On 30 September 1943 — Rosh Hashanah — Rabbi Moshe Pesach of the Jewish community of Volos, Greece went to the offices of Greek Orthodox Archbishop Joakim Alexopoulos. The Rabbi told the Archbishop that the Germans had ordered him to report with a list of all the Jews of Volos the next day, and entreated him to ascertain the Germans’ intentions. The Archbishop contacted the German honorary consul, who hinted that Jews would do well to leave the city at once. The Archbishop then wrote a letter to the village leaders, members of the underground and clergy, and asked them to render the fleeing Jews whatever aid they could.
Thanks to this cooperation, the majority of Volos Jewry scattered to the hillside. Before leaving, many went to the Archbishop and entrusted their valuables to him. Some 130 Jews who stayed in Volos were arrested in the night of 24-25 March 1944, but most of the 900-strong community was saved. When the survivors returned after liberation, the Archbishop issued a statement calling on all his parishioners to return their possessions.
This is one example of Jewish and non-Jewish religious leaders cooperating on numerous occasions during WWII in order to save Jewish lives. Rabbi Nathan Cassuto of the Jewish community of Florence, Italy, also took action to aid the community and the numerous refugees who came to the city. The Rabbi rode his bicycle from house to house, imploring the Jews to hide in remote villages and monasteries outside the city. But when he contacted Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa, a unique cooperative relationship between the two community leaders began. Archbishop Dalla Costa also brought his ecclesiastical subordinates and monasteries into the rescue network. Father Cipriano Ricotti testified that the Archbishop had given him a dispatch for the monasteries, “many of which might not have opened their gates, were it not for the letter.” In late 1943, an informer led to the arrest of many members of the rescue committee. Rabbi Cassuto was sent to Auschwitz, and the other Jewish members of the network went underground. Despite the danger, the clergy and monks took full responsibility to continue the activity. The rescue efforts in Florence, which began thanks to the Rabbi and the Archbishop’s cooperation, kept going until the end of the German occupation, and hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish lives were saved thanks to them.
Rabbi Eli Bloch of Alsace went to Poitiers, France when the war broke out, and began taking action to aid the camp internees and the numerous refugees who came to the region. There he met Father Jean Fleury, the priest of the Roma in the Poitiers internment camp. When the deportations began in the summer of 1942, they and other Jewish activists began taking joint action to smuggle Jewish children out of the camps and into hiding places. After Rabbi Bloch was arrested in February 1943, Father Fleury visited him in the camp and got the keys to his desk in order to remove incriminating documents. Tragically, the Rabbi, who helped smuggle many children to safety, failed to save his own daughter, and on 17 December 1943, Eli and Georgette Bloch and their little girl Miriam were deported to Auschwitz and murdered. As in the case of the Florentine network, the priest continued the rescue operations after his Jewish partners fled or were arrested. When Yad Vashem recognized Father Fleury as a Righteous Among the Nations, Rabbi Eli Bloch’s father, Rabbi Yosef Bloch, wrote:
“Father Fleury was a loyal friend to our son… Where the Rabbi was unable to take action to save poor persecuted or interned Jews, it was Father Fleury who took his place.”
This article originally appeared in the "Yad Vashem Jerusalem Magazine," volume 83.