Yom ha-Shoah speaker tells of hiding from Nazis in Greece

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In recognition of Yom ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Congregation Agudas Achim, in Attleboro, invited Andrew Algava to speak about the 600 days he and his family spent hiding from the Nazis in Salonika, Greece.

Algava, of Providence, said that when Jews first arrived in Salonika, in 1492, a long period of peace and intercultural understanding began between non-Jewish Greeks and Jewish Greeks. 

For centuries, he said, the two peoples lived harmoniously side by side under Turkish/Muslim rule. But when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, ethnic Greeks living in what became Turkey had to return to their Greek roots. The arrival of the “new Greeks,” as Algava called them, was a turning point. 

“The new Greeks didn’t have the experience of knowing us. They came with attitudes. They came with biases. And so that … changed the situation,” he said in an interview after the presentation. “In fact, at one time … there was a riot in one of the Jewish areas in Salonika where they burned some buildings. And that was very unusual in Greece.”

The 1931 Campbell riots were an arson attack on the predominantly Jewish Campbell neighborhood that was led by a fascist organization, the National Union of Greece. 

And then the Nazis arrived in Salonika and began placing restrictions on Jews, including denying them the right to own businesses. But it was when they started putting people on trains, Algava says, that his family decided they weren’t going to partake of whatever the Nazis had planned for them. Algava, who also showed videotaped testimony of his parents’ experiences, says he was 3 or 4 years old when his family went into hiding.

Algava was too young to remember much about this period of his life – although he suffered from the emotional trauma. He says it was through interviews he conducted with his parents that he learned that for roughly the next two years, they relied on non-Jewish Greek friends to hide them.  

“There’s a key point,” he said: that good people helped them. 

Algava’s family took on the surname Toufexides and pretended that they weren’t Jews.  On rare occasions, armed with official ID cards from the police to support their new identities, they would venture out. But even with these precautions, it was still dangerous to emerge from hiding.  

“When we were in hiding, we would go to cafes [that] the old Greeks frequented; and they knew us from before, but no one said anything. It’s very important to credit the Greek people who saved us, who risked their lives. So we have the heroes who did that, and then there were the collaborators.”

Nazi collaborators included a barber from the barbershop where Algava’s father used to go, who spotted Algava’s father as he took young Andy into a candy shop. Neighbors of the people who were hiding Algava’s in-laws were also collaborators. Algava’s father escaped harm; the in-laws did not.

Still, the family had several close calls, including a police interrogation of young Algava about his father’s identity. Thankfully, Algava lied successfully.

Algava says he didn’t have a Ladino accent when he spoke Greek, since his father made a rule at the start of the war that no one in the family was to speak Ladino (the language Greek Jews spoke). He says that helped his family blend in. 

But, ultimately, he credits Greece’s non-Jews with saving many of the Sephardic Jews who lived in Salonika.

“We had friends who risked their lives to do this. At the police station, they testified that my father was a member of the electricians union,” he said. “Looking back on it, the sense of it for me was trauma. To be under that pressure. At least energetically being aware of it was scary.”

Algava said he has since learned that the trauma of being in hiding from roughly age 4 through 6 had a great impact on his personality:  He describes himself as someone who roots for the underdog, tries to keep a low profile, and has great compassion for others’ suffering.

“My experience of life is as my father said in the interview: we made it and we’re grateful,” he said.

Algava is writing a book about his life in Greece, to be called “600 Days in Hiding.”

ARIEL BROTHMAN is a freelance writer who lives in Wrentham, Massachusetts.