PEORIA — The power of one person's voice can change the course of history.
That was one of many lessons a crowd of several dozen had reinforced for them Sunday afternoon at the Peoria Riverfront Museum at a ceremony paying homage to the 75th anniversary of a letter penned by Greek Orthodox Archbishop Damaskinos calling out German atrocities against Jews in his country.
The clergyman's letter is a rare example of a direct challenge to Nazi policy during the Holocaust, and one that would ordinarily have brought with it a death sentence by the occupying Germans.
His defiant answer to execution threats from the SS officer overseeing the region — insisting that rather than being shot before a firing squad that he instead be hanged under the protocol for executing clergy — flummoxed German efforts and ultimately saved his life.
To commemorate the event locally, descendants of a Greek Jew who evaded capture and transportation to a concentration camp and of a Greek Orthodox fisherman who helped ferry Jewish countrymen to safety shared their family stories.
Lara Griminger Ackerman recalled the aid her grandfather, Jack (Jacov) Tevah, received in 1942 after evading capture by the German army by playing dead and hiding overnight in a cart with dead bodies after the Greek military tried fighting off the Germans on their initial invasion.
"My grandfather was hidden and saved by a Greek family," she said, recounting how Tevah stayed in contact with that family's patriarch, Christos Karapanayotides, until his own death.
Frank Lagouros' father, Angelo, was another of those saviors. A fisherman before coming to America, by day he plied the seas for his catch and "by night they were fishermen of souls, saving as many lives as possible," Lagouros recounted.
One of the 86 people he saved later found out enough to track him down to extend his thanks.
Like Damaskinos' letter, the aid offered by such ordinary people — if discovered — would have been punishable by death.
After fending off his own possible Nazi death sentence, Damaskinos oversaw the issuance of falsified birth certificates and baptismal documents to help shelter Greek Jews from deportation and death, and helped encourage citizens in their efforts to secretly spirit Jews away onto remote islands in the country or into mountainous regions.
Such behavior was not out of character in a nation where people of Jewish and Orthodox faiths have lived peacefully for more than 23 centuries, said Polyxeni Petropoulou, Greece's consul general to the Midwest.
"For Greeks, it went without question that protecting the Greek Jewry was a moral imperative," the Chicago-based Petropoulou said at the ceremony.
Remembering Damaskinos today helps to reinforce the lesson that "we must all stand up and defend our humanistic values against the enemies of those values," she said.
That means standing up against religious persecution, racism and all other attacks on people for being different even as they grow anew, Petropoulou said.
"We have to fight these forces with our everyday actions everywhere — the workplace, school, everywhere," she said before presenting the museum with a book produced by her government containing stories and recollections from survivors of the Holocaust in Greece.
The event was sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, the Jewish Federation of Peoria and the Peoria Riverfront Museum.
Chris Kaergard covers politics and government. He can be reached at email@example.com or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard.