First mementoes returned to Greek family

The Arolsen Archives have eight envelopes containing the personal belongings of Greek victims of Nazi persecution. On June 20, 2024, we were able to return one of these envelopes for the very first time. It was handed over to the granddaughter of resistance fighter Vasilios Kontogeorgiou at the Greek Embassy in Berlin. The day before, Greece had taken over the chair of the International Commission of the Arolsen Archives for the coming year.

“It’s very special and quite unbelievable really that I’m receiving my grandfather’s watch after 80 years,” commented Angeliki Nikou Kontogeorgiou, visibly moved. During the Second World War, her grandfather, Vasilios Kontogeorgiou, was held as a political prisoner in a number of concentration camps in Germany.

Resistance fighter survived detention in several concentration camps

Vasilios Kontogeorgiou was born on December 31, 1917, in Volos, Greece and worked as a public prosecutor. When Germany occupied Greece in the Second World War, he and some friends founded a resistance organization. The Nazis arrested him and probably initially interned him in the Chaidari concentration camp in a suburb of Athens. On May 25, 1944, Vasilios Kontogeorgiou was one of 850 Greek political prisoners to be deported to Neuengamme concentration camp. The SS then transferred him from Neuengamme to the Salzgitter-Watenstedt sub-camp, where he was put to work manufacturing grenades. As the front drew closer towards the end of the war, the SS deported the prisoners from this camp to Ravensbrück concentration camp. Vasilios survived his imprisonment, and after being liberated by the Red Army, he returned to Greece. The three friends who had founded the resistance organization with him had been deported at the same time as he was, but none of them survived. After the war, Vasilios became the director of a bank in Athens. When he retired, he returned to the area where he had grown up. He got married when he was 35 and had one son. Vasilios died on April 24, 1997, in Larisa, not far from his hometown.

Vasilios Kontogeorgiou’s pocket watch

Volunteers help bring the search to a successful conclusion

Vasilios had a pocket watch with him when he was arrested, and the Nazis took it away from him. This watch was held in storage at the Arolsen Archives along with the personal belongings of about 2000 other former concentration camp prisoners. We launched the #StolenMemory campaign to try to find the relatives of the rightful owners of these objects. In 2019, we organized a poster exhibition in Athens to help us search for the families of the eight Greek victims of Nazi persecution whose personal belongings are part of the collection. Historian and #StolenMemory volunteer Loukas Lymperopoulos also published all the names in several Greek newspapers in the summer of 2023. However, searching for these people turned out to be very difficult, because all we have to go by are their names, often misspelled by the Germans, and their dates of birth. We have no information on their places of birth – neither for Vasilios, nor for some of the other Greeks whose belongings are stored in the Arolsen Archives. Despite these hurdles, the search was successful, and at the end of May this year, news reached us that volunteers had finally found the first Greek family.

Working in tandem with Loukas Lymperopoulos, Vaso Panagou, herself the granddaughter of another Greek prisoner who was held in Neuengamme, found Vasilios’s son in her own hometown, Larisa. His daughter Angeliki – Vasilios’s granddaughter – currently lives in Berlin, so she was able to take possession of the memento at a ceremony held on June 20. She was 11 years old when her grandfather died, and she can remember him well. He had spoken to her of his imprisonment. After his death, Angeliki combed the internet for more information about what had happened to her grandfather, whom she describes as her role model. Her efforts came to nothing, so she was both surprised and very touched to find out that his pocket watch was in storage at the Arolsen Archives.

Moving ceremony

On June 20, 2024, Angeliki was presented with her grandfather Vasilios’s pocket watch at a ceremony held at the Greek Embassy in Berlin. It was handed over to her by Georgios Polydorakis, Director of the Service of Diplomatic & Historical Archives at the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Just one day earlier, he had taken over as Chair of the International Commission of the Arolsen Archives at the commission’s annual meeting in Bad Arolsen. He will hold this office on behalf of Greece until June 2025. That the #StolenMemory campaign could return the first ever item belonging to a Greek national the following day really was perfect timing, making it a particularly joyful event. This sentiment was echoed by Panagiota Konstantinopoulou, envoy of the Greek Embassy in Berlin, who spoke a few words of welcome, and by Floriane Azoulay, the director of the Arolsen Archives, who gave a short presentation about #StolenMemory. The event was also attended by press representatives, the Polish ambassador, and Ebba Scholl, the German representative on the International Commission, who was joined by representatives from France and Italy.

Granddaughter Angeliki Nikou Kontogeorgiou and the Greek representative on the International Commission Georgios Polydorakis

Angeliki held her grandfather’s pocket watch in her hands throughout the ceremony and was clearly loath to let it go. She knows how much it means to families when mementoes belonging to a relative, objects once stolen by the Nazis, are returned to their rightful owners. Vasilios’s granddaughter now wants to support the project as a volunteer and help find the relatives of the seven other Greek victims of Nazi persecution whose personal belongings are still waiting to be returned.

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