By Dr. Michael Matsas*
Among our Allies, finally, only a partisan battalion commander decided, on May 6, 1944, that Jewish lives mattered. My cousin Joseph Matsas who fought in this battle with Lieutenant Marko Carassso1 and other Jewish partisans, told me this story: The greatest partisan victory of the Second World War took place in Karyes, on the southern slope of Mt. Olympus. The battle is known as the Battle of Karalaka.
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 Kohen, succeeded. Marco Carasso’s platoon, together with other units, comprised a force of 150 who staged the most spectacular guerrilla operation of the Second World War. 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. The partisans did not have facilities for prisoners. Partisan losses were eleven dead and ten wounded. Markos Ganis, a small boy, age 17 joined our unit. 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.
Some Germans were so sure of themselves that they got undressed and went to bathe in a nearby stream. 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 battalion commander of ELAS, Antonis Angeloulis served as a second lieutenant in the Albanian Front. Harold Alexander, commander of the Allied Forces of the Mediterranean, honored him with the highest decoration.
A Jewish partisan who was wounded describes what happened on May 6, 1944: At sunrise the night sentinels return to our little barn to enjoy the warmth of a good fire. We are at an elevation of 500 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. Every day the first thing I see is their camp and, today, fog covers the entire area; for some unknown reason I feel uneasy. For a second the fog is reduced and a 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. Soon, a young man I knew, Elias, sweating and tired arrived.
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.
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. During this time all our men from the battalion at Karyes arrived, around 150 men. We occupied the high ground. We opened fire. All conditions, from a military point of view, favored our ambush. Soon the enemy is seized by panic. I saw that the barns were on fire, and the question came to me, “Did the bastards kill the people?” Some Germans surrender, others try to hide, others abandon their guns and try to escape.
Suddenly I stop. Something hit my left leg. I fell down, losing consciousness. I was wounded. Alberto Levi of New York, after reading the above story in the first edition of The Illusion of Safety made a special trip to Greece and, after great effort, he found the location of the battle and took a photograph of the monument (pictured here) with the names of the fallen, including the three Jews. Many years later, I met Dr. Paul Levy who had a photo perforated by a bullet that was found in the pocket of a relative of his who was killed near Mt. Olympus. He did not know anything else. We found out that his relative was his uncle Iakov Magrizos. In Greece, after the war, many partisans were persecuted by the former collaborators of the Germans who came to power.
Memorial to the fallen heroes of the Battle of Karalaka. Three were Jewish.
Dr. Michael Matsas was born in 1930 in Ioannina, Greece, and from October 1943 to October 1944, he survived WWII in the free Greek mountains with his immediate family. He graduated as a dentist from the University of Athens in 1953 and served as a dental officer for three years in the Greek Army. In his last year, he was the dentist of the Military Academy of Athens. He is the author of The Illusion of Safety: The Story of the Greek Jews During the Second World War, second edition, Vrahori Books, 2021.