The magazine of Yad VaShem published a fascinating article on combined rescue attempts by Jewish and non-Jewish religious leaders in its issue of the month of June 2017. The author is Irena Steinfeldt, director of the department that documents the cases of Righteous Among the Nations.

joachim alexopoulos

On September 30, 1943 – Rosh HaShana – Rabbi Moshe Pesach of the Jewish community of Volos, Greece, went to the offices of Greek Orthodox Archbishop Joakim Alexopoulos. The Rabbi told the Archbishop that the Germans had ordered him to report with a list of all the jews of Volos the next day and entreated him to ascertain the Germans’ intentions. The Archbishop contacted the German honorary consul, who hinted that Jews would do well to leave the city at once. The archbishop then wrote a letter to the village leaders, members of the underground and clergy and asked them to render the fleeing Jews whatever aid they could.

Thanks to this cooperation, the majority of Volos Jewry scattered to the hillside. Before leaving, many went to the archbishop and entrusted their valuables to him. Some 130 Jews who stayed in Volos were arrested during the night of 24-25 March 1944 but most of the 900-strong community was saved. When the survivors returned after liberation, the Archbishop issued a statement calling on all his parishioners to return their possessions.

This is one example of Jewish and non-Jewish religious leaders cooperating on numerous occasions during World War II in order to save Jewish lives. Rabbi Nathan Cassuto of the Jewish community of Florence, Italy, also took action to aid the community and the numerous refugees who came to the city. The Rabbi rode his bicycle from house to house, imploring the Jews to hide in remote villages and monasteries outside the city. But when he contacted Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa, a unique cooperative relationship between the two community leaders began. Archbishop Dalla Costa also brought his ecclesiastical subordinates and monasteries into the rescue network. Father Cipriano Ricotti testified that the Archbishop had given him a dispatch for the monasteries, “many of which might not have opened their gates were it not for the letter.” In late 1943, an informer led to the arrest of many members of the rescue committee. Rabbi Cassuto was sent to Auschwitz and the other Jewish members of the network went underground. Despite the danger, the clergy and nuns took full responsibility to continue the activity. The rescue efforts in Florence, which began thanks to the Rabbi and the Archbishop’s cooperation, kept going until the end of the German occupation, and hundreds, if not thousands of Jewish lives were saved thanks to them.

Rabbi Elie Bloch of Alsace was in Poitiers, France, when the war broke out and began taking action to aid the camp internees and the numerous refugees who came to the region. There he met Father Jean Fleury, the priest of the Roma camp in Poitiers. When the deportations began in the summer of 1942, they and other Jewish activists began taking joint action to smuggle Jewish children out of the camps and into hiding places. After Rabbi Bloch was arrested in February 1943, Father Fleury visited him in the camp and got the keys to his desk in order to remove incriminating documents. Tragically, the Rabbi, who helped smuggle many children to safety, failed to save his own daughter and on December 17, 1943, Elie and Georgette Bloch and their little girl Myriam were deported to Auschwitz and murdered. As in the case of the Florentine network, the priest continued the rescue operations after his Jewish partners fled or were arrested. When Yad VaShem recognized Father Fleury as Righteous Among the Nations, Rabbi Elie Bloch’s father, Rabbi Yosef Bloch, wrote, “Father Fleury was a loyal friend to our son… Where the Rabbi was unable to take action to save poor persecuted or interned Jews, it was Father Fleury who took his place...”