December 13, 1943 marks the date of the bloodiest atrocity committed in Greece by the Nazi occupying forces, as more than 500 innocent civilians were executed, and the whole town of Kalavryta was burned to the ground.
The Massacre of Kalavryta; or the Holocaust of Kalavryta, was carried out by the German Army’s 117th Jäger Division. The extermination of the male population of Kalavryta was in retaliation of the execution of 68 German soldiers who were captured by the Greek Resistance.
Kalavryta Resistance fighters
“Operation Kalavryta”, or “Unternehmen Kalavryta”, was a typical German retaliation act in areas where there was heavy guerrilla war activity, and it was directed against the civilian population of the region. This particular operation has been one of the toughest carried out by Wermacht, not only in Greece, but in Europe in general.
The Kalavryta and Aegialian regions had developed strong resistance forces from the beginning of 1943. The German army began to worry about the growing revolutionary activities, and wanted to limit them with an organized operation that included bombing, burning and executions.
Kalavryta Resistance Fighters
The order for the implementation of this operation was given on the occasion of the destruction of the Hauptmann Hans Schober by Resistance forces, at the Battle of Kerpini on October 17, 1943, during which 86 German soldiers were captured.
The German troops started the attack from the three Greek cities of Tripoli, Aegio and Patras, and finally leading to Kalavryta. En route, they burned, pillaged, and completely destroyed everything on their way; such as the villages of Rogi, Kerpini, Zachlorou, Souvardos, Vrachni, Kalanos, Vlasia, Manesi, Saradi, Massi, and others, as well as the Holy Monastery of the Great Cave and the Monastery of Omlou; south of Patras.
The Germans enter Kalavryta
On December 9, the Nazis entered Kalavryta. While many residents had left the village for fear of retaliation, the Germans called upon the Kalavrytians to return with the assurance that they would not get hurt. Indeed, German Commander Ebersberger gave his word of military honor to appease the restless and frightened residents. After they burned the homes of rebel fighters and searched for Germans wounded in the Battle of Kerpini, on December 12, they started packing to depart.
On December 13, however, early in the morning a German army force arrived in town, headed by senior officers. The Germans rang the church bells and ordered all people to gather in the town’s elementary school, bringing with them a blanket and food for one day.
There, they separated the men from women and children. The women and children were asked to stay in the school premises, while all males over 14 were led in phalanges in the nearby Kapi Rake. The field was a sloping site in the shape of an amphitheater, offering a full view of the town and from which no one could escape. The Germans proceeded with setting the school on fire so that the men could see.
The executed men of Kalavryta
A little later, the Nazis machine-gunned all the men. According to German historian Hermann Frank Meyer, the head of the German forces, General Karl von Le Suire, had given clear orders to accurately record all the victims of the executions.
In total, 499 people were executed that day in Kalavryta. Twelve of them managed to survive without the Germans knowing, while the total number of victims reached 677 in the wider region of Kalavryta and the neighboring villages.
The Germans burned the whole town down
The women and children who were trapped in the elementary school were very close to being consumed by the flames, until they finally escaped by breaking the windows and doors. There is a rumor that an Austrian soldier, who was entrusted with their custody, left one door open so they could flee.
The 1,000 or so houses in Kalavryta were all burned by the Germans, who also seized 2,000 livestock.
The massacre was memorialized in the 2014 book, Hitler’s Orphan: Demetri of Kalavryta, by Marc Zirogiannis. This historical novella tells the story of the massacre, from the perspective of the Zirogiannis family.
In April 2000, then-President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Johannes Rau, visited the memorial site in Kalavryta, and expressed shame and sorrow for the tragedy. A museum dedicated to the Kalavryta Holocaust operates today in the building of the elementary school where the Nazis separated the men from the women and children.