Island of Secrets
FOR ME, THIS BOOK STARTED when my husband, an
electrician for ICI, applied for early retirement in the UK. After
some research, we decided to move to the Greek island of
Rhodes. Fate played a hand, and we ended up buying a lovely
villa near Agios Nikolaos in Crete.
After being a workaholic and an entrepreneur all my life, I
thought I would die of boredom in Crete. My solution was
to set myself a challenge: to accomplish something new, and
difficult, each year. As time passed, I learned diving, sailing,
self-sufficiency, painting, building, photography, writing and
so on. One of my challenges was to drive all over Crete taking
pictures and, on one of these travels, dusty and thirsty, I
ventured into the kafenion of Amiras. An elderly gentleman told me he had an old house for sale for very little money. The property was a ruin with hardly any roof and had a goat inside, but it had garden all around and an amazing view down the mountain and out to sea. I bought it as an investment.
Several years later, my husband and I decided if we didn’t make the move to Rhodes, we would never get there, so we put our villa on the market. That we sold the house straight away, was a shock. We had eight weeks to move out.
Remembering the ruin in Amiras, we decided to ‘do it up’, and live there while we found the perfect place to build our house in Rhodes. A few months later, with the cottage comfortable, I started on the jungle of a garden. When clearing a bed for strawberry’s, between and ancient olive tree and a gnarled, mature, lemon tree, I dug up a rusted old machine gun. Wow! I called my son, Peter, and his partner, Nicky (they had moved into the lower village of Amiras) and, with the gun, I met at the kafenion, which rapidly filled with local men. We were told many moving stories about how war effected the village people, especially in 1943. I took the gun into the nearby town of Viannos and handed it over to the mayor, for the museum. Photographs of the house, the gun, and the handing over ceremony can be seen on this website.
Over the following months, one by one, the village matriarchs told me their personal stories about the terrible day of the massacre of all their men and boys, and how they survived. Shocking stories of abuse, tragedy, bravery and survival. I was both honoured, and humbled that they shared these stories that I felt needed to be told.
I started to research, and was astounded by the results of my investigation. This is what I discovered on Wikipedia:
On 14th to 16th September, 1943 a campaign of mass extermination was launched by the Nazis against civilians in around 20 villages in the remote mountain area of Viannos, Crete. This resulted in the murder of over 500 peaceful villagers - mostly, but not exclusively, men and boys - by the Wehrmacht units.
All the houses were looted, and everything of value or made of metal was confiscated. A white powder was thrown into many of the houses and then ignited, causing the complete destruction of property in many of the villages. The Nazis then burned all the September field crops, so that there was no food for the surviving women and children through the encroaching winter.
The mass extermination cleared the area, and was one of the deadliest in the Axis occupation of Greece. The attack had been ordered by General Friedrich-Wilhelm Muller and claimed to be in retaliation to a battle in the nearby village of Simi, between German soldiers and a small band of Cretan resistance.
Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller (29 August 1897 – 20 May 1947) was a general in the German Army. He was a recipient of the Knight's Cross, and of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, awarded by Nazi Germany to recognise extreme battlefield bravery or successful military leadership. Müller was notorious for having been a most brutal commander of occupied Crete. The infamy earned him a nickname: The Butcher of Crete.
The mountainous area of Viannos, in the district of Heraklion, is situated to the south of Crete and looks out over the Libyan Sea. After the Battle of Crete in 1941, Crete fell to the Axis (Germany, Italy, Japan) and Viannos and its surrounding villages, including nearby Amiras, became part of the Italian zone.
The Italians had hardly bothered the Cretan villagers, apart from stealing the occasional chicken and flirting with the women. This led to the presence of several resistance groups (andartes) in the area. The largest group was led by a communist, Emmanouil (Manoli) Bandouvas.
Increasing activity of the resistance, and rumours that the Brits planned to invade Crete, led the Italians to construct fortifications on the coast. The Axis also built a garrison in the local mountains, with good lookout views over the Libyan Sea and surrounding area. Three German soldiers, were posted at Kato Simi, supposedly in charge of collecting potatoes for the provision of occupying troops.
(In my opinion, this was a weak excuse as the potato growing area was the Lassithi Plateau, central to the mass of Axis troops in the area of Heraklion. It was generally believed that the true reason for the troops at Simi was to keep the surrounding area, particularly the coastline, under surveillance.)
The Germans had a station of forces in the villages of Tsoutsouros and Arvi on the coastline below the Viannos area.
An armistice, signed on 3 September 1943 by Walter Bedell Smith and Giuseppe Castellano, was made public on 8 September. The armistice stipulated the surrender of Italy and her forces to the Allies. After the armistice, the Italian commander, Angelico Carta, and members of his staff, were smuggled from the south coast of Crete, accompanied by British Special Operations Executive (SOE) Patrick Leigh Fermor, to Egypt. Rumours that the Allied forces were about to take, and liberate, the island of Crete intensified.
Bandouvas organised an attack on the German lookout post at Simi. According to the locals, he had been ordered to do so by the British led resistance (SOE). British sources later claimed he had acted without consulting them, anticipating that the Allies would soon land, and that he hoped to emerge as a national hero. The claims of Bandouvas were also denied by SOE agents, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Thomas James Dunbabin.
(The local Cretans claim that Bandouvas naively fell into a trap set by the British who, preparing for the post-war era, aimed to wipe out the increasingly popular local units of pro-communist EAM/EL; and they also hoped for a distraction big enough to take German attention away from the coast. Several local women asked me why their Allies allowed the holocaust of Viannos to happen. 2,000 enemy troops, gathered in that small area for four days, and their supposed allies chose to look the other way while grandfathers, husbands, sons and brothers were tragically murdered.)
With most of Greece having fallen under the Axis, the Greek Communist Party (KKE) had called for national resistance. The KKE together with minor parties of the Left formed a political structure called National Liberation Front (EAM). They were joined by other Greek resistance militants. The Greek People's Liberation Army or ELAS, was the military arm of the left-wing National Liberation Front (EAM) during the period of the Greek Resistance.
(My personal view, after talking to one of the last living members of Bandouvas’s local resistance, is that I am inclined to believe the first reason, that Bandouvas was given instructions. Who could have foreseen that his actions would turn into such a catastrophe? This is because; Crete was strongly communist. Britain and the USA were passionately anti-communist and probably didn’t feel they could be seen liberating the communist population of Crete. Yet, they needed Crete in order to gather, and submarine to North Africa and Egypt, fleeing Italian leaders, Cretan runners, and escaping dignitaries. Discrediting the communist resistance, and promoting the British led resistance, may well have been a tactic to swing the Cretan’s away from their socialist ideals. The ambush in Simi also caused a distraction from the submarines arriving from Cairo and North Africa on the coast below, providing a double solution to the Allies problems.)
Whatever the truth, the fact is on 10th September, when the Italians were fleeing Crete, Bandouvas' andartes killed two German soldiers stationed at the German post in Simi and threw their bodies into a ravine. The bodies were soon discovered. (Another fact I find hard to believe as the landscape around Simi is extremely rugged with deep, impassable, gorges and ravines.)
News of the incident seemed to reach Müller almost immediately. An infantry company was dispatched to Simi to investigate.
Bandouvas, realising the village of Simi was in danger, felt he had no choice but to defend it. With forty of his men, he set an ambush in the valley approaching Simi and waited for Müller’s troops. They arrived early on the 12th September and the battle of Simi commenced.
Despite their initial surprise, the Germans managed to retreat and a fierce battle lasted until the late afternoon. In the end, Müller’s troops were defeated, having suffered several losses and many wounded. Twelve German soldiers were captured. Bandouvas’ men suffered at least one loss, and never admitted to any casualties. They withdrew into the mountains.
The following day, a large force numbering more than 2000 German soldiers gathered in Viannos. Exasperated by the loss of his men, and wanting to set an example to fleeing Italians who may have considered joining the partisans, Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller ordered his troops to destroy the area of Viannos, execute all males beyond the age of sixteen, and kill anyone, man, woman, or child, found outside the village boundaries.
(I ask myself if the true reason for Müller’s orders was because he knew the Italian commander, Angelico Carta, had been smuggled away via that area, and Müller’s harsh action would prevent the rest of the Italian army in Crete - who were based in Neapolis - from trying to leave by the same rout? Bear in mind, the Italians and the Greeks look very alike, and it would be easy for the Italians to disguise themselves as Greek villagers.)
German forces surrounded the region, invading it simultaneously from various directions. They cunningly reassured the Cretans that their intentions were peaceful, which persuaded many of the men to return to their homes. On the following day (September 14), the Nazis conducted mass executions, impromptu shootings, torture, arrests, lootings, arsons, vandalism and demolition.
The exact number of victims remains unverified. Sources agree that the final number exceeded 500 and consist of the inhabitants of villages: Kefaloryssi, Kato Simi, Amiras, Pefkos, Vachos, Agios Vassilios, Ano Viannos, Sykologos, Krevatas, Kalami, Loutraki, Myrtos, Gdochia, Riza, Mournies, Mythoi, Malles, Christos and Metaxochori.
Around 1000 buildings, mostly houses, were destroyed. Some hostages were taken and later executed by shooting or hanging. The surviving villagers were forbidden to bury their dead or return to their villages, most of which had been burned to the ground. It took the villages many years to recover. Some never did.
In 1946, Müller was tried by a Greek court in Athens for the massacres. He was sentenced
to death on 9 December 1946, and executed by firing squad on 20 May 1947 along with
former General Bruno Brauer, on the anniversary of the German invasion of Crete.
No one else was ever brought to justice, nor any substantial reparation paid to the families
of the victims. Today, each village has a war memorial dedicated to their dead, and a
poignant monument, commemorating those who lost their lives during that week in
September 1943, has been erected at the village of Amiras.
Each year, on the 14th of September, a memorial service is held at the monument in Amiras
and the names of the dead are read out. More than a thousand people attend, some after
travelling half way around the world. Google Maps 35.038727 25.442988
The President of Greece attending the memorial service at Amiras monument, September 2014.
The facts behind
The facts behind
Villa of Secrets
Villa of Secrets is based on a true story : what happened to the Jews of Rhodes, the confiscated Jewish property, and the recently discovered archives kept behind a locked door at Rhodes Police Headquarters for over 70 years. However, the court case at the end of the story is pure fiction. The Jews of Rhodes have not, to date, February 2018, had their property or homes returned to them. You can read more at:
I was inspired to write this novel when I came across the story of fifteen-year-old Sarika Yehoshua and events that took place in Greece, 1944. By all accounts, Sarika was a precocious Jewish child who insisted on going to school. She lived on the Greek island of Euboea in the Aegean Sea.
The Island, although occupied by the Germans, was used as a gateway out of mainland Europe and the war by soldiers, politicians, Jews, and freedom fighters in danger of capture.
Sarika ran away to the mountains to join the resistance, the Andartes, expressing a wish to become a freedom fighter herself. Eventually she gained permission to establish her own group of twelve Greek girls whom she taught to shoot, to defend themselves and their honour, and to defend their country.
Sarika’s cousin was brutally tortured and killed in mistake for Sarika. Her commander gave young Sarika permission to find and execute the collaborator responsible, which she did.
The nationalistic spirit of this famous Kapitanessa is captured in a quote, ‘This is my country. I was born and raised here. The Greeks are my people their fight is my fight. This is where I belong.’
It seems the feeling was not mutual. Despite risking her life in a selfless struggle to defend Greece against the Axis, Sarika, found herself close to be arrested by the Greeks for her services to ELAS (the Greek resistance). However, she was warned by the local police chief and fled from Greece.
After the war, Sarika Yehoshua became a teacher in an Israeli school, and a wife and mother.
Here’s another interesting article http://primolevicenter.org/printed-matter/the-secret-of-the-last-jews-of-rhodes/
I would like to thank Samuel Modiano for sharing with me his terrible experiences when he was transported on one of the ships from Rhodes in July 1944, and later his tragic internment in Auschwitz. Samuel, one of the few Jewish survivors of Rhodes, weighed only 26 kilos and was close to death when he was rescued in 1945. Also thanks to Karmen Cohen, director of the Jewish Museum in Rhodes Old Town, for answering all my questions with remarkable patience. Without their help, I could not have written this story. However, I want to point out that any mistakes in the facts are entirely of my own doing.
Thanks also to the people of Paradissi especially Mike and Mama for their local war stories and fabulous Sunday lunches, Anna Oripoulou for helping with translations, Katarina Sparti for her heart-breaking revelations. Ron Jefferies for his firefighting expertise, Antonis of Antonis Taverna, Tony Fyler, and all the team at Bonnier Zaffre especially Eleanor Dryden, Caroline Kirkpatrick, Sarah Bauer, and Frederica Leonardis. And last but not least, my agent, Tina Betts.