The Man Who Made the Nazis Blink
May 5 is Holocaust Remembrance Day. One nearly forgotten story from that dark era is told below.
On March 15, 1943, the first trainload of Jews from Axis-occupied Greece was sent to Nazi concentration camps.
Nothing about this story’s beginning was unusual — it started as just another mundanely tragic chapter in the history of the Holocaust throughout Europe. But its now almost forgotten continuation offers a moving tableau of faith, power, and courage with particular relevance to today’s threats of religious extremism.
In one of history’s many cruel turns, the deportations began in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, the same city that had offered safe haven to tens of thousands of Western European Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition four-and-a-half centuries earlier. Starting under the tolerant rule of the early Ottoman Empire, these newly arrived Jews had been integrated into a thriving multicultural metropolis where Christians, Jews, and Muslims had not merely peacefully co-existed but also collaborated in business, the arts, and occasionally on religion itself. In short, the city had long stood as antithesis to Hitler’s exclusionary, supremacist ideals.
From the outset of the Nazi occupation, people of conscience began their resistance. The man who led the way was the Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, the leader of the Orthodox Christian Church in Greece.
Standing an imposing 6'4” even before he donned the heightening clerical black cassock and headdress, sporting a thick, sternum-grazing salt-and-pepper beard, and carrying himself in his early 50s with the physicality of his peasant roots, Damaskinos cast a striking physical presence over any room he entered. But that was nothing to the moral authority that he would come to project.
In coordination with the chief of the Athens police and the chief rabbi of the city, Archbishop Damaskinos would lead an all-encompassing program of covert aid to as many Jews as possible, creating tens of thousands of false birth certificates and identity papers, ordering the hiding and protection of Jews, especially children, inside monasteries and priests’ homes, and organizing escape corridors out of the country.
But, added to this covert support, which has parallels in other countries, Archbishop Damaskinos instituted a program of sustained public protest unlike anything seen anywhere else in World War II.
The cornerstone of this approach was a public letter protesting the deportations of Jews sent under the Archbishop’s name and co-signed by the leaders of prominent Athenian cultural and business institutions, representing everything from doctors to notaries, trade unions to chambers of commerce, economics professors to theater critics. The letter was published on March 23, only eight days after the first deportations.
The Shoah Resource Center at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel has called this public appeal “unique in the annals of occupied Europe,” and the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation has noted that “there is no similar document of protest of the Nazis during World War II that has come to light in any other European country.”
Unsurprisingly, the letter infuriated the occupation authorities. The Nazi general in charge of Greece publicly threatened to put Damaskinos in front of a firing squad unless he renounced its sentiments.
But, for the archbishop, the letter was not intended as a singular note ringing out vaingloriously before fading away. It was merely the opening volley in a campaign of open moral resistance. Presented with the German general’s threat, Damaskinos responded equally publicly and with sainted fearlessness, saying simply: “Greek religious leaders are not shot, they are hanged. I request that you respect this custom.”
Against this kind of authority, even the Nazis had no answer.
In Greece, the Germans were already facing the most intensely simmering insurgency of any of their possessions. Executing the religious leader and most widely respected person in the country could well have ballooned the ranks of active partisans in the hills dozens-fold.
But it was more than that. Dictatorships have never been able to function without perpetuating fear. Faced with a booming moral voice of a leader unstymied by that fear, willing to sacrifice his life not merely to protect his coreligionists, but in support of universal human rights that transcend tribe or creed, the Nazis blinked.
Even before it became clear that the threatened firing squad would not convene, Archbishop Damaskinos got back to the work of opposition.
A TIME Magazine cover story from 1945 noted that he started bringing along a handmade noose every time he was summoned to the German military headquarters. “When the Germans lost their tempers, Damaskinos would hand them the rope and say: ‘If you wish to hang me…here is the rope.’” Another time, when a German soldier was killed and the authorities demanded a list of conspirators to be executed as payback, Damaskinos handed over a list of his bishops, with his own name at the top.
This bravery also provided an object lesson in leadership. The fear-based social pressure that led many people in other countries to quietly collaborate with the Nazis was turned on its head in Greece. The presence of a vocal leader standing publicly for right over might resulted in many Greeks following in his path of resistance rather than collaboration.
Damaskinos would continue his defiance throughout the war. Sadly, the cold logistical efficiency of Final Solution would still envelop more than 50,000 Greek Jews, but of the 10,000 who were saved, the majority owed their lives to the campaign led by Archbishop Damaskinos. Beyond the tragic numbers, however, Damaskinos also put down a powerful moral marker that served to undermine the Nazi cause — and which still offers an example of the kind of resistance that should give pause to all tyrants.
Soon after the Nazi retreat from Greece, Damaskinos was thrust into the role of regent —as the only individual trusted by all sides during a time of civil war, in what would become the first skirmish of the Cold War. But before exercising that leadership, he had to change the mind of Winston Churchill, perhaps the stubbornest man of the 20th Century, during one of World War II’s most dramatic meetings, on Christmas Day 1944. When the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial opened in Jerusalem, Damaskinos was among the first names inscribed in the list of the Righteous Among the Nations, twenty-four years before the inclusion of Oskar Schindler.
The story of Archbishop Damaskinos continues to resonate on many levels in today’s tumultuous world. During an era when some posit a clash of civilizations, we should not forget those who cast aside the tribal temptation in order to protect all men, women, and children regardless of creed.
Damaskinos’s uniquely public defiance of the Nazis also speaks to the dualism of fear that has always defined dictatorships: not just the rulers’ need to impose fear in order to govern, but the desperate fear of the public that every despot constantly feels. As examples in recent years from Tunisia to Ukraine have shown, a single spark of defiance can reverse that flow of fear and imperil even the most secure tyrant.
Finally, remembering such unalloyed bravery casts an even more damning light on political actors everywhere who play it safe, who try to win by not losing, unwilling to speak truth to power even when the consequences are far less dire than those faced by someone such as the Archbishop Damaskinos during the darkest days of World War II.