I am a lifelong Central Illinois resident and a parishioner of All Saints Greek Orthodox Church in Peoria. My wife's parents are immigrants from a small village outside Athens. My wife (Maria) and I have two young sons, Christian age 4 and Dimitrios age 3. I am also a member of Chicago Metropolitan Council.
Seventy-two years ago today (March 23rd), the Most Revered Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, sat in his office in Athens, which by then had fallen under the flag of Nazi Germany, and signed his name to a document unlike any other during World War II. He was leading his faithful in protesting the Jewish deportations and, eventually, interment in death camps that would come to be called the Holocaust.
By the time the Nazis started the process of deporting the ancient Greek Jewish population, knowledge of what was happening to Jews they deported was well known. What was also well understood was what happened to those who dared to oppose the Nazi cause.
Regardless of the personal risk, Archbishop Damaskinos had a letter of protest prepared. In this magnificent document, he pointed out that “According to the terms of the armistice, all Greek citizens, without distinction of race or religion, were to be treated equally by the Occupation Authorities.”
He continued, “In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity: they are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion or dogmatic difference.”
“Our Holy Religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek’ (Gal. 3:28) and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences.”
“Our common fate, both in days of glory and in periods of national misfortune, forged inseparable bonds between all Greek citizens, without exemption, irrespective of race.”
These bold words would be printed in newspapers both in Greece and later in the free nations of the world. The letter of protest signed by Archbishop Damaskinos is unique in that it was the only formal protest of the Holocaust during World War II by a world leader.
If you read these words and believe this to be just a simple letter and nothing more, with no danger or risk of retaliation to the writer, it is important to note that the Nazi SS Commander overseeing the occupation of Greece at this time was the notorious General Jurgen Stroop, the same commander who had just brutally put down the Warsaw Ghetto Revolts and would later pay for his crimes at the Dachau War Crime Trials.
The letter incited the rage of General Stroop, who threatened Archbishop Damaskinos with death by a firing squad. Recalling the execution of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V during the 1821 Massacre of the Greek Population of Constantinople, and other previous atrocities against the clergy, the Archbishop’s response was “Greek religious leaders are not shot, they are hanged. I request that you respect this custom.” Shocked by this bold response, General Stroop retreated from his execution demand, and Archbishop Damaskinos would continue to lead his faithful throughout the war.
Beyond the bold words of this letter of protest, Archbishop Damaskinos also issued directives to all his priests to shelter the country’s Jewish population. He signed forged birth and baptismal documents, making it more difficult for the Nazis to identify the Jewish community. He organized the secret transportation of the mainland Greek Jewish population to the various islands of Greece, where they could more easily be hidden. For those who could not make it to the islands, he organized transportation out of the municipalities and into the mountains for more protection. He led efforts to save by any means as many individuals as possible.
Archbishop Damaskinos looked at evil directly, he identified for all others to see the beast for what it was, and he took any and all measures available to defeat the Devil’s work. How it can be that His Beatitude Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou has not been recognized for Sainthood I cannot answer, for truly only few men have so courageously faced down such evil.
The Holocaust did not take place in secret, but rather the dastardly crimes were committed while the majority of the world sat silent. Today, once more, we are witnessing unthinkable barbaric crimes being committed against a minority, this time Christians of Syria and Iraq. Once more, some are questioning why we should bring attention to issues within another nation, a world away.
I am not too far removed from classrooms of education to remember the historical lessons being taught – the classroom coverage of the Holocaust, the genocide of the Armenians, the mass eradication of the citizens of the once great Metropolis Smyrna, the unfathomable historical crimes against humanity. I still remember discussions of how this could have been tolerated and the thumping of chests that not in this age would we allow this type of injustice to stand.
Well, today on the 72nd Anniversary of the Most Revered Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou’s courageous declaration, let us each do all we can do to call attention to the great crime of today, the crimes against the Christians of the Middle East. Let history take note that indeed on our watch these crimes against humanity did not go unpunished. History will judge us by our ability to learn from the lessons of the past. Let not humanity fail to recognize the evil before us, to provide protection for the innocent, and demand justice be done to the criminals.
It was written a long time ago, “Evil wins when good men do nothing.” His Beatitude Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou demonstrated what one good man can do against the forces of evil; the question now is what will we do today.
Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+