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Honouring extraordinary courage

By Vic Alhadeff - posted Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Zakynthos is a tiny Greek island at the southern end of the Balkan Peninsula.

On September 9, 1943, German forces arrived on Zakynthos and ordered its mayor, Loukas Karrer, to provide them with a list of the names and addresses of the island's 275 Jews for deportation to the death camps. The distressed mayor consulted the Greek Orthodox leader, Bishop Chrysostomos. How could they hand them over? The Jews were as Greek as he was.

The mayor advised the Jews to take refuge with Christian families, after which he and the bishop returned to the German governor and handed him two pieces of paper. One was a letter to Hitler, declaring that the Jews of Zakynthos fell under the bishop's authority and should not be harmed. The other, he said, was the requested list. On it were just two names: the bishop's and Karrer's.


Speechless, the governor sent both documents to Berlin. The order to deport the Jews was rescinded and the German forces withdrew - leaving the 275 Jews, Chrysostomos and Karrer. In 1978, both were declared ''Righteous among the Nations'' by Israel's Holocaust authority, Yad Vashem.

There is a charming postscript to this story. Three years ago, Jerusalem Post correspondent Leora Goldberg accompanied her family on holiday to ''an unknown island in Greece''. On arrival at their villa on Zakynthos, their landlady pointed into the distance. They saw nothing unusual. ''Look again!'' she insisted.

''White dots,'' Leora's father replied. The landlady responded, ''The Jewish cemetery.''

Investigating, Goldberg found hundreds of graves dating from the 16th century to 1955. She visited City Hall, where the clerk asked if she had visited the synagogue. Above a small black gate was a stone arc with an open book. The inscription read: ''At this holy place stood the Shalom Synagogue. Here, at the time of the earthquake in 1953, old Torah scrolls, bought before the community was established, were burned.'' Behind the gate were two marble statues. ''This plaque commemorates the gratitude of the Jews of Zakynthos to Mayor Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos,'' stated the sign.

After the 1953 earthquake destroyed the Jewish quarter, the 38 remaining Jews moved to Athens, and in 1992 the monuments were erected.

Before departing the island, Goldberg went to a bank to convert currencies, but the clerk gave her too much change. She returned to the bank and entered the manager's office, whereupon a man sitting across from the manager rose and gave her his seat. She related her experience and the manager apologised, thanked her and invited her family to dinner. Leora declined, explaining that they kept kosher. ''You don't owe me anything,'' she said. ''Indeed, you have given me and my people a lot. The least I can do to show my appreciation for what you have done for the Jews of Zakynthos is return this money and say thank you.''


The man who had offered Leora his seat suddenly spoke. With tears in his eyes, he said: ''As the grandson of Mayor Karrer, I am overwhelmed and I want to thank you!''

On Sunday, Jewish communities around the world marked the liberation of Auschwitz and International Holocaust Memorial Day. The theme was Righteous among the Nations, honouring those who had the courage to save Jews from the Nazis.

Loukas Karrer, Bishop Chrysostomos and 21,000 others were duly honoured. These are the people who enable us to maintain our faith in humanity.

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About the Author

Vic Alhadeff is Chief Executive of the Jewish Board of Deputies and a former Chair of the NSW Community Relations Commission.

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