Last week, on my way from New York to Jerusalem, I had a few hours to spare in Athens; so I paid a visit to the city’s Jewish Museum, a modest and little-known facility in the touristy Plaka district.
The experience was stunning, depressing, enraging. Most of us have had an ample Holocaust education, yet few of us are fully aware of the fate of Greece’s Jewish community during World War II. Before the war, this community, dating back over two millennia, boasted 77,000 mostly Sephardic Jews, who prospered in both wealth and scholarship. During the war, fully 87 percent were shipped off and murdered—the highest proportion in all of Europe.
Yet unlike Germany, France, and Poland, which have made an effort to teach their own populations about the Nazi genocide, in Greece there is virtually no awareness that the liquidation of their Jewish community ever took place. A friend of mine, while serving in the Israeli army, was charged with taking foreign military officials on tours of Israel, which inevitably included a stop at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. She told me of the horror that dawned on the faces of stern Greek generals as they came to understand, many for the first time, the extent of Greek cooperation with the Holocaust and the starkness of the numbers.
While at the museum, I kept thinking that at least in this country, the most extreme goals of the Nazi regime were carried out in full. Today, Athens, a city of 3 million people, has but two small synagogues; in all of Greece, there are no more than 5,000 Jews. A vibrant community, in the city known as the birthplace of enlightenment, was extinguished and erased from memory—save for a small museum on Nikis Street, in the shadow of the Parthenon.