Friday, April 30, 2010

Who Saved Those Jews?

A few weeks ago, we ranted about preachers who use historical anecdotes without fact-checking them. It is a problem, we suggested, for several reasons, not least because listeners who know the facts, hearing them misstated, will be inclined to wonder what else the preacher may not be speaking accurately about. (Hint, hint: Jesus.)

Here's a new example, which we cite both because the story is so powerful, and therefore tempting, and because its misuse emerges from our own house, to the extent that "Luther" Seminary can be so called.

The seminary operates a website called "Working Preacher," which contains lectionary analysis by a variety of scholars. It is often interesting, and we read it with some pleasure. One of the contributors whose work we enjoy is Frank Crouch, of the Moravian Seminary in Pennsylvania. In his comments on John 13:31-13, this Sunday's Gospel, Crouch uses this story to illustrate the phrase "he loved them to the end":

The Reverend Joachim Alexandropoulos was an Orthodox priest on a Greek isle in World War II, now memorialized at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. The Nazis came one day, demanding that he provide them, the next day, with a list naming every Jew on the island. The next day he handed them a list containing only one name, his own. He loved them to the end, indeed.

Good stuff, huh? So good that we wanted to know what happened next. Was the priest executed, like St. Lawrence when he turned over the "treasures of the Church"? Were the Jews rounded up? What?

We still aren't sure. Here's what we do know, thanks to our friends with the powerful algorithm. Fr. Alexandropulos apparently served St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, in Washington DC, prior to the war. According to the cathedral's website:

In 1930, Father Alexopoulos [Blogger's note: they seem to call him by both names on the site] returned to Volos, Greece where he served as Metropolitan of Demetrias. His courage and faith during World War II were little known until his posthumous recognition in 1998 by the State of Israel, for saving the lives of 700 people who were hidden by the residents of the villages of Mount Pelion. When asked by the Nazis to hand over the list of Jewish residents, he refused, answering, "I am a Jew." Identified as "Righteous among the Nations," Father Alexopoulos' name is inscribed today in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, as well as entered on the Righteous Honor Wall at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Great. The same story, with a bit more detail. And from a reliable-sounding source, too. We were a little concerned that the action had shifted from an island to the mainland. But still, we were were very happy. Until, courtesy of those same friends and their obsessive need to set information free, and thus destroy copyright protection, by digitizing every book ever published, we came across Mordechai Paldiel's Churches and the Holocaust (Jersey City: Ktav, 2006). Paldiel actually works (or did) for Yad Vashem, as the director of the "Righteous Among the Nations" Project, so he has put some real energy into the identification of Gentiles helping Jews during the Holocaust.

And in his chapter on Greece, around page 315, Paldiel tells the story of Father Alex[andr]opolus. It is an heroic story, still: the guy urged the Jews in his village to evacuate, and provided their rabbi with a letter of introduction to other Orthodox priests, asking for assistance. He saved many lives. But that's it.

However, on page 316, Paldiel tells the story of Metropolitan Demetriou Chrysostomos, on the island of Zakynthos. Or rather the stories, plural, because there are several versions. All involve the metropolitan (and the mayor) saving the island's Jews from the Nazis, but in different ways: a large bribe, an evacuation to the countryside, and -- yes -- a list containing only his own name. (And, apparently, that is the story told on the island today.) Paldiel doesn't choose one story over another, but does note that Zakynthos was "the only Jewish community in Greece where no deportation took place."

Now, we don't think it matters too much, in the long run, which heroic priest saved whom, or how he did it. We're glad that both these guys were on the side of the angels, and grateful for their witness. Their stories are inspiring. And we suppose that a preacher can be forgiven some eagerness to tell the story, and in its most dramatic form, even with a few factual inaccuracies thrown in.

But when does it end? If we don't mind getting the name and place wrong, and don't even mind telling a story of questionable truth, why don't we make up some dialogue, too? Add an SS officer with a cruel glint in his eye, and a saber scar from his university days? Throw in an American archaeologist with a fedora, in Greece looking for religious relics. And maybe a raven-haired beauty with a heaving bosom, because why not?

You see the point. Stories, if they are represented as true, ought to be demonstrably true. If they are not true, they should be identified as fables, legends, parables -- whatever fits. Preachers have a duty to get this right, lest they discredit their greater message. And those whose work is going to appear in print, where it may be borrowed by an even greater number of preachers, have an even greater duty.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post. I almost used that story in a sermon. I will use the example of Corrie Ten Boom, instead, who went to a concentration camp herself, rather than give up the people hiding in her house. I am glad I went to the trouble to try to verify the story before I used it!

Father Anonymous said...

Glad to help. Now that you suggest it, I may mention ten Boom on Sunday, to illustrate the Colossians reading.

But don't let this post put you entirely off the Zakynthos story. The details may be vague, but it does seem pretty clear that the priest and the mayor did SOMETHING honorable in an awful time.