December 8th, 1943
Angelos Bouris, my paternal grandfather, was born in the Greek village of Kerpini in September 1924, making him nineteen years old at the time of the German invasion in 1943. Kerpini is a small village, located in the mountains about 5 kilometres north of the main town in the municipality, Kalavrita (or Kalavryta), in the region of Achea in the Peloponnese.
The Kerpini Massacre
The village is famous throughout Greece as the birthplace of famed revolutionary Andreas Zaimis (1791–1840), who became head of the Government Commission, created in 1826 to run the country and conduct the War of Independence against the Turkish and who was also the ancestor of two Prime Ministers. It is also in the region of the monastery of Ayia Lavra, the place where, on 25 March 1821, it is said, Archbishop Germanos of Patras raised the Greek revolutionary flag and blessed the revolutionaries who proclaimed on that day the cry for Greek independence (“Freedom or Death”) from Turkish rule.
Whether the 25 March events happened or not, the powerful symbolism of the region as well as the mountainous terrain, inspired partisan resistance fighters to use it as a base during World War II, which is why it saw such devastation at the hands of vengeful German soldiers carrying out reprisals.
The soldiers first passed through the area in October 1943, doing so without harming civilians, on their way to fight with partisan rebels further afield. The fact that this visit to their village was peaceful meant that none of the villagers of Kerpini anticipated the events of December 8th, 1943.
This is the story of my grandfather’s escape from the massacre that claimed the lives of fifty nine of his male neighbours, relatives and friends.
“I’d been away all day, on top of the mountain, trying to spot German troops in the area. First, I saw an old man who had been a teacher in the village, come out from his garden, and I met him as I came down from the mountain. I asked what the Germans were doing.
“Good people, Angelo, good people, they haven’t touched any of us, the soldiers are good people”, he said to me.
He told me that the soldiers asked where a wounded German soldier had been looked after, and where three dead German soldiers were buried. They were told that the village priest had buried them, so they got the priest to show them the graves, while pushing him around. “Pray for them, father” the soldiers ordered.
The three German soldiers who were buried in the village were part of approximately 80 soldiers captured by partisans after a skirmish near Kerpini on 17 October 1943. About 78 of these were killed by partisans on 7 December 1943, following the failure of negotiations to release the captured soldiers.
This led General Karl von Le Suire, the commander of the 117th Jager Division, to order that civilian areas, including what the Germans regarded as partisan strongholds, including Kerpini, the nearby monastery of Agia Lavra, and the town of Kalavrita, be “cleansed”. In Kerpini and surrounding areas, these orders were carried out by the battalion Battle Group Ebersberger, commanded by Major Hans Ebersberger. The 80 captured German soldiers had come from this battalion.
The residents of Kerpini knew nothing of these plans, and assumed that, as before, the Germans were merely passing through on their way to continue fighting with the partisans in areas around the town and other places. At most, the residents thought, they would ask if there were any rebels in the village, and leave when they learned there were none. They did not expect what were in fact and in law, war crimes against civilians.
“After walking further back into the town, two soldiers grabbed me and held me at gunpoint, speaking Greek and ordering me to walk. They noticed that two times I was looking around for somewhere to run to, and they kicked me both times to discourage me — this was when I became convinced the soldiers wanted to kill me.”
In the meantime, other soldiers began setting fire to people’s homes. Angelos’ older brother Phillip had opened all the doors of his house, so the soldiers would think he had fled, but instead, took refuge in the attic. His house was eventually set alight, forcing him to flee. Their father, Andreas, was inside the family home when it caught fire, but he managed to escape, and was not rounded up by the soldiers as many other men in the village were. My grandfather said: “I think that they did not see that my father was in the house when they set it on fire, and they did not see him when he got away”.
The soldiers largely left the women and children alone; according to my grandmother, Georgia Bouris (née Mazis), who was also born and lived in Kerpini, as the soldiers approached her family home, preparing to burn it down, she screamed and shouted at them in Greek, while waving her arms in a hysterical and pleading fashion, “Please boys, don’t do this” and this, she can only assume, apparently persuaded them not to set fire to her home.
My grandfather’s account continued: “At one point, I was being marched in the middle of ten soldiers, with five on either side of me. When we reached a spot in the road that led out of the village in the direction of Kalavrita and where a tap was located, the soldiers simply sat down. Around fifty other men from other parts of the village had been rounded up and marched to this spot”.
“A teacher from the village school tried to reassure us, saying “they’re not going to kill us, don’t worry, I’ll talk to them.” He was one of those shot and killed during the massacre.”
At this time, all the village men that had been brought together were continuing to be marched in a line by the troops on the road south towards Kalavrita. Angelos, his cousin George, who had been a soldier and was at that time about 42 years old, and my grandfather’s friend Ntino, who was my grandfather’s age, managed to sprint out of the line. However, they were spotted. They raced up a hill behind St Barbara’s Church and into the basement of an abandoned house. As they were entering the house, Angelos felt four bullets race past his head, “like fire”, and a bullet hit George, who was killed. He says: “I remember seeing George start to fall from just outside the door of the house and he landed inside the house”. Angelos and Ntino were not hit.
Once inside the basement, Ntino hid himself behind a large wine barrel and Angelos pulled a wooden wheel in front of the barrel to conceal him. Angelos recalls saying “Now I’ve hidden you Ntino, what am I supposed to do?!”
“At first, I hid behind the door of the basement, and found a wooden stick to hit the soldiers with. But I realised that I was not a trained fighter and thought that I might not be strong enough to fight and beat a soldier. I also did not know what to do with the soldiers’ gun, even if I got hold of one, so I thought about hiding in a large container of wheat that was open at the top, but decided that was unsafe. Eventually, I found a small spot in between the barrel behind which Ntino was hiding in and the wall of the basement against which the barrel was leaning. I was only able to fit into that space because I was thin.
As I crawled into that space, I could see from a small opening in front of my hiding place that two German soldiers arrived, with one looking immediately behind the door where I had originally thought to hide, and the other looking in the container of wheat. They turned my cousin’s body over to see if he was dead, and as they did, a great bubble of blood burst from his chest, from where he had been struck.
They searched the area around the barrel, and I had to think what to do. I could see the soldier’s boots, as one of them walked around part of the barrel. He did not try to walk into the space in which I was hiding, but I thought he might see me from a corner of the barrel, so that as he moved to look down one corner, I made my way further around the space so that he could not see me. As he moved back the way he had come, I moved back in the direction to where I had just been, so that I always remained behind a part of the barrel that he could not see. He did not find Ntino either behind the barrel and the wheel. I think that they must have decided that we had left the house, because they turned to leave, but not before scattering what must have been gunpowder and lighting a match, setting part of the basement on fire.
Looking at it now, if we had escaped, they wanted to burn the house down anyway, and if we were there, that they thought ‘well, they can just get burnt’. When Ntino saw the fire, he started crying, “Oh no, my horses will be burnt! They’ll kill my father!” He was thinking that the Germans must be burning down other homes also. I said “Worry about yourself now, not the horses and your father!” I told him to keep his head down close to the ground so that he wouldn’t inhale the smoke which was building up.
When about half of the basement was on fire, with the side we were hiding in burning more slowly because of the dirt floor, I stuck my head out and saw soldiers’ boots retreating from the house. The basement had an opening in its ceiling (which was the floor of the main level of the house). Through this opening, grapes were thrown into the open barrel in the basement when the wine was being made. Deciding it was safe, we climbed up through this opening, onto the ground floor. The fire had spread to the ground level and was starting to burn the roof of the house. As I was looking out of the window for the soldiers, planks and tiles were falling on me because of the fire, and a burning wooden plank hit me and set my pants on fire! I was able to put this small fire out quickly.
We called out through the window to a neighbour we referred to as Uncle Tony and asked if there were any Germans nearby, and he said “What are you doing up there? You’re getting burnt!” I felt and saw tongues of flame pass over my head and out of the window as we were talking to Tony, and two girls shouted “These boys are getting burnt!” as we jumped through the window.
Because the house was built on a slope, we had a jump of a few metres as the ground level of the house was above ground level of the land. The basement we had first run into was on the ground level of the land.
I told Ntino to follow me, because I knew the laneways and terrain better than he did. We walked up the hill, through a tunnel that was by a stream, and decided to go back to the spot on the mountain where I had been earlier that day. By then, it was just before 6pm and quite dark. As we approached the bridge that connects the upper part of the town to the lower part, we saw German soldiers standing on the bridge smoking, so we turned around and warned others we met not to go that way. We ran into an old lady who told me “Your father’s crying and screaming that he’s lost his house and his son!”
At the same time, my brother Phillip had gone to the house of our aunt, Andromache, and had put on some of her clothes to disguise himself as a woman as he came to look for me. I saw someone approaching us in a field and turned to run away, but I recognised the gait as Phillip’s, despite the women’s clothing.
Together, Phillip and I and Ntino doubled back to a house behind the bridge. That house was your grandmother Georgia’s house and it backed onto a steep cliff. We made our way to the bottom of the cliff, because we decided the Germans would not be able to follow down that cliff, nor to surround the area at the bottom of the cliff. The others we had met up with did not follow, as they were concerned about the steepness of the descent. Phillip and I were younger and fitter than they were. We stayed at the bottom of the cliff until dawn, when we saw people walking from their houses down to the fields of Saint Paraskevi on the Louka’s family’s land, back into the village, and back to the fields again. We realised they were taking bodies back home, and because of all this activity, and not seeing soldiers, we assumed that the Germans had left and that people had been killed.
We returned to the village only to find a burnt out wasteland, with women collecting the men to bury them, and the priest reading over the graves.”
In total, forty five men were killed, machine gunned to death in the field of St Paraskevi, and four who had originally been captured survived, including Angelos and Ntino. One of Angelos’ cousins survived the slaughter by playing dead while lying among the bodies in the field.
Their names, along with the names of the forty five killed, can be found at a memorial site across the road from the field, on the road that winds up to Kerpini from the direction of Kalavrita.
The effects of these atrocities were felt for years. “Although no member of my immediate family was killed (although cousins were), Phillip, his wife and their two small children had to live in their kitchen for several years, as it was the only room of the house that had not been destroyed by fire.”
Later on that decade, Angelos and Phillip built a new house on the site where the old house had stood. Angelos and his father (his mother had passed away a few years earlier) had to move in with his aunt Andromache indefinitely, because they could not afford to rebuild a second house, after Phillip’s house had been rebuilt.
Angelos remembers his father, after the fire, collecting charred wheat from their garden which they had to eat, despite it tasting and smelling strongly of smoke. The war saw devastating famines across Greece and any food was precious.
The Kalavrita Holocaust
The massacre at Kerpini was repeated, usually with fewer persons killed in each case, at about 24 towns and villages in the Kalavrita province, as the municipality was then called. On 13 December 1943, the largest massacre of men and boys over 14 was carried out by the Battle Group Eberbersberger in the town of Kalavrita itself. That was a slaughter of about 696 people, one of the largest massacres of civilians carried out in Western Europe by German troops during World War 2.
During that episode, a large number of women and children were locked in a high school building. Thankfully, a German soldier opened the doors of that building just after it was set alight, saving those inside. That account is described, with photos and reminiscences of survivors, in the Municipal Museum of the Kalavrita Holocaust, which stands on the spot of the old school, having been opened in 2005, and which I have visited.
The Kalavrita school was the high school which Angelos had attended in the second half of the 1930s, Kerpini having only a small primary school. His schooling and the events of 8 and 13 December 1943 are indissolubly connected in the story of his life.
Angelos was conscripted into the Greek army in the second half of the 1940s and fought in the Greek Civil War against the Democratic Army of Greece (DSE), which comprised elements of the left wing resistance to the Germans, ELAS (Greek Liberation Army) and EAM (National Liberation Front) and the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). His life was not directly threatened in the civil war, although he drove trucks in areas that had been mined by the DSE.
After his military service, he lived in Kerpini for a few years. On 10 May 1953, he married my grandmother Georgia and after a couple of months, they came to Australia as assisted migrants. They lived first in the migrant camp at Bonegilla, then in Scone and Newcastle before settling in Sydney in 1959. They each worked for over 40 years, are both still alive and have 2 children and four grandchildren.