The Holocaust in Greece

Young Jewish Woman with her Family on a motorbike in Greece, before the Holocaust.
The Jewish Community of Greece was divided between the Romaniotes: Jews who had been living there since the Byzantine Empire in biblical times – and the Sephardim, who came there after 1492 when all Jews were expelled from Spain.  

The Romaniote-Jewish community in Greece was the longest continuous Jewish presence on the Continent of Europe, and they were concentrated in places such as Ioannina, Larissa, Volos, Trikala, Chalkis, Patras, Corfu, and Crete. These Jews were Greek-speaking and their cities concentrated in the south and west of the peninsula.  Although they were much smaller in number than their coreligionists in the north, they were much more well-integrated and considered themselves Greeks of the Israelite faith (rather than Jews who happened to be living in Greece.)

The Ladino-speaking Jewish population was the more numerous of the two communities, and they dominated cultural life in the interwar period.  Their capital and cultural hub was a northern Greek metropolis called Salonica, where they had lived for centuries.  At one point Salonica had more Jews than Muslims and Christians combined.  The Ladino-speakers were less assimilated and suffered more for this disadvantage; whereas the Romaniotes were integrated and spoke perfect Greek, allowing them to go into hiding more efficiently.

Greece Split into Three Occupied Zones

The partition of Greece between Bulgaria; Italy; and Germany, ultimately became the deciding factor in any one Greek Jew’s fate.  To be in the Bulgarian or German areas was a near-certain death.  To get to the Italian zone, however, greatly increased the odds of one’s survival.  The German zones (pictured in RED) treated the Jews in the same way as they did in all the occupied zones.  In the Bulgarian zones (pictured in Green) of Macedonia and Thrace all of the inhabitants were granted citizenship in Bulgaria – except the Jews.  The Bulgarians, although protective of the Jews in Bulgaria proper, were not as kind when it came to the Jews of Macedonia and Thrace, whom they eagerly handed over to the Germans.  Almost all of the Jews of Macedonia and Thrace were murdered thereafter.

Meanwhile, the Italian zones (pictured in Blue) became a safe haven for Jews fleeing the terror.  Italians were not anti-Semitic like many other Eastern European peoples, and they often helped to hide Jews fleeing from the other zones. The Blue zone, sadly, would eventually fall victim to Hitler’s wrath after the Italians surrendered to the Allies. Italy subsequently withdrew from its alliance with Germany and the cities of Southern and Western Greece were left abandoned in 1943; the Nazis occupied the blue zones shortly thereafter.  

On October 28, 1940 Mussolini went ahead, without telling Hitler, and invaded Greece via Albania. The Italians had taken Albania in 1939, but had not moved further into the Balkans since then.  Mussolini was certain that he would be able to defeat the Greeks, whom he considered to be inferior, with simple verbal threats. However, after a brief phone call at 3:00AM with General Metaxas it was clear that Greece would not capitulate to Italian demands.  In response to the Italian ultimatum, the fearless leader of Greece simply said (in French) “Well, Then this is war.”

To Mussolini’s shock and horror, the Greeks were able to beat back the Italians into the mountains after just one week.  There they remained in a bitter stalemate for many months.

Hitler was furious about this because it was a huge debacle that he needed to save Mussolini from.  Plus, the leader of Greece, Metaxas, was largely sympathetic to Hitler and already pro-fascist. But, most of all, what infuriated Hitler was the potential for the British to establish a base in Athens, which would put them within striking distance of the German oil fields in Romania.

This whole ordeal forced Hitler to alter plans for an invasion of the USSR and begin attacking Yugoslavia. Bombs started falling on Belgrade on April 6, 1941, and by the end of the month almost all of Greece had been pacified by the Nazis, with the assistance of Bulgaria.

“Alors, C’est la guerre.”

General Metaxas

October 28th, 1940


Bulgarian Occupation Zone

The Bulgarian zone consisted of the newly annexed lands of Macedonia and Thrace. The nation of Bulgaria had signed the Tripartite Pact on 1 March, 1941, effectively making it one of the main Axis beneficiaries of the newly requesitioned The Bulgarians have a reputation for behaving very humanely during the second world war, they actually prevented the deportation of their country’s entire native Jewish population. That policy of protection, however, did not apply when dealing with the Thracian and Macedonian Jews who came under their control.  In the autumn of 1942 all of the new subjects that came under Bulgarian rule were given citizenship, except the Jews. In the Thrace region, all of the Jews of Kavalla; Drama; Komotini; Serres; and were arrested and imprisoned in tobacco warehouses on March 3, 1943.  After being deported to Lom, Bulgaria, they were sent up the Danube and through to Vienna, where they were eventually all expelled to Treblinka. A fraction of a percent survived.  Meanwhile, in the western occupation zone of present-day Macedonia, the Jews of Skopje; Bitola; and Štip suffered a similar fate starting on March 11, 1943. By the end of the month of March virtually every Jew living in the regions of Macedonia, Thrace, and Pirot, had been deported.

(Image: A Jewish schoolgirl in Kavalla, Greece; 1935)

Italian Occupation Zone

It is well-known that the Italians simply did not share the same ideological views on Jews as their neighbors.  They were not really anti-Semitic at all and Jews had been well integrated into their society for hundreds of years.  Because of this, the Jews in the Italian Occupation zone – which included the cities of Corfu; Athens; Volos; Larissa; Ioannina; Zakinthos; and Chalkis – were relatively safe until 1943.  During the time between 1941 and 1943, the Italian occupation zone was considered a safehaven for Jews and many fled there.  Italians even gave some Jews citizenship and allowed them to go to mainland Italy, which ultimately saved their lives.
The Italians, though, ultimately capitulated in 1943 and signed an armistice with the Allies. Hitler responded to this by immediately taking the zones of Italian occupation under his control. The fate of the Jews varies greatly from that point on, we hear stories of the Jews of Zakynthos who were entirely saved by their gentile peers; yet there are cases like Rhodes and Ionnina, where virtually all of the Jews were all taken to concentration camps and very few survived.

(Image: Group of Greek Jews in Athens getting together to celebrate and event; 1917)

The Famine (Winter 1941-1942)

Even under German occupation, the Jews of Thessaloniki were generally left alone during the beginning.  This was because there was a huge famine in Greece due to a food shortage that had been caused by the Germans, who were shipping all of Greece’s foodstuffs back to the Fatherland.  This famine impacted both Jews and Greeks, and very few infants survived that winter (1941-1942.)  The Jews of Salonika owned many of the commercial groceries and to disturb them would only further hinder the ability of the locals to get food.  In addition to that, there was no large anti-Semitic fervor for Nazism to latch onto in Greece.  The famine was finally relieved when Canadian grain arrived in the spring of 1942, via Turkey.

German Occupation Zone

The Germans attained the crown jewel of Greek Jewry – Salonika.  Home to more than two thirds of the Jewish population of Greece, Salonika (also known as Thessaloniki) was known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.” The Germans ruled their portion of the Greek “pie” via a collaborationist puppet government under the nominal leadership of Georgios Tsolakoglou; Konstantinos Logothetopoulos; then Ioannis Rallis, as prime ministers.  Other cities under German control were Verroia, Didimoticho, Florina, and Nea Oresteia, where only about 2,000 Jews lived in total.


The initial year of occupation was not as bad due to the famine – only the usual plundering of Jewish wealth and arresting of the local Jewish leaders occurred. After an initial year of relative peace for the Jews of Salonica and the surrounding areas, trouble started.   On July 8, 1942, approximately 3,000 Jewish men in Salonica were forced to appear in the central town square for forced labor registration. There the Jews were subjected to humiliating physical exercise; they had water thrown on them; and they were flogged. The Greek population did not react and nothing was done.  Many of the Greek Jews passed out and a few even perished due to exhaustion and heat stroke. 


In February of 1943 the German occupation zone mandated that all Greek Jews wear a star of David and all Jewish businesses were marked as well.  Eventually there were three ghettoes established in Salonica, and all the Jews had to move there.  From March 15, 1943 through the end of summer – just five  months – 45,649 people were sent from the German occupation zone to their deaths at Auschwitz.


The deportations of Greek Jews took place in two separate phases. The first phase was the destruction of the Jewish community of Salonica and the Bulgarian deportation of Jews from Yugoslav Macedonia and Thrace.  This phase effectively came to an end with the last deportation out of Salonica in August, 1943.  Of the approximately 60,000 Greek Jews that arrived at concentration camps, only 18% were selected for forced labor – the rest were immediately gassed.  And, of that 18% – which was roughly 11,000 Jews – only 2,000 lived to see the end of the war and return home.

The Second Phase is the one that happened after the Italians had signed an armistice with the Allies and their territory in Greece was overrun by the Nazis.  This included Jews of Athens; Ionnina; Larissa; Volos; Corfu; Crete; Rhodes; and Cos.

Deportations of Greek Jews of Ionnina; 1944

Purim celebration with surviving Jews, Greece, 1946.

The Tragedy of the Italian Zones

One of the more notable differences in the Greek-Jewish Holocaust was that of the Italian occupation zone. Italians stationed in Greece were often sympathetic to Jews and there are many cases of assistance by Italian soldiers. Unfortunately, when Mussolini was overthrown and Italy began to fall apart, Hitler swooped in and ravaged the Jews living in the Italian Occupation zone.  Different towns had different fates and the death rates varied greatly. In some places, such as Trikala or Larissa, there were only a few arrests and deportations.  Others, however, like Florina and Ionnina, had a very large percentage of their Jews deported.  Factors involved in the likelihood of surviving were: competence in leadership of the Jewish community; the relative assimilated-ness of the community; help from locals and public officials who were sympathetic to Jews (or not;) and sheer luck.

The Island Communities

The Greek islands of Corfu and Zakynthos in the Adriatic; Rhodes and Cos in the Aegean; and Crete in the Mediterranean, all hosted unique Jewish communities.  These communities all met different fates.  The Jews of Corfu were almost completely annihilated in June of 1944, when they were sent to Athens and onto Birkenau.  This was partially due to a very anti-Semitic mayor, which was unusual in Greece. Juxtapose Corfu with the community in Zakynthos, who were left wholly intact due to local assistance; all 275 Jews escaped to the mountains. The Jews of Rhodes and Cos were arrested and deported in July, 1944. The local populations had mixed feelings, but a general lack of knowledge of their fates was a significant factor in those isolated places.

Finally, there is the tragedy of Crete.  Where 265 Jews were rounded up and put on a barge that was accidentally torpedoed by the British.  All perished. 


April 6, 1941 Nazi forces invade Greece and Yugoslavia

April 27, 1941 Nazi forces enter Athens, Greece

May 20, 1941 The island of Crete falls to Germany.

June 1941 German forces confiscate Jewish libraries; manuscripts; and art from the Jews of Thessaloniki and send them to Germany.

Winter 1941-1942 Famine. 20,000 Greek Jews die nationwide along with their Greek compatriots. 

July 1942 Parts of Nuremberg Laws are put in effect in German and Bulgarian Zones.  Greek Jews ordered to wear a yellow Star of David.  Jews from Thessaloniki are conscripted into forced labor

December 1942 German forces demolish cemeteries, use ancient tombstones to build a roadway.

March 3, 1943 Greek and Macedonian Jews from Bulgarian Occupation Zone transported to Treblinka killing centers.

March 15, 1943 – August 19, 1943 Greek Jews deported from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz.

May 4, 1943 Greek Jews from Didymotichio and Orestiada arrested and transferred to Thessaloniki, and eventually deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.