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|In One Greek Town, a Day of Sacrifice Remembered
November 16 , 2011 - Dimitris Apostolopoulos
|At 2:30 on the crisp afternoon, the snow is clear in the hills that surround the town. The German soldiers point their machine guns at the five hundred male residents. They shoot and shoot. When the execution ends two hours later, there are 12 survivors.|
All the males gathered for the slaughter that day were age 12 and above. History had just witnessed the massacre of Kalavryta. It was December 13, 1943. The face of the town would never be the same. The psychological impact of the event would weigh on the survivors for the rest of their lives.
"Our lives were ruined," said Giannis Kaldis, 11 years old on that cold day. "Every woman had lost either her husband or sons."
The horror was described by Nikos Ferlelis, another one of the survivors, in an account preserved in the documents in the city museum: "We were all sitting in the place where they had gathered us. They told us to get up and as soon as the flares came down they started shooting us."
According to those who survived, the Germans first promised that they wouldn't harm them, as they were innocent.
After the execution ended, the survivors trembled at the sight. "When we felt down around us, [we understood that] our feet were [wading] in a bath of blood," said one. "The Germans came closer and started shooting each of us to finish us off. My good neighbor, who was lying next to me, told me that we would be next. They shot him twice in the head, spilling his blood on me."
The massacre of Kalavryta was the most serious Nazi war crime committed against Greece, according to the Greek site, History of the Second World War, which chronicles the impact of the war on Greece.
The Nazis inflicted a terror of death, destroyed houses and stolen property. The church in the central square was burned down. The charred remains of the church clock are there to this day, its hands noting the exact time of the holocaust.
Six decades have passed, but survivors still remember those they have lost. "On that black day for the history of humanity, I lost my father – he was one of those heroes, as I like to call them," said Giannis Kaldiris. "I still miss him."
At the time of the execution, the women and children of the town were locked inside the school. After they had killed all the men, the Nazi soldiers set fire to the school, but one of the soldiers, an Austrian, took pity on those inside and let them escape.
"Although I was only 6 years old, I still remember that day inside the school, the smell of the flames," said Christos Bratsakis, 73.
When the women inside the school were free, they started to look for their husbands and sons. They searched everywhere, but couldn't find them. When they found out what had happened to all the males, mourning and despair shrouded Kalavryta.
The burial of the dead lasted two days. The women covered the bodies with blankets and rocks in the freezing weather. The rain, however, would once again expose the dead in the night, making them food for the starving dogs. During this time, reports the Web site National Pride, the survivors lived in caves.
My grandmother, Aikaterini Apostolopoulou, lived in Kertezi, a small village near Kalavryta that had been destroyed by the Nazis a few days before the Kalavryta massacre. "We hid in the fields for days," she recalled. "The smell of the burned houses in Kalavryta was in the air and ashes fell continuously from the sky. We knew that something really bad had happened."
The massacre in Kalavryta was partly an act of a retribution for the campaigns that Greek guerillas had been waging from the surrounding mountains. Several weeks before the massacre, 77 German soldiers had been killed by the guerillas, and the German command decided to respond with harsh, massive operations. The massacre of Kalavryta was the most extreme of the reprisals.
There was another reason why the Germans chose Kalavryta: the town had an important place in Greek history as the place where the revolution against the Turks had started in 1821. It was at the Monastery of Agia Lavra in Kalavryta that the Bishop of Old Patras blessed the Greek banner.
The Germans wanted to destroy the place that meant so much to the Greek spirit. But though they killed so many men and boys and ruined the lives of those who survived, they didn't kill the survivors' will to be free.
Despite the massacre and the psychological scars it left, the town's rebirth has made it an inspiration for generations of residents.
"The sacrifice of those men is an example for all of us who live free today," said Kaldiris. "We are free because of all the husbands and wives that went through that unbelievable ordeal."