Seventy years ago next month, one of the bloodiest battles of World War Two began. German paratroopers landed on Crete on the morning of May 20th 1941. They encountered fierce opposition from Greek and Allied forces, including many Anzacs, and at first it looked as if the invasion would be a Nazi disaster. But, in spite of suffering appalling casualties, after ten days the Germans conquered the island. For the next four years the Nazi invaders encountered some of the fiercest resistance from a civilian population anywhere in Europe. The retaliation was brutal and has left lasting scars.
It is impossible not to think of those years as I wander around the small square at the south end of Kondylaki Street in Chania, the beautiful port town of Eastern Crete where I am staying. As soon as the Germans seized the island they demanded a complete list of all members of the Jewish community on Crete which then totalled around 300. Three years later, by then swollen with refugees from other parts of Greece, they were all rounded up. At dawn on May 29th 1944 the entire area of the old town was blocked off by trucks as loudspeakers ordered the Jews out onto the street. Allowed to take nothing with them, they were herded into the square today full of cafes pulsing with life and shops selling vibrant clothes and gaudy souvenirs. They were driven to a nearby prison where they remained for two weeks with little food and no changes of clothes while their homes were looted. Finally, on June 9th they were all loaded onto a converted tanker en route for Auschwitz via Athens but were torpedoed by a British submarine targeting German ships and all drowned.
The Jewish presence on Crete, dating back to the 4th century BC not long after the conquest by Alexander the Great, was wiped out in one day. The ancient synagogue of Etz Hayyim, although much looted and attacked over the years, is all that remains. For the last decade there has been a determined effort to revive Jewish life in Chania and on the eve of Passover a local restaurant hosts a community Seder, or Passover meal, which attracts a motley crew of Greeks and tourists, both Jewish and not. I sat next to a Russian who was next to a half Greek half Turkish man , not Jewish, but who said he came because he liked to celebrate the revival of Jewish life. Another guest felt guilty that the local community had not been able to do more in 1944.
Later this month there will be commemorations of the Battle of Crete in various parts of the island perhaps the last time that anyone who was alive at the time will attend.