Harbor Style Harbor Style March 2018 : Page 64
Story by Nancy J. Semon Photography provided by Odette Port with additional photos by Max Kelly 64 | H ARBOR STYLE
Nancy J. Semon
A Holocaust Survivor tells her story.<br /> <br /> Odette Port, a retired teacher from Houston, Texas, was born and raised in Athens, Greece. As a young child, she and her parents escaped the Nazis and went into hiding in the mountains above their city. Under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, signed into law by President Harry S. Truman, the family came to Houston in 1951, where Port was educated, worked as a teacher, married and raised a family. Now in her early 80s, Port is active in her community, synagogue and beyond.<br /> <br /> Last April, during a Yom HaShoah Holocaust Memorial Day observance in Evans, Ga., Port served as the keynote speaker. She talked about her experiences during World War II and how her family managed to survive thanks to some very righteous Greek people, including partisans, the Greek Orthodox clergy and public officials such as law enforcement and rabbis who risked their own lives so that others could live. In January, she sat down to tell her story to HARBOR STYLE.<br /> <br /> Port was barely 5 when the war came to Greece. Athens had “a smaller Jewish population that was more assimilated,” she said as she began her story. Her father, Moses Sarfati, had a thriving business exporting raw furs and hides and was well-connected, she said. Port’s paternal grandfather, Solomon Sarfati, was also an exporter of raw hides, and he and his wife, Oro, were the second richest Jewish family in Athens and had the second largest family – 11 children, according to The Jewish Chronicle of the Community in Athens.<br /> <br /> Jews have lived in Athens since the third century BCE; the remains of an ancient synagogue can be found at the foot of the Acropolis. The Jewish community is Romaniote and Sephardic; its members speak Greek and have assimilated into the city’s culture... ~United States Holocaust Memorial Museum<br /> <br /> However, the Sarfati family’s lifestyle was about to change forever with the advent of war. “When I was 7, in 1943, my father decided to leave Athens,” Port continued. Some in her community had radios and got advance notice of what was going on. They learned the Germans were putting Jews on trains for Poland or Germany. However, “None of the information hinted at death camps,” she said. The Sarfatis prepared to leave the city for an alleged vacation, and “A couple of my father’s employees said that they would watch the business for my father until he returned.” The business, however, dissipated during the war and subsequent civil war, Port added.<br /> <br /> The family left “as though we were going to our usual vacation spot, Loutraki, just 50 miles from Athens,” Port continued. The town was where her family had gone on summer vacation since she was three months old.<br /> <br /> Fake IDs Saved Lives<br /> <br /> In Athens, the head rabbi, Elias Barzelai, had strong connections with the municipal government and the EAM (National Liberation Front). Along with the support of the Archbishop of Athens, Damaskinos, this contributed to the rescue of 66 percent of Athens’s Jews. Athens Police Chief Angelos Evert issued false identification cards and Archbishop Damaskinos ordered the church to issue false baptismal certificates to those threatened with deportation. As a result, thousands of Greek Jews were spared. In Athens and the port city of Piraeus, Christians hid Jews in their homes. ~United States Holocaust Memorial Museum<br /> <br /> Port’s uncle – her father’s brother – Abraham Sarfati, was one of the first to learn of Archbishop Damaskinos’s warning to the Rabbi Elias Barzelai that the Jews should go into hiding. His family was among the first to be issued forged Christian identity cards by Chief Evert. In all, 18,500 such false identity papers were issued. The Abraham Sarfati family escaped into the mountains*, and Odette’s family followed. Port’s father now had the name Michael and his paperwork showed him to be Greek Orthodox, she remembered.<br /> <br /> Feeling that the family needed a better place to hide other than Loutraki, the son of their vacation landlady, Vangelis Stergiopoulos, who was involved in the resistance movement, arranged to relocate the family to a village in the mountains.<br /> <br /> “We went from Loutraki by horse and cart. Arriving at the Corinth Canal, we needed to cross over the water, but it was a German checkpoint. When my father saw the Germans, he froze and then started to shake, but Vangelis, who was going with us, said to him: ‘You must go through with this – think of your daughter and your wife.’” Then British planes came overhead while the Germans were looking at the Sarfati family documents. The German soldiers, who “wanted us out of the way so that they could take cover, said ‘Go, go,’” and the family rushed on to the other side of the checkpoint. They stopped at Stergiopoulos’ aunt’s house and that night the horse and cart took then to a village called Stimanga at the top of the mountain. The journey took two to three hours. The Sarfatis were taken to a house where the leader of the underground – the EAM (communist resistance organization) – met them. “We were surprised to learn that the leader was none other than our neighbor in Loutraki, Vangelis Tassopoulos. My mother [Ida Cohen] made friends with his wife, Francesca, who had given birth to a baby boy just six weeks before,” Port recalled.<br /> <br /> The partisans led them to a four-room house. “It was unfinished so it had no installed windows; we hung up blankets to keep out the cold.” It also had no water, electricity or even a bathroom. “We had a table and chairs, and a wood plank supported by short brick columns became the sofa. Our beds were made of wood planks and carpenter’s horses; we had no linens,” she described. They often slept with their clothes on because “the Germans made a habit of raiding villages in the middle of the night.” There was one other Jewish family and Francesca who lived in the other two rooms. The fourth room in the house was a common one with a hearth for cooking.<br /> <br /> As Port’s father was outside struggling to dig a hole for a toilet, a woman came along who noticed that his hoe was broken. “My Christian man, you need a better tool,” she told him. Later she returned with a good spade, and that was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, Port related. The woman, Kyra Alexana, “helped us throughout our stay there with bread when she baked, with vegetables from her garden, and washing what little clothes we had in the river, with total acceptance and affection.” Her 12-year-old daughter Chrysoula “taught me how to carry the water barrel that we filled at the village spring and how to distinguish the edible greens that grew on the mountainside, especially how to cut them without destroying the root, so we could come back later for more.”<br /> <br /> The family lived somewhat in freedom because word was given by the EAM to the villagers “that they were to protect us and that betrayal on any level was punishable by death,” Port explained. However, one day “the Germans raided the village at which time we escaped to a higher mountain.” The family, directed by local authorities, went to “live in a chapel at the top of the highest point for more safety,” she said, “but there was no water there and we ate on unwashed plates for a week to save the water for drinking.” The conditions were so harsh that the family didn’t stay for long.<br /> <br /> “There was no school except for a couple of weeks. I was 7 in 1943 and cannot remember how I learned to read, but I remember my father teaching me arithmetic.” Port recalled playing with two other children and doing typical things such as climbing ropes, exploring, picking flowers and chasing rabbits. “We caught one and kept it as a pet.” Port and her playmates also attended meetings of the EPAS – the Children’s Communist partisan organization – and sang patriotic songs.<br /> <br /> Her main diet consisted of mashed garbanzo beans and the wild greens she picked on the mountainside, along with the bread and vegetables from Alexana, she related. Being a typical child, Port craved sweets, which were by now nonexistent. One time Francesca spread a slice of bread with sweet condensed milk that she used for baby formula. The baby was holding the bread while Port’s father bounced him on his knee, and the baby dropped the bread. “I hoped it would land right side up, but it did not. The donkey standing by was the lucky recipient of it,” she remembered.<br /> <br /> Her father, grateful for the partisans, offered to work for them. He would man the one telephone line they had installed from village to village to keep everyone informed of German movements. He couldn’t be more active in the underground and resistance because he had been injured as a child and lost the use of his right knee, which made walking difficult. The chapel where he manned the phone also held a cache of guns. “One day my father was on the phone when a village boy came in and got interested in the guns.” Before her father could stop the boy, a gun went off and shot Moses in the arm. “My father was hard of hearing in one ear and he held the phone with his arm across his chest to the other ear.” This turned out to be life-saving as the bullet could have easily gone into his heart. Instead, it hit his arm. “After that we could not stay in the village anymore in case the Germans came and found a man with a gunshot wound; they would want to know where the guns were stored, and finding them they could burn the village to the ground,” Port said.<br /> <br /> The “leaders put my bleeding father on a horse and my mother on another and took them far from the village to a building where shepherds sheltered their flocks,” she continued. The dirt floor of the shelter “was covered with manure and teeming with fleas.” Her mother began to clean, and Port joined her parents the next day. The village had no medical supplies, but it had a doctor who gave her mother “two packages of cotton and instructed her to change the wound every day,” Port said, adding that her mother washed the used cotton in the spring and dried it in the sun to re-use the following day. With no antibiotics, medicine, salve or sterilized gauze for his gunshot wound, her father could easily have developed a serious infection. But then an event happened that Port said she thought could be considered a miracle. “There was a knock on the door and a young man appeared with a shaved head to keep away the lice. It turned out that he was Jewish and worked for the partisans. Plus he was a pharmacist!” The man had some sulfa drugs “which he gave to my mother and told her to crush and sprinkle on the wound when she changed the bandages.”<br /> <br /> The Sarfati family lived among “snakes, scorpions, rabbits and the occasional visitor,” until her father’s wound healed, Port continued. The family was then advised to go up to an even higher, and therefore safer, mountain village. “There, my father continued working with the partisans and made more friends, until one night we could see fires down in Corinth.” The Germans were leaving and blowing up everything behind them. It was the fall of 1944, marking the end of the war for the Sarfati family and perhaps their return to normalcy. But they soon found that life would never be the same.<br /> <br /> Preparing to return to Athens, the family stopped at the first village they arrived at in the spring of 1943 to say goodbye to their friends and benefactors. Port’s mother thanked Kyra Alexena, who asked that they take her daughter Chrysoula with them to Athens. They promised to send for her after they got settled. They visited more friends. Port was escorted by her mother’s friend Francesca, the mother of the baby boy, ahead of her parents to their vacation landlady’s house in Loutraki. The landlady was Kyra Paraskevi. “When she saw me, she thought she was seeing a ghost,” Port recalled, adding, “I must have been a very skinny sight.” That night she slept on freshly ironed sheets. “That memory of that luxurious feeling has never left me,” she said. The next day the landlady prepared breakfast and asked, “What do you want?” Port answered, “Eggs with feta.” The landlady said that Odette should tell her anything she wished to eat. “I was sitting at the table and I noticed a box that contained coffee and sugar for preparing Turkish coffee. So I said to her, ‘Can I have a teaspoon of sugar?’ and at that time I did not understand why, but she burst into tears.”<br /> <br /> Port’s parents shortly arrived in Loutraki and the family started towards Athens in a truck. “We had to abandon the truck at some point because the road had been blown up and we had to walk.”<br /> <br /> A Changing World<br /> <br /> On their way home the family stopped at a roadside cafe, “tired as we were,” Port continued. Her father’s money that he had brought with him when the family left Athens two years earlier was supposed to last the duration of their exile. He soon learned it was worthless after he ordered a popular treat for his daughter. The price? The entire amount of all the money he had on him. When the family was about to leave the cafe, the price went up even more, and “My father was almost in tears as he did not have enough to cover the new price.” Fortunately, the waiter understood and the family went on their way.<br /> <br /> They reached Athens in the dark and her father called the landlord, Charilaos Paligginis, and found that he had moved all of their belongings into his own apartment for safekeeping. A Gestapo officer also occupied a room there. “We asked how did you do this while this officer was there,” Port recalled. The landlord answered that the officer was always drunk and “did not notice the two pianos and the two dining room sets.” The family ended up living with the landlord and his family for 11 months “free of cost until we could muster enough business and money to have a place of our own.”<br /> <br /> Entering the third grade, Port had a difficult time at first catching up as she had missed the first and second grades. Some classes and concepts were alien to her, but she managed to catch up and even went on to attend the prestigious American College for Girls in Athens, where she studied English. That would serve her well later when she became the official interpreter for her family.<br /> <br /> The Sarfatis sent for Chrysoula, and she came to live with them at the age of 15; Port was 9. “We grew up like sisters until 1951 when my parents and I left for the US.” The Displaced Persons Act “thanks to President Truman,” Port said, “was very significant because since 1924 the US had effected a quota system for countries in Europe that were considered ‘less desirable,’ and Greece was one of them.”<br /> <br /> Needing a sponsor, the Sarfatis went to the Joint Distribution Committee that sent them to Houston, where Jewish Family Services provided a garage apartment. “Each week we got $18 for groceries and other incidentals; everything was from charity: furniture, kitchen utensils, clothing...” The service also looked for jobs for her parents. Port entered the eighth grade, a year lower than her grade in Greece, in order to catch up on her English proficiency. “We were very lucky. We survived and then we had the happy chance to come to America,” she said.<br /> <br /> Port said she wanted to impart this message: “Yes, the Holocaust of World War II did happen. And we must never forget that. The coming generations must never forget that. My generation will soon be gone…<br /> <br /> “I live a very small life now. My personal world has shrunk into a manageable size, and I work within these parameters. If I see that something needs to be done and I can do it, I volunteer to do it. Do I help the wider world? No, I don’t. But if I can help one person, I am grateful to do that.<br /> <br /> “I keep busy in order to make use of my days, my life. I have been blessed with a relatively long life. I don’t know why I lived, while my first grade classmate, Raymond Zifra who was 7, did not. I don’t know why I am still here while my cousins and millions of others are not. So I wake up every morning and I thank God that I have a purpose for that day, however small or insignificant it may be.”<br /> <br /> Port calls her survival “a miracle” and repeatedly praised her parents for protecting her and providing her with a good education despite their own hardships and struggles.<br /> <br /> Postscript<br /> <br /> Chrysoula, who learned cooking and housekeeping from Port’s mother, became head housekeeper at the presidential residence in Greece for a former prime minister. Chrysoula’s brothers became successful in education and business. To this day, Chrysoula’s and Port’s families remain close friends.<br /> <br /> Most Sarfati relatives went into hiding. Most eventually left Greece and are “spread out all over the world,” Port said. On her mother’s side, Ida’s parents went with the partisans. Of the five siblings in Ida’s family, one was deported to a concentration camp along with her 80-plus-yearold grandmother, her husband and three children. None survived. “I went online and was able to find their names on a list of all those deported from Kavalla [Greece],” Port related.<br /> <br /> Between 8,000 and 10,000 Greek Jews survived the Holocaust, due in large part to the unwillingness of the Greek people, including leaders in the Greek Orthodox Church, to cooperate with German plans for the deportation of Jews. Greece lost at least 81 percent of its Jewish population during the Holocaust. Between 60,000 and 70,000 Greek Jews perished.<br /> <br /> ~United States Holocaust Memorial Museum<br />
Read the full article at http://trendmag2.trendoffset.com/article/Odette+Port/3007949/474815/article.html.