Pfizer CEO Recounts Family’s Miraculous Story of Survival in Wartime Greece
Dr. Albert Bourla, who as Pfizer CEO helped deliver the first COVID-19 vaccine approved in the United States, gave an emotional account Thursday of how his parents narrowly survived the horrors of the Holocaust in their native Greece.
Speaking to longtime science reporter Robert Krulwich, Bourla described a series of seemingly miraculous events that saw his parents Mois and Sara live through World War II and raise the future pharmaceutical executive in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, during a Zoom interview held by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
“It’s fantastic luck, because there were thousands of people that died eventually,” said Bourla. “In a city of 50,000, only 2,000 survived; so that, if you make the math, is 96% extermination.”
Thessaloniki was once a majority-Jewish city, Bourla said, with many Jews — including his own ancestors — having come to the city as refugees of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. That thriving community was destroyed by the Nazi occupation of Greece, tearing the Bourla clan apart along with many others.
One morning in March 1943, as occupation forces began deporting Jews from the city’s ghetto to be killed, Bourla’s father Mois and uncle Into managed to hide. The brothers watched as the rest of their family was marched to a camp near the train station, later to be sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. For two years, they survived under fake identification papers with Christian names, provided by Athens police chief Angelos Evert, who has been named a “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem.
Bourla’s mother Sara managed to hide for a time with her older sister, who had married a Christian. But “she was free bird,” said Bourla, and was eventually caught and sent to a prison — one that was known, every day at noon, to send a truckload of prisoners to their deaths.
A family bribe to the local Nazi official Max Merten was meant to protect Sara from the daily slaughter, but she was one day spotted on the truck. Her brother-in-law called Merten personally to demand he uphold the deal. “He told him, ‘as Greek officers, when we don’t keep our word we commit suicide. You Germans, what are you doing?'” Bourla related. “You gave me your word that Sara would not be executed.”
Just as Bourla’s mother was being lined up for execution, she and another woman were spared by Merten’s men. “As the truck was leaving the place, they heard the sound of the machine guns,” Bourla said. “It was beyond real. Everybody else was dying and they were sitting there just three minutes ago.”
Born in 1961, Bourla studied veterinary medicine at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University, and in 1993 joined Pfizer’s Animal Health Division. In 2019 he became CEO of the pharmaceutical company, which last year developed a leading vaccine against COVID-19 with the German company BioNTech. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, in part, credited his government’s working directly with Bourla for its world-leading campaign to inoculate its population.
Bourla spoke Thursday of studying at university atop grounds that were once home to a Jewish cemetery. “Stone from over 300,000 graves was used as building material for a city that was heavily rebuilt after the war,” Bourla said. “I learned to live with it.”
Unlike others of their generation, Bourla said, his parents were keen to tell him their stories from the war.
“They never spoke to me about revenge,” he said. “The way that their stories always ended was a celebration of life: ‘Look at us, we’re alive. We were almost dead and we’re alive. Life is wonderful.'”
Watch the full interview with Albert Bourla: