PROF. ASHER J. MATATHIAS
BIOGRAPHY - THE MATATHIAS FAMILY
Jacob “Jack” Matathias was born in 1919, in Trikkala, Greece, and died in Queens, NY, in 1997. His father moved the family to Volos, a larger city, to pursue better business prospects. Jack was the oldest of five siblings. One brother, Moshe, arrived illegally in Mandate Palestine, married, settled in Holon, and died naturally decades later. Another brother, Asher, was the victim of an Italian air raid on Larissa in 1940 (Jacob’s first-born would be named in memory and honor of his brother, instead of naming him Samuel, after the paternal grandfather). A sister, Sara, suffering from epilepsy, was unable to heed a German’s order to cease her seizure, and was shot by a German soldier; she was also a prisoner, held hostage, and was executed in reprisal for anti-German acts by the resistance. Another sister, Anna, married, moved to Athens after the war, raised many children (located in Rhodes and Israel), and also had a natural death. Jack worked with his father making cotton cord, manufactured by hand at home; in later years, the son opened a store on Ermou Street in Volos, while servicing the commercial needs of farmers living in the nearby villages as a peddler. In the early 1940’s, Jacob developed an affection for a young maiden, Sara “Nina” Atoun, a cousin he met in Trikala while she visited mutual uncles; at other times, Jacob traveled to see her in her hometown of Thessaloniki, also called Salonika, where the young woman’s parents, Daniel and Rachel Atoun resided, with another daughter, Medi, and two younger sons, Jake and Shabetai.
Nina Atoun-Matathias was born in Salonika, Greece, in 1920, the oldest in a family of four children, and often called upon to assist in supporting a unit that was experiencing hard times --- the world-wide depression, and her father’s severe rheumatism made him withdraw from the once prosperous upscale restaurant with music he was operating. Both families were traditionally observant of Shabbat, and the Jewish holidays; the Matathiases, coming from Romaniote stock spoke fluent Greek; the Atoun family, however, were Sephardic Jews, their background stemming from the 1492 expulsion of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula, and their subsequent welcome into the warm embrace of the Ottoman sultan whose sovereign possessions included Greece, as part of the Balkans. In today’s common parlance, the families were of the lower middle class, proud to toil in a generally unfriendly environment that obtained in Greece as Macedonia (which included Madre de Jerusalem, a characterization Jewish majority Jewish population in Salonika, but having reverted to Greek control following the Turko-Greek conflict of 1912). Nina’s motto was to“have pride, endure suffering, and ask for nothing.”
Asher Matathias was born on December 3, 1943, while his parents were in hiding in Ios Lavrendios, near Volos, Greece.
Jack: Before the war started I was working with my father to put my brother Asher through school, graduating with a diploma from a commercial school. My thought was to wait, for dreaming of becoming a doctor, or a successful businessman was not in my plans. My priority was my Salonika girlfriend, and getting married. I was nineteen years old when the war started in Europe, in 1939. I was twenty when the war came to our own territory.
Jack: When the Italians were the occupiers the relations with the Jews were very good, very friendly. We are Sephardic, we use Ladino, which is very close to Italian . Learning to converse in Ladino was a condition posed by my prospective Salonikan in-laws, for they spoke Greek haltingly; thus, my love for their daughter motivated to learn a new language. Tragically, they, and their younger two sons would perished in the heinous demonic plan that came to be known as the Final Solution to the “Jewish problem” --- extermination. We communicated very well with the Italians. They had professionals, like dentists, who were helpful to us. They came into our house freely, joking with us, helping us with a loaf of bread, when we did some kind of service for them.
When the Germans attacked I was in the fields, working. I went home to be with my family, because nobody knew what will happen, if communication would be cut off. If the government needed trains for military purposes, I might be cut off. I went back to my family until the Germans broke through Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, as the Greek government collapsed in March or April, 1941.
Nina: Before the war we heard what was happening in Berlin, with the Germans forcing Jews to sweep the streets or beating them, and we heard about Kristallnacht. We read these things in the newspaper. The government of Greece sympathized with the Germans at that time, so we were afraid. But we had no means to leave, to run away; with what? We could go to our relatives in another city, but we had no money for the train ride.
Jack: The Germans, at the beginning, were very careful not to show what they had in mind. For one year, nothing happened. We started getting a little courage, going outside in the street, peddling. In fact, in 1942, many people left their hiding places when it appeared that there’s nothing wrong with the Germans. They went back to their homes, rather than face the winter, which was a very severe one that year, with heavy snowfall.
Nina: My sister Mathilda, “Medi,” and I continued to work. My brothers were young, fourteen and nine. My father was already aging at fifty years old, and in no condition to go to work. Still, we were afraid, we felt sorry for our friends, for our relatives. But we didn’t know what to do, were without resources.
Asher: My parents’ love story is the stuff to create imagination for film-making. Two people forsaking the dangers of occupation --- curfews and road-bloc checks --- to plan a wedding; instead of each going back to their families to perhaps reunite when peace returns. After all, what is a youth, if not tempestuous fire? Married they did, in Salonika, with pomp and circumstance, then setting off for my father’s town in Volos, just as the clouds of darkness were descending on Salonika’s Jews.
Jack: I decided that as soon as I would be able to make a living, I would get married. I pushed myself for two years, till 1942, when I saw it was very difficult to travel to Salonika. I used to take goods from Volos to Salonika and back. I would go to stores in Salonika to find things that were needed in Volos, or I took orders in Salonika for merchandise from Volos. I used to make 5% or 6% profit. But it was difficult and dangerous. They could kill you in order to get your goods. They could accuse you of black market dealings.
In order to travel, we befriended the train inspectors, who welcomed kickbacks, for sneaking you into the trains. If they saw that the Germans weren’t examining the cars, they inspectors motion me to enter; sometimes through the window, other occasions moving temporarily into their own compartments. I would wear different hats on my head, to make myself inconspicuous.
It was worth the risk. Usually, the trip took three hours each way. Once it took me eight days, because the train stopped at every minor station. Every time the Germans needed a diesel engine they would take the engine from the train and leave the train abandoned on the side. When it became too risky, I no longer wanted to do it. I decided that next time I’m going to get married and bring my wife home, as a bride. In our house, a room was prepared and painted, for us.
Nina: I remained in Salonika until I got married, September 6, 1942. I had a proper wedding in the biggest, most beautiful synagogue of Salonika. My husband paid for everything, including my wedding gown, because my family had no money. After the wedding we stayed in Salonika one week, and then we left. I never saw my parents again.
Jack: We traveled in separate trains, of course. I pushed her first and then I took a chance and went with another train until we met. A couple of stations later we were forced to get out because of an inspection at the border, where they were checking documents. The conductor recognized us, told us not to worry. So we got out, and somehow we managed to avoid the inspection. I got back in first, and then I pulled my wife in through the window. The conductor told me to be on the side not facing the station. My wife lifted her legs, and I pulled her and she got in through the window.
It was impossible for us to get tickets, without the proper papers, official documents. So, we could either travel without a ticket or not travel at all. We got married on September 6, just before Rosh Hashana, which was September 11 and 12 in 1942. After the holiday we decided to move. I went to Salonika once more after that, but my wife never saw her parents again.
Nina: In the beginning, we corresponded. Three months after my wedding, my sister-in-law Anna was preparing to get married, and I sent for my sister Medi [Mathilda] to come to the wedding.. After the wedding, my father wrote us a letter, saying, “We are very sick in fear. Don’t let Medi come back because she’s going to catch the disease.” Of course, that was a cryptic message to avoid being caught in a German dragnet. So we understood, and we kept her with us.
Jack: It’s a good thing I found a way to take care of two people from that family. I learned what happened in Salonika. They ordered all the Jews to one place, Freedom Square, like our Times Square. Anybody who didn’t obey the order was threatened to be shot. They rounded up those who appeared and sent them to camps. That’s when I decided I’m not staying one more moment. I’m not going to give them anything. I’m not going to be a lamb, to be slaughtered. I had to fight for life. On March 25, 1943, I went to search for a place. I went on foot. Volos abuts Mt. Pelion. I climbed it, and made arrangements, for a room on the outskirts of a village, because I didn’t want to be with the villagers. I went back home and I started packing a few things, and I asked my father to come along. No, he said, his 90 year old mother is still living; he can’t. I asked my uncle Moshe to come with us, “No, no, no.” He didn’t want to. “There’s nothing wrong. You do what you want; you are scared. I can’t stop you, but, no.” My father, my sister, my brother, and my grandma were all living together in Volos.
My sister was arrested when she was trying to bring some goods home. She was recognized by some Greek collaborators and taken as a hostage with others who were suspected of acts against the Germans. When sabotage took place against the Germans, they took three of the hostages, including my sister, and killed them, somewhere near Larissa. I tried, so many times, to find the place, to say a prayer, or something. I tried through the Red Cross, when the war was over. The only thing I learned was that she was executed. It was later, after we escaped from Volos.
Nina: We knew what was happening in Salonika because my husband was friends with people who worked on the railroad. We sent one person to try to find my family, and he arranged to bring them to Volos on the next train, but by the time he got there all Jews were in detention in the ghetto, and my family couldn’t move from Salonika. They couldn’t get out any more. My mother gave him her jewelry to give to my sister, that’s all. After that we didn’t know what happened to them until the end of the war. We tried to send a letter, we tried to send packages because they said required warm clothes, matches, candles; we never learned if they received those things. Our friend said he couldn’t find anybody at our family’s address; he left the package that we sent with him. We didn’t verify it, and he took the package. In those days you didn’t inquire too much, for even a known person to you could turn to do something bad to you.
In March, 1943, when we learned about the Jews in Salonika, we were afraid. We went to a small village in the mountains called Ayos Lavrendios, Saiunt Lavendios. My husband used to go down to Volos to buy things and sell them to the peasants in the villages. We didn’t have plenty, but we had enough to eat. There were other Jews in the village who escaped just like we did. The local people were all Orthodox Christian Greeks, but they hid us.
Jack: I was the first to leave Volos. But after the Jews ran out of the city, they spread all over. My father, my sister, and her husband came to Ayos Lavrendios, and then two brothers, the Cohen family. Somehow they knew that Jewish people live in this area. They stayed in a barn.
Asher: Life continued for a while under normal conditions even though it was an occupation period. When Hitler’s soldiers came southward to Volos, several hundred miles south of Salonika, my father’s business associates came to him with the news of imminent plans to round up the Jewish populations, presumably to bring about their demise, but he assured him that need not happen to him. At this time, my mother was already several months pregnant. One childless couple, Phroso and Yorgos Stamos was their names[, took it upon themselves to impress upon my father first of the seriousness of the Nazi plans for the Jews, and to encourage him to leave his business in Volos and go with this family to the mountains. They had land and they had the wherewithal to hide my father’s family for as long as it was necessary. This was in aforementioned small village, just outside of Volos, called Saint Lavrendios.
Jack: But there was no safe place. All of a sudden, one day, the cry was heard “Germans are coming! Germans are coming!” We ran to the outskirts, uphill, and we’re running, and we saw German troops climbing on the green side of the mountain. When they saw us, without any cover, they opened the machine guns. My brother started screaming. I ran closer and saw blood behind his ear, and other spots. They got him. I thought that was the end of him. After the Germans stopped shooting, we went higher to other villages, hidden by trees. We had nothing. No way to disinfect the wound. He suffered a few days, high fever, and delirium. Finally, he recovered to survive the ordeal.
December 3, 1943. It was Friday morning. I had some fish from the market. My wife was outside, cooking it in the open fire, so as not to produce smoke. Suddenly, her labor pains started. We may have miscounted; we were expecting a baby a month later. I thought, if you catch a cold, you feel pains in your belly, and I thought she caught a cold from the harsh cold wind. It was December, in the mountains. I started cursing her. “You’re supposed to be protecting yourself, in your condition!”
Nina: It was December 3, 1943, about ten o’clock at night. It was snowing, it was very cold. As I was giving birth to my son, the village people came running, “The Germans are coming! The Germans are coming!” So we ran a few meters out of the village, and we found a little hiding place, and we stayed over there, a primitive abode, popularly coming to be known as a cave.
Jack: All of a sudden, she says, “Stop cursing and go call that lady, the old lady midwife called upon at moments like these, to help me.” “How can I go now? Where should I go at this time? Everybody is in the fields, at 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock.” So I found a youth, 15 or 16 years old, tending to his goats in the fields. I shouted to him, to go to the village to try to find this lady, to bring her here. I took my wife to a hiding place, worried about the coming baby and her. I didn’t want anybody to notice or hear crying; we’ll find a hiding place. I found a hiding place and made her as comfortable as possible, out of sight and hearing. It was maybe a twenty minute walk from the village. Just before the woman arrived, I had the baby in my hands.
Nina: I was screaming with the pains, and a neighbor was with me, and she said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, we are here. Just hold my arm. Squeeze my arm when you have the pains.” I was screaming, just holding on and making the arm of this lady black and blue, until my son was born. My husband was present with his scissors, and he cut the umbilical cord. Thank God, nothing untoward occurred.
Jack: Finally, I didn’t know what to do. She didn’t tell me to do anything. I tried to help her, to hold her hands, to give her some clean things, when the midwife reached over, “What’s doing over there?” While my wife was lying down, she took the scissors that I used to cut materials, by the yard, and cut the cord. That was the first experience. We were alone witnessing this miracle. It was very cold, but it was not snowy or rainy, just cold and dry; still, I wondered why did my wife feel cold in her stomach?
Nina: Everybody tried to help at that time, with blankets and other necessities. When they called “The Germans are coming,” nobody thought about anything but their own lives. Nobody tried to take anything. We just ran. After a couple of hours we came back, with an infant. I had so much pain, and I did not feel myself. I thought it was only a bad dream. Afterward, when you think of what you went through, you think, “Me? I did this?” But at the time, you don’t think. One, two, three, you do things without knowing, by rote. Sometimes they say, “This person is a hero,” but circumstances make you a hero even if you don’t want to be one, the instinct of survival.
Asher: I was born December 3, 1943, in the midst of Hanukkah, in the midst of bitter cold, without the benefit of proper medical care in a hospital. Fortunately, for the arriving midwife and my parents, the delivery was without any complications. I was born and lived in that village, for the balance of the occupation until liberation, the spring of 1944.
Jack: In the storehouse where we stayed in the village, we had clothes, and most of our things. During the night we went to sleep in the storehouse, but in the morning we took the baby to the hiding place to spend the day, isolated. The storehouse had a big, heavy door, with thick, hard, wood, not even bullets could penetrate it. We took whatever goods we had with us to this place.
One morning we saw Germans outside in front of the storehouse. They cleared an area and they reached us before we were safe. My wife saw them from the window. It was spring. I was dressed in shorts, like a tourist. It was a captain and a group of soldiers, spread out, five here, five there, three or four with the captain. I was really scared. What could I do? They reached us without anyone noticing, which just goes to show that no matter how many measures you take to protect yourself, if it’s your mazal, fate, not to survive, you’re not going to survive.
It was written for us to survive. They came that morning, speaking warmly, “Good morning. Who lives here? Nobody? How about you? Oh, you are from the village, just managing the olive crop? But there’s an order; you must have the verification stamp from the president of the community, if this house is occupied by people. Oh? You’re not staying, and that’s why you don’t have it? But when you stay during the summer you have to have it, if you spend the whole summer taking care of the area, of the fields, the property. But now, you just came. He starts playing with my kid. So we offered him Arak (raki, or ouzo). He accepted gladly. “Would you like a few eggs?” “Thank you very much.” And he left. The soldiers left without any incident.
Nina: My sister-in-law’s husband fought in the Resistance. They used to go out on missions to blow up the Germans’ trucks, and they would come back to the village. Then, the Germans would return to look for them in the village. All the men, even the Greeks, would go to the wilderness, so as not to be caught in the village; otherwise, they would be killed. In our village the Germans never disturbed the women and the children. When my son was about two months old the Germans came to look for partisans. A German came into my room and saw the baby, and he said to me with his hands, “I have one like this in Germany.” If they were not Gestapo they were not interested in Jews.
Asher: In the spring of 1944, the Germans began to systematically comb the outskirts of Volos and other suburbs, even villages. They successfully rounded up many Jewish people. My parents tell me of several close calls they had. My father frequently supported the work of the Underground. So in the mornings, during the daytime, he would not be found at home. He would return in the evening. They tell me of other Jews who had babies, where unfortunately, to avoid being detected, they would stuff the babies’ faces with pillows during the patrols. Unfortunately, after the patrols passed, they would find the children dead. I don’t know whether I was a good baby, but Mom Nina thinks of me as a hero, for being quiet during the periods German patrols roamed about.
Inasmuch, I was born during Hanukkah, it was a miracle that I, and my parents survived the frequent German searches for Jews. Years later, more poignant, I was to learn of an unholy oral compact entered into by my parents and the Stamos couple, our saviors. It postulated that, had the war to claim my parents’ lives, but sparing me, they were given permission to baptize me, give me the name of Apostolos (Apostle), and I was never to learn of my Jewish birth. My parents agreed, realizing that they were dealing with a pious Christian couple who viewed my conversion “saving a life for Jesus,” Today, of course, we are familiar with various religious fundamentalists, common people, who are inspired to perform super-heroic deeds!
After liberation, the same couple approached my parents to plead that I remain with them, advancing the theory that my parents would have other children, whereas, they would remain childless. The estrangement between friends was slowly overcome when the Volos Metropolitan heard the case, and awarded me to … my parents! Eventually, the Stamos couple actually bought a son, Thanasis, from a poor Trikala family who had sired a dozen children. Because he was already 13 at the time of the transaction, his consent was required. Decades later, in one of my trips to Volos, I met with him, having him proudly show me his considerable possessions in land and livestock, when I blurted: “Thanasi, just consider, had fate worked differently, half of all you owned would have been mine!” He smiled and nodded his head in agreement.
Jack: I continued doing business with my goods. Not for money, because money was rapidly losing its value. So I exchanged goods, in barter, for anything they had, bread, yarn. It wasn’t easy, but we managed to keep food in our stomachs. When I knew of a trustworthy peasant who was going from the village to the city I would give him some of our valuables to exchange for things to replace our goods that were sold out. It was hard, but we managed.
Some people provided lunch, being good Samaritans. We were given gifts, goat’s milk for our kid. They would rush to the barrack where we were hiding to bring a fresh egg from the chick, for my son and my wife, to have more strength. When there was a little more freedom, the Stamos family took us into their house, quite an improvement from our quarters; two brothers and their wives. The oldest brother had a daughter. The house was in the middle of the village, with all the modern facilities, with supplies for burning coal, wood, petroleum. They told us to take anything we needed. What they did for us, we can never pay back. When I visited there after my son’s wedding, they asked me if I can help them build a new house for their daughter, who was going to be married, next to their old house, in Lavrendios. I gave them a check and told them to do anything they want with it. He was delighted.
Asher: Food was prepared in stone ovens, or perhaps of clay or brick, outside, under coals. The oven was big enough to serve several families, who would bring their stuffed leaves or peppers and tomatoes, and cook their meal.
Nina: We were aware of the Jewish holidays. My husband used to have two holy books with him; he always carried these books. My husband is very religious even now. But then, we managed as well as we could. We knew when it was Shabbat, so we didn’t cook, we didn’t clean. That’s all. We couldn’t observe anything. We had no candles, nothing. We had no sugar, but in the village, they used maple syrup. We used this to make a little cake from flour, not with almonds or walnuts, just things that grew in the village, something to say “this is our holiday,” so we should not forget.
Each Jewish family tried to keep to itself; we did not want to show that there were too many Jews in the village. The first year, when we were up there in the mountains, an old man said, “We have to get together and read from the Torah.” That first year it was not too bad. They gathered together without a sefer or anything else, just to be together. On Yom Kippur, each one stayed home. We just fasted, that’s all.
The first year we were in hiding we were able to go down to Volos and buy flour, and we made our own matza, unleavened bread, for Passover. But the second year was very, very bad, because the Germans were everywhere. They would come to the villages to look for Jews or partisans, and they came on Passover. My husband and his brother flew out of the village, and my brother-in-law was hit by a German bullet, but thank God the bullet wound was not too bad.
It was not possible for Jewish women to go to the mikvah. Where would we go? We tried, after we took a bath, to put on cold water. It was not easy even to take a bath at that time because we didn’t have bathrooms, or showers. We had to warm the water and put a big washtub in the middle of the room, and we could wash ourselves; essentially, the primitive basics. Even when we were in our homes, we didn’t have bathrooms or baths. We washed dishes by heating the water. Housework was so pressing, there was little time for socializing. Only the very, very rich people had these luxuries.
There was not too much to do in the village. Most of our time was spent looking for something to eat. My husband toured the village looking to sell things; like material for pants or shirts, and I cleaned the house and went in search of something to cook. There was not too much variety.
When I woke up in the morning I made fire from available coals. I fed the baby and I had to warm the water to wash the diapers. There was no washing machine, no running water. I brought the water from the pump in the street. I had to wash so many diapers every day, and if it was bad weather, I had to think of how I was going to dry those diapers and how I was going to make supper, or fix something for the baby. The time went by quickly. There was no time to think about what I was going to do. Now, life is different. You have too much time on your hands. You say, “I have to belong someplace to pass the time.” In those years, my life was full.
There was a radio in the village. Every night I went into a cave where they had the radio hidden. We listened to the news from the BBC in London. The broadcasts told us what was going on, but we didn’t hear anything about the Jews. When D-Day came, we heard about it. I left my baby with my husband because he used to tell me, “You are so aware of the news, go and listen. You listen better.” When I came home everybody came into our room to hear the news from me because there was no room in the cave for too many people. I used to sneak into the cave all the time; I was very small. I don’t know who the radio belonged to, probably someone from the village.
In October of 1944 we heard the people who came down from Volos say, “We are liberated.” So we came down with our possessions. My father-in-law had a big house, and we lived in one of its apartments. Our apartment was occupied by Greeks, so when we came down we had no place to go, even though it was our home. We said, “Give us at least one room until you find a place.” But they said, “No, we are not going anywhere.” There was no government authority; only the partisans took care of things. They sent someone who said to the Greeks, “Out. You go and you leave these people. They suffered enough. They have no place to stay.” And we were in our home. We had some of our furniture, like the bed and a few other things with us, because when we left, under the Italians, we rented a truck, and we took everything with us. When we came back we brought these things back.
We came back in October, and in November we had the brit, circumcision, for my son. At that time there was no money. We had to give things to pay for this brit. I remember we gave three big boxes of cigarettes to the mohel to come and perform the brit. At that time cigarettes were like gold. We did this because we thought this was the most important thing for us to do.
Asher: I don’t know how many Jews from Volos survived . There were other families hiding in other villages nearby. The Jews of Volos by and large managed to survive. Unlike Thessaloniki, where Jews viewed with suspicion by the Christian neighbors, the Volos Jews were integrated into the social fabric. When it was learned that a large number of Jews perished in Salonika, Metropolitan Ioakim urged his flock to assist their Jewish neighbors. More, the German Consul, Helmu Scheffel, for whom a street is now named, warned Chief Rabbi Moshe Pesah of the impending catastrophe, and efforts were coordinated to have many Jews escape by hiding in the mountains. Still, 87% of Greek Jewry perished, the largest percentage of any European country, while Greece retains a leading position as among the most anti-Semitic European nations! During the war my father maintained his business as best he could. He was a small businessman. After the war he had a pango, which is a Greek word for a stand, out in the open, which he would put inside for the night. As his business prospered, relatively speaking, he did not have to travel often, and eventually he had a store on the main street.
At first, Jack supported the family by buying and selling merchandise. A month after their second child, Mary,was born, in 1945, Jack was drafted into the Greek Army. After three years of civil war, when Jack was discharged from the Army, the family went to live in Trikala, Jack’s birthplac, where they were assisted by the American Joint Distribution Committee.
Jack: After the liberation of Greece my unmarried brother Moshe joined a group that planned to leave the country. There was a lot of propaganda for aliyah to Israel, but it was not allowed because the Greeks didn’t want to anger the Arabs. They would allow you to go anyplace except Palestine. So people formed small groups, rented boats, and entered British Mandate Palestine illegally. My brother was among them. When they arrived the British arrested them, but he jumped off the boat. He wrote me a letter as soon as he arrived: “Dear Brother, I arrived here the way our mother brought us into this world, without anything.” I kept track of how he established a life in Israel. He fought in all the wars. He moved from village to village, moshav to moshav to moshav. He wrote that with the money he earned for many years he put a down payment on a little house, two rooms up, two rooms down. I expected to see him before I was discharged from the army.
Besides Zionist feelings, I was fed up. I was serving in the Greek Army, honorably, with no pay for my service, and being called “Jew.” I fought once with my Major, my commanding officer, because he called me “Jew.” He didn’t want to call me by my name, Matathias.
--“Jew, come here!” I made believe I didn’t hear.
--“Jew, I called you!” I went over and gave him a punch. I felt like I’m a man-servant for this country!
-- “Stupid! Your career! You’re supposed to have respect for me!”
-- “What did I do? I have a name!!”
--“Do you deny that you are a Jew?”
--“Yes, but my name is Matathias, not ‘Jew!’”
I made a big fuss over it. I wanted to get out, I said, but not to face court-martial for leaving the line of duty. I’m not staying under this guy. I listed all the reasons why I acted that way, accusing the Major of crimes against a soldier.
Then they started begging me, from the Captain down, not to press charges. He could lose his pension, get a dishonorable discharge, and you won’t get anything. So finally, after it was all recorded officially, they convinced me not to go to the special General and take it further. It was all written down, November 20, 1945, that Soldier Matathias Yaakov, son of Samuel (my father’s name) registered complaints against the Major.
Nina: In 1945, a month after I had my second child, a daughter Mary, my husband was called for Army duty, and I was left alone with two small children, and without means to live. They paid my husband the equivalent of fifteen cents a month. How did I live? After the war, UNRRA gave us food. The Greek government gave condensed milk for the children. How much can the babies eat? I used to take the flour from the UNRRA ration, and sell a bit of it to buy something for the kids. I suffered very much. I starved myself. I had nothing to eat. It was very bad time for me.
After a year, my husband worked as a secretary for a General. My situation was so bad that my husband went to the General and said, “I’m going to desert. I have a wife and two children and they are starving.” The general said, “Don’t worry. Bring your wife and children here.” The officers occupied a big house. They gave us a room, and the General ordered the canteen to give my husband food for his family. We got rice, sugar, flour, American cheese, a piece of baloney. We had no fresh vegetables or fruit or fish. We were not used to this food. My husband would take the piece of baloney, and sell it and buy some fresh meat. We didn’t know what to do with the American cheese. We eat feta cheese. My husband used to take a big box of cigarettes and sell it in order buy a few eggs for the children. It was very hard. Every day my husband went to the bakery where they made bread for the Army, to get a loaf of bread for us. So, we managed and we never went out to beg for anything. We lived like this for three years.
Jack: When I was discharged from the Army, in September, 1948, I wrote my brother that as soon as possible I’ll take my passport and we will leave for Israel. But they said I had to sign a declaration that I give up my Greek citizenship and I would not be allowed to return to Greece. Who wants to come back? So I signed gladly. But before I made all the plans to go I received a letter from my brother. “Jack, it is very difficult here for new immigrants. They live in tents, in maabarot, in sand and wind, a very unhealthy situation. I wouldn’t mind for you and your wife, but you have two kids. It would be terrible for them under these circumstances. Please don’t do this, don’t come now because soon I will establish a good home for myself, very soon. It’s different when you come directly to somebody until you establish yourself, instead of going six months or a year living temporarily in tents.” This was different from what I was planning and expecting at the time.
So I took my Greek passport and hid it, thinking, I’m going to no place. It’s my mazal, that’s all. Three months later they called me to establish papers as a Greek resident without land, without national protection, because I gave up my citizenship. I could stay as a foreigner, with a few restrictions --- no government job, for example, and couldn’t be an officer. I cared not. It was a better situation, than being a citizen, because there were no obligations. They can’t recall you to the Army. After all, I served in the Army for thirty-nine months, suffering all the while, and had two children! It’s stupid. I spit on Greek citizenship. I just want it for my dignity. I gave it up because I was going to leave, but I didn’t go. I made a big fuss. They threatened to put me in jail and they called me into the office. I saw how they mishandled me. I complained to the Prime Minister. Because the order to resign my citizenship was made by a cabinet minister, only the cabinet can have the power to reverse the order. I waited about five, or six months, and they said the request is probably denied. They said there’s a pension waiting for me, bring two pictures and they will certify me as a foreigner. I said I’m not going to do this. I convinced them to wait. Finally in January they had a cabinet meeting. A new prime minister came in and they approved it and sent me a special paper. This was a year after I was discharged from the Army.
Meanwhile I started selling goods on a table outside a bank where I did business before the war. I asked the manager to let me set up a table outside, and he gave me a room to store my stock overnight. We had a good relationship. I managed like this for about four or five years. I used to go out to the surrounding villages, too, a couple of times during the week, or Sundays, peddling. By this time I had two children. We had a third child, Rachelle, in 1952. A year later there was an earthquake that destroyed part of our house. We were living on the second floor; the side wall collapsed, and it was dangerous to stay there, so we squeezed down to the first floor. A few months later I rented a house and applied through HIAS for immigration to the United States.
When the American Ambassador came to visit he announced the sympathy of the United States, bringing blankets, and dry foods for us.He asked who wants to immigrate to the United States out of quota? At that time there would be at least a ten year wait for an immigration visa, for close family relatives only. So I applied. HIAS came to visit me. They said my life was good, why do I want to go to America? I had a store, I was considered well-established. My wife was crying, “We want to get out of here to start a new life.” We took them to see our destroyed home. But they said we were not displaced persons.
Two years later there was another earthquake, and this time everything was destroyed, the whole area, many cities. I already had a passport, from the time I thought to go to Israel. We went to Athens to get advice from HIAS and visas. We went on a brand new, American ship, the USS Constitution. Only rich American people traveled on this, we sailed tourist class.
The Matathias family arrived in the US in January 30, 1956 with three children. In May, their youngest child became ill with leukemia, and died on Hanukkah, December 7, 1956.
Jack: We had a very hard time after that; we were not able to cope with everyday life. Finally it was decreed for us to have another child, to change the root of the life, Baruch Hashem. A year or two later, 1958, an American son, Daniel, was born to us. Life started getting a little bit better, brighter. The two oldest are married now. The oldest has three children, daughters. The second daughter has four children. The youngest, born here, after this tragedy, is a pediatrician. She’s still single. I retired in 1984.
Asher: As far as I know there was no monetary payment to Stamos. It was just the friendship and the camaraderie, the social contact that persisted for many years until we moved to America. It was more the emotional satisfaction. Stamos family was very, very happy to have been able to do that. Stamos was well-known. Survivors would exchange stories after the war of how they survived, and word spread of how and who helped them during this very critical period.
In 1970, as a young man, I traveled back to my roots for the first time. I burned with the desire to meet this Stamos family and to see whether I could bridge the gap and find out what transpired during those critical years. I looked up this family, and sure enough, they also had a place in the suburbs of Volos. As I was entering his courtyard, this old man yelled at me and said, “Asher! You’re Asher!” He recognized me. He had not seen me since 1945, yet he knew, as I entered his property, who I was. He immediately called out. We embraced and we kissed. He called his grandchildren from the fields, and the neighbors, and we sat down and he retold the story. I said it was a wonderful experience because of course he confirmed many of the details of my early life, but more so because this was my final encounter with this man. He died shortly afterwards. Now, whenever I do travel to Greece, I visit with his grandchildren and his in-laws, and they, of course, receive me with open arms. We have an emotional tie. The question persists, to bedevil my undergraduates at the university: Would they be so heroic, would I put myself and family in jeopardy? It’s an existential question we don’t have to answer living is our glorious America!
Nina: I think life was harder for us after the war than during the war. During the war we were young; we didn’t know what was going on; we tried to survive. When you’re young, you just don’t reflect too deeply. But after suffering so much, we were just not a happy family. It was very hard for our children, not having aunts and uncles, losing grandparents and uncles, not having cousins. It is still hard for us because we have no relatives to depend on. We have friends, but it’s just not the same as family, family.
Nina Matathias was interviewed by Roselyn Fenster, January 30, 1966. Jack Matathias was interviewed by Roselyn Fenster February 27, 1986. Asher Matathias was interviewed by Rachel Licht October 9, 1983.
 Germany occupied Greece in the spring of 1941. The country was divided into German and Italian occupation zones. Salonika, with the largest Jewish population, was the German zone; Volos in the Italian zone. [Yahil, 408-409]
 This was at the border between the Italian and German occupation zones in Greece.
 Jack arranged for her to smuggle the border between the occupation zones.
 In December, 1942, the Germans ordered a Judenrat to be established in Salonika, and in February, 1943, with Eichmann’s arrival, the Nuremberg Laws were implemented, isolating Salonika’s Jews. [EH,1326]
 On February 25, 1943, Jews in Salonika were concentrated in the Baron de Hirsch quarter, near the railroad station. From there, transports left for Auschwitz, where most of the Greek Jews were gassed upon arrival. [EH, 1326]
 Deportations from Salonika to Auschwitz began in mid-March, 1943. The first transport arrived on March 20, 1943. [EH, 1326]
 Now known as Agios Lavrentios [St. Lawrence], situated on Mount Pelion, 20 km east of Volos. [http//www.greekhotel.com/Thessaly/pelion/agios-lavrentios/villagehome.htm]
 The rabbi of Volos, Moshe Pessah, was summoned to the German commandant’s office on September 30, 1943, and ordered to prepare a list of all the Jewish inhabitants of the city, with their addresses. The mayor gave orders to delay the preparation of the list in order to give the Jews time to escape. After responding to the summons, Rabbi Pessah went to see Metropolitan Joachim, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the area, and asked him to recommend to the Greeks who lived in the nearby villages to assist Jews to hide and escape. The rabbi was spirited away that night from his home by two Greek Resistance fighters, and taken to safer area. The rabbi’s escape served as a signal to the Jewish community to escape and hide. As a result, only about 130 of Volos’ 882 Jews were caught by the Germans. [Molho, Michael and Joseph Nehama, The Destruction of Greek Jewry 1941-1944, Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, 1965, 157-158, in Hebrew]
 After the Italians capitulated to the Germans, on September 8, 1943, the Germans occupied the areas previously occupied by the Italians.
 Asher was not sure if Stamos was a surname or a proper name. [Oral history of Asher Matathias, RG1025, page 7]
 After liberation, his brother went to Palestine with a group of Greek Jews who rented some boats and traveled to Palestine illegally. They were arrested by the British, but he survived to fight in Israel’s wars, marry, and raise a family in Israel.
 An anise-flavored alcoholic drink.
 Asher said that when his mother’s milk was insufficient to nurse him, because of malnutrition, he would be fed goat’s milk, to which they would add coffee, perhaps to improve the taste. But the baby reacted badly to the goat’s milk, so he was not a well-nourished baby. [Asher Matathias oral history p.14]
 Sweets, often including nuts, are an important ingredient in the Sephardic holiday cuisine.
 Sephardic women, even those who do not observe other rituals meticulously, are often strict in their attendance at the ritual bath, the mikvah. This ritual facilitates the resumption of marital relations after childbirth or menstruation.
 In the mikvah, women immerse themselves after having bathed.
 Of close to eighty thousand Greek Jews, about ten thousand survived the Holocaust. In Volos, where most of its 882 Jews hid, 760 survived. A ruling of November 21, 1944 by the Greek Ministry of Religion restored official status to Greek Jewish communities that had more than twenty surviving Jewish families. [Molho and Nehama, 218,224]
 Normally, a Jewish baby boy is circumcised on the eighth day of his life, but this was impossible in the conditions in which they lived during the war.
 “The Jewish community of Volos lost 25% of its members; this is the best record of all Greek cities with Jewish communities numbering more than 150 people.” [Matsas,p. 221]
 The new Prime Minister, Ioannis Theotokis, had been Speaker of the Greek Parliament. He was recalled from retirement in 1949 to serve as a caretaker Prime Minister, and served from January 7, 1950 to March 5, 1950. [Lentz, p. 329]
 Immigration quotas strictly limited the numbers of annual immigrants to the US. However, in emergencies, some non-quota visas were issued for humanitarian reasons. “The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 and Refugee Relief Act of 1953 allowed for admission of many refugees displaced by the war and unable to come to the United States under regular immigration procedures. “[http://www.uscis.gov/history-and-genealogy/our-history/agency-history/post-war-years]
 Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was determining eligibility for visas before formal applications were presented to the State Department.
Be sure to join us in February and March for heartfelt chronicles of family, love and hope, with
Asher and Anna's reunion in Greece, Summer of '15 (coming Feb '16); and "Hailing a Lady of Uncommon Grace, Humility and Resiliency" (coming in March).