April 11, 2012
In early October 1943, a day or two after Rosh Hashanah, Julia Moshe — née Costi — was walking to her bookkeeping job at the Atlas Watch Co. in Volos, Greece, when she heard footsteps behind her. “Mademoiselle, don’t turn around your head,” a male voice warned. “Yesterday SS soldiers came to city hall asking for a list of the Jewish people.” Julia started trembling. She recalled her mother’s words, “If the Germans come here, it’s OK if they take us.” Julia gave notice at work and hurried home. “Please don’t say no,” she begged her mother. “We have to go from here.”
Julia, her sister Carmen and their mother immediately arranged to rent two donkeys from villagers who had trekked down Mount Pelion to barter figs for olive oil. The girls helped their mother cover the donkeys’ backs with blankets and load them with bedding, clothing, olive oil, flour and, on top, Carmen’s sewing machine. The villagers led the donkeys, the three women walking behind, up the mountain to Kanalia, a village where Julia’s father was buying pears for his wholesale fruit business.
Julia was born on June 17, 1918, in Volos, a town on the Aegean Sea, at the foot of Mount Pelion. She was the third daughter of Isaac and Sterina Costi. Although the Sephardic Jews lived amicably with the Greek Orthodox Christians, life in Volos was not easy. The Jewish community was mostly poor, and Julia’s father was constantly traveling, searching for produce. Julia remembers only one happy childhood event, when she was 7 and her father returned with gifts from a trip to Salonika. Hers was an orange silk jersey dress with a drop waist and a pleated top. “Oh, I was so happy,” she said.
Volos came under Italian occupation after Nazi Germany declared war on Greece on April 6, 1941. The Jews, then numbering around 900, though fearful, continued to live in relative peace. The Italian governor befriended Volos’ Chief Rabbi Moshe Pessah, and Archbishop Ioakim (later honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among Nations) and the many resistance groups actively assisted the Jews. The Christian leaders continued to reassure the Jews, even after March 1943, when they learned the Jews of Salonika were being deported.
During that time, Julia’s family was consumed by the illness of the middle sister, Artemis, who had developed a high fever after being bitten by an insect. Artemis died in May 1943, and Julia’s mother took Artemis’ death “very deep,” according to Julia, wearing only black afterward and professing indifference toward being captured. Still, the family obtained false identity papers from the local police station. Julia became Niki Chegarides.
Then, after Italy surrendered to the Allies on Sept. 3, 1943, the Germans invaded Greece, occupying Volos. On Sept. 30, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Nazi commander demanded from Rabbi Pessah the names, addresses and properties of all Volos’ Jews. The Jews were advised to leave the city immediately.
Julia remembers hiking up the steep trail toward Kanalia, following the donkeys; it was a hot, sunny day, and she was afraid. At one point, three strangers jumped out of the forest, demanding, “Who are you?” They explained they were Jews escaping, and the strangers, who were resistance fighters, let them pass. In Kanalia, they met their father, who advised them to hike farther up the mountain to Keramidi, where he would meet them.
They finally reached Keramidi, a poor village overlooking the Aegean Sea, and found a house to rent. There was no work. Julia helped her mother cook and clean. She also hiked down the mountain to the natural spring to fetch drinking water, lugging it uphill in two buckets on a shoulder yoke. Additionally, she knit a jacket for the only rich girl in the village, receiving a fish from nearby Lake Karla as payment. “It was like a feast,” Julia said.
When Julia’s family heard German planes buzzing over the sea looking for partisans hiding in the thick forests, they too ran for the forest. A few times they spent the entire night there, sleeping in a clearing or a barn.
Toward the end of the war, Julia accompanied a family friend to Zagora, another village. They hiked down the mountain to the sea and boarded a small boat. Suddenly, German airplanes began shooting at them, and they crouched down in the boat, ducking their heads. “They were maniacs,” Julia said. The next day Greece was liberated. It was October 1944.
Julia met her mother and sister back in Volos. But with no opportunities for work, Julia, who saw herself as the family decision maker, urged them to move to Salonika. By spring 1945, the family was living there, and Julia found a job helping people reclaim Jewish properties.
In Salonika, Julia met Albert Moshe, a shoemaker who had been in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and whose first wife had been killed. They were married in June 1947, and their daughter, Artemis, was born in March 1950.
In July 1951, they immigrated to the United States, settling in Boston. Julia’s parents followed three months later. They all lived in a third-floor apartment above a liquor store. But after a fire engulfed the building, they decided to move west. Their son, Joe, was born in December 1952, and the following May they arrived in Los Angeles.
Albert worked as a shoemaker. Then he and Julia bought The Friendly Market, a small grocery, in Hawthorne, which they operated from 1960 to 1972. Albert died in February 2004.
Julia, now 93, lives in West Los Angeles. Despite her macular degeneration, she still enjoys knitting. She also likes to visit Westside Pavilion with her caregiver, where she sometimes meets other Greek survivors and enjoys looking at jewelry.
“I’m crazy about earrings,” she said. She’s also crazy about her two granddaughters and two great-grandchildren.
“All my life is an adventure,” Julia says.
JewishJournal.com is produced by TRIBE Media Corp., a non-profit media company whose mission is to inform, connect and enlighten community