A Fighting Rabbi
He was only five-foot-one; he wore owlish glasses; he was, in appearance and manner, shy and unpretentious. He was a quiet-voiced speaker of numerous languages, a man who might be anything but a partisan warrior. Yet, Leon (Yehudah) Pessah was a trusted friend of and courier for the anti-Nazi partisan groups in the mountains of Greece during World War II. He was a man so devoted to his books, family, and faith that he three times risked his life to return, alone, to his German-occupied town to retrieve family and ritual objects. Leon Pessah was very much a fighting rabbi and a rabbi fighting for his faith.
Life Before the Invasion
Having grown up in Salonika, the large port city on the Greek coast that had been a great religious and cultural center of Sephardic life, Rabbi Pessah had the unwelcome distinction- due to the outbreak of World War II- of being a member of the last graduating class of Salonika’s rabbinical seminary. In 1941, after serving in the Greek army, he took his first pulpit in Trikala, a town in the mountains of western Thessaly, where a community of nearly five hundred Jews had lived for centuries.
Rabbi Pessah and his wife, Gracia, who was an excellent seamstress, lived in the town, near the schoolhouse, where the rabbi also taught French to the town’s children. Among his language students were the children of the local chief of police and the prelate of the Greek Orthodox church. Their admiration and respect for Rabbi Pessah would, eventually, save his life and that of his family.
After invading Greece in April 1941, the Nazis came to Trikala in 1942 to begin their roundups, decimations, and attempts at the ultimate destruction of the Jewish community.
Flee to Survive:
Although Rabbi Pessah, his wife, and their infant son, Joseph, were able to evade the roundup, the message was clear: they had to flee in order to survive, and so they arranged safe passage to the nearby mountains. The mountain people, many of whom hated the Nazis, had organized into partisan units and attacked the Nazis in the narrow passes, where the Germans could not bring their vehicles or tanks. Fearing an ambush, the Nazis were reluctant to invade the mountains, but when they came close, the partisans moved Jewish families including the Pessahs — to safer locations.
Becoming A Fighter:
Rabbi Pessah ventured back to Trikala to retrieve his leather-bound shochet’s knife, the ritual slaughterer’s implement, in order to help the Jewish guerrilla fighters and their families in the mountains to keep kosher. He also retrieved many of his religious books and astronomical resources.
Because he could speak Italian, Greek, French, and other languages and dialects of the area, Rabbi Pessah traveled between the mountains and the towns to relay messages among the various groups of partisans. He was stopped and picked up several times on these dangerous missions.
Once, he was even caught with a suitcase of Jewish books. He said he was a simple farmer delivering bags, whose contents he did not know. In such encounters, Rabbi Pessah relied on his courage, linguistic skills, ingenuity, and faith to survive. The residents remaining in Trikala also knew if they turned in the rabbi or collaborated with the Nazis, the partisans would exact punishment.
Finally, the Germans evacuated Greece in September 1944. But such moments of optimism and joy could not reverse what had happened in the towns and cities of Greece. Although the Jews living in the small towns of Thessaly, such as Trikala and Volos, were able to survive by hiding in the mountains or dispersing among their courageous neighbors, of the 56,000 Jews living in Salonika in 1941, less than 4 percent survived. Among the killed was the extended family of Rabbi Pessah and his wife.
Starting a New Life
Although the Trikala synagogue, along with its Torahs and ornaments, had survived — the Greek neighbors had camouflaged it as a warehouse so the Nazis would not destroy it — the Pessah family determined that they should eventually leave Greece.
In 1949, the rabbi, his wife, and sons Joseph, Marius, and Yehoshua came to the United States. Here, the rabbi of Trikala became the rabbi of a Sephardic-Romaniote synagogue, Kehila Kedosha of Janina, in the South Bronx. His son Joseph, inspired by his father, teaches secular education as well as Torah, Jewish history, and the Holocaust.