Victor Vital was born and raised in Patras, Greece, with the exception of the two years that his family hid in the nearby mountains, during the German occupation. They returned to Patras where he stayed, until immigrating to St. Paul with his family in 1967.
He is the father of Joseph, Rachel, and Demetrious Marcos (known to us all as D. Marcos), all now living in Saint Paul. His wife Aglaia (z’l, known to many as Aggie), was one of the first people Renae and I met at Mount Zion many years ago, when she served as costume designer for the musical Katz, which we took part in to rave reviews. Fabric, clothing, and design seem to be a recurring theme in his family.
His family’s wartime story, along with those of other Minnesotans, and Mount Zion members, have been told in various settings, including (former Human) Sharon DeMark’s “We Could Recall/We Could Tell Stories”.
In a broader sense, a recurring theme of his story comes back to the impact of communities in his life – Jewish and other – whether they be the Greek resistance, the family that provided shelter in the mountains, his neighbors upon their return to Patras, or Saint Paul’s own Jewish Family Services. As found on the site transferofmemory.org Victor once recounted that “I am alive today because of the people who protected us. I feel obligated to let people know.”
I found myself writing these excerpts with a European map close at hand, so I apologize for what are likely to be many spelling errors. It is, indeed, all Greek to me.
He is shown with his new grandson Joshua at a recent service, at the entrance to the sanctuary, and we met recently in Margolis Hall.
I was born in 1932 in a city that is called Patras, in Greece. When I was born the city was 100,000 people, now it is 350,000. It was a big port, lots of business, and all my family were in business – fabrics, mainly. My father’s family grew up on an island close to Italy that is called Kefalonia. It was a big family. Four boys and five girls. Then they moved to another island called Corfu. And they expanded their business there.
What was that business?
They started as peddlers and they were buying embroideries from the villagers, and selling them to Italy. That’s why they moved to the larger city, to Patras, because of the port.
The family probably were exiles from Spain. Part of the family went to Sfad in Israel, including somebody with the name Chaim Vital – by the way Chaim is my Hebrew name. He was one of the founders of the Kabbalah.
According to the Google, he was indeed, dating back to the years 1542-1620.
When they moved to Patras my father and his brother opened a big, huge, store with fabrics. And everything was okay until the Germans came. At first, the occupation was with the Italians. For one year that the Italians were there, the store was open, and everything was okay. The soldiers were like everybody else, they were friends with the young people, and organizing parties, they all knew how to play music. It was somehow occupation under which you can survive.
Still people were very short of food.
In 1942 the Germans occupied Greece, including Patras.
The next day – God bless my father’s memory – we left immediately the next morning. And it started, the hard times, from 1942 to 1944 when finally we got liberated.
Where did you go?
In the mountains, around the city of Patras. The resistance was there also.
Who went with you?
My family was my father, my mother, my brother Marcos who was five years older than me, and myself. Also in the group, we were eight because my sister with her husband. We left all together eight people. We spent a lot of time in the woods, and it was starting to be winter and finally in a village called Barthikósta we found a place that they would accept us to live in their cellar for some of the time. We were infested with lice. And we had them until we moved back to the city, and cleaned up.
Did everyone in your family survive?
Yes, we survived, all of them. But before the liberation it was a desperate situation, especially for food. And clothes. I was for six or more months without shoes. But I was very young. I did not care. I was walking on the thorns and the stones.
Were you part of the resistance?
My brother went with them. I was very young. Still, a lot Germans passed through the village, they would come to fight the resistance.
Do you remember the name of the family you stayed with?
We kept communications with the family. Papadopoulus.
I tried to find them, but alas, according to Wikipedia, this happens to be the most common surname in Greece.
We stayed for one and a half years. Every time the Germans would come we would go away from the house, into the forest.
Did you ever go back to that village?
After the liberation? No. But they came to us, every week they came down. We were having them like people of the family.
What did you find when you returned to Patras?
The house, it was entirely destroyed. It was a huge house, with seven rooms and four bathrooms. Luxurious. They took the statues, everything you can imagine. Even the pipes of the walls. My father immediately started a small business and we survived. At that time the concern about me was to go back to school. To get back the two years that we were in the mountains.
Did they destroy the business also?
Yes, entirely. They looted everything.
My family had nothing when we returned. The first day when we arrived, it was a little bit after noon I remember, the neighbors brought food, chairs, tables, utensils, water, everything to get by the first day. By the second day everything started to be better little by little, but in less than one month, a lot of things were there, ready.
My father had been rich, but now he had nothing. He got a little help from his brother, who had opened a business in Athens, the capital.
Before the war, how many Jews were there in Patras?
We were 260 to 270 people It was a small community, still, we had our own Rabbi. And our own synagogue.
260 Jews in a town of 100,000?
Yes, at that time. In Patras there used to be tens of thousands of Jews, when it was occupied by Turkey for 400 years. Many of those people died from … what is the word, panoli … like cholera.
Do you know how many were there after the war?
We survived 152. From those that went in the concentration camps, only one survived.
Tell me about your mother. When did your parents meet?
My mother was born in Salonica, that big city. My parents met there. Her name was Rachel, and my father was Joseph. My father was a Greek soldier during the 1st World War. He was a soldier for eight years. They met at the end of the war.
My mother’s family were tailors. Her father died early, and her mother died just before the German occupation. But she had 90 some relatives, from her brother, her sisters, they were all taken to concentration camps. None of them returned. Out of 90 people.
What did your mother do? Did she finish school? Did she work?
She didn’t work because my father didn’t need her to. She was a ‘lady’. But my mother knew five languages fluently. First the Latino. And then French, because there were French soldiers for a long time in Salonica, and then Turkish because when she was born Salonica was under the Turks. And Italian because my father comes from those islands close to Italy, and they were under Italy. And then she learned Greek last, after she married my father. But she did not know to read or write any of those languages! The only thing she learned to write was her signature, in English.
So after you returned, you finished high school, then business school, then what did you do?
I was two and a half years in the Greek army, armored vehicles. I was the leader of a tank that had five people. I was the Sargent. And after the army, I was the employee in a department store. I sold material for two years. Cashmeres. Then I opened my own store with another employee of that store. We sold all kinds of women’s clothes, but for men only shirts, belts, ties … and billfolds.
What was the name of that store?
Sarándes & Vital.
I had that store for five years. Then I separated. My partner kept the store and I became the controller of a big construction company. The owners of this company were two engineers, and the three of us, we were members of a political party led by Papandreaus.
To paraphrase the web – by the mid 60’s Greece descended into a prolonged political crisis, and elections were scheduled for late April 1967. On 21 April 1967 a group of right-wing colonels led by Colonel George Papadopoulos (I told you it was a common name) seized power in a coup. Civil liberties were suppressed, special military courts were established, and political parties were dissolved. Several thousand suspected communists and political opponents were imprisoned or exiled to remote Greek islands.
When the dictators came in 1967 they jailed my two bosses, because they were big in the party, and I had to be interrogated every week by a department of the police, like the FBI. And they were asking me who was communist, who was giving money? They wanted to get names from me, something that I never gave them except the names of my two bosses. They were already in jail.
Is that how you ended up here?
My sister was here already from the 1950’s, in Saint Paul. And I told her in a telephone discussion, and she said why don’t you come here? At that time, Congress signed a law that so many thousands from Europe can immigrate legally. And we came in six months, with the help of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), they helped me with the papers.
We came here almost 48 years ago. My mother, my wife Aglaia, my two children Joseph and Rachel, and myself. D. Marcos was born here.
So Joseph and Rachel were named after your parents?
Yes, and D. Marcos is Demetrious Marcos, he took Aglaia’s father’s name. And because my wife liked very much my brother, and his name was Marcos. We called him D ‘point’ Marcos.
What did you find when you got here?
Everything was different. For one week I was in my sister’s house. And immediately we found an apartment in the Sibley Manor apartments. And Jewish Family Services assigned the Martin Capp family to take care of us, to help with what we need. And they brought to my house a sectional, I remember, and a dining set. I kept always the dining set, I have it today. I fix it. And I still have it to remember these good people. I never accepted money, because I immediately found jobs.
Victor worked for years in Saint Paul, including for Gould Incorporated, leading to GNB, and Warner Industrial Supply, before eventually retiring in 1997.
Tell me about Aggie.
I met Aglaias when she was an employee in a lawyer’s office. And we went together. Aglaia was Christian Orthodox, and we could not get married in Greece. She was living with her uncle who did not like his niece to get married with a Jew.
Where were you married?
We went to Italy, to Brindisi Italy. There is a big Greek community there, and we were married by the mayor of the city. Vitantonio Bruno!
Did she ever convert?
I did not want her to change. When she came here, she met Rabbi Lerner. And she was very good friends with his wife Roxie, and she liked the Rabbi and she converted. I did not know anything. One Friday I was sitting in there, in services, all of a sudden they called Aglaia to go up there because she changed. I did not know that. She said she did it for the kids.
How did you end up at Mount Zion?
We came right away because my sister was a member here. The very first day, it was a Friday night, and it was Frederick Schwartz, the Rabbi. And I became good friends with him.
As we went there (pointing to the center doors entering the sanctuary) – I asked my sister this looks like a Lutheran church! No one would wear yarmulkes. The rabbi would not wear a robe at that time.
Did you like it?
Yes, coming out, after the end, my sister introduced me to a lot of people and I immediately became friends. That’s why I’m always here. I never moved.
What was your Jewish community like growing up?
It was Rabbi Avraham Yitchaki. He survived in another village with his two daughters, Bella and Rayna. And he immigrated to Israel at the age of 99 years old. The remarkable thing about him even at that age, he never wore glasses. We used to call him Senor Chaham, chacham was like rabbi. So it was Mr. Rabbi.
Did you become a bar mitzvah?
My bar mitzvah! Yes, thank you for reminding me!
It was shortly after the liberation. We were not liberated by the Greek soldiers, we were liberated by the English soldiers, and they came to Patras, a lot of them. And about thirty of them or so, they were Jews, and they came to the services. And they came to my bar mitzvah. Not only the services in the synagogue, but to the party in my house. I remember them. Morris. His father was a rabbi in England. And these guys gave me a small golden necklace with my name on it. I kept it for years and years, but I have lost that. It had a Jewish Star of David on each side and my name in the middle.