Thoughts on International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Senator Andrew Gounardes
3 min readJan 27, 2024

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorated each year on January 27th, is always a poignant and solemn reminder of the evil atrocities committed by the Nazi regime against Jewish people. This year, the commemoration takes on even greater significance in the wake of the Hamas attack on October 7, 2023 which resulted in the killing of more than 1,200 Jews — the largest mass killing of Jewish people since the Holocaust.

As a fourth-generation Greek-American, I have spent a lot of time learning the experience of Greek Jews during the Holocaust, when more than 96% of the Jewish population were killed. Before World War Two, there were vibrant Jewish communities in many parts of Greece, from cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki, to islands such as Rhodes, Corfu, and Zakynthos. An estimated 13,000 Jews fought for Greece during the war, first to repel the invading Italian army and then to resist the subsequent Nazi occupation. Reflecting on this history, I find some solace that even in the darkest moments our world has ever known, there were glimmers of light that showed how humanity could stare down evil and win.

The story of what happened on Zakynthos, a small island in the Ionian Sea where 275 Jews resided during World War Two, is one such example. In September 1943, the Nazi commander overseeing the occupation of Zakynthos received an order from his superiors to round up all of the Jewish residents of the island. The Nazi commander summoned the mayor of the island, Loukas Karrer, and informed him he had twenty-four hours to turn over a list of all of the Jews living there. The following day, the mayor returned with the bishop from the local church, Bishop Chrysostomos. They pleaded for leniency and stated that the Jews who lived on the island were simply Greeks like themselves, and should not be singled out for maltreatment or relocation. The Nazi commander rebuffed their plea, at which point the mayor and bishop handed over a list with just two names: their own.

The Nazi commander was stunned by this response, and sent a message to his superiors for orders on how he should proceed. Mayor Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos used that time to help hide the island’s 275 Jewish residents in the hills. One year later, the Nazis evacuated the island and every single Jewish person on the island survived. After the war, many of them relocated to the new nation of Israel. In 1953, a terrible earthquake leveled large parts of Zakynthos. One of the first packages of aid to arrive on the island came from Israel, sent by the former residents of the island, with a message that read “The Jews of Zakynthos have never forgotten their Mayor or their beloved Bishop and what they did for us.”

I love reading about this story. It is such as an inspiring reminder that even in the darkest chapters of history, there were individuals and communities who courageously chose the path of righteousness. And an important lesson for us to think about at a time when rising anti-semitism is striking fear in the hearts of millions of Jewish people around the world and survey after survey shows that shockingly few young people learn, know, and understand what happened during the Holocaust. It is incumbent on all of us, Jew and non-Jew alike, to be as bold as Mayor Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos, stand up to protect our neighbors and do all in our power to fight back against the forces of intolerance, hate, and bigotry.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us not only mourn the lives lost but also celebrate the resilience of the human spirit. The story of what happened on Zakynthos challenges us to stand against bigotry and hatred, to defend the persecuted, and to cultivate a world where the lessons of the past guide us toward a future marked by tolerance, understanding, and unwavering compassion. Because at the end of the day, we all share a common humanity.

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