Silence doesn’t work

By Endy Zemenides, Executive Director

Every October 28, Greece and Hellenes and Philhellenes around the world celebrate OXI (Oh-hee) Day. On this day, Greece stands out as the only country in the world that celebrates its entry into World War II.

On the surface, there is little to celebrate: Greece eventually fell to the Nazis and it endured a brutal occupation — more than 10% of its population perished; 600,000 Greeks were starved to death; 81% of its Jewish population was lost. In fact, there was reason to celebrate. As President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed, “When the entire world has lost all hope, the Greek people dared to question the invincibility of the German monster.” Indeed, up to October 28, 1941 the Axis Powers had not suffered a single defeat. And in the early morning hours of that fateful day, the Italian Ambassador issued an ultimatum to the Prime Minister of Greece, demanding that Mussolini’s forces be granted unimpeded entrance into Greece and occupation of certain strategic positions. The Greek Prime Minister answered “then it is war”, a response thereafter immortalized as “OXI”, the Greek word for “No”. By repelling the Italian invasion and forcing Nazi Germany to delay its invasion of the Soviet Union, Greece struck the first major blow against the Axis Powers and arguably altered the course of World War II. This fact alone makes what is officially only a Greek national holiday into a day of global import.

There is a sense of heroism and triumph that is celebrated every October 28 that can make it easy to forget that the Greek declaration of “OXI” came in the face of great evil and hate. As we prepared for a joint celebration of OXI Day with our friends and allies in the American Jewish Committee (AJC), that evil reared its ugly head again in Pittsburgh. This Sunday’s commemoration immediately became more somber and at the same time fuller of resolve. My thoughts on this October 28 were less on the initial “OXI”, but the series of “OXIs” that came in the years that followed, the years of the Nazi occupation of Greece. OXI Day is not merely about Greece picking a side in World War II; it is about Greeks — as a nation — taking a moral stand. Take the example of the Greek Orthodox Church. In contrast to other major religious leaders in Europe, Archbishop Damaskinos of Greece formally protested the deportation of Greek Jews. When General Jürgen Stroop, the SS leader for Greece, threatened to shoot Damaskinos in retaliation for the protest, the Archbishop declared that “according to the traditions of the Greek orthodox Church, our prelates are hung and not shot. Please respect our traditions!” The United States Memorial Holocaust Museum notes that “between 8,000 and 10,000 Greek Jews survived the Holocaust, due in large part to the unwillingness of the Greek people, including leaders in the Greek Orthodox Church, to cooperate with German plans for the deportation of Jews.”

Pittsburgh has demonstrated that the evil and hate of the 1940’s were not permanently defeated in World War II. If they are ever to be defeated, we have to mimic the sustained defiance demonstrated by the Greeks as a nation. Our outrage cannot be temporary; our commitment to action cannot fade. During his advocacy on behalf of the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Joachim Prinz noted:

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence…America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent.

Pittsburgh has taught us the great cost of silence. This is where I stop mincing words. Silence = complicity. The words Martin Niemöller, a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler, come to mind as I make this admonition:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

The forces of good are stronger and more numerous than the forces of hate. Those who would model themselves after Archbishop Damaskinos outnumber those who would be the next Jürgen Stroop. And I have a sneaking suspicion that there are an overwhelming number of us who would say, “Then they came back for the Jews and we said ‘not this time, mother****er.”

The lesson of OXI Day, and of the heroic Greek resistance, is that silence is not a virtue when it comes to facing evil. It is much easier — and less riskier — for us to act than tiny little Greece. The stakes are as high as they have ever been. If history has taught us one thing, it has taught us that when the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe. Let each and every one of us channel the spirit of OXI. Stand up and Speak Up. Boycott agents of hate. Show solidarity with friends from another race, religion, or ethnicity. #ShowUpForShabbat. Do all of this. Silence is not an option.