The magnificent story of the mobilization to save thousands from starvation and disease
■ By professor ALEXANDROS K. ΚYROU
After the occupation of Greece by the Germans and long before the entry of the United States in the Second World War, the Greek people faced starvation and thousands died, mainly in Athens. It did not take long for the Greek-Americans to mobilize in an unprecedented patriotic effort with the Greek War Relief, in order to send food and medicine to their suffering motherland. Following is the story of this wonderful campaign, a great work of professor Alexandros K. Kyrou, under the title “Operation Blockade: Greek-American Humanitarianism During World War II.” It is included in a new book titled “Greece’s Pivotal Role in World and its Importance to the U.S. Today,” edited by Eugene Rossidis, Esq., founder of the American Hellenic Institute, with a preface by Gen. Andrew J. Godpaster.
SHORTLY after the executive committee outlined its relief agenda, the steamship Kurtulus arrived from Istanbul and anchored off Piraeus. The unloading and distribution of the Kurtulus’ cargo began on October 29. Three days earlier, the occupation censors had authorized a release to the press in Greece stating that “the generosity of American relief organizations has made it possible to make distribution among the Greek population of large food supplies which have been purchased and transported from abroad.” The GWRA was not mentioned in the statement and the Greek public remained unaware of the organization’s role in the delivery of the aid shipment. Nevertheless, the occupation authorities honored their pledge to the International Red Cross Committee by aiding them in the transfer of the foodstuffs.
As an unprecedented operation in exceedingly precarious circumstances, the GWRA’s shipment was a remarkable success—almost 3,000.000 pounds of food had been sent to, and distributed in, occupied Greece without Axis interference. Once Allied intelligence reports confirmed that none of the shipment had been seized by the occupation forces, the CWRA was permitted to dispatch the Kurtulus on a second relief voyage. After taking on another 3.000.000 pounds of food purchased in Turkey, the ship arrived in Piraeus on November 10. Thus began a regular pattern whereby food and medical shipments arrived in Greece during the early winter of 1941-1942. During this period Brunei and his on-site committees were able to keep the public soup kitchens of the Athens-Piraeus area in operation while improving distribution methods in other relief sectors and laying plans for an expansion of aid to other parts of the country.
Brunel’s preparations for implementing larger aid operations, however, were soon dashed. As the winter progressed, and as Turkey’s own wheat reserves declined, Ankara announced that it would cut off its supply of food to Greece in January 1942. Consequently, the GWRA sought the permission of both the British and United States governments to agree to the use of a market source other than Turkey for the purchase of food for Greece. London, however, objected to any shipment of goods to Greece if the relief materials did not originate in Turkey. This insistence was in fact the result of an adroit extension of Britain’s strategic blockade policy. London was willing to widen the relatively small scale exception to its general blockade on the basis of larger strategic considerations. In short, London permitted the shipment of relief supplies to Greece from Turkey to take place in order to reduce Ankara’s surplus resources. More precisely, the British authorities feared that Turkey’s resources might be utilized by the Germans. As a result. London welcomed any arrangements that diverted Turkish foodstocks and goods to Allied nationals who would consume supplies that might otherwise become available to the Axis. Having accomplished this aim, the British were now indifferent to renewed GWRA pleas for direct aid to Greece.
Meanwhile, conditions in Greece reached startling levels by mid-winter 1941-1942. In early January 1942, reports began reaching the United States that as many as 1,000 persons were dying from starvation on a daily basis in the Athens area alone. In response, the GWRA intensified the urgency of its demand that food be sent to Greece immediately.
Due in large part to the ongoing and concerted Greek-American lobbying campaign, as well as mounting intelligence reports, the United States government began to show signs of serious concern over the situation in Greece. Moreover, President Roosevelt and the Department of State had serious political misgivings about Britain’s blockade policy. Apart from the risk of alienating Turkey from any potentially productive relationship with the Allies, the blockade gave German propaganda an unparalleled opportunity to attack Britain for the mercenary abandonment of a gravely imperiled ally.
Thus motivated to intervene on behalf of Greece, Washington asked London on December 3, 1941, to supply information on its blockade of Greece and to confirm or deny allegations of responsibility for the famine. The British did not reply to the request and were asked again, on January 5, 1942, to provide a response to the United States government. After more than a week had passed, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden answered with a message claiming to exonerate Britain from any role in, or responsibility for, the famine. Eden stated, furthermore, that London’s actions were also being performed on behalf of (he Greek government then in exile. Eden’s assertions, however, appeared disingenuous, for the Greek government-ill-exile had earlier dispatched a series of desperate pleas to Washington, asking the United States to take direct action to alleviate the famine.
Despite Britain’s previous resolve to maintain the blockade against Greece, pressure from the United States government and mounting international opinion finally induced Britain to reassess its policy. Accordingly, on February 22, 1942, London informed Washington that it was willing to lift its blockade to relief convoys. Moving rapidly after securing the consent of both the British and United States governments, the GWRA put into action an interim relief operation. The GWRA successfully solicited significant donations of humanitarian materials from the American Red Cross and the Medical Surgical Relief Committee of America, secured an aid package from Lend Lease measures, and chartered the Swedish vessel Sicilia to transport these and other goods to Greece. Loaded with over 2,500,000 pounds of food and nine tons of medicines, the Sicilia departed from New York harbor for Piraeus on March 27.
Although the rapid-response Sicilia mission helped to alleviate the food crisis in Greece in the short-term, it was insufficient to end the famine. The GWRA leadership understood that the success of any long term strategic relief program would require the cooperation of the key belligerent governments. Therefore, following considerable investigation and planning, the GWRA drafted a proposal, which it code-named “Operation Blockade,” and in which (he GWRA proposed (he use of a neutral party to convey cargoes of food, medicine, and clothing to Greece, provided that safe passage could be assured from the belligerent nations.
Following deliberations with President Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of State Welles, and Red Cross Chairman Davis, the GWRA leadership expanded the outline of its proposal by adopting the former individuals’ suggestions to employ a neutral international commission within Greece to insure the efficient distribution of relief supplies. In this regard, the Kurtulus relief period had provided the ideal experiential antecedent for such an international arrangement. Hence, the revised GWRA plan posited that the earlier connections developed between Britain and the occupation authorities through the International Red Cross should now be used to coordinate expanded relief measures. While waiting for a response from London to its Operation Blockade proposal, the GWRA wasted no time in reserving funds for the plan’s implementation. In addition, the GWRA used this period to solicit donations of wheat and other foodstuffs from various Allied and neutral governments, and began negotiations with the representatives of a fleet of immobilized Swedish vessels for service of their ships as relief cargo carriers.
Britain accepted the outline of Operation Blockade in principle, but concern over the potential embarrassment and political precedent that lifting the blockade under Greek-American pressure might pose led London to insist that neutral Sweden appear as the originator of the relief initiative. The GWRA agreed to defer public recognition to Stockholm. Thus, on March 2 London and Washington formally invited the Swedish government to undertake the relief program. Stockholm accepted the project and on March 19 the Swedish Foreign Minister, Erik Boheman, presented the proposal to the Axis. The Italians responded in favor of the plan on April 7, and Rome’s acceptance was followed by an even more positive reply from Berlin on April 27.
Implementation of the program, however, was forestalled by differences over the structure of the intended relief commission. The German and Italian governments assumed that the existing International Red Cross authorities in Athens, who had administered relief operations since the Kurtulus period, would continue to direct the distribution of any future delivery of relief goods. The British government, openly resentful of the International Red Cross apparatus, demanded that the original committees in Athens should not participate in any expanded relief operations and that Swedish authorities be given sole responsibility for the execution of the program. None of the belligerent powers showed any inclination to compromise and the relief deliberations reached an impasse which lasted until the beginning of August. Under pressure from the United States, the British government finally accepted a compromise plan drafted by Foreign Minister Boheman to establish a so-called Action Committee, composed of Creek, Swedish, and Swiss personnel, and to make the new organization solely responsible for relief distribution. The original International Red Cross Committee would continue to operate, but only as a liaison between the Action Committee and the Axis.
The Action Committee began operations in August 1942 under the new official appellation of Joint Relief Commission. The headquarters of the Commission were established in the Marasleion School in the Kolonaki district of Athens, and a Swedish national, Emil Sandstrom, was appointed by Stockholm as organizational president. The relief apparatus was coordinated between two supreme centers: the Athens general administrative headquarters and the Piraeus office, which oversaw the processing and transportation of relief shipments.
The Athens general headquarters included two subordinate divisions responsible for the distribution of relief. One of these divisions directed provincial distribution and maintained representatives and major relief centers in Kalamata, Patras, Thessalonike, and Volos, while the second division served the Athens-Piraeus area. The supervision of distribution on the islands was administered by a Commission field office in Crete and by two mobile representatives assigned to Chios, Lesbos, and Samos. At the local level, a network of committees and subcommittees, numbering some 1,600 by 1943, rising to approximately 3.000 in 1944, and reaching over 5.300 by 1945, was established to manage the apportionment of supplies in towns and villages. In terms of official personnel, as early as the close of 1942, the Commission included twenty-five Swedish and Swiss executive administrators, almost fifty Greek and Swiss physicians, some 1,000 medical volunteers and nurses, approximately 3,000 labor volunteers, and over 1,200 employees.
In order to protect the distribution process from waste and abuse, each of the Joint Relief Commission’s divisions included a so-called verification unit entrusted with inspection duties, as well as responsibility for the regulation of services. The work and enforcement powers of the verification units benefited significantly from the fact that these units enjoyed not only oversight, but extraordinary legal authority. In short, the Joint Relief Commission’s verification officers were granted legal rights by the occupation authorities to prosecute any infringements of the Commission’s regulations. Although any enormous and complex network such as the nationwide relief system in occupied Greece was obviously not without its share of problems, the legal power extended to the verification units was intended to function, and largely succeeded, as a meaningful deterrent to both inefficiency and potential corruption.
As the Joint Relief Commission developed its administrative and operational apparatus, the GWRA and its Commonwealth counterpart, the Greek War Relief Fund of Canada, or GWRF. obtained a substantial relief donation from the Canadian government. Ottawa donated 15.000 tons of wheat to the relief project, while the GWRA and the GWRF jointly purchased fifty ions of medical supplies from the American Red Cross. These combined materials were loaded onto three Swedish vessels which left Montreal for Greece on August 7, 1942.
Thereafter, aid shipments became regular and systematic. Relief cargoes originating in both Canada and the United States were transported monthly by a fleet of initially eight, later twelve, and ultimately, by the summer of 1944, sixteen Swedish vessels. From August 1942 onward, the relief project delivered a minimum monthly shipment of 15,000 tons of wheat, 3,000 tons of dried vegetables, 100 tons of powdered milk, and other aid materials to Greece.
The costs of the relief supplies and their transportation were assumed by the GWRA and the GWRF. Eventually, helping to sustain their enormous humanitarian initiative, the GWRA and the GWRF secured various financial and material assistance from the American Red Cross, the Canadian government, the United States government, and other charitable governments and organizations. With these resources and support at its disposal, the Joint Relief Commission operated with remarkable success during the remainder of the occupation and through the first months following liberation. By March 7, 1945, the GWRA had dispatched 101 fleet missions/relief convoys to Greece, which delivered approximately 600,000 tons of wheat and other foodstuffs, 3,000 tons of clothing, and 20,000 tons of medicine and related goods. In financial terms, the Greek-American relief effort donated to Greece supplies valued at more than $100.000.000. Through this generosity and humanitarian intervention, the GWRA’s Operation Blockade prevented, on a larger scale, during the next two winters of occupation and the winter immediately following liberation, a repetition of the catastrophic winter famine of 1941-1942. Indeed, barring the delivery of any relief materials, official estimates in the spring and summer of 1942 anticipated 1.000.000 deaths for the forthcoming winter, with similar losses to follow in the next winter if the occupation were to continue. Thus, the Greek-American community’s humanitarian concern for Greece, the political corollary of which was its concerted lobbying for a change in Allied strategic policy, produced the conditions necessary for the very survival of Greece.
In the final analysis, apart from the single-minded commitment of Greek Americans, the GWRA was successful in its effort to end the famine in Greece because it was equipped with enormous structural resources. The GWRA possessed significant organizational advantages in the form of local, regional, and national networks which had developed before the Second World War as major institutions within the Greek-American community. In short, by marshalling the Greek Orthodox Church, voluntary associations, and other organizations, the GWRA was able to combine the diverse diaspora community networks into a formidable and unified national movement with international clout. The structures of the Church and the AHEPA, for example, both of which had fully evolved into impressive institutions by the 1930s, helped prepare the Creek-American community for successful activism in the 1940s. The GWRA propelled that activism by effectively consolidating the various grassroots organizations into an unprecedented diaspora lobby and campaign for the humanitarian relief of an imperiled and powerless Greece.
The energies directed at providing relief to famine-stricken Greece necessarily took into account not only the financial and organizational needs attendant to such intervention, but also the complex political and diplomatic challenges involved in such an effort. Undaunted by seemingly insurmountable international obstacles, the relative sophistication of the GWRA as a lobbying force helped to produce a level of success for itself that no other comparable organization achieved during the war. In other words, the GWRA effectively compelled the belligerent states to alter their policies in the interests of humanitarian imperatives. Thanks to the GWRA, Greece became the only state to benefit from a large-scale relief program planned and originating in the Allied camp and implemented in occupied Europe. Moreover, the actions of the GWRA had major implications for much of postwar Europe. Indeed, the highly successful record of relief in wartime Greece served as the functional antecedent to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration’s massive program for the relief of the postwar European continent. In short, the planning models and operational methods developed and implemented in Greece by the GWRA were subsequently duplicated and applied on an immense scale by the United Nations.
Greek-Americans during the war years could not have imagined the enormous impact that their relief efforts on behalf of their brethren in Greece would have on populations throughout Europe. By the end of the war, however, the Greek-American community could begin to appreciate the significance of its humanitarian triumphs in Greece. Simply put. There remains no greater tangible evidence of the importance of the Greek-American community to Greece than the fact that the former’s wartime humanitarian intervention saved almost one-third of the Greek state’s population from starvation. This remarkable episode arguably constitutes the most salient accomplishment of the Creek-American community as an activist lobby. Indeed, at no point since the diaspora’s central involvement in the reawakening of Greek national identity did Greeks outside Greece play as crucial a role in the life and survival of the Greek nation as did the Greek-American community during the crisis of the Second World War. END