January 27th marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
All the ceremonies will make sure we never forget and learn from this abhorrent chapter in human history.
Over one million people, mainly Jews, were murdered by the Nazis in this one camp alone. In total, over six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
The contribution of the Greeks to the allies victory in WW2 are well documented and summed up by Winston Churchill’s quote “we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes but that heroes fight like Greeks”.
As the CEO of B’nai B’rith Courage to Care a charity that provides educational programs to school children and the broader community my role is teaching of the dangers of racism, discrimination, prejudice and bullying. Citing the Holocaust and other genocides as extreme examples of what racism can lead to, the program challenges the students and in fact all of us on what happens if we stand by and do nothing. Essentially, we teach on being an upstander not a bystander.
In all the atrocity of the Holocaust there were also over 27,000 people who have been recognised as Righteous amongst the Nations, individuals who did not stand by and do nothing. Their acts did not need to be acts of heroism as depicted in movies but often simple acts such as hiding, warning or feeding Jews. We share these fine examples of upstander behaviour, under the most extreme circumstances, with students.
Of these 27,000 there are 355 Greeks recognised as Righteous amongst the Nations. Amongst them is Spyros Zervos. Spyros risked his own and his families lives to hide the Levi family from the Nazis.
I have recently returned from a study tour of Israel and specifically Yad Vashem the Worlds Holocaust Remembrance Centre.
One of my main aims was a personal pilgrimage to find out more and see the recognition of this amazing, selfless Greek namesake. My Zervos heritage is proudly from Kastellorizo, with my father Con arriving as a fifteen-year-old in the mid 1930’s and my maternal grandfather Mick Mangos arriving in 1909.
Here’s what is said about Spyros.
“Zervos, Spyros In November 1940, when the Italians bombarded the city of Corfu, many fled to find refuge in the countryside. Some ended up in the village of Kalafationes. There, Yaakov Levi met Spyros Zervos, a prominent inhabitant, and they became friends. Levi, a merchant, arrived with his wife, Hanna, two daughters, Esther (later Lagari) and Simha (later Kastel), and a son, Ezra. An uncle, Yehoshua Cohen, was also with them, along with his wife, so all together, they were seven people. In April 1941, the Italians occupied the island and stayed until September 1943, when the Germans took control. When the Jews were encouraged to register with the authorities, Zervos advised Levi not to obey.
On June 8, 1944, when all the Jews were ordered to appear the next morning at an appointed location, the Levis escaped. Spyros Zervos was behind the rescue of the Levi family; both personally and through messengers he arranged their flight.
Aware of the coming danger, he offered them a hut in one of the villages. He brought them provisions, even though food was expensive and could only be bought on the black market. After some villagers discovered their hiding place, they wandered among various villages: Kathoniki, Afra, and, finally, Aghios Ioannis. They hoped to reach the area that was controlled by the partisans. Communication with Zervos was not always possible, but, from time to time, he was informed as to their whereabouts, and he continued to help them. He demonstrated genuine friendship.
Sometimes he came to visit them. He always tried to raise their spirits, even bringing white bread, baked by his wife, especially for them. The Levis managed to survive, with the help of Zervos, who sold their jewellery and gold coins for them. During the entire time they received money from him, but after the war they discovered that the precious family jewellery, had actually not been sold and were returned to them.
After the war, the two families remained good friends, and they visited each other regularly. Their children, too, continue to maintain the friendship of their parents. On November 3, 1989,Yad Vashem recognized Spyros Zervos as Righteous Among the Nations. “
I cannot yet verify a direct blood relationship but seeing the Zervos name recognised permanently for his actions was an emotional and proud moment that will stay with me forever.
The Holocaust did not begin with gas chambers but with hate speak and racist taunts. How will I react in future if I see an act of racism, prejudice or bullying? Will I look away doing nothing and essentially validate the behaviours of the perpetrator or will I follow the example that Spyros and the other 27,000 . I pledge to be an upstander.
This is the same challenge and key message all our wonderful Courage to Care volunteers will share with over 30,000 students across Victorian the next three years. Be an upstander not a bystander.
As we reflect on the events of 75 years ago, we should all reflect proudly on how the Greeks behaved it’s also a good time for us all to reflect on our own behaviour. Spyros Zervos sets a fine example.
If you are curious to find out more about these brave Righteous amongst the Nations go to www.Yad Vashem.org.au and the work of Courage to Care at www.couragetocare.org.au
Mike Zervos is the CEO, B’nai B’rith Courage to Care (Vic) Inc. and son of Con and Chrissie Zervos (nee Mangos) and past Vice President of the Kastellorizo Club of Victoria.