Neoklis Girihidis was only 16-years old back in 1943, when he was assigned a very dangerous mission; to transport 17 jewish boys from Thessaloniki to the guerilla fighters in the mountains, in order to escape the Nazis. 73 years later, the old man seeks again and again those children in his dreams. “Before I die, I want to know what has happened to those children” says Mr.Neoklis.
Last year Mr. Neoklis heard in the news that the municipality of Thessaloniki was organizing a march commemorating the 72nd anniversary of the departure of the first train from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz. “What if one of those children had survived and was among the attendees? What if he could recognize him?” he thought. This thought convinced him that he should also attend. Although he was 88 years old he decided to travel alone from Nea Santa to Thessaloniki by bus (40km). He walked on foot the 2 kilometers separating Eleftherias square, where the March began, to the Old Train Station where it ended. He attended the ceremony holding a 1943 photo of him hoping that he could find any information about the children he helped. A year later he repeated the same route, holding the same photo. “I will come back in 2017” the 89-years-old promised. “If you do not see me next year, you can assume that I no longer live”, he told me.
In March 15th 1943, 2.800 jews from Thessaloniki were deported to Auschwitz Birkenau. In a couple of months almost 46.000 Salonican Jews were sent to the concentration camps, 96% was murdered. According to Mr. Neoklis the jewish boys were sent to him right after the departure of the first train to Auschwitz. He recalls that the incident took place after the Greek Independence Day (March 25th) and before the orthodox Easter (April 25th). Mr. Girihidis was living in Nea Santa, a village that favored the communist guerillas fighting against the Nazis. At the same time right-wing guerillas of PAO, often collaborating with the Germans, were acting in the region.
One day members of the communist resistance group (EAM) in Nea Santa visited him in his home and asked if he could undertake a mission. EAM’s office in Thessaloniki, had organized the escape of Jewish boys to be transported to Nea Santa by car. Captain Kolokotronis, the communist guerrilla officer in Resistance (who served in the 16th Vermion EAM batallion) was waiting the boys in nearby Peristeri village, deep in the mountains. Somebody had to lead those boys from Nea Santa to Peristeri (5km), and hand them over to Cpt Kolokotronis.
“I was not a member of the Resistance, but I was a trusted, brave, fearless boy; that is why they picked me” Μr. Neoklis says. “There was still sunlight. We had to walk through paths and gullies in the forest. The children were afraid, they barely spoke. We were walking in silence most of the time. Unfortunately after all those years I cannot remember their names. They were between 12-16 years old, all well dressed. One of them was wearing boots and carried a second pair that he offered it to me – he could see I was poorly dressed and wore sandals. I urged him to keep the second pair of boots, because somebody in the mountains would have needed them more than i did. His eyes were full of tears. The youngest of the boys, and the most handsome of all, was 10-11 years old. I asked him how did he manage to escape. He told me that during the unrest a german soldier had hidden him and afterwards. He had returned later without wearing his uniform and took him home”.
”After an hour or so we had reached Peristeri. As soon as we had arrived the guerillas started to embrace the children” mr. Neoklis recalls. Indeed captain Kolokotronis had a lot of Jews from Thessaloniki and other cities in his guerilla group and that might explain the warm welcoming of the children. Captain Kolokotronis remained only one week in the area. During this period young Neoklis handed over to him three group of a total 17 jewish children.
“After that, Kolokotronis left to Paiko mountains and afterwards to Vermio mountains, were he was based” he says. In his book (“Greek, Jew and Leftist” 2000) famous Jewish guerilla fighter Moshe Bourla describes that many Greek Jews had been using the same route, from Paiko to Vermio Mountain. Kolokotronis’s was killed in September 27th 1944 in Veria. Among the guerilla fighters that died that same day was Solomon (Sardo) Bourla
Chances are that if any of those children managed to survive the war, they would have probably made aliya afterwards. Mr. Neoklis is desperately seeking any information on those children. His only hope is that one of the survivors might recognize him from his old photo, back in 1943.