Damaskinos Papandreou was born Dimitrios Papandreou in Dorvitsa,
Greece in 1890. He enlisted in the Greek army during the Balkan Wars.
Ordained a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church in 1917, he was
appointed archbishop of Athens in 1941.
During the Holocaust, Archbishop
Damaskinos and Athens police chief Angelos Evert saved thousands of
Although an estimated 87% of the
nation’s Jewish population — 60,000 to 70,000 Greek Jews — perished
during the Holocaust, 10,000 survived, largely due to the Greek
people’s refusal to cooperate with German plans for deportations.
With the arrival of the Axis
occupation, deportations from cities like the northern port of
Thessaloniki proceeded at a rapid pace. Many Jews fleeing
persecution in the north found a safe haven in Athens.
On September 20, 1943, Dieter
Wisliceny — a deputy of Adolph Eichmann, the administrator of the
Nazi Final Solution — arrived in Athens. Wisliceny ordered Chief
Rabbi Elias Barzilai to appear before him, to provide accurate
figures about the Jewish population in Athens and to create a
Judernat. Made up of Jews who were coerced into joining, a Judernat
made compliant Jews ”responsible” for keeping law and order in a
Jewish community, and used them as a liaison between the German
authorities and the Jewish population.
Wisliceny ordered Barzilai to provide
the names and address of all members of Athens’ Jewish community,
the names of all foreign Jews living in the area, the names of
Italian Jews in Athens, and the names of those who had assisted Jews
who had escaped to Palestine. He also commanded Barzilai to compile
a list of individuals willing to serve on a new council — of which
Barzilai was to be president — that would create a Jewish police
force to carry out Nazi demands; and unveiled plans to create
identity cards for all of Athens’ Jewish population.
Shaken by his encounter with the Nazi
commander, the Rabbi contacted Archbishop Damaskinos and told him
about the meeting.
Since Damaskinos knew what had taken
place in the north, he suggested that the entire Jewish community
should take flight, because it couldn’t be protected.
Rabbi Barzilai asked the Germans for
more time to compose the requested lists, and then, after meeting
with other leaders of the Jewish community, he destroyed the
community records and advised the Jewish people to flee. A few days
later, the Rabbi himself left the capital and joined the resistance.
The Church of Greece, under
Damaskinos’ leadership, condemned Hitler’s plans for the country and
instructed priests to announce its position in their sermons.
Jews had participated freely with
other Greeks in all walks of life for 2,300 years, co-existing in
harmony with their Orthodox countrymen, contributing good work in
numerous fields. Jews had lived in Athens since the time of
Alexander the Great, in the mid-fourth century, many having sought
sanctuary in Greece after having been expelled from Spain in 1492.
During the Holocaust, the Greek Jewish population was almost
As they prepared to implement the
deportation and mass murder of their Final Solution, the Nazis
compiled intelligence reports about the Jewish population of Athens.
They chose important Jewish holidays for their monstrous acts,
beginning with an order on the eve of Yom Kippur, signed by the
German military commander in Athens, S.S. General Jurgen Stroop,
which organized the city’s Jewish community under Nazi supervision.
The Jewish population in Athens had
increased since the outbreak of the war. Damaskinos’ and the Rabbi’s
work had transformed the city in a safe refuge. Since many of the
newly arrived Jews had no fixed place of residence, German
intelligence about the Jewish population was often wrong.
Under the order issued by Stroop,
Jews were commanded to appear at community offices within five days
to declare their residences and register their names. Despite the
threat of dire consequences for failing to appear, only 200 showed
In a similar instance, the German
authorities announced that they were planning to bring a special
flour to Athens for Passover, so the Jewish population could prepare
matzoh — provided they were willing to reveal themselves and
register with the authorities. Although the false act of kindness
tempted some, many more Jews registered because they were afraid the
Nazis would enact reprisals on their Christian neighbors, who had
been shielding them from the persecution.
When the Germans started rounding up
Jews, over 600 Greek Orthodox priests were arrested and deported
because of their actions in helping Jews, and many Jews were saved
by the Greek police, the clergy and the resistance. Damaskinos and
Evert faced the threat of death for their efforts, and would surely
have been killed if the extent of their assistance had become known
to the Germans.
There were several means of escape.
Many left by boat from Oropos in Attica, where they were frequently
forced to pay enormous fees for a three week journey to Turkey. Some
young men without families escaped to partisan camps in the
mountains. False baptismal certificates and new identity papers from
the Greek Orthodox Church would also help a desperate fleeing Jew.
Archbishop Damaskinos oversaw the
creation of several thousand such certificates, and Athens police
chief Evert provided more than 27,000 false identify papers to
desperate Jews seeking protection from the Nazis.
The Archbishop also ordered
monasteries and convents in Athens to shelter Jews, and urged his
priests to ask their congregations to hide the Jews in their homes.
As a result, more than 250 Jewish children were hidden by Orthodox
When all official appeals to stop the
deportations failed, Archbishop Damaskinos spearheaded a direct
appeal to the Germans, in the form of a letter composed by the
famous Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos and signed by prominent Greek
citizens, in a bold attempt to appeal to the hearts and minds of the
occupying authorities, in defense of the Jews who were being
The letter incited the rage of the
Nazi general Stroop, who threatened the Archbishop with death by a
firing squad. Damaskinos’ response was, ”Greek religious leaders are
not shot, they are hanged. I request that you respect this custom.”
The simple courage of the religious leader’s reply caught the Nazi
commander off guard, and his life was spared.
The appeal of the Archbishop and his
fellow Greeks is unique; there is no similar document of protest of
the Nazis during World War II that has come to light in any other
European country. It reads, in part:
”The Greek Orthodox Church and
the Academic World of Greek People Protest against the
Persecution… The Greek people were… 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… and that the first groups of deportees are already on
their way to Poland…”
”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… valuable
contributors to the economic growth of the country [and]
law-abiding citizens who fully understand their duties as
Greeks. They have made sacrifices for the Greek country, and
were always on the front lines of the struggle of the Greek
nation to defend its inalienable historical rights…”
”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…
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’ 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…”
”Today we are… deeply concerned
with the fate of 60,000 of our fellow citizens who are Jews… 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 indefectible
During World War II, Greece lost
580,000 of its pre-war population of 6.5 million, and an additional
100,000 Greeks were wounded in the fighting. Ordinary Greeks put
themselves in mortal danger, protesting against the occupation
authorities. In the case of Athens’ Jewish population, assimilation
and a strong resistance movement helped at least some Jewish Greeks
to survive the Nazi onslaught.
Five thousand Jews remain in Athens,
helping to rebuild Jewish life in post-war Greece. The Greek
government sees Jewish heritage as part of the country’s national
heritage, and has refurbished the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens.
An honored site among the nation’s many historic treasures, the
oldest synagogue site in Greece is a ruin from the Fifth Century
B.C.E., located in Athens’ ancient marketplace, the agora at the
foot of the Acropolis.
After the war, Archbishop Damaskinos
served as regent of Greece until King Georgios II returned from
exile. When fighting broke out between pro-royalist Greek soldiers
and communist partisans in 1945, the Archbishop was appointed Prime
Minister. He called for peace and order in the country. He
relinquished his leadership position when the king was formally
recalled in 1946.
Archbishop Damaskinos died in Athens
on May 20, 1949.