It was 1943 in German-occupied Greece.
The little girl with the curly blonde hair at the church on the outskirts of Athens was at the center of the Nazis’ attention. Reminded of their children back home by the baby’s blonde hair, they caressed her as one of their own.
From the sidelines, the girl’s mother watched on in horror, wanting to kill the German soldiers touching her daughter.
Months earlier, the mother and her one-year-old had escaped the clutches of the Nazis with the help of the partisans. Now they were sheltering at the church, where no one knew they were Jews except the priest.
“Remember, you are Greek. You will keep silent and not say anything,” the priest told the mother, seeing her anguish as the Germans stroked the Jewish child’s hair.
It was not the first encounter with imminent death for Esther and her mother, Mari (Miriam) Michael, nor would it be their last. Yet together, through unimaginable peril and bravery, including incarceration, escape, rescue, illness and then finally freedom, they would survive the Holocaust.
No normal childhood
Born in 1942 to an affluent family of merchants in Macedonia, in the northeastern Greek city of Drama, Esther Yaron had anything but a normal childhood. Her father, Moris (Moshe) Michael, joined the partisans around the time she was born and only saw her for a few short moments, months after her birth.
Italy had declared war on Greece in October 1940, and Germany invaded the country in April 1941.
Moris arranged for his wife and newborn daughter to be smuggled out of the city. They went from place to place until they reached Thessaloniki, where a relative was living and which housed the largest Jewish population in Greece. Shortly thereafter, Mari and her six-month-old were forced to enter the Baron Hirsch ghetto in the center of the city, which teemed with thousands of Jews incarcerated by the Nazis.
Decades later, Esther would hear her mother recount in testimony to Yad Vashem the horrors of life in the ghetto: the sounds of gunfire, the dogs’ barking, the cries of suffering and the sense of disaster yet to come for the vast majority of the Jews of Greece.
Escape from the ghetto
Just before the last transport to Auschwitz in that fateful summer of 1943, Moris managed to smuggle his loved ones out of the ghetto with the help of Greek partisans before once more disappearing into the darkness.
Mother and daughter began the journey to the church on the outskirts of Athens where it had been arranged that they would seek refuge.
However, before they set off, the Greek rescue team, afraid that Esther would endanger them all by crying, urged the mother to drown her.
“You are a beautiful young woman and can have another child,” they told her.
“You will never touch my child for if you do I will let out such a scream that everyone will hear and we will all be caught. From this moment on the girl will not cry. But if you sense we are endangering you, kill us both,” Mari told them.
She clutched her child and breastfed her. The baby remained silent during the arduous journey.
“It is unimaginable how we survived,” Esther Yaron, 81, recounts in an interview with JNS from the lush garden of her home in the Israeli coastal town of Pardes Hanna. “For years, I did not know the suffering that my mother had endured.”
Arriving at the church, the priest immediately put crosses on Esther and Mari. The story concocted for the villagers was that the little girl had been born out of wedlock to the mother with an Australian soldier and so had taken refuge in the church, where the mother would serve as an assistant to the priest.
As fate would have it, German forces chose to camp just opposite the church.
“We had escaped the Nazis and here they were right among us,” Esther said. “My mother thought that the end of the world was upon us.”
But the priest told Mari that as his aide, she would walk alongside him as they led the parishioners to meet the Germans.
“You are Greek, and hold your head up high because Greeks do not give in,” he told her.
The ruse worked. An agreement was reached that the invaders would not touch the church.
Later, the Germans would indulge the little girl with gifts of chocolates and milk that the terrified mother thought might be poisoned.
“Twenty-thirty other children will be saved because of this food,” the priest told Mari.
Free at last
When the war ended, Moris reemerged and brought them to Athens—where a civil war was raging between Communists and non-Communists—and then home to Drama.
Their family home was untouched, with a Greek attendant and family friend awaiting their arrival.
“She [the attendant] said she was always sure we would return. It was as if we had left happiness and returned to happiness,” Esther said.
But their entire extended family had been wiped out save one uncle who had gotten to pre-state Israel in 1939.
Indeed, when the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee came to Greece after the war, Esther was the only Jewish child left in the city and thus was the recipient of a roomful of toys.
Feeling that there was nothing left for them in Greece, her Zionist parents together with her newly born sibling twins immigrated to Israel in 1950, paying their own way to the Jewish state.
The first period at the Sha’ar Ha’aliyah migrant transit camp near Haifa was reminiscent of the hardships they faced earlier that had traumatized them, with Esther remembering one desperate night when her mother slept outside the tents, clutching her in her arms.
“Of course it was hard. It was hard for all of us. But we made it. And we have a beautiful, wonderful country that is our own,” Esther recounts with tears in her eyes.
One time she terrified her mother by asking her about a childhood memory: What were those moving black columns? They were the Germans’ boots seen from the height of a tiny girl.
Mari and Moris would never return to Greece.
Decades later, their daughter would discover that their home and family business were still registered under her grandfather’s name.
Her mother would have none of it.
“There’s nothing there. Forget it,” she would say.
Last month, the 81-year-old survivor participated in the rally organized by the March of the Living in Thessaloniki, retracing the route the city’s Jews were forced to take from the city center to the old railway station where they were deported to Auschwitz. Esther’s two sons and her grandson who is serving in the IDF accompanied her to Greece for the event.
Today she is seeking out the priest—and his descendants—who saved her and her mother so he can be recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
She does not know his name.
After appearing at the event, she was invited to return to her Greek hometown next month by a municipal official and historian to retrace her family’s origins.
At the train station, Esther was determined to speak on behalf of the survivors. She walked up to the podium and broke protocol, as she had not been included on the long list of official speakers.
“The nation of Israel lives,” she said, Israeli flag in hand.