Jews have lived in Athens since the third century BCE, and the remains of an ancient synagogue can be found in the Agora, at the foot of the Acropolis. The Jewish community in Athens is Romaniote; its members speak Greek and have assimilated into the city’s culture over time.
In 1940 the Jewish community numbered 3,500 and was dispersed throughout the city. With the occupation of Greece in 1941, control of the city was given to the Italians, and the Jewish community enjoyed three years of relative security. As in other regions under Italian control, Jews fleeing persecution in Thessaloniki sought safe haven in Athens.
The head rabbi, Elias Barzelai, had strong connections with the municipal government and the EAM (National Liberation Front). These connections and the support of the archbishop of Athens, Damaskinos, contributed to the rescue of 66 percent of Athens’s Jews. Athens Police Chief Angelos Evert issued false identification cards and Archbishop Damaskinos ordered the church to issue false baptismal certificates to those threatened with deportation. In Athens and the port city of Piraeus, Christians hid Jews in their homes. Both Archbishop Damaskinos and Chief Evert are honored at Yad Vashem, along with the mayor of Piraeus.
On March 25, 1944, German officials rounded up 1,690 Jews in Athens—many of whom were refugees from Thessaloniki—for deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau. After the war, Athens became the main center of resettlement for Jews returning to Greece, and the Jewish population increased to 4,940. Today Athens remains the center of Jewish life in Greece.
In contrast to many Catholic and Protestant religious leaders in Europe, who either supported the Nazi policy of extermination of the Jews or did nothing to stop it, Archbishop Damaskinos of Greece formally protested the deportation of Jews.
After learning of the deportation of the Thessaloniki Jews in March 1943, Damaskinos sent a letter of protest to the Germans. This letter was composed by the famous Greek poet Angelos Sikilianos and was signed by many members of the Athens intelligentsia. Damaskinos included the biblical quote “There is neither Jew nor Greek” in his letter, emphasizing that all people are the same in the Greek Orthodox religion.
He described the long history of the Jews in Greece and how, as exemplary citizens, they presented no threat to Germany. He warned that one day the world would hold accountable those who deported the Jews.
When General Jürgen Stroop, high SS and police leader for Greece, found out who was behind the letter, he threatened to shoot Damaskinos. The archbishop bravely reminded the German that “according to the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church, our prelates are hung and not shot. Please respect our traditions!”
Yet the Germans proceeded with the deportations. Damaskinos called the police chief of Athens, Angelos Evert, to his office and said, “I have spoken to God and my conscience tells me what we must do. The church will issue false baptismal certificates to any Jew who asks for them and you will issue false identification cards.” Due to Damaskinos’s courageous stance, thousands of Greek Jews were spared.