actually did more than any other defeated peoples in Europe to resist the Nazis, considering the degree of persecution directed against them and their lack of armed forces, centralized command structure and other objective deficits.
More and more is being done every day to bridge the gap, make up for lost time and discover the stories of these modern-day Jewish heroes. To date we have recognized 313 heroes for their rescue activities in Germany, France, Hungary, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Holland, Italy, Ukraine, Latvia, Austria, Morocco, Belgium and eight Greek Jews – among them the chief Rabbi of Volos Moshe Shimon Pessach זכר צדיק לברכה who was responsible for the survival of nearly 80% of the Jews of Volos with the courageous actions of his friend, the Bishop, clergy and the underground. These actions took many forms – finding hiding places and taking care of the needs of those in hiding, issuing false documents, conveying people over hostile borders etc. They were undertaken in some cases by individuals working on their own initiative and in other cases by organizations that existed before the War and by others that developed during the War. I can spend all evening telling you the exploits of these courageous people who operated in the cities and ghettos, in the concentration camps and detention centers, in the forests and right in Gestapo headquarters. There are many rescuers we are yet to learn about, but we continue to toil and uncover more and more of these stories. Like in the case of Rabbi Barzilai, so many of these accounts are intertwined with the heroism of non-Jews – many, but definitely not all, who have been recognized as Righteous among the Nations. We salute them and vow that their profound humanity and heroism will never be forgotten by the Jewish People.
There is no doubt that our 25-year quest to bring the saga of Jewish self-rescue to the fore is baring fruit. I am gratified to note that inspired by our activity, Yad Vashem has determined that the theme of this coming Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes and Remembrance Day – will be “Rescue by Jews during the Holocaust – Solidarity in a Disintegrating World” and Bar Ilan University’s Center for Holocaust Studies has established an international academic research group on Jewish self-rescue.
As an international Jewish organization established in the United States in 1843, B’nai B’rith had members in North America, the Middle East and across Europe by the early 1900’s. B’nai B’rith was profoundly affected by the Holocaust and is scarred to this day. Unlike other Jewish organizations headquartered in the United States, B’nai B’rith had thousands of members in Germany and throughout Europe when the Holocaust erupted.
In pre-war Germany, B’nai B’rith was organized in 100 lodges with a headquarters in Berlin and conducted outstanding humanitarian and educational activities on behalf of the Jewish and general public. As you may know, the files of our German lodges along with the files of B’nai B’rith Greece, since its establishment in 1911, were confiscated first by the Nazis and then by the Russians and today are impounded in the Russian Military Archives in Moscow.
Our members were not spared the wrath of Nazi brutality and in fact, B’nai B’rith was the first Jewish organization targeted by the Nazis, long before what we have come to mark as the beginning of the Holocaust, Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass) on November 9-10, 1938. I quote from a May 3, 1937 Time Magazine article: “Last week, armed German police smashed their way int Berlin’s B’nai B’rith lodge, arrested the members, cleared out the premises and seized the property. Al over Germany, other B’nai B’rith lodges were raided, seized and evacuated as were children’s homes, sanatoriums and homes for the aged supported by the society. Though most of those arrested were later released, the entire organization was ordered dissolved and its funds seized, on the pretext that one of the 14,000 German members of B’nai B’rith had engaged in Communistic propaganda.” As the Holocaust and extermination ensued, many of our members across Europe were deported, ghettoized and murdered. They and the six million victims of the Holocaust are memorialized in the B’nai B’rith Martyrs Forest outside Jerusalem – the first site established in Israel and perhaps in the world – dedicated to their memory and where we hold an annual ceremony on Yom HaShoah in cooperation with the Jewish National Fund, showcasing annually the heroism of Jewish rescuers – the only event in the world to do so.
In June we will install a new plaque in the Martyrs Forest to mark the 78th anniversary of the deportation of Sally Bein – the legendary founding principal of the first boarding school for Jewish pupils with special needs, established in Beelitz in 1908 by B’nai B’rith Germany and the Jewish Community of Germany – his wife, young daughter and 47 staff and students to the Sobibor death camp. No one survived. It is only now, so many years later, that we are being exposed to their story – which is our legacy and lesson to take forward into the future. This illustrates the magnitude of the Holocaust and why until today we know the names of only 4.5 million of the 6 million victims – because of the Nazi German campaign to erase every trace of the Jews. Their remembrance and recognition, and our unequivocal condemnation of the incitement and dehumanization that led to their murder, must be our moral duty and primary responsibility. It is our duty to remember the depths to which humanity can fall and it is our obligation to strive against the resurgence of such evil. We are determined not to allow that to happen and view the existence of the State of Israel today as the principal guarantor of both memory and survival of the Jewish people into the future.
Unfortunately, B’nai B’rith is still the target of anti-Semites today: the organization appears by name in the Charter of the Hamas Palestinian terrorist organization as a supporter of the State of Israel and Zionism and by the Islamic Republic of Iran as part of its Holocaust denial campaign in which they engage only so that they will be free to perpetrate another Holocaust against the people of Israel, which they constantly threaten.
B’nai B’rith International is engaged in many Holocaust commemoration and educational projects – in addition to the Jewish Rescuers Citation – to memorialize the tragic loss of 6 million of our brothers and sister. For example, on February 2 and 3 we held an international conference in Kigali, Rwanda in cooperation with local partners and the new Israeli embassy there entitled “Incitement and Dehumanization: Precursors to Genocide and Crimes against Humanity” to mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz and 25 years since the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda. Six Israeli experts and dozens of local speakers addressed a large audience of government ministers, parliamentarians, academics, NGOs and the press. On January 27 –– B’nai B’rith International held its annual commemoration event at the UN marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, focused this year on the efforts of Philippines president Manuel Quezon to rescue Jews, with the participation of the Philippines Foreign Minister. This event, held annually on a different theme since the International Holocaust Remembrance Day was initiated by the UN in 2005 at the urging of B’nai B’rith, was held in tandem also at the embassy of the Philippines in Tel Aviv, where the idea to focus on Quezon this year germinated.
I would like to end by noting that B’nai B’rith is a great friend of Greece and the Hellenic People and we derive much encouragement from the strong relationship that has developed over the past ten year between Israel, Greece and Cyprus – the only three free democracies in the Eastern Mediterranean. Along with our partners at AHEPA and the American Hellenic Institute, B’nai B’rith instituted bi-annual joint Jewish-Greek leadership missions from the United States to Israel, Greece and Cyprus (the fourth mission took place just last month, with much success) and the B’nai B’rith World Center established in November the Israel-Hellenic Forum that will provide a platform for cooperation in the region between intellectuals, researchers and academics who support the tripartite relationship that we see as a linchpin to security, stability and peace in our region.
I am convinced that Rabbi Barzilai would have been proud of this progress and would have seen in it a continuation of his own legacy of friendship, mutual respect and identification with the Greek people, exemplified by joint efforts to rescue persecuted Jews.
It is my honor now to ask B’nai B’rith Philon lodge president Victor Batis to present with me the Jewish Rescuers Citation to the Rabbi’s grandson, Nissim Benmayor.
The certificate reads: Rabbi Barzilai, along with all the rescuers – Jewish and Gentile – have set the path for us to follow.