I grew up in a strongly religious, Greek-American household in a dying steel town in western Pennsylvania. My grandparents visited us every Thursday and we reciprocated every Sunday. It wasn't just a chance for family to get together over a meal; it was also a learning experience that had a lasting impact on me.
My grandmother was an educated woman, rare for a peasant girl born on the Turkish-occupied island of Rhodes in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. She placed a great value on education and she felt it was important for my siblings and me to know our family history, the history of our church, and the proud history of Greece. I also remember her talking with pride about some land she owned in Rhodes, one piece along the beach and one larger parcel perfect for farming on the side of a mountain overlooking her village. She said that the land was a wedding gift to her from her father's employer.
The employer, whose name is now lost to history, was a wealthy Rhodian Jewish businessman who employed her father as a chauffeur. The employer was kind and highly respected, and when my great-grandfather's eldest daughter was engaged to my grandfather, the employer offered this very generous gift. That was 1930. By 1944, my grandmother said, he was dead, a victim of the Holocaust and of the unspeakable cruelty the Germans perpetrated across Europe in their perverted quest to wipe out the continent's Jews.
My grandmother spoke often about this man and about his kindness. But she also spoke about Greek Jews in general, telling me from a very young age that Greek Orthodox Christians and Greek Jews lived as brothers and sisters for two thousand years. They worked together and went to school together, with the only difference being where they chose to worship.
She described letters from her father, who remained in Greece after my grandparents married and moved to the United States in 1931. The letters told of horrors Rhodians had not seen even under more than 400 years of Turkish domination. The case of the Rhodian Jews was particularly sad because they were the last prisoners taken to Auschwitz in the waning days of the war, only three months before German troops withdrew from Greece altogether.
What happened to the Jewish community in Greece during World War II is sickening: of more than 60,000 Greek Jews, fewer than 10,000 survived. Of the 46,091 sent to Auschwitz, only 1,950 returned. The community never recovered, and today there are only 4,500 Jews in Greece. But there was one success story.
The island of Zakynthos is on the southern end of the Ionian archipelago. Its beauty is legendary, with blue seas and sky, white sands, and lush green vegetation. On September 9, 1943, the island's occupation governor, a German major named Berenz, summoned the island's Greek mayor, Loukas Karrer, to demand that he turn over the names and addresses of all Jews living on the island.
A deeply troubled Karrer immediately consulted with the highest-ranking church official on the island, Bishop Chrysostomos Dimitriou, and together they came up with a plan. The next day, they began hiding all 275 Jews on the island in Christian homes. They met with Berenz and told him that it was impossible for them to turn over the information he demanded because, as the bishop explained, "The Jews have lived here in peace and quiet for hundreds of years," and that they were under his personal protection. Berenz responded that there was nothing he could do; his orders had come from the general command in Berlin, and he had to have his list immediately. He told the men that if they didn't comply they would face certain death.
The next day, Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos returned to Berenz's office. They said they had complied with his order, and they handed him their "list," which contained only their own names and addresses. The Bishop told the Nazi: "Here is your list. We are the only Jews on this island."
The Bishop then went further, handing Berenz a letter he had written to Hitler himself, declaring that the Jews of Zakynthos were under his authority and personal protection and vowing never to turn them over. Berenz forwarded the letter to Berlin. Although there is no evidence that Hitler read or even received it, it made an impact on somebody in the German capital, and the order to arrest all of Zakynthos' Jews was rescinded. Thirteen months later, in October 1944, the Nazis withdrew from Zakynthos and from mainland Greece. Every one of Zakynthos' Jews survived, while every other Jewish community in Greece was destroyed. For their actions, Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos were later awarded the title "Righteous Among Nations" by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.
Ancient history, right? Not if Donald Trump has his way and forces a registration of all Muslims in the country. It sounds like the 1940s all over again. But the idea is apparently being considered seriously, with Trump adviser and Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach even telling reporters that the World War II internment camps for Japanese-Americans had "set a precedent."
That's sick. It's fascist. And it's exactly the opposite of what we should be doing as Americans. If Trump's registration plan actually comes to pass, we must all stand up. We must all register ourselves as Muslims. We must stand together against hate and prejudice, even if Donald Trump and those around him have not learned the lessons of history.
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