The Museum’s Behind Every Name a Story project gives voice to the experiences of survivors during the Holocaust.
My name is Naki (Esther) Touron-Fais. I was born in Larissa, Greece, in 1926. Larissa is in the Thessaly region of central Greece. My family always lived in Larissa, at the same location as I live today. My parents, Avraham and Reveka Touron, had three children, Haim who was born in 1916, Dora in 1918, and I, the youngest. Before the German occupation, my father had a horse supply store that sold harnesses, saddles, and horse supply items. We were a respectable family, comfortable, but not wealthy.
Our house in Larissa was in the neighborhood of exi dromoi (six roads), where all Jews lived. It was not a ghetto as we know it in other countries. Jews were free to come and go as they pleased, and Christian families also lived among them. Everybody lived in harmony. Although Jewish and Christians families did not have much social interaction, young people, especially high school students, formed close friendships.
Italy declared war against Greece on October 28, 1940. All the young men, including Jews, were drafted and went to war. Larissa, the base of a major military installation was heavily bombed. My father decided that it was not safe for us to stay, and we moved to the nearby village of Sikourion.
At the beginning of the war, the Greeks were winning and pushed the Italians back to Albania. On April 6, 1941, the Germans decided to take matters into their own hands and attacked Greece. Then it was a matter of days before the Greek front collapsed. On April 19, the Germans marched into Larissa. The bombings stopped, and we returned home. From 1941 to 1943, the Italians had administrative control of Larissa, and we had no problems. But when the Germans took control in September 1943, the situation changed dramatically. Soon afterwards, the Jews were ordered to register with the authorities. This scared our family and several other Jewish families, so we fled Larissa and hid in surrounding villages.
When we left Larissa, our house was taken by the Government and given to two families to live in. We kept one room to store the things we left behind, including a bed to sleep in on the few occasions when we returned to the city.
Our extended family, my parents, brother Haim, and newly married sister Dora along with her husband, Pepos Samarias, and his family, went to a village of Vizitsa, north of Larissa in the Mount Pelion area. The Samarias family was from Volos, about 40 miles north of Larissa.
There were no paved roads to Vizitsa so the Germans did not attempt to go there. The resistance movement, the National Liberation Front (EAM), was very active in that area, and had given orders to the villagers to help the Jews in any way possible, or face being killed. Many young Jewish men and women joined the Resistance and did different things. At the age of 17, I was active in a youth movement, Pepos was involved in finances, and others fought the Germans directly.
On March 24, 1944, I decided to leave Vizitsa and go to Larissa to see my doctor for the acne I had and to visit my friends. My mother did not want me to go, but I insisted, and she finally gave in. I saw all my friends, I had a wonderful time, and at night I went home to sleep in our storage room.
At about 5 o'clock the next morning, the Germans began searching the neighborhood and arresting Jews. Because I was not registered, the Germans did not know I was in the house. So they passed it and kept going.
But one of the people who lived in our house, my former high school physical education teacher, Nitsa Kokkinaki, opened a window and asked the Germans, through their interpreter, “What is going on?” “They are looking for Jews,” he answered. “Oh dear,” she said, “the daughter of our Jewish landlady came in yesterday and she is sleeping inside.”
I had awakened from the commotion and heard the exchange. My heart stopped and seemed to shatter into a thousand pieces. I knew I was in big trouble. The Germans returned to our house, came into my room, and took me. I was still wearing my nightgown. I had time only to grab a light coat. That was all I could do. They put me into a big truck along with all the other Jews, young and old.
I will never know Nitsa's motivation. Did she betray me? Was she scared and blurted it out? Was she so naive not to realize what she was doing? I think it was the first. The fact is, if she had not said anything, the Germans would never have found me. They would have passed me.
At the end of my ordeal, when I returned to Vizitsa, the partisans offered to kill her for what she had done. But I said no. Despite being as angry as I was, I knew she had a two-and-a-half year old daughter, and I did not want the little girl to become an orphan.
The Germans rounded up about 200 people from Larissa. Later the same day, Jews from other close-by towns started pouring in, from Trikala, Karditsa, Volos, about 1,000 in all. The next day, another 1,500 people arrived from Ionnina. The camp was an old warehouse in the outskirts of Larissa.
The conditions were bad, but nothing compared to the concentration camps. The food was okay. We were sleeping on a cement floor. All the adults were scared and concerned for the future. The young people did not realize the risks and were trying to make the best of it. I remember we were walking around flirting and joking.
The Germans were trying to appease us. They did not give any information about what was to happen next. The second day, they ordered us to line up and give them all our valuables. The interpreter made it very clear, “If they find anything hidden, they will kill you.” I gave my small ring. Two things have stayed in my mind: The size of the two baskets full of jewelry and the amount of gold the people from Ionnina had.
The next day, I saw my cousin, Nissim Begas, and his parents. His mother was my mother’s sister. Nissim also had two sisters, but fortunately, they had slept at the house of some Christian friends the night before and so were not captured. Nissim and his parents were surprised to see me because they knew we had gone up to Mount Pilion. I told them what happened.
After a while, Nissim came back and said to me, “I have a crazy idea. You are alone here, you don't have anybody to worry about and hold you back. Why don’t you pretend you are Christian? Tell them you are a seamstress who was working in a Jewish house and was picked up by mistake.”
At that time, it was common for a seamstress to work at a customer’s house, stay for two-to-three days and sleep there. I thought about it. It was a good idea! I talked it over with a very good friend of mine, Julie Russo, and convinced her we should do it together. We thought having each other would be easier.
Julie and I agreed about what we would say, our Christian names, the names of our "father and mother," etc. We went to the president of Larissa’s Jewish Community and asked him to verify our story. He refused because he was afraid. Finally, we found a brave man from Volos, Abraham Sasson, who was willing to collaborate our story. We would pose as seamstresses from Lehonia, a small village outside Volos, who happened to be in his house working for his family when the Germans came.
I don't know what we were thinking. We were young and everything seemed easy. We really thought we could pull it off. About two years earlier, in high school, I had gotten into a difficult situation, and I was about to be expelled, but I had the audacity to talk myself out of it. I remembered that incident and thought I could do it again. I felt confident and ready to play my role.
The next day, Julie and I went to the commandant's office and talked to the interpreter. He listened and said, “Be careful, they are not going to believe you just because you say so. They will interrogate you, and if you are lying, they will shoot you.”
I started crying and pleading that we were telling the truth. The Germans arrested the wrong people. He took us to the commandant, and we told him our story. “We are two young, poor seamstresses from Lehonia, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Please, please let us go!”
The next three days, we kept going back and telling the same story. Finally, he took us to the Gestapo headquarters in Larissa. They treated us well there. They put us in a room, and as we were waiting, they put music on and gave us a good meal. Julie was a very beautiful girl, and the commandant kept looking at her as though he had fallen in love with her, but he did not do anything. I pretended I was extremely happy, singing, laughing, and admiring everything. Julie was gloomy and depressed because she had left eight people behind. The next day they told us that they would take us to verify our story. “If everything checks out, you will be free.”
I pretended to be ecstatic. “I can't wait to go home,” I said, and I was all smiles. As we were leaving, I turned to the German officer and said, “Wait a minute, I had a ring and they took it from me. Can I have it back?”
I don't know where I found the courage, but I was trying everything to be natural and believable. He looked at me and opened a drawer full of rings. He picked a man’s ring with a big diamond and gave it to me.
“This is not mine,” I said.
He laughed. “Do you really expect me to find your ring? Here, take this, it's better than yours.”
I took it, put it in my pocket, and off we went.
In the car I tried to be excited about finally ending this ordeal, but I felt I was dying from agony and fear. I was trying to find a way out. If we went to Lehonia, it would be the end of us. Nobody knew us there. After a while, I asked, “Where are we going?”
“We are taking you to your house in Lehonia,” they said. “Why? Our family does not live in Lehonia!” I said. “But that's what you told us.”
“No, no, no, you misunderstood. We worked there last, before we went to Volos, but we are not from there! We are from Tsagarada.”
Tsagarada is another village in the Pelion area. I knew we could not drive there because a bridge on the road had recently been blown up by the partisans. The interpreter and the German officer started talking very animated, and finally said, “We cannot go there. The road is closed.”
“So, is this my fault?” I said and started crying. “What are we going to do now?” After a while, I said, “I'll tell you what, how about if we go to the City Hall in Volos and look at their records. They should have birth certificates of all the villages around.”
They looked at each other and agreed. We went to the City Hall, and I ran inside, like there was no tomorrow (wasn’t that the truth?). I explained the situation to the clerk, and I begged him to find our records showing that we were born in Tsagarada and still lived there. The clerk somehow understood our predicament, and he said that unfortunately the records from Tsagarada were destroyed in the bombings. He suggested to call three or four respected people from Tsagarada to testify that we were indeed from there. I was all for it.
“That's an excellent idea!” I said. “Let’s do it, please. Let's find these people and prove once and for all that we are Christians from Tsagarada!”
The German officer seemed satisfied and he said that it would not be necessary. We got back into the car, and they took us to the Gestapo headquarters in Volos. There, they separated us in two different rooms. They gave us about thirty very detailed written questions about our family. Not only mother and father, but brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, maiden names, neighbors, etc.
As I answered the questions, I visualized a Christian family from our village and used their names as my own (fake) family. But Julie did not know that. We had agreed only on the names of mother, father, and siblings. We had never thought of all the details they were now asking us. When the Germans compared our answers, they saw the inconsistencies right away. They gave us the same questions two more times. My answers were the same, because I was always thinking of my Christian friends, but Julie's answers were all over the place. She was so nervous at this point that she even forgot what she had said before. By now, she was a mess. She had lost her composure and was crying all the time.
On the second day, they came to tell me that they had sent Julie back to the camp because she was a “scheming Jew.” They believed that I was not Jewish, but they also believed that I had helped her, a Jew, try to escape. I would be penalized for that, but they had not decided yet how to punish me. For the time being, I would stay in Volos.
They moved me into a “jail," a big house in Volos. My cell was the kitchen. The next day, they came and pushed me out into the yard. I thought they were going to shoot me, but I saw other people walking in a circle in the yard. That was the daily exercise! We could not talk freely to each other, but we could exchange some words every time we came across each other. There, I met an elderly gentleman, Dr. Tzanas, who acted like my father. He calmed me down, he advised me, and he asked his wife to bring me food and blankets. He was my guardian. It happened that he was in the cell next to mine—the dining room—so we could communicate through the keyhole on the door.
One day three German soldiers came to my cell. They were looking me up and down very intensely, and talked to each other. At first, I did not know what this was all about. But then I got the idea that they may have been involved in capturing the Jews of Volos, and they came to see if they could remember me. I started pleading with them in Greek, saying that I really had been in Volos, and asking them, “It’s me, don’t you remember me?” After awhile, apparently, somehow I convinced them. They nodded their heads in agreement and left. I stayed there for 15 days without having any idea what they would do to me.
Finally, one morning, they came and told me that I was free. They gave me some money to go back home (wherever home was). They apologized for what they had done to me, but, they said, that should be a lesson not to help Jews anymore. I must be the only one, or one of the very few Jews, who got an apology from the Germans (so what if I lied!).
As I left the jail, I went to Dr. Tzanas' house, which was across the road, to return the blankets, and to thank Mrs. Tzana for everything she had done for me. The Germans saw me and thought I was bringing secret messages from her husband. So they arrested me again and brought me back. I was beside myself. I started crying, telling them that I had done nothing wrong. I showed them the blankets, and finally I convinced them, once more, that I was innocent. They let me go. As I walked out, I had the notion they were behind me, following me all the time, ready to capture me again.
There was a little train going to Milies, the village close to ours, Vizitsa. I missed the train the day I got out, so I had to wait until the next day. I had no idea where to go, where to eat and sleep and pass my time until the next day. As I was wandering around the streets of Volos thinking what to do, I bumped into a villager from Vizitsa. He was very surprised to see me. He told me that everybody believed I was in German hands. He also told me that one of my cousins was in Volos trying to find information about me. She was staying with a relative. He gave me the address, and I went there. We slept the night there, and the next morning we took the train to Milies.
When the train pulled up at the station in Vizitsa, people saw me and thought they were seeing a ghost. They could not believe I was alive. When I told them my story, they thought it was impossible, but there I was. My mother had not known anything. My father had never told her. He was praying and hoping that somehow I would be back. When she learned the truth, she fainted.
Who said there is no God? I know better. There is one and he wanted me to live.
When we were liberated, my brother Haim rushed back to our house and saw Nitsa. She thought I was in a concentration camp and possibly had perished. She offered her deep sorrow and condolences. When Haim told her that I was alive, she pretended to be elated. But when he confronted her with the truth, and mentioned that the partisans wanted to kill her as a punishment, she disappeared, never to be seen again.
My friend Julie and her whole family had been taken to concentration camps, and they all perished except for her. Although she had survived the camps, she died on her way back home after liberation. Many other Jews died from a variety of ailments after liberation. They were very weak and could not survive the long way back. A lot died from dysentery and other gastric illnesses. After being freed, many gorged themselves, and their systems could not process so much food after starving for such a long time.
I still live in Larissa, in the same location where my parents’ house was. In 1947, I married Solon Fais, also from Larissa, and we had a wonderful, happy life together. We have two daughters, Dolly, in 1949, and Rifka, in 1952. They now have their own families and live in Athens. I have four grandchildren and nine great grandchildren. I am blessed.
When I married, I gave the German ring to my husband Solon. He never wore it. He could not. I could not stand it myself. It brought back too many chilling memories. When my first daughter, Dolly married, we gave it to her husband, Alberto Reitan, as a memento of our family history. He could not make himself wear it either. We still keep the ring in a box, and once in a while, when life gets tough, we open the box and look at it. It always helps us find our perspective.
After the liberation, Haim and Dora, my siblings, also came back from Pelion area and had their own families. They are not with us anymore. The years from 1940 to 1944 were a nightmare for everybody, but then we all survived. Over the years, our lives had their ups and downs, the high and low points. But we were lucky and blessed to be alive.
Written by Jack Samarias in the voice of his aunt, Naki (Esther) Touron-Fais, and describing her Holocaust experiences.