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As little girls, the Cohen sisters had to go into hiding to escape deportation to the Nazi death camps. Today, decades after the horrors of World War II, they still cherish the photographs of their saviors: a student, a Catholic priest and a Catholic nun are among several people who kept them hidden in different parts of Athens over the course of the occupation.
“Eleni Toumbakari was a philosophy student and active in the resistance. She wasn't afraid and she was like a mother to us,” says Veta Mioni as she lays out a collection of photographs – some grainy – on her living room coffee table.
On the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, Kathimerini met up with Veta and her sisters Pavlina and Rina, who are twins, so they could tell us their story. On the table that sits between us, they have a framed photograph of their parents and a blue pin with the words “We Remember.”
Their father, Sabetai (Sabi) Cohen, was a bank worker who then went into trade, representing French thread maker DMC with a store on Valaoritou Street in the northern port city of Thessaloniki. As was the custom at the time, his family arranged his marriage to Germaine Matalon. The twins were born at the family home in 1937, delivered by their obstetrician-gynecologist grandfather Moishe Matalon, and Veta came two-and-a-half years later.
They don't remember much from the early years of the Greek-Italian war other than that their mother knitted socks for the Greek soldiers on the Albanian front and always made sure to keep food in stock.
“The fear started when the Germans entered Thessaloniki. They came down Vardari and along Tsimiski, where we lived. All the shops had closed their shutters,” remembers Pavlina Matathia.
The twins were 6 when the Nazis started targeting the city's Jews, forcing them to pin a gold star to their clothes, confiscating their assets and handing over their businesses to sequestrators, pushing them out of their homes and moving them into ghettos. The older sisters remember there never being enough food and their parents being frightened, while also feeling a sense of something threatening themselves.
Then one day their father and an uncle were arrested for no apparent reason. The family paid for their release in what was a usual form of blackmail at that time, which was before the first death trains left Thessaloniki for the Nazi concentration camps.
“They said that we would be sent to Poland, to better working conditions and some people believed that. But, our grandfather could see that something was wrong. He said that we should escape,” says Matathia.
Thanks to connections made at work (and, the three sisters suspect, after money changed hands), their father and grandfather managed to secretly get the family out of the ghetto and onto a fishing boat bound for Evia from Michaniona. For the time being at least, they were out of danger. According to data for that time, more than 45,000 Thessaloniki Jews, or 95 percent of the city's Jewish population, had been sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by August 1943.
Matathia remembers her father's dejected figure during the overnight journey to Evia. “That may be the only clear image I have of him,” she says. “He was leaving behind so many relatives and this weighed very heavily on him. He fled because his father-in-law convinced him to. I remember him sitting in the boat with a woolen cap on his head, smoking. It was an image of absolute sadness. This is something he carried around for the rest of his life.”
The Cohen family eventually reached their destination, Athens, where they were all given new forged identity cards. Sabi Cohen became Savvas Savvidis and his wife Eleni. Vida became Veta, Riketa was renamed Rina and Palomba was Pavlina. To this day, the three women have kept those names.
“We knew that we were hiding and that we shouldn't reveal our true identities” says Matathia.
One of the first people to help the family was a Catholic priest, Father Chrysostomos Vassileiou. He had been born in Constantinople in 1912 and had lost his father and two siblings when he was still a child. He then lost his mother at the age of 11 and was sent off to a Greek Catholic orphanage in 1925. “He had sustained an injury to his right knee that never healed so he could not bend his right leg and walked with a limp,” one of the priest's students during the German occupation, Father Giorgos Sargologos, wrote in his biography of Chrysostomos.
That prevented him from fighting on the Albanian front like other young men in his parish, but he went on to join the resistance in 1941. According to his biographer, Chrysostomos was responsible for the radio and carrying ammunition. He also helped Jews and other persecuted Greeks escape.
It was the priest who introduced the Cohen family to Eleni Toumbakari, a 20-year-old student at the Athens School of Philosophy and a fan of poet Kostis Palamas, author of the Olympic Anthem, among other emblematic works. She lived at home with her mother, Cleio, in a house with a backyard, well and plum trees at 57 Patmou Street in the downtown Athens neighborhood of Patissia. The Cohens lived there briefly.
“Our mother thought it best that we were separated because she was afraid that if they were caught then we would be too,” says Mioni. The girls were then sent to Saint Joseph's Greek-French School on Harilaou Trikoupi Street in Exarchia, where they came under the wing of a young nun, Soeur Marie du Carmel. Their parents visited regularly until the day they didn't show up.
In April 1944, Sabi Cohen was betrayed to the Germans by a man he knew from his work in Thessaloniki. It appears that he reported Cohen to the Gestapo at their headquarters on Merlin Street in Athens, telling them that he was married and had children and a fortune. Sabi and Germaine Cohen were arrested just a few hours later. “There was a Jewish collaborator of the Germans in the vehicle that took them away who kept asking her: ‘Aren't you the daughter of the doctor, Matalon? Aren't you married? Where are your children?’ At some point she gave him her bracelets and said: ‘Stop asking. I don't have any children,’” says Rina Cohen.
The girls' parents were transferred to Auschwitz. They were separated and Sabi was sent to the crematorium. “The day after they arrived, my mother was asking around if anyone had seen Sabi Cohen. Until someone said, ‘You see that smoke? That's Sabi,”” says Rina Cohen
Father Chrysostomos also appears to have been betrayed by an informant. According to a witness, another Catholic priest, he was arrested by three men from the SS in the northern Athens suburb of Psychico in May 1944. According to the same witness, who is quoted by Father Giorgos in his book, as soon as Chrysostomos saw the Nazi officers coming, he swallowed a piece of paper with the names of certain Greek officers he had been planning to help escape to Egypt from the port of Rafina that very night. The Catholic priest was arrested and executed at the camp in Haidari on September 8, 1944. He was 32 years old.
The news of Sabi and Germaine Cohen's arrest soon made it to Saint Joseph's and the three girls had to be moved again. But danger lurked everywhere, even in the then-remote suburb of Aghia Paraskevi, where they spent a short time.
Mioni, the youngest of the three, remembers a man approaching her when they were there and offering her candy. He asked her all sorts of questions, like where the girls had come from and what their real names were. “I told him everything. Thankfully when I got back to the safe house I told them what had happened and they grabbed us and moved us again. The Germans came shortly after,” she recounts.
Fear of being caught and – more importantly – losing their parents took a toll on the sisters, and especially the youngest. “Maybe because we were twins we felt that we had one another's support. But she was alone and perhaps didn't feel that as much. I remember it very clearly,” says Rina Cohen. “How I would grab you and not let you leave the bed?” asks Veta Mioni. “Every morning for some time they would take her to a well and throw buckets of cold water on her. This is what they did to Veta to calm her down. She was 5 years old,” says Rina Cohen.
The three sisters kept in touch with most of the people who helped them during the war and had formed especially strong bonds with some of them. They had nicknamed Eleni Toumbakari “Nini” and liked calling her mother “Auntie Cleio.” But there were also houses and families that they cannot remember anymore, names that have slipped from memory.
“I often ask myself what I would do if someone came to me asking for help in such a frightening situation,” says Matathia.
“Many children went into hiding and were saved, but most were under their parents' wing, they had their mother and father's goodnight kisses. It is very different when your parents have been caught,” says Rina Cohen, expressing her and her sisters' gratitude for the “kindness of strangers” that helped them along the way.
The risks to those who helped people like the Cohens were enormous. “My mother, with her youthful drive, did not care whether someone had seen her or not,” says Eleni Toumbakari's son, Alexandros Stefanidis. Shortly after the three girls were moved from her mother's home to another hideout, the Gestapo had come in and searched the house, finding some clothes that had belonged to the young girls. That was enough to make them suspicious, but Toumbakari was lucky and was not arrested.
“I knew that those three little Jewish girls were like my sisters and every time we met after the war it was very emotional. They were bound to my mother by their secret and by her energy, which gave them their freedom,” says Stefanidis.
Despite the terrible hardships of life at the camp and a bout of typhoid, Germaine survived World War II and returned to Athens in the summer of 1945. Her daughters were at the Esther Orphanage in the northern suburb of Kifissia at the time.
Veta Mioni remembers the moment of their reunion. It took place in the home of Eleni Toumbakari and her mother was sitting in a rocking chair wearing a blue dress. The number A8313 was tattooed on her arm. “‘Mommy,’ I said to her. ‘Where is Daddy?’ ‘He's in heaven,’ she responded. I couldn't sleep at night after that. I kept saying that my daddy was behind the clouds. When I'd fight with my sisters I'd go out onto the balcony and say: ‘Daddy, can you hear me? They did this and that to me.’”
Germaine Cohen lived to become a grandmother and great-grandmother. She died in December 2015 at the age of 105.