Earlier this month, there was a heartfelt reunion at Kehila Kedosha Janina, the Greek Jewish synagogue, between a Holocaust survivor and members of the Christian family who helped save his life.
Each year, the historic Lower East Side congregation observes Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. At least 67,000 Greek Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II. One of the synagogue’s longtime leaders, Sol Kofinas, was only six-years-old when his father, mother, sister and baby brother were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Sol, his older brother, Zino, and their grandmother, were protected by the Hatzis family of Athens. In an act of courage that put their own lives at risk, the Orthodox Christian family hid the Kofinas brothers, even when the Gestapo came looking for them. In an emotional ceremony held April 15, Kofinas was reunited with Litsa Pantieras and Demetra Georgiou, whose parents kept him safe until the end of the war. They had not seen one another since 1955, when Kofinas came to America. Pantieras and Georgiou now live in Ottawa, Canada.
After lighting candles in memory of those who perished, the families exchanged long embraces, and shed some tears. In Athens before the German occupation, they shared a home. The sisters referred to Sol and Zino as their brothers, saying, “We grew up side by side.”
“We’re here,” said Georgiou, “to build understanding and strengthen our ties so that we never again have to be a witness to the hatred that led to the Holocaust.”
The meeting became possible after Marcia Haddad-Ikonomopoulos, director of Kehila Kedosha Janina’s museum, spotted an article about the Hatzis family in a Canadian newspaper (there’s a reproduction here). Through the story, she contacted the sisters, and the reunion was set. In prepared remarks, Haddad-Ikonomopoulos said, “We here at Kehila Kedosha Janina never forget the Moral Courage of Greek Orthodox Christians who risked their lives to save Jews in Greece. Without this, so many of our dear friends and relatives would not have survived.”
In that Canadian newspaper story. another daughter spoke of the risks taken by Antonios Hatzis during the war, explaining, “Our father never talked about what he did… If someone would ask him about it, his answer was, ‘I did what everyone could do for his neighbour, for a friend, for a human being.’ He was a very simple man with a lot of dignity.”