remnants of a lost heritage
Mary and Esther Ackos are remnants of an ancient community. They are Romaniote Jews, and their ancestors have lived in Greece since the time of Jesus. They and their families looked Greek, spoke Greek and were part of the Greek community. The only difference was their religion: they were Jews and to the Nazi invaders this meant that they had no right to exist.
Mary and Esther lived in Athens along with their father Menachem, mother Rosa, three siblings and a large loving extended family. As brother Sam states, “We were not poor, not rich, not middle class but somewhere in between.” The family lived peacefully amid the Jewish community of Athens until the Nazis invaded Greece in 1941. From then until the end of the war, it would take the generosity of a Christian neighbor, Menachem’s foresight and Sam’s ingenuity and determination to save Rosa and her children from the crematorium of Auschwitz.
When the Nazis invaded, as a precaution the family went into hiding at the home of Mrs. Sayanou, a Christian friend of their Aunt Esther. Although the family was in hiding, life had shades of normalcy. Rosa left to shop in her old Jewish neighborhood and the children were allowed to play outside. As the imminent threats subsided, they moved back to their Athens home.
It was not until March 25, 1944, Greek Independence Day, that real tragedy struck the Ackos family along with much of Greek Jewry. On that day the Nazis rounded up thousands of Jews from all across the country and sent them to extermination camps. Menachem Ackos, his brothers, sister and their spouses were among those deported and eventually murdered by the Nazis.
Fifteen-year-old Sam Ackos was left to head the household. He decided to move the family back to Mrs. Sayanou’s house where disguised as Christian relatives of the Sayanou family, Mary and Esther, their mother, sisters and brother survived the war. Eighty-seven percent of the 77,000 Jews residing in Greece in 1941 were killed in the Holocaust.
Life was difficult after World War II. A civil war divided the country and brought continued deprivation and poverty. In 1951 they decided to leave Greece. In the United States, the remnants of the Ackos family who had lost not only their country, but also their family and heritage, began a new life. Mary, Esther and their sisters finished high school, graduated from college and raised Menachem and Rosa’s 16 grandchildren in freedom.
As Sam Ackos so aptly stated in the family’s history, “There is no pen sharp enough to write exactly what has happened and there is no mind big enough to believe what took place between the rise and fall of the Third Reich.”