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Τετάρτη, 3 Φεβρουαρίου 2016

The Odyssey of Jacob Bensoua, a World War II Greek soldier of Jewish descent

Jacob, far left, and servicemen work on a truck.
The Odyssey of Jacob Bensoua, a Greek of Jewish descent, during the turbulent times of WW2 and the ensuing Greek Civil War (1946-49), is published for the first time. 

Jacob told his story to his daughter Mattika Rosenthal and I personally wish to thank his son Joe for sharing it through my blog. 

NOTE: I have kept Mr. Bensoua's story exactly as it was written, with the exception of some Greek names, which I changed to their actual spelling. Every other detail remains exactly as it was written by Mattika Rosenthal, the daughter of Jacob Bensoua.

Portrait of Jacob as a corporal 
Jacob Bensoua, born the youngest of seven children in Macedonia, Greece, in 1920 to Joseph and Miriyam Ben-yeoshua, saw his share of World War II battles. 

Because of the continued hostilities between Greece and Turkey, in 1923 Jacob went to live with his oldest sister, Gentil, and her husband, Sabetay, in Paris, where he attended Le Israelite Academy de Rothchild, learning French, in addition to the Greek and Turkish he had learned at home. He was bar mitzvahed and finished school in Paris. 


Jacob on the right, with civilian friend on left, circa 1948

When the Germans invaded France, he returned to Greece to join the Greek Battalion of the British Army. After the Nazis invaded Crete in May 1941, he helped defend the island, where he was severely wounded. 


Young Jacob, far right, in a family portrait. From left is sister Gentil, her husband Sabetay and an unidentified teen, possibly another brother.

Dad was a paratrooper (alexiptotistis) and was sent behind enemy lines when the Germans invaded. He was wounded by a bullet on the side of his head. He also had two broken legs and a bayonet wound on his right forearm. These are the things he told me about being behind enemy lines.

He said some old women found him unconscious and took him to a barn where they set his legs and took care of his head wound. They took care of him for a few months until his legs healed and then he went and rejoined his group before being taken prisoner.

My Dad never ate chicken. I can't eat it either because I keep remembering the stories he told me about the conditions behind enemy lines. He told me that sometimes they would have raw eggs and raw chicken. 

He told me they did not carry guns, only knives and a garot wire. He said they had to forage for food, and that they could never light a fire for fear of giving away their position to the enemy.

He also told me that he was a prisoner of war in a German camp. He said he was very young and because he spoke French, he kind of struck up a friendship with one of the Germans, and that the German let him escape. Again, he found and rejoined his company. To hide being Jewish, he had papers with a Greek alias, Kyriakos Dimitrios.

The next battle that he talked about a lot, especially when the “Rat Patrol” (1966) TV series aired, was with a blended allied army in the North African fight for El Alemain under British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. 

He was assigned to a tank division, and volunteered to be the lead tank to make sure that the other tanks did not hit any landmines. He said that he did hit a landmine, but that he only injured his left foot. At the end of this battle  he was awarded a battlefield  promotion (corporal).

I asked him once if they ever ran out of water in the desert like on the TV show, he laughed and said that he would use the hot radiator water to shave with. So no, they didn't run out of water.

It was after the war that he learned many of his family members and relatives perished in the Holocaust.

When the war was over, he was still attached to the British army. This was the time of the Greek Civil War. He was a guard at the royal palace, and also at the nearby prison, Averoff.


Averoff Prison


I wondered how the prison had a Russian name since it was in Athens. It was named after a politician aligned with General Metaxas. This is the prison where “Rena” and our Mother (Eleanora Isaac) and several other Jewish women were being held. 

They let Mom go after her cousins came down and got her, because she was just hiding in the mountains. She never shot anybody or blew up a train or spied on anyone. She was just up there under the protection of the Andartes (resistance fighters or guerillas in Greek).


Smoke rises from the Averoff Prison in Athens as Bristol Beaufighters of No. 39 Squadron RAF attack prison buildings, December 1944

Some called them rebels, some freedom fighters. Since Rena was Mom’s cousin, it could have been guilt by association. But Rena and her then husband, Dinos Samaras, were leaders of the anti-government movement. Rena was the highest ranking female officer in the movement.

Now this gets interesting. Dad was assigned as a guard (evzone) at the palace. He said that Greece’s King Paul only wanted Jewish and British soldiers as guards. This is because they were afraid of an assassination attempt or the kidnapping of the children, two girls and a boy. King Paul didn't trust the Greeks to be guards. He would also joke and say that the Greeks were too short, because you had to be tall to be a guard.

(Paul had returned to Greece in 1946. He succeeded to the throne in 1947, on the death of his childless elder brother, King George II, during the Greek Civil War between Greek Communists and the non-communist Greek government.)

Averoff prison was attacked by the Andartes (communists) to rescue their jailed comrades. Some of the British soldiers that were assigned to the prison were shot and I believe some died.


Another view of the Averoff prison (pre-WW2 photo)

I recall Mom telling me that during the Greek Civil War Dad was at some reception attended by the rabbi of Athens, who took him aside and told him that because he was Jewish, he would appreciate it if he could look in on the Jewish women that were being held in the prison. 

They were not just being held there, they were being tortured as well. They were being held awaiting trials. The prison was right around the corner from the palace.


Street fighting in Athens, during the "Dekemvriana", the fighting between communist guerillas and British-backed government troops, in December 1944. The soldiers manning the Bren machine gun are British paratroopers, while the others running to take cover are Greek government gendarmes and troops. 

One of the women being held would be his future wife, Eleanora, whose husband, Shaul, was killed at Auschwitz.

They were married on Jan. 10, 1949. They waited for almost 2 years until they were allowed to emigrate to the U.S. They arrived in Ellis Island on Dec. 29, 1951. 

The expectant parents traveled to Los Angeles, and within a week delivered twins, Mattika and Joseph (named after his parents.) Gentil soon followed in 1953, and Esther arrived in 1957. 

He was the head of one of the first post-World War II refugee families from Greece to settle in Los Angeles in 1951. 

He and Eleanora would eventually divorce. He died peacefully in his home in Los Angeles, with his new wife, Theresa, at his side, on April 16, 2008. 

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