The islanders who tried to stop a Greek tragedy

By Maureen Lipman, September 22, 2011
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The first time I visited the Greek island of Zakynthos, (the one just to the right of Captain Corelli's improbable mandolin) was my first post-bereavement holiday.

It was the first time I'd ever gone on holiday alone and, incidentally, the last. I was 56 years old, nervy as a cricket in a teapot and I'd never driven on the wrong side of the road.

By the time I followed the instructions to Anna's Villa at the northern tip of the island, not only was I wet with sweat but my hunched shoulders were damply silhouetted in the fabric of the seat cover and I was openly railing at Jack, my lamented husband, for putting me in this predicament.

Later that evening, after a maidenly swim, I went outside to close the shutters and a bird flew into the living room. "Oy vey!" I heard my mother's voice in my ear: "Birds! Bad luck!"

Certainly no deportation boat ever arrived at Zakynthos

It took me almost an hour of flapping my beach towel and crying out "Eheu! Eheu!", from some Greek play I once wasn't in, to force Spiro the Sparrow back into the Bougainvillea-scented air.

Three days later, I was in love with the island. I made some Greek and some English friends for life. There was something healing about the place and the way it looked after me. There's nothing much to see -– a shipwreck, an animal park, a sulphur spring and a couple of monasteries. But there was the way the cypress trees formed a backdrop against the olive groves, how the cicadas rubbed their legs together - and the sea, which was pure jade mixed with a dash of tzatziki.

Then there is the magnificent Sofia, who is the owner of Café Mahogany, a vaulted art gallery on the island where you can see her vibrant paintings and life-sized, mosaic papier-mâché, nude sculptures.

On my second visit over Pesach, Sofia roasted a paschal lamb and boiled eggs with salt water for me and my six guests. I, in return, composed a doggerel verse to the splendour of our hostess.

Now I've just returned from my third visit, relaxed and tanned -– and hearing only out of one ear after throwing myself, fully dressed, into the Pelagonia Club pool, then putting ear drops in my eye and vice-versa. But still, I'm raring to return.

Sofia has sunk every euro she has, and some she hasn't, into the most beautiful restaurant up in the hills of Ano Volimes, in the house in which she was born.

It is cool and classic with antique furniture, a glass floor, pastel linens, stunning artwork and the best, home-cooked, locally sourced, organic, traditional Greek food you've ever tasted. Wish you were there?

This time, I also found out something more about the island's history. In 1944, as the Second World War raged, the mayor of Zakynthos, Loukas Carrer, was ordered at gunpoint to hand over a list of all the Jews on the island.

But the list he presented to the Nazis contained just two names: the mayor's and that of the Bishop of Zakynthos. Bishop Chrysostomos told the Germans: "Here are your Jews. If you choose to deport the Jews of Zakynthos, you must also take me and I will share their fate."

In the interim, all the Jews on the island were hidden in mountain villages. Not one person revealed their whereabouts.

It is rumoured that Bishop Chrysostomos actually wrote to Hitler to beg for the lives of his Jews.

Written proof of all this was lost during a major earthquake in 1953. What is certain is that no deportation boat ever arrived at Zakynthos and all 275 Jews survived the Holocaust. There is a monument to both these heroes on Tertseti Street, on the site of the island's former synagogue.

The first boat to arrive with aid and provisions after the 1953 quake was from Israel, with a message which read: "The Jews of Zakynthos have never forgotten their mayor or their beloved bishop and what they did for us."

I always feel and sense atmospheres, in the fabric of walls, in the sand and the stones and in the faces of the people I meet. It's no coincidence that I felt so at home on this special island.

PS: Sadly, in 2009, the current deputy mayor posted online, in English, a crazed diatribe against the fighting in Gaza and the "Zion pigs, namely Rotchilds, Rockfellers (sic)".

He also asked for and received from the council a resolution against Israel, describing the country as "the pitiless killers of civilians" and expressing hope that the "Palestinian defenders of the Gaza Strip teach these Hitlerite Neonazi Zionists a bitter lesson and annihilate those who for 60 years have been putting world peace in peril".

This at a time when the economy is in meltdown and tourism is desperately important to their survival.

Nostalgia. From the Greek words nosta and algos; meaning a "return to pain".

Maureen Lipman is an actress

    Last updated: 10:30am, September 22 2011