YORKTOWN, N.Y. – Hundreds of residents filled town hall last week, sitting in complete silence as they listened intently to the story of Samuel Matsa, a Yorktown resident and Holocaust survivor, who recounted how he and his Jewish family avoided German capture during World War II.
Matsa and his family lived in Greece, where there was a Jewish population of about 100,000 before the war, he said. Just several years later, after the Allied forces drove the Germans out, the Jewish population was only 2,000.
Matsa and many of his family members were among that small figure.
Long before that, as Jews were rounded up in other parts of Europe, a few in his family remained unconcerned. He recalls his uncle saying that no matter what happened, he would not be affected because his many Greek Christian friends would protect him.
Immediately after the Germans took control of Greece, his uncle was captured and gassed. His aunt was also captured, though she survived thanks to a potato that she found on a woman who died next to her on a train.
“My aunt finally decided to take that potato, hide it in her dress, and eat several little pieces of it for days that followed,” Matsa said. “Without that one potato, she, too, might have starved to death.”
Athens, where most of his family lived, was at first under Italian control, beginning in 1941. The Italians did not “persecute” the Jews and they were able to live a “semi-normal life,” Matsa said. Two years later, the Germans expanded their control to Athens and his family went into hiding, along with about 25 percent of Jewish families, Matsa said.
They took refuge in the small attic of a woman who was the widow of a respected Greek general. In reality, Matsa said, she was actually an Austrian Jew. In the attic, their living quarters were about an 8-by-8-foot space.
The woman was unable to provide the family with much food, and they often-ate bug-infested meals.
“My favorite meal of the week was on Sunday, when all four of us shared one tomato,” he said.
While living in the cramped space, they would hear the sounds and songs of German marchers.
“We would often hear the German boots marching on the sidewalk,” he said. “If they would ever slow down near our house, we worried that somebody had turned us over to the Germans and they were coming to take us away.”
The Germans had put a bounty out for each Jew that was discovered. Once, while peaking outside from the attic, he witnessed a young boy shot dead in the street by the soldiers.
“The sounds of their boots as they marched is something I will never forget,” he said.
During Passover in 1944, all registered Jews were told to bring their families to the local synagogue to pick up a box of matzo for each family member. Matsa’s father decided against it, likely saving his family from death.
“As the people walked in the front door, they were ushered to the rear, where there were trucks waiting to take them to the train station and then be deported to Auschwitz,” Matsa said.
Rabbi Robert Weiner of Temple Beth Am in Yorktown said Matsa was brave for telling his story, knowing how difficult it must be for him to relive those events.
“I’m very glad I had the opportunity to share this with you, because there aren’t that many people who have survived to recount all of what was happening during those days and those times,” Matsa said.
The event was organized by Councilman Ed Lactherman, who said it is important to remember that these atrocities were committed by human beings. It was also humans who failed to stop it.
“The governments that have performed these atrocities have controlled the media and the media have controlled the citizens,” Lachterman said. “None of these crimes of humanity started overnight. They started with a message of hate that was either accepted or received with indifference, and that indifference that can be seen as a moral acceptance.”
Supervisor Michael Grace said people too often forget about these atrocities. Though one individual alone might not be able to stop them, at the very minimum, he said, people should be respectful to their fellow man.
“Human history is littered with either genocides or attempted genocides,” Grace said. “We have this obligation to speak out about it everywhere at every turn.”
The entire ceremony can be viewed at yorktownny.org/holocaust-remembrance-ceremony.