“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”- Ephesians 6:12
Each year on January 27, the United Nations commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day, corresponding with the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. This Day, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, articulates a unique, yet significant concept that is often missing from acknowledgement of historical atrocities: while it is certainly important to remember those who have been lost, it is equally as significant to learn from these events so that we may ensure it does not happen again. In doing so, we can provide an element of hope to an otherwise somber day by showcasing those who, in the face of evil, demonstrated love, compassion and courage.
As Christians, we have a duty to preserve the shared memory with our fellow man of the greatest evil of the 20th century, in order that we never see it repeated. Attempting to comprehend why and how the Holocaust was allowed to happen is an arduous task, filled with political, cultural and societal complexities better left for another post. However, His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew gave some clarity from a Christian perspective. Upon visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., he remarked:
“The images of this place, the terror of which we glimpse but for a moment here, was suffered in the unspeakable depths of living images of God -- men, women and children…We must understand that such depravity of human action was caused by a deprivation of human spirit. We cannot help but see in this place that Jews and Christians bear a special responsibility toward the hope and guarantee that this terrible evil must never again take root within the human psyche.”
Despite the horrors of this period, we can take some element of solace in the fact that when faced with brutality, many of our Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters stood up in the face of this evil to protect the value of all human life, whether or not they were Christian.
To demonstrate, I call to your attention the story of Yolanda Avram Willis, a native of Thessaloniki and a child during World War II. Called a ‘hidden child,’ Mrs. Willis was born into a Jewish family, one of thousands of Jewish Greeks living in Greece at the time. When the war finally arrived in Greece in 1940, many Greeks, including clergy members and bishops, protected and hid their Jewish brothers and sisters in order to safeguard their well-being. Because of her religion, Mrs. Willis and her family, along with thousands of other Jewish Greeks, had to adopt a new identity to evade persecution at the hands of Nazi officials that had infiltrated Greece.
She and her family moved around Greece, hiding in the mountains of Crete and seeking refuge in caves. Her family ultimately separated, merging with different Orthodox Christian families, and her parents were able to convince authorities that they were childless. After pretending to be non-Jewish, she was finally reunited with her family after four years, and they eventually made their way to the United States, where she remains today. 
With the spirit of Mrs. Willis and all those who aided her in mind, it is important to recognize the effort and struggle that they went through when faced with ‘spiritual wickedness and their fight against ‘principalities…powers… and the rulers of darkness (Ephesians 6:12). Patriarch Bartholomew notes that “silence in the face of injustice, silence in the shadows of helpless suffering, silence in the darkness of Auschwitz's bitter night will never again be allowed. True Christian faith ought to be manifest toward every people of faith, any faith.”
This was best exemplified through Mrs. Willis’ story, along with numerous other examples of individuals putting others ahead of themselves. Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, risking harm when Nazi officials arrived in the city demanding a list of all Jews, falsified thousands of baptismal certificates in order to hide the true identities of these citizens from the Nazi officials. Similarly, the Athens police chief Angelos Evert provided over 27,000 false identity papers to those attempting to flee Greece after orders came in from the Nazis to procure a list of all those Jews currently living in Athens.
As Christians, it is important to ensure that we are not Christian in name only, but in our actions as well. Outside of these examples, history is full of indifferent populaces to ongoing injustices, meaning people often struggle to connect their faith with their actions. As we hear in the Epistle of James: “You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe-and tremble” (James 2:18-19).
The rescuers of the Jews in Greece and around the world were living testaments to the Christian faith. They understood that to have faith alone is not enough; it must be accompanied by action as well. (James 2:24-26). We have the ability to discern right from wrong, but we must look outward towards our fellow man, both Christian and non-Christian alike, and ensure that when we perceive an injustice, we do not look the other way, ensuring that our faith is aligned with our actions.
Anthony Balouris is a Fellow at the UN for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org)
The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ESOSCO). It has been actively working at the UN for 30 years.