My days in Crete were a celebration of respectful remembrance of the victims of outrageous cruelty in German occupied Greece and of its resistance in WWII and of its ongoing resilience now in its days of austerity.
Some years ago I translated parts of official documents referring to looting and damage of Greek archeological treasures by German military forces in WWII. In 1946, an incomplete account was presented to the United Nations, which has never been resolved. Some examples of destruction are 1) in Olympia, which includes the arcade of the Gymnasium as motorized convoys moved over and through the site, 2) the Monastery of Velanidia, Kalamata, which contained many Byzantine antiquities and a valuable library suffered German artillery bombardment 3) antiquities of Eleusis 4) golden wreaths were lost and much cultural wealth went missing and 5) damage as a result of excavations without approval or licence that took place under the orders of military authorities (Macedonia and Crete).
When the Greek Ministry of Religion and National Education protested it was met with arguments presented by Dr. von Schönebeck; military authorities need no license since the armies of the occupation are of a higher order – Hochheitsträger -than the Greek government… no general is under control of any Ministry of Greece. With respect to permission, the General would definitely state that he himself in his given capacity is the permission. Von Schönebeck pointed out that in WWI the French excavated all over Macedonia, without permission… This is how Napoleon was thinking, during his campaign to Egypt, and this is how you were thinking when you excavated in Asia Minor (Efessos etc.) in WWI. Before leaving for the Russian front, von Schönebeck informed the Minister that the military spirit is fearless and unrestrained; especially when it believes that it performs praiseworthy cultural work, as is this case, and undoubtedly, this is what the Generals, who have commanded the excavations, believe.
In Crete, as I have already reported I was privileged to participate in a Congress and moving tribute to the victims of unbelievable Nazi atrocities in Viannos and the surrounding villages 75 years ago, which took place in the Museum of the Holocaust, 70 kilometers from Knossos. A number of In-depth and insightful presentations were given on the economic dimensions of the Occupation, not a drop of olive oil for Greeks-all for Germans, the throttling of memory and distortion of history. It included disturbing analyses of several lesser known massacres, one in Kommeno, which documents the faking of fact by the Wehrmacht. In one morning (16 August 1943) 317 civilians were murdered. The attack lasted 6 hours and was lead by a former member of Hitler’s Youth. One survivor reported the stuffing of a baby’s mouth with petrol soaked cotton wool and setting it alight. In the aftermath of war, one German soldier said that if asked about the massacre we should say that we were attacked by partisans - andartes (the Resistance), which was a lie. Among the dead another said, there were women and children and I think that one woman was holding a baby.
My days were bright and charged, nights starry as the moon dipped into the west. Delightful mornings were filled with the aroma and taste of strong Greek coffee sipped in quiet company overlooking the waves of the Libyan sea, sunshine pleasant on my face. I enjoyed the traditional hospitality of Crete and witnessed muddled organization but always with a positive outcome. Things were kept going and moving well, the wheels turning, especially of the bus on narrow roads at an altitude of 2000 feet by Aristomenis Singelakis, Senior and George Krasas both coming from families who experienced the loss of loved ones between 14-16 September, 1943. Sometimes the time course of programmed events and talks got out of hand; on occasion it brought aggravation but the Raki at the end of the day and on the final day smoothed all things out.
Hitler said he came to Greece as a friend to free its people from the British. Pictures were posted showing friendly looking German soldiers holding children with a caption Abandoned Greeks put your trust in the German soldier. Hitler was sure that Greece (and Yugoslavia) would join the Axis forces. Instead the German forces ran into stiff resistance.
When two young patriots (Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas) took down the Nazi war flag from the Acropolis the night of the 30th May 1941, Germany’s friendly stance was set aside. Churchill made reference to this heroic act, saying it was a demonstration that Germany is not invincible. The daughter of Santas, Alexandra told me that the families burnt pieces from the war flag cut by the boys as a precautionary and protective measure against reprisal. The loss of the Nazi war flag from the Acropolis was perhaps Hitler’s greatest insult if the Nazi photo-show coverage on it, is anything to go by. The successful carrying out of such a dangerous initiative is rooted in timing and choice of night; the guards on the Acropolis were drunk from celebrating events on Crete and were harshly punished- the Battle of Crete 20/5-1/6.
In the village Kalisykia and with unparalleled courage the woman refused to give information on the whereabouts of their men folk. Surrounded by German forces (6th October, 1943) women and children were rounded up in the village square, violently threatened but they resisted. The village was pillaged and destroyed; twelve women fell, burnt alive together with one very old man. It is a drama that brings to mind the Women of Souli; rather than fall into the hands of the Ottoman Turks they slowly and deliberately danced over a precipice. In the town of Kallikratis German occupation troops killed 31 people lead by a war criminal. 75 years later on October 3, 2018, Kallikratis was named a martyr village.
Earlier in February 1942, the inhabitants of Zymbaki a more western Cretan village to Viannos were forced from their homes to make way for the construction of a strategic airstrip for the Wehrmackt as a support base for Rommel in Africa. The men were forced to demolish their own homes and carry the stones to the beach in heat and with no water. Complaints brought severe punishment. As revealed by a then 8 year old boy recalling the uprooting of his family, little remains of the place he was born. During my time in Crete, I recorded two related painful yet inspiring vignettes; one during an official ceremony in the presence of Church and State, a long solemn reading out of all names of those shot by Wermacht troops (14-16 September, 1943); the second a moving and dignified spectacle, a memorial of candelabras in a small Orthodox Church just above the Museum, one candle for each of the 461 dead. They hang silently in eternal harmony one next to the other symbolizing those, whose wicks were prematurely and cruelly snuffed out. I visited the church close to midnight during the first quarter of the moon. Stars studded the sky. W-Shaped Cassiopeia stood high above, seemingly, to appeal for no more War.
I also recorded a meaningful brief chat with the creator of the holocaust monument, John Parmakelis, an academician, a man of few words, a doer with hands, heart and brain. His words and work contain a message to all of us. In the excitement, hubbub and confusion of the last lunch; forks on plate, plates being passed, glasses clinking, seats groaning and animated conversations rising and fading in volume, we silently toasted each other across the tables. Parmakelis was one of several people recognized by the Society of Victims of the Holocaust for his highlighting of suffering through art and a dedicated monument.
I don’t know when, or how, or where this story will end but my recent experience in Crete tells me that the ongoing and unrelenting struggle for justice and recompense, not revenge, will one day win out. Certainly, the black book of the occupation must be closed but justly. The tragedy of Amiras Viennos can not be forgotten or set aside. It resulted from a shocking military order, Destroy Viennos county, execute all men over 16 on the spot…it included all arrested in the country side irrespective of gender or age.
Some say the game is already over that final decisions are already in place in the highest courts of Europe. Others say that it is not at all over and that justice is necessary and inevitable. Ordinary citizens have taken up their own pleas through the judicial process. Representatives of several legal organizations were present including attornys representing families with losses. According to the Panhellenic Association of Lawyers for German compensations, at least 70,000 people are now suing Germany through Greek Courts for what they were subjected to under the Nazi occupation and there are about 100,000 ongoing cases. One ruling handed down by the International Court of the Hague is based on the principle of state immunity, a form of diplomatic asylum, which says that Greece and Germany should work things out themselves but it seems an uphill battle for Greece. Accordingly, the Greek state will represent the plaintiffs and has amalgamated information given from 2012 and a Verbal Note is to be delivered to the German authorities.
The Greek Prime Minister is on record as saying that a parliamentary report on the issue will be adopted by parliament after which bilateral negotiations will begin. Youth is now taking up the cause. On the museum site they chanted here and now recompense in one of the ceremonies. According to some Greek lawyers, a German rejection of the Verbal Note can pave the way for court actions-proceedings before the International Court of Justice in the Hague or other appropriate international court.
Of interest, Namibia now seeks amends from Germany in American courts to compensate victims of the Herero Genocide committed between 1904 and 1907 by colonial Germany. Several other suits have been filed by other countries; Poland has received reparations by Germany and now asks for victim compensations; Kenyans who suffered as a result of acts by colonial British Empire troops during anti-colonial struggles (Mau Mau) in the 1950’s are being compensated.
Both the President and Prime Minister of the Greek Republic recently, paid their respects and participated in commemorative ceremonies to those who fell victim to the Nazi atrocities and both stressed that the demand of Greece for war compensations from Germany remains in full force and as a historic obligation. The levels of overall recompense and the value of the loan enforced on the Greek government have been estimated by both countries. German President Steinmeir recently visited Greece on the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Athens to honor the memory of Nazi victims and apologized for the crimes committed in Greece by the 3rd Reich. It was strongly noted that he had nothing to say about Greek Nazi-era claims.
During the Congress words of two Germans were recalled on the issues of Resistance and on the Sacrifice of Greece; one comes from 1944, when Walter Funk, then Treasury Secretary of State, said that Greece suffered the consequences of war as perhaps no other country in Europe! The other message was to the Congress from Dr. Ulrich Schneider, 2018 saying that it is not just the debt to Greece (Justice and Recompense) it is also about recognition of the role of the Greek Resistance as part of Europe's liberation movement against fascist occupation. It is an important part of European legacy. Official documents cited by German historians support the claims of Greece as legitimate in law and demonstrate that the German state has already estimated the cost of its debt to Greece. Payment will help close the black book of Greece’s occupation by the Nazi.
From the Museum of the Holocaust, in Amiras Viannos, September 2018, proved to be a month of rising voices from both dead and living; people, politics and science in a campaign for recognition, justice and recompense for what Nazi Germany did in the Second World War in Greece and for its criminal acts, in Crete. This year marks 75 years since those horrendous events. My monitoring of the pulse reveals strong sentiments of forgiveness and great solidarity with the German people but no forgetting of Nazi atrocities. Anna and Mark from Berlin say that the German debt to Greece must be paid. For them I commit the thought of those students who in Munich during WWII protested the vicious acts of the 3rd Reich. It is now commemorated in the opera the White Rose.
Out walking I met someone who told me that he was from the Burnt villages, villages burnt down deliberately when the soldiers could find no additional villager to kill. In Knossos I learned that Greece’s exit from the Memorandum was made possible by giving the revenues accrued from archaeological sites to its creditors. In Iraklion I briefly stopped at the tomb of the great writer Nikos Kazantzakis, who said I am free of all fears, I hope for nothing. I am free. Sitting down on a bench I fell into conversation with a 74 years and 9 months man who revealed that his family had suffered the loss of his father and brother. Still alive after the first bullet his nine year old brother received the coup de grace. He told me that he wanted to be at the event herein described, but he couldn’t take it!
Greek sovereignty and democracy have been weakened, the economy continues to contract and the social safety net is falling apart. Land and property are being gobbled up, while anything gained by Greece goes to its creditors. Meanwhile only crumbs from the German debt have been received and attempts to obfuscate are taking place. In relating my experiences in Crete to friends from Chicago one told me that his village in the Peloponnesus was raised to the ground; another told me of how she escaped child collection; In Crete I conversed with an elderly couple who were caught up in the paido-mazema at the end of the Greek Civil War, children going over the border first into Albania and only decades later returning home; The introductory poem recalls Thermopylae, Leonidas and the 300; Besides the calming drink of Raki, the small tasty banana grown in the south eastern quadrant of Crete, is excellent.
Back in Athens a friend from the UN told me I personally experienced as a little boy in my village the untold tragedy of the neo-barbarian Nazis, and I cry every time my memory leads me back to that, an 86 year old recalled for me famine in Athens 1941-42 and that a few chick peas in water was a major meal and that if a piece of bread fell there was a scramble for it and an elderly lady told me that knowing he was targeted for execution her father crossed the narrow strait to Turkey after the burial of a family member killed in the bombardment of Pythagora, Samos; her several years experiences, bureaucracy in Turkey, a train journey across Turkey, vapori (ship) to Palestine, visits to Jerusalem, Gaza and a stay in Ethiopia; detention camp life, school, theatre, nostalgia, end of WWII; leaving Ethiopia for Greece with a bag of rice and coffee given by Haile Selassie; return to Samos and the hesitating approach of the family cat.
And one after-song while you live shine, have no grief at all, for life exists but for awhile, and time demands it’s due. This short song is inscribed on the Seikilos epitaph, complete with words and musical notation. It is perhaps the oldest and complete extant musical composition. In 200 BC it might easily have won the European song contest.
Read also Resistance in Occupied Greece.
Panos Kazakos et. al. The economic catastrophe of Greece during the Occupation (1941-1844) - in Greek.
Mark Mazoewer. Inside Hitler’s Greece.
John Louis Hondros. Occupation and Resistance: The Greek Agony 1941-44. Pella 1983
Beevor Anthony. The Battle of Crete, 20 May – 1 June
Metafides T. Crimes against humanity have no legal limit and never expire Report in Greek.
Jeffrey Levett. Attica Aflame, Greece Mourns Dealing with Disaster.
Nasos Bratsos, Aegean refugees in WWII (in Greek) - 30,000 fled the Aegean islands mostly from Chios and Samos and that about 25.000 returned. 3000 died of starvation on the Island of Syros.
Alexandra Santas An Open Letter to German President - in Greek.