ABC Radio producer and journalist Kon Karamountzos talks to Daily Review about his meeting with an 86 year-old survivor of the Nazi massacre known as the May 1941 Battle of Crete which led to a radio documentary that can be heard here.
ABC Melbourne radio producer Kon Karamountzos was researching the infamous Massacre of Kondomari when he met Vassilis Papadopoulos, a survivor of another little known massacre in Rethymnon.
Nearly 80 years after the event, Papadopoulos told Karamountzos he still can’t get his mother’s final words out of his mind: “If anyone survives this, please look after my children”.
Germans carried out many mass executions and massacres in Greece. In Kondomari in 1941 during the Battle of Crete the Germans rounded up dozens of men between 18 and 50 years old and executed them.
Karamountzos first heard of this mass execution of civilians from a friend who had seen photos of German paratroopers smiling while shooting civilians. Five Germans had been killed in Kondomari and reprisals were brutal.
“The Germans had a ratio – for every five Germans killed they would kill twenty-five Greeks. It was thought it was the first mass execution of civilians by Germans in Crete,” says Karamountzos. The journalist travelled to Kondomari to research the event for an ABC documentary but once there, he found the locals were uninterested in talking about it.
“They had a blasé attitude to it and I started to think that the whole trip was a waste,” he says.
But he was invited to the military museum in Rethymnon. “Given I had nothing else to do, I (thought) I may as well go see what I might pick up as a radio producer.”
Karamountzos was talking to the museum staff when someone suddenly said, “He’s arrived”. He looked up to see an old man who was introduced as Mr Vassilis Papadopoulos.
“He walked in with a walking stick and the military staff became silent. It was a sign of respect and soon I was to find out that he was a survivor of a massacre that occurred before Kondomari.”
Karamountzos let Papadopoulos talk. “He opened up but often stopped to say ‘I do not want to remember’.”
Papadopoulos recalled that as a boy, he was initially in wonder at seeing paratroopers landing.
His first meeting with a German was when a soldier pushed a machine gun into his face asking about the whereabouts of any Allies.
“This kid did not know what a machine gun was, I mean we grew up with war films on TV he had never seen anything like that,” says Karamountzos.
The morning of May 20 1941, German soldiers went into villages to scare people away as they prepared for the airborne landing. Many of the villagers fled to the mountains.
“Vassili’s family, his mother, father, brother, grandmother and aunt and some others went towards the sea and hid under a bridge, they camouflaged it but they weren’t aware that the Germans were about to land.”
Australian solders on the hill tried to defend Crete and Papadopoulos and his family were caught in a fire-fight between the Germans and the Australian troops.
Papadopoulos said the Germans then rounded up the villagers and shot and burned their bodies while others were burned alive.
A motorbike courier arrived and handed the Germans a document and Vasili’s family were dragged to the beach at gunpoint.
“Vassilis said that when an elderly couple fell over in exhaustion a German simply pulled out a pistol and shot them in the head where they fell”.
The Germans then opened machine gun fire. Papadopoulos lost his mother, aunt and grandmother. The Australian soldiers tried to stop it by firing at the Germans.
“They sat on the beach waiting for people that were wounded to die, clearing the sand from their faces hugging them as they passed away,” says Karamountzos of the survivors.
Papadopoulos left his mother’s body on the beach and to this day he laments that he could not bury his mother.
The Australians troops led by Major Ian Bessell-Browne from the 2/3rd Field Regiment tried to save the villagers. Papadopoulos still refers to the Australians as “heroes and patriots”.
The Australians and New Zealanders were betrayed by the stupidity of their New Zealand commander of Creforce, Major-General Bernard Freyberg. They became Allied prisoners of war or fled to the Cretan mountains to fight alongside the Greek Partisans.
“How can I do justice to a story of such significance?” asks Karamountzos.
“This story has weighed on me, I see the pain in this man’s eyes daily. It motivates me to record these stories for the future because we need to know what fascism and what war really are.”
You can here the program here and an extended podcast is currently being produced.