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Living in Denial in Greece

Living in Denial in Greece

We met a history teacher in Greece who denied the Holocaust and equated the murder of 300 Jews on a ship headed for Auschwitz to death by natural disaster.


My husband and I recently visited the Greek island of Santorini. White stucco hotels and blue-domed restaurants nestle into cliffs. Cobbled streets form a labyrinth; small doors hide beneath secret staircases. Sounds of cutlery clink in the cafés and blend with a dozen languages. The Aegean Sea stretches below; not even cruise ships disrupt its serenity.

And it was in the Aegean Sea – off the coast of Santorini – the Jews of Crete vanished 73 years ago.

Crete, the largest Greek island, had a Jewish community for over 2,000 years. They survived centuries of war and natural disaster, but in 1944, the Germans arrested the remaining 300 Jews (including 100 children). The Jews suffered horrible conditions before being locked in the holds of a cargo ship called The Tanais. The ship set out for mainland Greece and from there the Jews would go to Auschwitz by train. But The Tanais never reached the mainland. The British fired four submarine torpedoes into what they believed was an enemy merchant ship. The Tanais sank within minutes.

Only seven Jews from Crete survived the war.

Although many Greek civilians (and some highly ranked church officials) attempted to save Jews, the Germans murdered 81 percent of the Jewish population. Today, less than 6,000 Jews live in Greece.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, Greece has become one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe. During the early 1980’s, neo-Nazis formed The Golden Dawn Party. It is now the third largest political party in Greece. Ilias Kasidiaris, one of the party leaders, said: “History has not yet given a final verdict on Hitler.” The Golden Dawn Party uses Nazi imagery and denies both the Holocaust and existence of gas chambers. Michael Arvanitis, a Golden Dawn MP, is adamant that Germans never targeted Jews other than for use as labor. He claims photographs of burning bodies only serve as evidence that Jews – along with many others – died from typhus.

In 2014, Holocaust denial became a crime in Greece. (The law also covered denials of other genocides.) The Greek Parliament has 300 members. Ninety-nine showed up on the day of the vote. Fifty-five were in favor of the law.

Fifty-five out of 300.

While my husband and I were on Santorini, we sat in a cafe with a spectacular view of Mount Thera, the volcano down below. We began to chat with a man from Athens who taught history in a high school. He was eager to talk about the devastating effect Mount Thera had on the ancient Minoans when it erupted in 1600 BC. Most Minoans on Crete died from the volcanic blast; those who survived were weakened and conquered by invaders. “Imagine that,” the man said. “An entire civilization wiped out by a volcano. Such a tragedy.”

A memorial to the Jews of Crete, representing a ship with ladders for sails and doves perched on the sails.

Later in the conversation, I asked if he knew exactly where The Tanais sank in 1944. He rolled his eyes and echoed sentiments of The Golden Dawn Party. “The Jews were sent off to work. So were the other Jews. And the Germans didn’t kill them. A British submarine torpedoed the boat. It just happened. Like the volcano and the Minoans.”

Not only did this man’s views lurch into Holocaust denial territory, in his mind, the Jews died in a military attack, and the Germans did not blow up that ship. Looking for someone to blame? Blame the British.

Or perhaps he meant: Blame no one. Mount Thera’s eruption destroyed the Minoans, and we don’t make moral judgments about volcanoes. Similarly, the deafening explosion of The Tanais with shards of metal flying and lungs filling with water just happened. No need to point fingers.

It was disturbing to witness how one could simply deny the responsibility for one’s choices. Human beings chose to force three hundred people onto The Tanais and send it into waters patrolled by British submarines. The Germans had a plan, and plans have consequences. Life’s segments are like a series of standing dominoes. The first to fall sends the others tumbling.

On that beautiful day in Santorini, with the sky so blue and the sun blazing orange, my husband and I met a man who taught history to children. Someone who denied the existence of mass murder. Someone who believed death by volcanic catastrophe was morally equivalent to the death of 300 Jews on a cargo ship with Auschwitz the final destination. Someone who couldn’t understand that not only does God judge us by our choices and the history we create, He judges us by what we choose to remember.

Something to keep in mind as we approach Rosh Hashanah and face our own personal judgment.

September 2, 2017

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 10

(9) C Jarmul, September 8, 2017 12:45 AM

well written and thoughtul and well written

The writer illuminates lesser known history and makes her point well. It is incredibly unfortunate that a teacher would not be able to discuss this issue with a deeper understanding of the story. It is even more unfortunate to hear about this horrible, yet viable, political party.

(8) Marilyn, September 5, 2017 3:01 PM

This is a most interesting, enlightening, and well written article. Sad but true, our world is moving towards hate and racism at a dangerous pace. Reading this story reminds us that intolerance has no bounds and we must continue to act and bring attention to this deplorable mentality.

(7) Anonymous, September 4, 2017 4:01 PM

Jews in Greece.

I am a Greek Jew. My family immigrated to America when I was a little girl but we still have family in Greece. I just came back from a trip to Greece where my nephew's family had a bat mitzvah in the city of Volos the first one in many years. Before WW2 Volos had a large Jewish population. Today there are very few Jews left. Yes, Greece is in general,very anti-Semitic. However, I was happy to see that many Israeli tourists were visiting Greece(-they have stopped visiting Turkey. )Greek Christians are very ignorant about the Jewish history of Greece .They don't know that there were significant numbers of Jews living in Greece way before there were ever any Christians. It is good for Greek Christians to see Israelis and Jews in general in Greece. Come to Greece and visit the Jewish sites-Most tourists fly into Athens and just run to the islands. Visit the synagogues in the cities where there still are Jewish communities-in Volos-a beautiful little city - just ask the taxi driver to take you to the one synagogue,on Moisis street and show up for a service -they have trouble getting a minyan on Saturday many times. Make it obvious without being obnoxious.And remind them before the war there were almost 100,000 Greek Jews.

(6) Rachel, September 3, 2017 8:57 PM

Go to Greece and show support for Grecian Jews

Many Greeks migrated to Israel after the war. There is a wonderful Jewish museum in Athens, I also visited a synagogue in Thessaloniki which has a police guard outside at all times.Another now-closed synagogue in the Pindos Mtns is maintained on the outside by the local town, in memory of its murdered Jewish neighbors.
Given centuries under oppressive Ottoman rule, Greeks are not sympathetic to radical Islam.

(5) Meryl Baker, September 3, 2017 7:45 PM

This was an interesting story which enlightened me to a historical event of which I never knew and the fact of a neo-Nazi party taking root in Greece. We must call out Holocaust deniers whenever and wherever they exist. The world is an ever dangerous place.

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