Oxi Day

On 28 October 1940 at 2:50 am, the Italian ambassador in Athens, Emanuel Grazzi took Benito Mussolini’s message to the Greek leader General Ioannis Metaxas.  Metaxas was awoken and confronted with a written ultimatum for Italian troops to enter Greece.

Metaxas responded ‘this means war’ (in French “Alors, c’est la guerre”, French was the diplomatic language of the time).  For Greeks, this day is commemorated as OXI day.  ‘Oxi’ (pronounced “ō-hē”) is the Greek word for ‘no’.  The day is a public holiday in Greece and celebrated by Greek communities world wide.

Jealous of Hilter’s conquests, Mussolini’s impetus for the invasion was to accomplish his own military success.  Mussolini boasted prior to the invasion that he would crush Greece.

Greco-Italian War 28 October 1940 to 23 April 1941:

At 5:30 am on 28 October 1940, the Italians crossed the border from Albanian into Greece. Greece was at war with the Fascist government of Italy under Mussolini.  Shortly after, Metaxas addressed the Greek people:

“The time has come for Greece to fight for her independence. Greeks, now we must prove ourselves worthy of our forefathers and the freedom they bestowed upon us. Greeks, now fight for your Fatherland, for your wives, for your children and the sacred traditions. The struggle now is for everything!”


28 October – 13 November 1940

The first Italian offensive of the war against Greece was fought in the Pindus Mountain range in Epiros and Macedonia.  The Italians wanted to capture the strategic mountain passes of the Pindus Mountains.

The Pindus Mountain range extends 93 miles across Greece, 100 miles south of Albania. The range consists of high, steep peaks, with many deep canyons and a landscape of limestone where erosion created sinkholes, fissures, ravines, underground streams and caverns.  The maximum elevation is 8,650 feet at Mount Smolikas.  The mountain range is called the Spine of Greece since it extends down to the north of the Peloponnese.

The Italian forces moved from southern Albania into Greece with it’s 3rd Alpine Division Julia.  Julia was a light infantry division which specialized in mountain combat and consisted of highly decorated and elite mountain corps. Julia was considered to be one of the best in Italy. The Italians were better armed with weapons and machinery.

The Greek force in the area was the Pindus detachment under Colonel Konstantinos Davakis containing a force of 2,000 men.  Davakis divided his troops into three sectors.  Davakis was a Spartan.  His division was the first Greek unit to encounter the Italians.

Under heavy rain at 5:30 am, the Italian forces attacked the three sectors. The Greeks fought courageously and against greater forces. The Julia division succeeded in pushing through Davakis’ central sector.  The Italians moved to the Greek town of Metsovon and their objective was to cut the Greek forces in two, those in Epirus from those in Macedonia. 

The Greeks were mobilized into small coordinated units which proved to be a strong resistance and within a few days the Julia division was surrounded.  On 8 November, General Mario Girotti of Julia admitted defeat.  The rain, snow and wind along with the steep mountain slopes aided the Greek troops in defending Greece.  The Greeks pushed the Italians back to the border in a complete victory, even advancing deep into Albania.  The Italian loses were 5,000 dead.

Not only weather and terrain aided the Greek forces, but also the local civilian population.  The local women provided crucial assistance to the Greek victory.  Women, old and young, carried guns, food, clothing and supplies on their backs to the troops over the mountain trails.

Davakis was wounded 2 November 1940 but survived.  He was arrested in December 1942 by the Italian occupation authorities under suspicion of working in the Greek Resistance and was shipped to a POW camp in Italy.  However the ship carrying him was torpedoed and sank.  His body was recovered by local Greeks and buried.  After WWll ended, he was transferred to Athens for reburial.


2 − 8 November 1940:

The Greeks while outmanned in both numbers and equipment, created a defensive line along the Elaia-Kalamas river in Northern Greece 19 miles south of the Greek-Albanian border. The Greeks had no tanks and their arms and equipment were from WWI.

The Greek 8th Infantry division in the area were commanded by Major General Charalambos Katsimitros. Katsimitros understood that the mountainous and marshy terrain negated the Italian superiority in men and armour. Opposing instructions from the Greek General Staff, Katsimitros chose to set his troops in a defensive line along the Elaia-Kalamas river.  The Greek Plan was to initiate a slow retreat towards this line. This decision contained the Italian invaders and provided the necessary time for Greek enforcements to arrive. The Italian light tankettes and medium tanks could not navigate the terrain. Even though the Italians had superior numbers and equipment, the Greek defensive line remained unbroken.

The Greek army counterattacked and repelled the Italians back by mid-December and into Albania.  Katsimitros led his division into Albania. The Greek army eventually occupied a quarter of Albania moving 18 to 49 miles deep into Albanian territory, holding down 530,000 Italian troops.

In March of 1941, trying to expel the Greeks from Albania, Mussolini personally supervised a counterattack.  It failed.

The Greeks fought for six months against the Italians and repelled the Italian advance into Greece.

Winston Churchill said,

“Our allies the Greeks has seen off the Italian army. Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but we will say that heroes fight like Greeks.”

The Occupation

Η Κατοχή  The Occupation

The Occupation, or Η Κατοχή  (pronounced ‘ka-to-hi’) in Greece began in April 1941 when the Nazis invaded. During the first months of the Occupation, all fuel and means of transportation was confiscated.  Thus no food or supplies could be transported.

Strategic industries were seized. Commodities like olive oil, cotton, leather and tobacco were transferred out of Greece.  Markets were sealed under the sign of the swastika.  All fuel tanks were emptied.  Poultry herds and pigeons were killed by the Nazis.  Farmers were forbidden to harvest their fields on pain of death.  Meat, cattle, sheep, dairy herds were confiscated by the Germans.  Cars, buses and trucks were seized. Shops cleaned out and goods shipped back to Germany.  Rare materials, metal, leather were also taken back to Germany.  Hospital and drugstores were emptied of supplies.

Extraordinary levies were placed upon the country of Greece to sustain the occupying troops.  The Greek levy was determined to 113.7% of the national income of Greece. A full naval blockade was put into place by the Germans which prevented all imports into Greece even food.

Farmers had to pay taxes and sell at enforced low prices, food price controls and rationing were tightened. Fishing was also prohibited.  In Greece, the Nazis policy under the Occupation was that of plundering the country to the detriment of its native population.

In the Winter of 1941 −1942 acute food shortages existed precipitating a famine.  Estimates are that 300,000 died in Athens and the surrounding area. German records show a rate of 300 deaths per day in December 1941, the Red Cross estimates 400 a day, with some days at a rate of 1,000 per day.

Raisins, olives, wild greens and rationed bread were the only available staples to eat.  The hills in Greece were stripped bare. Dead bodies were left on the streets of Athens.  Emaciated bodies were a common sight.

Newspapers ran advice columns to aid readers on how to survive. The columns offered such advice as chewing food slowly for longer periods of time in order to fool the stomach and advising people to collect the crumbs from the table in a jar.

In modern Greek memory the word, occupation, means famine, deprivation, and starvation.

My mother lived in Greece during The Occupation.  She cooked and ate dandelion greens (what in America we consider to be weeds) as long as I remember. She never threw out food and grew vegetables in our back yard.

My Greeks who survived The Occupation relate stories of children who reached adulthood without ever tasting meat and who never become accustomed to real food.

My mother still remembers the taste of the bread made from flour sent from America at the end of The Occupation.  She says bread never tasted so wonderful.  When she came to American her greatest disappointment was that she could never find the flour that made bread taste so good.

I visited the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Missouri.  President Truman signed the European Recovery Program, commonly known as the Marshall Plan which over four years distributed food and money to assist European countries devastated in WWII.  The people of Greece dedicated a statue of President Truman in Athens and sent him a helmet from the time of Pericles in gratitude.  In an exhibit at the presidential library, I saw a photograph of flour sacks from American being unloaded in Greece and on display was one of the flour sacks sent to Greece.  I called my mother that night to tell her I had found the flour she’d been looking for.

Zakynthos and the List of Jews in WWII

Zakynthos (Ζάκυνθος) is a beautiful verdant Greek island in the Ionian Sea famous for it’s crystal blue waters, sandy beaches, rock outcroppings, caves and diving.

Archaeological excavations have found that the island has been inhabited since the Neolithic Age.  Homer first mentioned the island in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Zakynthos was the first independent democracy in Greece.

The island has been occupied by the Romans, Ottomans, Venetians, the French and British and finally returned as part of Greece in 1864.  It’s darkest and perhaps greatest moment came under the Occupation.

During World War ll, Zakynthos was first occupied by the Italians, after Mussolini’s fall to the Allies, the island fell under German occupation on 9 September 1943.

Zakynthos had a population of 275 Jews at the time of the German occupation. The Nazis demanded that the mayor, Loukas Karrer provide a list of the names of all the Jews of the island.  Mayor Karrer went to Bishop Chrysostomos for help.  Bishop Chrysostomos pleaded on behalf of the Jews stating that they had done no harm and did not deserve to be deported.  When the Nazis still demanded the names of all Jews.  Mayor Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos gave the Nazis, a list stating ‘Here is the list of Jews you required’.  The list contained two names, the mayor’s and the bishop’s.  They then proceeded to warn the Jews to hide in the mountain villages where they were sheltered and protected by the Greeks of Zakynthos.  At the end of the war, all the Jews of Zakynthos survived.

In 1978, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust center in Israel awarded Bishop Chrysostomos and Mayor Loukas Karrer with the title of ‘Righteous among the Nations’.  This honour is awarded to non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust in spite of the risk to their own lives.

Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  A day to pledge to “Never Forget’.

In remembering the Jews who perished, I also wanted to remember the Greeks of Zakynthos and their act of valour in standing up for their fellow human beings, the Jews of Zakynthos.

The Acropolis and the Greek Flag


Greek Flag Acropolis Athens

Greek Flag Acropolis Athens

I love this picture.  I remember the first time I went to the Acropolis.  My uncle Kostas took me and my cousin Giorgos. We walked around the Acropolis warmed in the bright sunshine of a Greek summer day.  At the northern end of the Acropolis was the area with the Greek flag.  We walked up the steps and viewed the city of Athens below us.  Then my uncle told us this story.

During the Nazi Occupation of Greece, two 19 year olds, Apostolos Santas and Manolis Glezos climbed the Acropolis on the 31 May 1941. They took down the swastika flag, that had flown since the day the Nazis had entered Athens.  In its place they left the Greek flag flying. The word spread throughout Athens that the swastika had been removed.  Furious, the Nazis tried the two men in absentia and placed a death sentence on them. The Nazis’ public outrage at this defiance rather than quashing resistance, further spread the news of the two men’s valiant act throughout Greece inspiring others to rise up against the Occupation.

In an interview years later, Manolis Glezos answered the question why they had done it.  He responded by saying that Hitler commented that the fighting was all over now that the Germans were in Greece.  Mr. Glezos said that spurred the two young men to show Hitler that it was in fact, not over.

One of the first acts after the liberation of Greece was to raise the Greek flag on the Acropolis.  A simple plaque at the Acropolis commemorates the actions of the two young men.

Plaque Acropolis Athens

Plaque Acropolis Athens

Every time I visit Greece, I visit the Acropolis and make sure to stay a few moments underneath that flag and remember the heroic efforts of the Greeks against an evil speeding across Europe until it met with Greece resistance.  I remember two 19 year old boys who climbed the Acropolis in an act of defiance to take down the flag of an oppressor and raise the flag of their country, the Greek flag.



H. S. Stavropoulos