The Battle of Karalaka

How 242 German SS soldiers and officers were killed while
they attempted to capture five unarmed Greek Jewish families

by Dr. Michael Matsas

During the Holocaust, as a rule, the Germans and their collaborators were able to arrest or kill Jews, without suffering any losses. Karalaka, an obscure unknown location in Europe, is the ONLY place where 12 times as many Germans were killed, as the number of the Jews they wanted to capture.

All this thanks to the partisans of ELAS and the sacrifice of three Jewish men. There were 650 Greek Jews who became partisans. There could have been many thousands more! Who would have accepted to go alive to Auschwitz in 1943 and 1944, if he or she knew what was taking place there? Yet, thanks to German deceitful promises and incompetent Jewish leaders, the Greek Jews went like lambs going to their slaughter. The only magnificent exception, almost totally unknown to this day, was the Battle of Karalaka near Mount Olympus.

On May 6, 1944, heroic partisans of ELAS, including Greek Jews like Lieutenant Marco Alberto Carasso, my cousin Joseph Matsas and others, fought bravely inflicting heavy and unprecedented losses to the cruel barbarians and liberated the captives. This is the only time the Germans had to regret their anti-Semitism. A marble monument stands on the site to honor the 14 Greeks who fell on that day!

I proposed to Yad Vashem that eleven of the men, who died while saving Jews, should be honored as righteous gentiles. They regretted that soldiers can not be so honored. The other three names on the monument are Abravam Ovadias, Simon Levi and Jacob Magrizos all Greek Jews of Larissa who attempted to escape and were killed. The last name Magrizos made me go back into my book “The Illusion of Safety” to solve a riddle posed to me by Dr. Paul Levi of the World Bank during a recent dinner party in the home of Mrs. Nina Kaplanidi. Dr. Levi has a photograph, perforated by a German bullet which killed a relative of his, by the name Magrizos. He did not know his first name, how he was related to him or how and when he died. The hostess had the book and soon we found that Jacob Magrizos was his uncle and son of Dr. Levi’s grandfather Moissis Magrizos of Larissa. I realize, how little is known about the Greek Jews. 87% of them were killed by the Germans. Conditions in Greece were such in 1943-1944 that almost all the Jews could have saved themselves as my immediate family did. The British and the Americans knew what “deportation to Poland” meant and yet they shamefully never disclosed this German secret to the Jewish victims. Their silence helped the Germans while it became a death sentence for the Jews. Our only source of information was the BBC which in its Greek Broadcasts, mentioned only victories in Russia, Africa and, later, in Europe. Another GREAT INJUSTICE which is still unknown is that in Greece, those who fought the Germans were PERSECUTED after the war by the collaborators of the Germans who occupied important positions in the Greek Government and they were never punished for their TREASON.

How each one of the 650 Greek Jews became a partisan is a thrilling story, different from any other. Overcoming objections by family and community leaders, disobeying German regulations plus deadly threats and facing unique adventures, challenge the imagination of fiction writers.

The following is a description of the events of May 6, 1944, by a Greek Jewish partisan who was wounded on that day. He published it in the Israelitico Vima of Salonika on May 17, 1946 ANONYMOUSLY. It is obvious that he was afraid of reprisals for his heroic act!

Excerpts from Dr. Matsas book “The Illusion of Safety” relating to the battle at Karalaka:

May 6, 1944. At sunrise the night sentinels return to our little barn to enjoy the warmth of a good fire. Slowly we get up and talk about the unusually cold weather for this time of year. On May I snow fell and can still be seen in places, where the sun did not yet melt it. We are at an elevation of 600 meters, and we represent an advanced post of our ELAS battalion on Mt. Olympus, which is stationed a few minutes march higher up.

I opened the door and the clean air rushed in to dispel the humidity that comes out of the wet overcoats and boots of the guards. Outside, I take a look and see only heavy fog, where I usually see the Larissa plateau. Behind me, on the contrary, Mt. Olympus, white with snow, is bathed in sunlight. The path that leads to the fields of Larissa is carved on the side of a cliff, on top of which we located our post. In the bottom of the canyon, some two kilometers from us, there is an opening with some barns which shelter Jewish families from Larissa. They escaped the fury of the Germans and live there hoping for a better tomorrow. We often go down there and they are very happy to see and talk with us. They feel that they are not alone in this corner of Olympus and have a sense of security, thanks to our nearby presence. Their women often wash our clothes and the young men organized a system of scouts which, night and day, bring us information that arrives with couriers from Larissa.

Every day the first thing I see is their camp and, today, fog covers the entire area; for some unknown reason I feel uneasy. I went to the spring nearby and the guard there commented about the bad weather down below. The cold water refreshed me and made me lose all bad thoughts and laziness. As I passed again next to the guard, a funny noise was heard. "Machinegun fire? Don't you think?" the guard says as he searches with his eyes the canyon below. For a second the fog is reduced and the guard looks with his binoculars and points out something. The fog retreated like the curtain of a stage in which a drama is about to unfold. The Jewish barns form the background of this first act.

In the square, at the opening of the canyon, I can see a great number of people with helmets and military uniforms moving right and left. They are Germans a whole battalion of them. I shiver with the thought that my poor coreligionists, after all they suffered, fell again into the hands of the German beasts.
But all hope is not lost. I lower the binoculars which the guard gave me and I turned around to see him. Instead I see all my comrades, ready with weapons in their hands. "Get your gun and kit fast," my captain tells me, "and give this note to the battalion commander." At the same time he took the binoculars from my hands.

After running for ten minutes I am in front of my major, to whom I gave the note and explained what I saw. He looks deeply into my eyes and, as if speaking to himself, says, "We have to save them." I returned immediately to my guard post, where I see the men forming a circle around a sweating and heart-poundingly tired civilian. I recognize him right away as one of the young Jewish men of the valley.

He describes how the Germans arrived at their encampment a little before sunrise, led by a civilian informer. They arrested the Jews in the barns and, after looting their belongings, were about to burn their shelter. A young man tried to inform us but the Germans fired and wounded him. This was the gunfire we heard earlier. Finally this man managed to escape and came to tell us what happened. Agony is depicted on his face as he finishes his story while at the same time, feeling relief, he realizes from what he sees that there is hope for the people he left behind.

Three to four hours elapsed from the time we noticed the arrival of the Germans. During this period the main body of enemy troops remained in the encampment enjoying their victory. Three small groups of German soldiers exchanged fire with our advanced patrols on a front of two to three kilometers. During this time all our men from the battalion at Karyes arrived, around 150 men. Without wasting any time our forces were deployed on the cliffs surrounding the area of the barns. We occupied the high ground so fast that as soon as the order to open fire was given and the singing of our machineguns commenced, dozens of Germans fell dead and wounded. All conditions, from a military point of view, favored our ambush. Slowly and without reducing our heavy fire, we started descending, surrounding the Germans in a smaller circle. The Germans started to fire back, but we did not stop. We knew that our success depended on our speed of action. Our accurate fire brings down more Germans. Soon the enemy is seized by panic. They try to escape by-running toward the opening of the canyon. I saw that the barns were on fire, and the question came to me, "Did the bastards kill the people?" This sad thought was in my mind when my captain ordered our squad to cover the entrance to the canyon and prevent the escape of any Germans. We ran, taking precautions, bent over; the German fire weakens. Some surrender, others try to hide, others abandon their guns and try to escape. We run, one behind the other, and fire our guns.

Suddenly I stop. Behind some bushes I see two or three girls and other civilians. There are tears in their eyes, which express gratitude as they see each partisan who passes in front of them . . . I was sure that these few Jews had been saved, when something hit my left leg and my eyes could not see anymore. I fell down, losing consciousness. I was wounded.

Another partisan witness was Joseph Matsas: Perhaps the greatest partisan victory of World War II took place in Karyes, on the southern slope of Mt. Olympus. The battle is known as the battle of Karalakou. Five Jewish families of Larissa established their campsite in this location. They were betrayed, and an SS battalion surprised them early one morning. Albert Ovadias, Simon Levi and Jacob Magrizos tried to run and inform the partisans, but were gunned down and killed by the Germans. A fourth man, Elias Cohen, succeeded.

Marco Carasso's platoon, together with other units, comprised a force of 150 who staged one of the most spectacular guerrilla operations of World War II. The Germans were encircled and ambushed from the sides of a canyon. German planes came to help, but the terrain of this gorge was such that they were ineffective. Some Germans managed to escape, but those who remained found a tragic end. One hundred and fifty Germans were killed, 78 were wounded and 14, including the German commander, became prisoners. Ten of the prisoners were executed because they attempted to disarm their guards. The remaining were also put to death. That is a total of 242 German dead.

Partisan losses were eleven dead and ten wounded. Immediately after the battle, a Jew named Ganis came and embraced us. "I have a son Marko who is seventeen," he said. "Take him with you, because you are the ones who saved our lives." Marko, a amall boy, joined our unit and became our mascot. We all loved him and tried to protect him in every battle. I loved him more than anyone else because for me he somehow became the symbol of our oppressed people.

The personal historic archives of the president of the community of Larissa, Moissis Ezras, contain these additional details of the battle of Karalakou Ambelonos:

There were some twenty Jews camping in Karyes. They belonged to the families of Marko Gani, Joseph Ovadias, Moissis Magrizos, Moissi Levi and Yehudah Cohen. Three young Jewish men were killed, while a fourth was wounded. The Germans were so sure of themselves that they got undressed and went to bathe in a nearby stream. Antonis Angelousis was the commander of the ELAS battalion which attacked the Germans. He was known as Vratsaros. During the battle the Germans forced the remaining young Jews to serve as stretcher bearers. Among the Germans who became prisoners was the battalion commander who, naked and on horseback, was led to the village of Karyes, where he was executed. Another German who was captured and executed was the son of a German general who was the Aegean commander. The Germans offered to free 200 hostages kept in German prisons in exchange for his freedom. The message was received by ELAS too late. By that time all German prisoners were executed. The following day the Germans returned in force in the area to recover their dead.

The monument in Karalaka. Photograph by Alberto Levi, New York

Nobody believes that even in June 9 and July 20 of 1944, when the Jews of Corfu, Cos, and Rhodes were deported, the law-abiding Jews obeyed the Germans and their Greek collaborators and they peacefully led their families to the trains that took them to Poland.

The following bitter example, affecting two first cousins of my mother, Matathias and Menahem Cohen of Corfu, illustrates the ignorance of the Greek Jews (page 195, “The Illusion of Safety”). The two brothers married two beautiful sisters from Patras, Cleio and Finetta Yohana. “Most of the Jews of Corfu were transferred by the Germans to Patras. A Greek member of the security battalions recognized Cleio and Finetta and remembered that they were daughters of the late Rafael Yohana, who had been his benefactor. He told them that he would enable them and their families to escape, although he could not help their elderly mother-in-law. It was a magnanimous offer that should have been gladly accepted.” They refused to abandon the old lady! In the death camp, when the two brothers learned that they had lost their families, they fell on the electrified fence.

The Greek Jewish world, which existed and thrived in Greece for more than 2,000 years, is now almost extinct. There were 77,000 Jews in 1940. 10,000 remained alive but deeply traumatized in 1945. Today, there are no more than 5,000 Jews in Greece. The German crime against the Jews, was the greatest crime ever committed because, the first victims that the Germans systematically killed, were the children. 1,500,000 Jewish children. Who knows how many Nobel prize winners would have been among them and their descendents who were never born!

Let this story of “The Battle of Karalaka” be a haunting memorial for the victims and a merciless warning, to those who would like to imitate the German “Final Solution” of the “Jewish problem”!

Potomac, MD
June 2012

Postscript: It is obvious that the Battle of Karalaka and the stories of the Greek Jewish partisans who fought there, would make an epic movie equal to Spartacus, The Bridge on the River Kwai, or Ben Hur. I see into the future when a movie will be made about the never honored Greek resistance against the Germans and the inexcusable murder of the 67,000 Greek Jews. Let’s hope that somehow, someone will realize the potential of this GREAT but IGNORED story and make it known to the world of those who love justice and freedom.