The WWII plun­der­ing of a Jewish fam­ily’s prop­erty

Son of an Athens shop­keeper re­veals court records that doc­u­ment how his fa­ther was cheated out of mer­chan­dise by fel­low busi­ness­men

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY YIANNIS PAPADOPOULOS

Mar­ios Sousis re­mem­bers a rather grim man – al­ways well dressed in a white shirt and bow tie – mak­ing fre­quent vis­its to his fam­ily’s Athens home af­ter the end of the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion. A mere child at the time, Sousis could not know that this man was a lawyer – and his fam­ily’s only chance at re­claim­ing pos­ses­sions plun­dered by ac­quain­tances and neigh­bors af­ter his fa­ther was shipped off to a con­cen­tra­tion camp.

“My mother and I rarely dis­cussed these sub­jects af­ter the oc­cu­pa­tion. It was a past we wanted to for­get,” says Sousis. “But she kept all these doc­u­ments. Out of in­tu­ition, maybe? Who knows? They’re tes­ta­ments of an era.”

He shows us a folder stuffed full of pa­pers so frag­ile they look like they may dis­in­te­grate at a touch. His wife dis­cov­ered them in a closet re­cently while spring clean­ing: These yel­low­ing pa­pers are the case records of the trial against the plun­der­ers.

These ju­di­cial doc­u­ments, with dates start­ing a few weeks af­ter the last Ger­man troops departed from Athens in 1944, pro­vide a de­tailed de­scrip­tion of the Sousis fam­ily’s tribu­la­tions. Close study also re­veals how a sec­tion of so­ci­ety re­garded Greek Jews dur­ing a tur­bu­lent time that brought out the best, but also the worst, in peo­ple.

Be­fore the ar­rival of Ger­man forces, the Sousis fam­ily’s store had for years been a fix­ture at 18 Er­mou Street in down­town Athens. A sim­ple glance in­side showed why it was called Akropol: rows of replica Doric col­umns sup­port­ing shelves of silk fab­rics and lux­u­ri­ous Euro­pean coats.

As news started trick­ling into Athens about the per­se­cu­tion of the Jews in Thes­sa­loniki, store owner Jac­ques Sousis de­cided to take ac­tion to pro­tect his prop­erty. As his wife Louiza later tes­ti­fied in court, he de­cided to en­trust his mer­chan­dise “un­til the calamity was over” to a neigh­bor who had a fur­ni­ture work­shop on nearby Voulis Street. In July 1943 porter Spy­ros Ionas ad­mit­ted to trans­port­ing loads of silk stock­ing, coats and fab­rics worth a to­tal of 2,000 pounds ster­ling from the Er­mou store to the Voulis Street fur­ni­ture maker. The oper­a­tion took four trips and Ionas took dif­fer­ent routes each time so as not to raise any sus­pi­cions.

The Sousis fam­ily hid for a while with friends in the north­ern sub­urb of Ha­lan­dri. At some point, Jac­ques told his ac­quain­tance with the fur­ni­ture shop that he wanted the Akropol mer­chan­dise back. The lat­ter re­fused and, ac­cord­ing to Louiza, threat­ened to turn the fam­ily in to the Nazi au­thor­i­ties. The Sousis fam­ily was plan­ning to es­cape to Egypt, but never made it.

(left) stud­ies the ma­te­rial he plans to use in a book on the trial against the men who robbed his fam­ily. The ju­di­cial doc­u­ments, with dates start­ing a few weeks af­ter the last Ger­man troops departed from Athens in 1944, pro­vide a de­tailed de­scrip­tion of the Sousis fam­ily’s tribu­la­tions. Above: Jac­ques Sousis speaks with a cus­tomer at the en­trance of the Akropol in the late 1930s or early 1940s.

The court doc­u­ments show that the fur­ni­ture maker had a lengthy crim­i­nal record that in­cluded con­vic­tions for the kid­nap, rape and at­tempted mur­der of a 15-year-old girl in the south­ern Athe­nian sub­urb of Gly­fada, as well as em­bez­zle­ment and es­cap­ing prison.

De­spite the pre­cau­tions he took, Jac­ques was ar­rested by the Ger­mans and im­pris­oned with other Jews in Haidari, west of Athens. Know­ing his life was in dan­ger, he begged a fel­low in­mate, Raphael Par­it­sis, to find his wife and tell her to try to re­claim the mer­chan­dise. “Please. If I don’t make it, they will be des­ti­tute,” Jac­ques told Par- it­sis, ac­cord­ing to the court records.

Par­it­sis was due for re­lease be­cause he had been bap­tized a Chris­tian and was also mar­ried to one. But Sout­sis was headed to Auschwitz, where, ac­cord­ing to records found by his son Mar­ios, he was as­signed to the “Spe­cial Com­mand Units” – Jewish pris­on­ers forced to take bod­ies from the gas cham­bers to the cre­ma­to­ri­ums.

“It was un­con­scionable, ter­ri­ble. A man, a mer­chant mind­ing his own busi­ness, look­ing af­ter his own fam­ily, be­ing forced to burn bod­ies,” says Mar­ios.

Jac­ques was tat­tooed with the num­ber 182679. He didn’t make it back.

Later in court, the fur­ni­ture maker de­nied all charges and even ac­cused Jac­ques of gam­bling and ow­ing him money. As his wit­ness, he called an­other shopowner who had plun­dered the Sousis fam­ily’s wares and against whom an­other ju­di­cial pro­ceed­ing was pend­ing. The court was not con­vinced and in Septem­ber 1945, the 48-year-old fur­ni­ture maker was in­dicted to stand trial.

“From 1943, the Greek man­i­fes­ta­tion of Hitler’s curse be­gan to show signs of a sadis­tic ma­nia aimed at erad­i­cat­ing the ill-fated race to which Sousis be­longed,” the judges wrote, re­ject­ing the fur­ni­ture maker’s tes­ti­mony. They also added – re­ly­ing on yet an­other stereo­type – that Sousis could not pos­si­bly have owed large amounts even if he gam­bled “given his race’s fond­ness for money.”

They fur­ther ruled that it was un­likely Jac­ques Sousis had lied as his fi­nal words to Par­it­sis be­fore he was taken to cer­tain death were tan­ta­mount to a last will and tes­ta­ment to his wife.

The pre­vail­ing cli­mate at that time is also ev­i­dent in an­other part of the rul­ing: “The Is­raelites in ques­tion, with a quak­ing heart and aware of their fate, start­ing tak­ing as many mea­sures as pos­si­ble to safe­guard their as­sets and lives.”

The months passed but the de­fen­dants never faced trial as the case was set­tled out of court fol­low­ing a 1946 law aimed at eas­ing pres­sure on the coun­try’s over­crowded pris­ons that had brought the pros­e­cu­to­rial ser­vice to a stand­still.

Jac­ques Sousis’s for­mer em­ploy­ees did what they could to help Louiza, work­ing at the shop with­out regular pay and tak­ing home a part of the earn­ings from sales in a bid to get the busi­ness back on its feet. Nev­er­the­less, in a coun­try that was still in the grips of strife, their ef­forts failed.

Af­ter nu­mer­ous set­backs, Louiza and later her chil­dren even­tu­ally man­aged to restart the fam­ily busi­ness, ex­pand­ing it to new head­quar­ters and into ex­ports, and keep­ing it alive un­til the 1980s.

“I’m not bit­ter,” says Mar­ios Sousis, clos­ing the folder with the doc­u­ments he plans to use to write a book. “It’s over. Now we must look ahead.”

Mar­ios Sousis

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