On the early morning of December 13th, 1943, the people of Kalavryta, in the mountains of Achaea in the Peloponnese, woke up to the sounds of ringing church bells. The omens were bad.
Within hours, at 9 am, the first German soldiers of the Wehrmacht 117th Jägerdivision appeared in the town’s main road. The orders were definite: Everyone should assemble to the local school.
Half an hour later all women and children were locked in the schoolhouse while all men, between 12 and 80 years of age, were lined up and driven to a nearby hillside (Kappi Hill).
The infamous “Unternehmen Kalavryta” (Operation Kalavryta) had just begun.
In less than three hours the heroic town would be burned to ashes and only 13 of its inhabitants would survive to keep the memory of their beloved ones alive, along with the shocking testimonies describing the Nazis’ atrocities.
It is reported that over 500 men and boys were murdered in this single incident.
While women and children were locked in the school and men were marching towards the hill by the town, Nazi soldiers were burning houses, churches, and public buildings, looting and loading the spoils on trucks.
The men who could see their own houses being burned down were ordered to dig their own graves.
A few minutes later the signal for the mass execution was finally given and the machine guns began firing.
At midday one of the worst atrocities Europe has seen in the 20th century was complete.
Women and children managed to free themselves from the flaming school only to witness that the rest of the town was set ablaze and their fathers, brothers, and sons were butchered.
The mass shooting at Kalavryta was the largest single massacre in Greece and it came as the Nazis responded to an operation carried out by the partisans of ELAS, in October 1943, which left some 80 German soldiers dead.
The order for the massacre was signed by the commander of the 117th Jägerdivision, Generalmajor Karl von Le Suire.
Ironically, the “butcher of Peloponnese” was the grandson of Bavarian, Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Le Suire, who served as the War Minister of Greece under his compatriot King Otto in 1833.
His instruction was to “level” Kalavryta and the nearby village of Mazeika, along with other villages that supported the partisans.
German reports describe how the participating military units torched within a few days 24 villages and towns, three monasteries (among which that of Agia Lavra where the Greek revolutionary flags had been blessed prior to the War of Independence) and executed 696 inhabitants.
Independent, as well as Greek sources, though, increase the number of those killed in Kalavryta and the surrounding area to more than 1,100.
Local people also had to face starvation as the departing Germans, who apart from burning houses and warehouses, also burned nearby fields and took all food with them.
The school where women and children were locked up currently houses the “Kalavryta Holocaust Museum”, founded in 2005.
The sight of the sacrifice, on top of the Kappi Hill, is kept as a memorial site, featuring a white cross and stones inscribed with the names of those brutally executed.
The commander of the Wehrmacht 117th Jägerdivision, Karl von Le Suire, who ordered the massacre -and witnessed it personally- died in 1954 as a prisoner of war of the Red Army in Stalingrad.
Some 50 years after the massacre, the President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Johannes Rau, visited Kalavryta and stated:
“I came here to keep the memory of this event alive in Germany. Here, at this place, I feel immense grief and shame. The only one who knows and accepts his part can find the path to a better future”.
He added adding that Greece and Germany have “the opportunity to shape a European future of peace, democracy, and respect for human rights. In such, European atrocities and destruction have no place”.