21 June 2024

Mitch Albom’s new book
‘The Little Liar’ is set
in Jewish Thessaloniki
during the Holocaust

The Little Liar, the new book by Mitch Albom, is set in the Jewish community in Thessaloniki during the Holocaust

Patrick Comerford

The American author Mitch Albom has been a strongly influential spiritual writer with books such as Tuesdays with Morrie (1997) and The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003).

Now he has published a moving new novel, The Little Liar set in Thessaloniki during and after the Holocaust. When the Nazis invade Thessaloniki, a German officer offers Nico Krispis, an 11-year-old Jewish Greek boy a chance to save his family.

Nico must convince his fellow Jewish residents to board trains heading ‘north’, where safety and protection awaits. But when the final train is loaded, Nico sees his family being herded into a boxcar. Only then does he realise that he has helped send them, and everyone he knew, to their doom at Auschwitz. Nico escapes but never tells the truth again.

In The Little Liar, Nico's story is interwoven with those of his family, friends and even the Nazi officer who changed their lives. Through the war years and the decades that follow, Albom reveals the consequences of their decisions, eventually bringing them back to where it all started.

It is a powerful story about how a boy, known for his honesty, becomes a pathological liar after unwittingly helping the Nazis. Reviewers have described the book as a thought-provoking story about truth, war, humanity and loss, in which we are alerted to how often truth is the first causality of war.

For more than two decades, Mitch Albom has been one of the best-selling living Jewish author alive, and his books tend to embrace a much broader and more amorphous definition of faith. He had a Jewish upbringing and education, and he has been involved with Jewish faith leaders in many charities, including an orphanage in Haiti, to which he has flown Rabbi Steven Lindemann of the Temple Beth Sholom in New Jersey.

Tuesdays With Morrie made him a household name, focused on his relationship with Morrie Schwartz, his Jewish mentor at Brandeis University. A follow-up memoir, Have A Little Faith (2009), discussed his relationship with his childhood rabbi, interspersed with his friendship with a local priest.

Sometimes Albom’s characters wander through heaven, which can be a physical place. Sometimes they are granted the ability to spend time with their dead relatives, are admonished for turning their backs on godly ideas like living each moment to its fullest, or are asked to put blind faith in figures who may or may not themselves be God.

Although he has written two memoirs about his Jewish mentors, The Little Liar is the first book in which he has incorporated Judaism openly in his fiction, and is a definitively Jewish story.

Like Jurek Becker’s Holocaust novel Jacob the Liar (1969), this story involves a Jew lying to his people about the Nazis. But he also realised that he did not want to tell a story ‘that began in Poland, the Warsaw Ghetto, all the familiar backdrops.’

Unlike other Holocaust novels, Albom traces the repercussions of that moment for decades, following the events of the Holocaust itself, through four central characters who wrestle with the trauma and violence of their past.

This new book includes great historical detail, from the descriptions of the thriving pre-war Jewish community in Thessaloniki to several real-life figures such as the Hungarian actress and humanitarian Katalin Kárady and the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. But this book is also a morality tale about the nature of truth and lies, and is narrated by Truth itself.

Recent years have seen a rash of Holocaust books, from The Tattooist of Auschwitz and The Librarian of Auschwitz to John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. So, in a pre-publication interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Albom admits he did not want to write a ‘Holocaust book’ per se.’ he said.

But, he said, ‘I think as a Jewish writer, I almost felt an obligation, before my career was over, to create a story that hopefully would be memorable enough, set during the Holocaust … I think people remember The Diary of Anne Frank longer than they remember statistical numbers of how many Jews were slaughtered or how many homes were destroyed by the Nazis.’

The Jewish Holocaust Memorial at Liberty Square, Thessaloniki … a bronze sculpture by Nandor Glid of a menorah whose flames are wrapped around human bodies (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The original inspiration for this book was a visit to Yad Vashem. However, the book is set apart from other Holocaust books by its setting in Thessaloniki, which once had the largest Jewish population in Europe, and where the overwhelming majority of the city’s 50,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis. There have been Jews in Thessaloniki since 300 BCE, and the Nazis wipe them out in a year or less.

The author lived in Greece for a short time after he left college. After seeing an ad in a newspaper in Athens, he ended up as a nightclub singer and a piano player in a bar in Aghios Nikolaos on n the island of Crete. ‘I could just spend my days in the sunshine and eating the amazing food and being amongst the amazing people,’ he told the interviewer. ‘So I’ve always loved Greece.’

The story does not end with the liberation of the camps, but continues decades later, with scenes of a Jewish character trying to reclaim his old home or of America sheltering Nazis after the war.

He visited Thessaloniki to talk to people there about what happened when the Jews came back, how they did not get back their businesses and their homes, and the new sets of problems the survivors faced, and even ‘certain things they don’t want to talk about.’

As for Crete, he has never forgotten his time in Aghios Nikolaos in his 20s. He says on Instagram: ‘I’ve always had a fantasy about going back to that same resort where I worked and getting my old job back as a piano player and seeing what it would be like now, all those years later, and if it would still be as much fun.’

Shabbat Shalom

The first train deporting Greek Jews from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp left on 15 March 1943 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
43, 21 June 2024

The icon of Saint John the Forerunner or Saint John the Baptist in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the Third Sunday after Trinity (Trinity III, 16 June 2024). Before today begins (21 June 2024), I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

Saint John’s head on a platter … a detail in the icon of Saint John the Forerunner in the new iconostasis in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Matthew 6: 19-23 (NRSVUE):

[Jesus said:] 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If, then, the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’), Matthew 3: 2 … the scroll in the icon of Saint John the Forerunner in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 6: Saint John the Forerunner (Saint John the Baptist):

Over the last few weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

Other icons on this tier usually include depictions of the patron saint or feast day of the church, Saint John the Baptist, one or more of the Four Evangelists, and so on.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

Saint John the Baptist is generally known in the Orthodox Church as Saint John the Forerunner or Saint John Prodromos (Ἰωάννης ὁ πρόδρομος), and is venerated as the last of the prophets proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. He preached in the wilderness, proclaimed the coming of the kingdom, baptised Christ in the Jordan, and finally was beheaded on the orders of Herod.

The icon of Saint John the Forerunner in the iconostasis in Stony Stratford follows the traditional style of this icon, encompassing all of this aspects of the tradition in one image.

This particular style developed in the 15th and 16th centuries in Greek-speaking countries. It is also found in some Balkan countries too, including Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and North Macedonian, probably through Byzantine influences in these areas.

For Western eyes, a most striking part of the icon the wings given to the figure of Saint John. They symbolise his role as a divine messenger (see Mark 1: 2) or evangelos (ευάγγελος), a Greek word with the same root as ἄγγελος (angelos) or ‘angel’ – εὐ- (good) + ἄγγελος = ευάγγελος (evangelos, messenger, angel).

In Orthodox piety, ascetic saints are often described as living the radically non-worldly angelic life, and so these wings also recognise Saint John as the archetype of this desert living.

Saint John is also shown living in the wilderness, wearing animal skins, with an unkempt beard and long hair. An axe at the foot of a tree in the right-hand bottom corner of the icon refers to his prophetic warning: ‘Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire’ (Matthew 3: 10).

In the bottom left corner of the icon in Stony Stratford, Saint John’s head is seen on a platter, as it was presented to Herod’s step-daughter (see Matthew 14: 3-12).

In the icon in the Stony Stratford iconostasis, Saint John has his right hand raised in the shape of a priestly blessing, but in other, similar icons he may be holding a cross – the cross of martyrdom.

In his left hand, he is holding an unfurled scroll with the words: Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν (‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ or ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’), Matthew 3: 2.

The green robe over Saint John’s camel-skin clothing symbolises earthliness, recalling how he lived in the wilderness. Later saints who lived in the wilderness are depicted in green for the same reason, and are sometimes known as ‘Green Martyrs’, for they are martyrs or witness to the faith, not by shedding their blood but in their ascetic struggle.

The Orthodox Church remembers the birth of Saint John the Forerunner next Monday (24 June) and his beheading on 29 August. His principal feast day is on 7 January, and there are at least three other feast days, on 24 February, 23 September and 12 October.

Prodromos (Πρόδρομος) can be found as a given name among boys and men in Greece, and is often chosen as a name by monks: Bishop Prodromos (Xenakis) has been the Metropolitan of Rethymnon since 2022. When he followed a postgraduate programme in Biblical Theology in Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, in 2010-2012, he visited the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and took part in the life of the Greek community in Dublin.

The three icons to the right on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict (from left) Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Forerunner and Saint Ambrosios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Friday 21 June 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Windrush Day.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with reflections by the Right Revd Dr Rosemarie Mallett, Bishop of Croydon.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Friday 21 June 2024) invites us to pray:

Lord, may we seek to discover the gifts and talents of all so that they be encouraged and enabled to offer those to God and the building up of his Kingdom.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
you have broken the tyranny of sin
and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts
whereby we call you Father:
give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service,
that we and all creation may be brought
to the glorious liberty of the children of God;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

O God, whose beauty is beyond our imagining
and whose power we cannot comprehend:
show us your glory as far as we can grasp it,
and shield us from knowing more than we can bear
until we may look upon you without fear;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Additional Collect:

God our saviour,
look on this wounded world
in pity and in power;
hold us fast to your promises of peace
won for us by your Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

The lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford, with the central doors open during the Divine Liturgy and the icon of Saint John the Forerunner second from the right (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Saturday’s introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

With Metropolitan Prodromos (Xenakis) of Rethymnon when he visited the Church of Ireland Theological Institute as a student with Dr Katerina Pekridou, now the Dialogue Secretary of the Conference of European Churches

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.