The Agony of Greek Jews, 1940-1945
By Steven B. Bowman
Stanford University Press, 2009
Reviewed by Boris Segel - September 30, 2011
In The Agony of Greek Jews, 1940-1945, Steven B. Bowman provides a perceptive assessment of the fate of Greek Jewry during World War II. He examines not only how the Holocaust impacted the Jews in various regions of Greece, but also Jewish participation in both the Greek resistance movement and the Greek military. As well he examines the relationships that existed between Jews, their Greek neighbors, and the invading forces. Due to Jewish-Greek history being a somewhat ignored subject, Bowman has provided a concise historical overview of the Jews in Greece prior to World War II. This overview helps to explain the complex and diverse history and relationship between the various Jewish communities in Greece, and their unique relationships with the surrounding Greek communities.
The fate of Greek Jews during the Holocaust depended in large measure, to where in Greece they lived. This is because while the northern part of Greece was invaded by the Nazi's, the southern part of the country, including the Capitol city of Athens, was initially occupied by Italian Fascists. As a result, the large and vibrant Sephardic community in Salonika (Thessaloniki) was virtually obliterated in the early years of the war. Whereas the Jews who fell under Italian dominion were given an uneasy respite until about September of 1943 when the Nazis took control of the Italian occupied areas Greece. The Nazis retained control of mainland Greece until about October of the next year, thereby limiting the amount of time that they had to round-up and murder the Jews of Southern Greece. As well, the Jews of southern Greece were more integrated and dispersed throughout Greek society and were much harder to identify and to round-up than those in the closely knit Jewish communities in the North. As a consequence a greater proportion of Romaniote Jews in Southern Greece survived the war than did those in the North. The fate of Jews in other areas of Greece, such as on the Greek islands of Corfu and Crete, depended upon who occupied which area, and for how long. (During the war, Greece was divided up between the Germans, the Italians, and the Bulgarians.) Many Greeks in the southern part of the country, unlike their Northern neighbors, risked their lives by hiding countless Jews in their homes, in monasteries and in orphanages. In the end, while more Southern Jews survived, the death toll in the South still exceeded 50%, a low number only when compared to the more than 90% of Northern Jews who were murdered by the Nazis.
In writing The Agony of Greek Jews, 1940-1945, Bowman chronicles the various methods by which Greek Jews were captured and transported out of Greece. Bowman details the various camps that the Greek transports were taken to, and the fate of the Greek Jews in each camp. He explores how the experiences of Greek Jews in the camps differed from many other groups - in part because the Jews from southern Greece were unable to communicate with their fellow inmates or their captors, as few outside the Greek community spoke Greek. Whereas most of the Jews from the north spoke Spanish, giving them a bit better chance of finding someone outside their community with whom they could communicate. Perhaps most important, Bowman also looks at what happened to the surviving Greek Jews when they returned to their homes, and in the years since. Bowman also examines why and how the experiences of the Jewish communities in Greece, during World War II, have been virtually overlooked by English speaking/reading historians.
Bowman is a diligent historian, and in writing this book he made use not only of previously published records, but also many of the newly available archives that have recently been open. Throughout he has included first hand accounts and excerpts from letters, memoirs, and other relevant sources. As a consequence, The Agony of Greek Jews, 1940-1945 is the most up-to-date history, in English, of Greek-Jewish history. In addition, Bowman has included an up-to-date bibliography that will prove invaluable to anyone desirous of delving deeper into the Jewish experience in Greece during the Holocaust.