Excerpts from Miracle at Zakynthos

…A sense of impending doom swept the Ionian island when the order came that every Jewish home was to display a yellow star on its door. The Italian occupation had been harsh, but this, the succeeding 1943 German occupation, was horrific.

…The Greek Orthodox churches immediately began issuing false Christian identification papers and baptismal certificates to Jewish families. “I was no longer Malvina Messina. I became Varvara Stravridou. They were really good people. I felt they would never betray us.”  Zakynthos Jews became accustomed to the fixed, exaggerated gaze of solemn, iconic Byzantine saints in the unlikely sanctuaries where the persecuted sought refuge.

…“Some German soldiers kicked in our door and started beating me,” recalled Hertsel Matsa, who was nineteen at the time. “I was able to escape and hide in some hay bales. I could hear them shouting, ‘Where is that Jew? We will kill him.’ I learned later that they beat our Christian neighbors because they thought they helped me escape.”

…Critics postulate that this ancient church, replete with rituals, clouds of incense and primitive icons, is irrelevant, anachronistic and does little to improve the condition of mankind. Yet in many parts of Greece during the occupation, the social character of the church manifestly exerted itself into the daily lives of Christians and Jews alike.

…Christian complicity and culpability for the Holocaust is a sad truth of history. Many church leaders remained as mute after the war as Pius XII had been during the war.

…On March 12, 1939, Eugenio Pacelli was crowned Pope Pius XII. But the magisterium did not cure the muteness. When Hitler delivered a radio address, reprinted in Rome’s Messaggero newspaper, declaring that “the Jews will be liquidated for at least a thousand years,” there was heard not a peep from the pope.

…In August, 1942, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull was urging the Vatican to denounce Nazi atrocities against Jews, such as the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and other mass murders. The Vatican flatly rejected American diplomatic efforts for any kind of papal intercession, writing to the American Ambassador to the Holy See: “...up to the present time it has not been possible to verify the accuracy thereof.”

…The Germans used flamethrowers, incendiary grenades or sometimes just petrol. They were methodical and efficient in the destruction of entire villages. In Agios Georgios, a small village in the mountains of central Greece, every house was burned to the ground, the wells were polluted with dead mules and all the trees and crops were destroyed.

…Many of the Jews of Zakynthos, like those in Salonika and Jannina, were unaware of the camps or of Nazi intentions and did not feel immediately threatened. The Jews of the island saw the strength and courage their Christian neighbors derived from their beloved Bishop Chrysostomos, and perhaps these acculturated Jews felt a vicarious security from that, or at least felt a reassuring comfort in knowing that this good and decent holy man cared about them as well as the Christians.

…Bishop Chrysostomos had closely followed the events in Athens and knew he had to act quickly. First, he needed to buy time. If he had to relocate and hide all 275 Jews of the island, he needed more than the three-day deadline given by the Germans.
…The impudent defiance of this island cleric was more than the short, bespectacled Nazi could bear. He drew his 9mm Luger and took several swift steps toward Chrysostomos.

…Litt, to the bishop, was not a man, but a machine, an articulate automaton with no soul, no conscience, nothing but a pathetic pawn in Hitler’s ghastly scheme to annihilate an entire race.

…The two men were scarcely a foot apart as the bishop took a piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to the commander. In a quiet German undertone, the bishop uttered four words that would reverberate throughout the history of the Greek Holocaust: “Here are your Jews.” Written in German and Greek were two names: “Chrysostomos of Zakynthos” and “Loukas Carrer, Mayor of Zakynthos.” There was nothing else on the paper.