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PictureRabbi Shimon Pessach (1869-1955) saved
hundreds of Jews from the Nazis and served as
chief rabbi of Greece after the war

The B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL-JNF) will hold for the 13th consecutive year a unique, joint Holocaust commemoration ceremony on Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah) on April 16—the only event dedicated annually to commemorating the heroism of Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the years of torment in Europe. Some 200 border patrol cadets—who will provide an honor guard—and some 200 high school students will participate in the ceremony together with Jewish rescuers and survivors. The ceremony will take place at the Martyrs’ Forest “Scroll of Fire” Plaza at 10:00 a.m. local time.

This year’s event will memorialize Rabbi Moshe Shimon Pessach (1869-1955), an outstanding rabbinic and communal figure who served for 63 years as rabbi, including later in life as chief rabbi of Greece. Pessach, the scion of a long line of towering Sephardic rabbinic figures in Greece, shepherded the Volos Jewish community of approximately 1,000 people through tumultuous times. Fiercely loyal to his country and to his community, Pessach initiated and orchestrated the rescue of his community during the German occupation, efforts that led to the survival of 74 percent of the Volos Jews—an extraordinary achievement in a country where 85 percent of Jews were murdered in the Holocaust—and led a partisan unit against the Germans.  

On Sept. 30, 1943—Rosh Hashanah—Pessach was summoned to the headquarters of the German military governor who demanded that he submit within 24 hours a list of all the Jews in the city and their assets, purportedly for determining the amount of food rations needed to sustain them. The astute rabbi had no intention of playing into the hands of the Germans and instead embarked on a series of actions to rescue his community, at great risk to himself and his family. Pessach was able to extract a three-day extension for submitting the list and immediately found his friend Archbishop Joachim Alexopoulos, the metropolitan of Demetrias and the bishop of Volos, to ask for his help in discovering the Germans’ intentions. Alexopoulos contacted a man with whom he was friendly at the German consul in Volos and was told in no uncertain terms that the Jews must leave Volos before the stated deadline.

Alexopoulos informed Pessach of the warning and handed him a letter of introduction addressed to the clergymen in villages surrounding Volos, urging them to protect the Jews in every way possible. Through the rabbi’s intervention, and with the help of the mayor, municipal officials and the chief of police, the Greek underground spirited all but 130 Jews (who were later arrested, deported and murdered)  into hiding in the surrounding remote mountain villages over a three day period.

Alexopoulos died in 1959 and was recognized in 1977 by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Gentiles at the initiative of the Volos Jewish community.

PictureRabbi Shimon Pessach seated left, with his sons standing behind him

The rabbi’s escape gave the signal for the rest of the community to go into hiding and they were all accommodated in the villages. The Germans put a bounty on Pessach’s head, and two of his sons who taught Jewish studies in nearby towns were captured by the Germans and murdered. His wife died while they were in hiding. Pessach eventually established a unit of partisans that rescued allied soldiers and fought the Germans. For these actions, he was decorated both by King Paul of Greece and by the commander of the Allied forces in the Mediterranean.

After the war, Pessach returned with 700 members of the community to Volos and engaged in efforts to rebuild the devastated city. In 1946 he was elected chief rabbinic count judge and chief rabbi of Greece, titles he held until his death.

In April 1955, Volos was hit by a devastating earthquake. The aged rabbi was forced to live in a tent, later forfeiting his house in order to build a new synagogue in the same spot, and he died on Nov. 13. In recognition of his contribution to Greek Jewry, Pessach and his wife Sara were reinterred in 1957 in Jerusalem beside Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, and his extensive library was brought to Israel and is archived at the Ben-Zvi Institute.

Pessach will be represented at the ceremony by his grandson Moris Eskenazi and great-grandson Dr. Ilias Pessach. Guests of honor will be Greece Ambassador to Israel Spyridon Lampridis, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III and President of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece Moses Constantinis. Also speaking: KKL-JNF Chairman Effi Stenzler and B’nai B’rith World Center Chairman Dr. Haim V. Katz.

During the ceremony a “Jewish Rescuers Citation” will be posthumously conferred by the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust (JRJ) and the B’nai B’rith World Center on Rafi and Tamar Benshalom, Yitzhak and Judith Herbst, Moshe Weisz, Moshe Weiszkopf, Shmuel Arie Schwartz, all of whom were members of the underground Zionist youth movement in Hungary during World War II, and Yaacov (Jacko) Razon, a Greek-Jewish boxer who helped other Jews survive at the Auschwitz, Buna and Buchenwald concentration camps.

Since the establishment of the Jewish Rescuers Citation in 2011, some 100 awards have been presented to rescuers who operated in France, Germany, Holland, Hungary and Slovakia.

The event will be held at the Martyrs’ Forest—a joint KKL-JNF and B’nai B’rith project which memorializes the victims of the Holocaust in six million trees planted in the picturesque Jerusalem Mountains near Moshav Kesalon. At the pinnacle of the forest stands the “Scroll of Fire” by the renowned sculptor Nathan Rappaport, which invokes the destruction of the Jewish people in the Holocaust and their redemption in the State of Israel in a moving base relief. The event will commence with personal testimonies by Holocaust survivors to classes of soldiers.

The phenomena of Jewish rescue and the instructive stories of thousands of Jews who labored to save their endangered brethren throughout Europe are yet to receive appropriate public recognition and resonance. Many who could have fled chose to stay and rescue others; some paid for it with their lives. With great heroism Jews in every country in occupied Europe employed subterfuge, forgery, smuggling, concealment and other methods to ensure that some Jews survived the Holocaust in Europe or assisted them in escaping to a safe heaven and by doing resisted the Nazis’ death camps. The few rescuers who are still alive are sometimes reluctant to recount their stories, satisfied in the knowledge that they were able to overcome the German tormentors and their collaborators.

Considering that many of the rescuers were young at the time of their activity, the organizers of the ceremony view it as especially important to expose Jewish youth to the stories of the f Jewish rescuers during the Holocaust as a model for Jewish solidarity and courage.

The program schedule is as follows. All times are Israel Standard Time:

09:00-09:30     Personal testimonies by Holocaust survivors to soldiers in the Martyrs’ Forest
09:45              Coalesce in “Scroll of Fire” Plaza
10:00              Siren peal and ceremony commencement 
11:00              Ceremony conclusion
11:00-11:30     Personal testimonies by Holocaust survivors to students in the Martyrs’ Forest

The press is invited. For further information please contact Alan Schneider, director, B’nai B’rith World Center +972525536441;