This is the story of how a man saved almost a dozen Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Latvian city of Riga, where 35,000 Jews lived in 1935, but only 150 remained when the Red Army ousted the Nazis in 1944.
When the German army entered Riga in 1941, Karavokiros was enthusiastic. He went out in the street with his daughter Maria, 8, and her younger brother Socrate, to show them the people who finally liberated Latvia.
“German soldiers were tall and handsome,” remembered Mrs. Maria Lorenzetti, an elegant Italian woman in her late seventies. “Their helmets were shining.”
At the time, Karavokiros smiled. “You’ll see, Germany will bring back the law,” he said to his children.
Born on the Greek island of Kalimnos, Karavokiros became an Italian citizen in 1912, after the Italo-Turkish war. Then, after working as a commercial traveler in Scandinavia and in the Czarist Empire, he settled in Latvia and opened a factory producing halva, a traditional confection made from sesame paste.
Married to a Jewish woman, Fanny Dolgizer, and father of two, Karavokiros was harshly affected by the Soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940. The Russians closed his factory and suspended his bank account. Karavokiros would have been arrested and sent to Siberia, but his workers intervened and described him as a good boss.
Despite his hatred of Communism, less than twelve hours after the Germans entered Riga, Karavokiros’ excitement faded away completely.
That very night, SS officials arrested, tortured and executed more than 2,000 Jews in Riga’s central prison. For the most part, they were prominent townspeople: politicians, businessmen and entrepreneurs. Among them was Zalman Shefer, the Jewish husband of Karavokiros’ sister-in-law. His daughter, Riva Shefer, a Shoah survivor who is now 88 years old and still lives in Riga, remembers that night perfectly.
“When they knocked on our door, my father was wearing his pajamas. He put on his coat and went out with them,” Mrs. Shefer said. “I never saw him again.”
The following day, the Karavokiros family was at home with some Jewish relatives and friends. All of a sudden they heard a terrible noise coming from the stairs. Young Latvian collaborators hired by the German commando were rounding up Jews.
“When they violently knocked on our door, my father confronted them holding a small Italian flag that he used to keep on his desk,” said Mrs. Lorenzetti. “He told them that our house was Italian territory and Italy was an ally of Germany, so nobody could get in our place with aggressive intentions. Perhaps struck by such a firm resolve, they left.”
In the following weeks the prohibitions for the Jews increased. They were forced to wear the Star of David and banned from sidewalks, public transportation and stores.
The Germans officially announced the opening of Riga’s ghetto on Aug. 23, 1941. “The Jews who were put in the ghetto included 5,652 children, 8,300 disabled people, 9,507 women and 6,143 men,” said Professor Margers Vestermanis, historian and director of Riga’s Jews in Latvia museum.
Karavokiros had to suspend the production of halva and produce jam for the Wehmacht, but he could keep on working, both because he was regarded as “Aryan” and because his Italian citizenship protected him.
The first akzion, the Nazi term for mass killings, took place three months after the ghetto was opened, on Nov. 27, 1941. The German soldiers told the Jews they were going to be moved further east.
“That travel was short,” said Professor Vestermanis. “The Nazis walked 15,000 Jews to the Rumbula Forest, just outside Riga, and shot them all.”
Karavokiros got a tip about the akzion and succeeded in entering the ghetto in a Wehmacht official’s car with his brother-in-law Harry Barinbaum. Barinbaum collected two big containers. Gidon Barinbaum, his son, was hidden in the first one. Benita Barinbaum, his five-year-old nephew, was in the second. Both were asleep. They were given sleeping pills to minimize the risks of the rescue operation.
“When my father came home with these two kids, he was distraught,” Mrs. Lorenzetti said. “He went straight to his bedroom.”
Maria entered the room to greet her father and found him on his knees with his head in his hands under the Greek icons. Karavokiros gave her a hug and confessed to her he wanted to save those who were persecuted.
“My father said that if he didn’t do something for them,” remembered Mrs. Lorenzetti, “he would have felt partly responsible for that crime and we children would have hated him.”
So Karavokiros organized a network of places where Jews could hide. He asked for help from some of the Latvian, Finnish and Polish workers of his factory, as well as Riga’s Greek community and other people he trusted: Mrs. Basilova Lemesheva, a porter; Mr. Karcevski, a butler; and Mrs. Emilia Gaevskala, a housekeeper.
Karavokiros hid Jews in a secret part of the changing room of his factory. The workers knew about the hiding place, but never talked about it. He also hid them behind the tent that covered the bed of a porter’s lodge, in big empty houses and, of course, in his own apartment.
The Greek-Italian entrepreneur moved around Riga with great care, but frantically. He sent loyal people to shop for the hidden Jews in different grocery stores so the quantity of the food bought would not raise suspicions.
Soon, however, the Gestapo targeted Karavokiros. After a number of raids, when he was lucky enough to be tipped off by friends in time to move the Jews to safer places, he ended up in the ghetto with his family. He was released through the Greek community’s diplomatic efforts. At the urging of the Italian ambassador in Berlin, Dino Alfieri, Karavokiros decided to leave Latvia for Italy in the summer of 1943.
The Karavokiros family settled in Trieste. At that point they were safe. Nobody knew that Fanny Dolgizer was Jewish. Her last name sounded German and was familiar in Trieste, a port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. In the meantime, though, the Jews in Latvia were not safe. Karavokiros’ network of hiding places was one of the very few options for their survival.
Before leaving, Karavokiros made sure the system could continue to work without him. He talked to his helpers and tipped them well. And in fact, it did hold.
Riva Shefer was one of the people who benefited from it. She stayed hidden in Riga in 14 different houses from July 1943 to Oct. 13, 1944, when the Red Army entered Riga.
That day, Mrs. Shefer was in an auditorium-sized room in an empty house. A little light filtered between heavy purple curtains. As she sometimes did, she peeped through the curtains to catch a glimpse of the street.
“I saw Soviet tanks,” said Mrs. Shefer with a smile. “I was wondering whether all that really happened. Whether the Russians really kicked out the Germans.”
Fifty years after that cold October day, in March 1995, Mrs. Lorenzetti, Mr. Karavokiros’s daughter, who had moved from Trieste to Milan, received a letter from the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem. Mr. Karavokiros had received the title of Righteous Among the Nations, thanks to the report of Mrs. Riva Shefer.
Karavokiros, who died in 1972 in Trieste with few regrets, never mentioned what he accomplished in Latvia.
“My father was a very reserved person,” said Mrs. Lorenzetti. “I just thought he did what he had to. He had no need to talk about it, to show off or anything.”