Mordechai Frizis

Greece's finest soldier in Greece's finest hour

Michael Schwartz

The Remembrance Day, held in the United Kingdom each November, raises many emotions in the hearts ands minds of those who turn their thoughts to the dead of two world wars. In the UK, veterans remember their fallen colleagues, but perhaps underlying these feeling of sorrow is a sense of relief that in 1940 the UK had survived the most terrifying crisis in its history.

In the UK, such has been the importance placed on the Battle of Britain, the world's greatest battle in the air, that the British tend to ignore events in Europe. And yet, it was in 1940 that the Allies gained their first victory on land. The victor was Greece, and the defeat was Mussolini's.

In the last few years a former school-teacher called Louis de Bernières has seen his novel Captain Corell's Mandolin sell over one million copies. Many of the early chapters of Captain Corelli's Mandolin portray, in realistic and agonising detail, the horrors of the 1940 campaign. At last, Greece's bravery has been displayed to a worldwide audience.

One Jewish officer was to play a valiant and inspiring role in that victory.

Translator requires!

Back in 1988, I noticed and advertisement in the London-based Jewish Chronicle. A history was being compiled of all Jewish military activity in World War Two. Was there anyone out there who out could translate some Greek? If so, please contact the author of the story, Mr. Jack Lennard of Hull, Yorkshire.

I wrote to Mr Lennard offering my services. In return, I received a mass of press cuttings. They all dealt with one man – Mordechai Frizis, a colonel in the Greek Army. I started to read through the articles, and recorded my translations on tape.

That would have been the end of the story. A piece of new in the Bulletin of Judeo-Greek Studies rekindled my interest. For a memorial to Colonel Frizis has been erected outside the National Military Museum in Athens. I found all the cuttings, and immediately decided to write an article for Los Muestros!

Early days in Chalkis

Jewish settlement in the town of Chalkis (on Euboea, Modern Greece's second-largest island) goes back at least 23 centuries. When my own country underwent the Dark Ages, Jews had already living on Chalkis for 1.000 years!

It was on January 1, 1893 that Mordechai Frizis, son of Jacob, was born in Chalkis – one of twelve brothers and one sister. Those who have read the legends of Digenis Akritas, mythical defender of Greece's borderlands, will recall that digenes too was one of twelve brothers and one sister. Victories in the Balkan Wars of 1912-3 reinforced Mordechai's sense of patriotism.

Mordechai's family believed that Modechai would become a lawyer, but this particular son never as a lawyer. Most sources state that Mordechai graduated in law from Athens University, which is where his parents' intentions for him came to an end.

In fact, an enquiry was addressed to the Law School in Athens regarding Mordechai's career. The Law School replied that its archives only went back as far as 1922. This theme has been followed up by the historian Vasilis Krapsitis in the January 1996 issue of the Greek Journal Chronic, In the view of Kapsitis, Mordechai's career pattern implies that he did not graduate in lax, and this view is confirmed by a lawyer and friend of Mordechai.

Anyway. Practise as a lawyer? Not Mordechai … It was the officer training school on Euboea for him, starting in 1916. Thank goodness for Greece that he joined the army.

Early days as an officer

Service in Macedonia led to service in the Ukraine campaign until 1919 with the rank of second Lieutenant. The young officer found himself in the notorious town of Kishinev, site of anti-Jewish atrocities a few years earlier. He was accompanied by a fellow Greek officer who had been ordered by his commander-in-chief, General Plastiras, to find supplies.

Mordechai's belief that his religion helps him fined a solution to this problem was not mistaken. The two officers went into the first shop they came across. Mordechai spoke. In Hebrew. The shopkeeper was stunned.

Who are you? he asked Can't you see? I am a Greek officer. I can see that all right, but how come you speak Hebrew better than I do? Because I am a Jew, and I have studied our language. So how they did they let you become an officer? No one asked me about my religion or which God I believe in. In Athens we have senior Jewish lawyer, civil servants and many others. So why not officers as well?

That was it! The news about Mordechai spread like wildfire. Jewish merchants brought wagonloads of supplies of every sort to the two officers. And they never accepted a drachma. They were angry when the senior Greek officer offered them payment.

The Ukraine was followed by the Greek campaigns in Western Turkey of 1921-1922, known either as the Turkish War of Independence or the Asia Minor Disaster. Mordechai only enjoyed one month as a newly promoted Lieutenant when the Turks captured him. He endured eleven months captivity. As the only non-Christian officer captured in the Asia Minor campaign, an offer of freedom was made to Mordechai. He refused, accepting his fate along with that of his fellow Greeks. He returned to Greece much later on with his colleagues.

After Asia Minor

The disastrous defeat suffered by Greece led to political chaos and radical changes in the Greek system of government. Monarchy became republic, and even the execution of some of the Greek commanders did not halt the revolutionary process.

Military life had to continue. Senior officers who had to write reports about Mordechai describe him in a favourable light. His battalion commander in Florinas, Northern Greece, prophesied that he would become a very fine senior officer. In the same year, promotion was recommended based on his record as a platoon commander. Commendations followed Mordechai's progress throughout the 1920s and 1930s, whether based on Crete or his native Chalkis.

Against this backdrop Mordechai Frizis, now a captain was sent to France to study at l'Ecole Militaire Supérieure. When he returned to Greece he as assigned to the Third Army Corps, located in the town known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans, Thessaloniki. Here the "French Connection" continued, for the French Military Mission was also based in Thessaloniki.

Mordechai had by this time been promoted to major (after returning from Paris) specialising in the role of the infantryman. Worry about Greece's relations with her neighbours led to him developing skills in deploying limited numbers of soldiers to the best effect, a subject in which Mordechai gave lectures to the military. This did not go unnoticed and Mordechai was transferred to the Operations Office of the Ioannina Division in Epirus. He was placed in charge of the area around Delvinaki, and his troops were to be the first to capture Italian soldiers once war had commenced.

Mussolini makes his move

When war came Mordechai applied to be assigned to a combat unit. Italy's threats to Greece created a wave of patriotism, epitomised by the blunt and forceful response to Mussolini – Okhi! (No!). Greeks enlisted to defend their country, refusing to submit to Italian Fascism. This incidentally, confounded Metals himself, whose diaries record some of the concern he felt about the enthusiasm of the Greek people to go to war.

Repeated telegrams sent by Mordechai were rewarded as he was made responsible for the Independent Division, charged with stemming the torrent of Italian attacks through the narrow valleys and ravines of Northern Greece "at all costs".

War!

The Greek front stretched from Kalpaki to Pogradec, and the fame of Mordechai Frizis also stretched far. Frizis and his men enjoyed strong mutual loyalty. He would refer to his soldiers as his children; they would describe themselves as the Frizaens, or Frizis's boys.

Two fatal days

Repeated shelling failed to dislodge Frizis' small detachment of men at the bridge of kalama. With Mordechai and his men little more than 100 metres away from the Italians, Fighting lasted several hours until the enemy turned and retreated, leaving hundreds of dead and 700 prisoners of war.

On 4 December 1940, MordechaiFrizis and his command were 10 kilometres pas kalama. The next day, Mordechai gave the order for these soldiers to move out quickly to Premeti block the Italian retreat. He also ordered that the horses for the unit's officers should be prepared.

During the fighting on the 5th, Mordechai rode into battle on his horse. A squadron of Italian aeroplanes attacked his unit. He gave the order for his men to dismount, he himself remaining in the saddle, a proud horseman riding everywhere to ensure his men were safe.

The planes started bombing the soldiers, followed by an attack by the Italian forces. The Greeks were a perilous position, and only a bold counter attack would save the situation.

Frizis on his own went around his men, encouraging them to make a general attack. One of Mordechai's officers suggested that he took cover from the bullets and mortars, adding that a soldier on horseback would provide an easy target for enemy planes. Mordechai simply asked in reply, "How can I leave my men? Aren't they a target? " Indeed, Mordechai never left his men, and always though of their interests first.

During the crossing of the Vistritsa River, two squadrons of Italian planes dived into the attack against Frizis' boys. They could strafe the unit in the safe knowledge that the Greeks had no anti-aircraft fire at their disposal. The Greek soldiers ran for cover. Officers were ordered by Mordechai to dismount. One officer alone refused to dismount – Mordechai himself, riding along the entire front line to encourage and inspire his troops.

At 11.20 exactly, an enemy shell, which exploded close to Mordechai, wounded him in the stomach. Even then, he refused to dismount, choosing to rally his soldiers with the battle cry "Ayeras" (courage).

When the Italian planes had withdrawn, and the Greeks had left their trenches they found Mordechai dead. A second burst of fire had killed him.

The detachment's priest arrived at the scene. What he does? The colonel was a Jew. There was no hesitation. The priest placed his hand on the bloodstained head and prayed: "Hear, O Israel, the lord our God, the Lord is one".

And so his men carried Colonel Mordechai Frizis, the first officer in the Greek Army to be killed in World War, with pride to his battlefield graveyard.

Greece had lost not only a brave soldier but also a brilliant tactician who could motivate his men.

Such was the affection in which he was held that one of this soldiers, Private Michael Tapas, wrote to Mordechai's wife on December 9 1940, not knowing of his commander's death, and asking after him, because he believed that Mordechai was better to him than a father could be".

Vradhini newspaper (December 17, 19740) declared that Mordechai Frizis' name was written in golden letters in the Pantheon of Heroes who had sacrificed their lives for the independence of Greece… Frizis was a Jew, and his sacrifice was an example of the dedication his co- religionists showed for the Greece.

Most impressive of all, both Monarchy and Government combined in their praise for Mordechai. From the Court of Kind George II of Greece, came the following note: "On the glorious death for his country of your beloved husband, the heroic Colonel Mordechai Frizis, His Majesty the king has instructed me to convey to you and you family his deepest condolences".

>From Ioannis Metaxas, Dictator of Greece since 1936, this letter came "I learnt of the death on the field of honour of your husband, before you knew of it and I did not know how to inform you. Now from your letter I see that not only was he a hero, but he had a wife worthy of him. You and your family as well as those families, who have lost their protectors, will become the families of this state of ours. Please be assured that the protection of Greece will never leave you or your children. The children of Colonel Frizis will be revered by our nation's youth. With feelings of honour and love".

After 1941

Greece eventually succumbed to the onslaught of Italy's German allies. There followed four years of occupation (an impassionate word to describe the deaths of 400.000 people through mass starvation and shooting and, in the Jewish case, genocide in the Holocaust).

When the Axis forces entered Athens, a senior Italian officernamed di Camp sought out Mordechai. He wrote in 1949: "The first thing I did was to learn where Mordechai Frizis was. He was a noble fighter and I wanted to meet him close up, to shake his noble hand. When I learnt he was dead, I was saddened Noble people cannot die. Perhaps they live on in our hearts, although they have left us in our lives.

After World War Two

Letters and articles about Mordechai Frizis continued to be published for many years after his death. In 1979, a reader of Themata believed that Mordechai had not received the credit he was due for winning the action at Kalpaki, particularly in comparison with another brave Colonel, Davakis, who played a similar part in the fighting in the Pindus Mountains.

More locally, the Metropolitan of Chalkis wrote to Mordechai's widow in 1954: "Heroic Colonel Mordechai Frizis will be a continuous and praise worthy example of sacrifice for religion and country – and he will be the permanent pride of Chalkis ".

Thirty years after Greece's victory over Italy, the respect in which Mordechai was held by Metaxas, Greece's dictator and Prime Minister in 1940, was recorded in Ellinikos Vorras (The Greek North) encouraging people to remember Mordechai more than they already did.

The achievements of Mordechai Frizis came to be commemorated in at least three Greek encyclopaedias. Under the entry Mordechai Frizis, authors in each case noted his Jewish background, early military service, and final campaign in 1940. By this time, ordinary Greek people were only just beginning to realise that Mordechai was Jewish. A reader of Vradhini wondered if there had not been a cloak of silence wrapped around Mordechai, before asking the Mayor of Athens to commemorate him.

In 1976, the newspaper Israilina Nea published a letter from a senior Naval officer who declare that Mordechai's devotion to duty was the yardstick for measuring patriotic duty to Greece:"Colonel Mordechai Frizis did not die. Every time Greece is in danger, he goes among us, bolt upright on this horse, inspiring us".

The muse of Poetry is inspired

Many poets were certainly inspired to commemorate the death of Colonel Frizis, in 1974, under the title Heroes are not Forgotten, Alexander Gavrielidhis wrote the following touching tribute to Mordechai and to the people of Chalkis: "A legend was created in October 1940, as Greece refused for ever to accept Fascism. In a corner of the fields of Kalpaki history was written an example of great courage to younger generations. A shining courage brought glory to Greece, as one icy-cold morning a group of men died. On a proud horse he galloped to victory – the laurel wreath and the crown of roses belong to Mordechai. The name of Mordechai Frizis, pride of Chalkis, will live forever, a golden ray of sunshine. No one has forgotten him – heroes are not forgotten. He passed among the Immortals, and hymns will be sung in his honour. The mountains of Albania and the narrow banners and Flowers of Chalkis will ring out with song. The Greek people – Christians and Jews – will pray for you, young and old Farewell my hero, who gave your life – my brother, we will always be in your presence".

In memoriam

More permanent tributes to Mordechai Frizis have followed. On November 7, 1971 the local governor unveiled a bust of Mordechai by Michael Tompros in the Central Square of Chalkis. The square was crowed: those present included the local governor, the officer commanding the local infantry, the Metropolitan of Chalkis, the Chief Rabbi of Greece, the Mayor of Chalkis, and the Israeli diplomatic representative.

Speaking for the Jewish Community of Chalkis, Mr. M Cohen gave the following address: "The outcome of one victory can determine the fortune of a whole war, and the outcome of that war the fortune of humanity. Such a battle, which could determine the fortune of the Greek and Allied war effort and which was the allied victory against the previously unbeatable Awis, was the gift of Frizis. From this battle a bolt of lighting lighted up the dark skies over Europe. With the victory in the Labanian campaign, hope was rekindled in the enslaved breasts of the peoples of Europe, groaning under the heel of the indescribable Nazi Occupation ".

Had Mordechai received the credit due to him?

There was a feeling that after Colonel Davakis' remains had been transferred to a more dignified grave that Mordechai Frizis deserved a better resin-place. Frizis' son Jacob wrote in the press about what he considered to be the indifference of the Greek State towards his father. This was taken up by at least one journalist, "Klearchos", who called for due recognition for Mordechai.

The cry by Jacob for recognition of his father's bravery found one favourable ear. In Rizospastis (Radical) the leading communist paper in Greece, Stelios Vamvetsos wrote that Jacob was right to feel annoyed and upset that his father had been ignored. In Mr Vamvetsos' opinion, many other soldiers were sacrificed for Greece – and it was sometimes deserters and appeasers who were now living on healthy sate pensions. Those who survived the real fighting were being ignored.

Mr. Vamvetsos had already angered local nationalists in Northwest Greece for suggesting that Cyprus was a more pressing situation than Greece's claim on Northern Epirus (Southern Albania). In the typical style of Risospastis, this writer also complained about monopolies and financial trust hiding behind the politicians who declared the wars but never actually fought them!

A Mr Douliskis of Athens believed (March 1979) that the only tribute paid to Mordechai a street in Chalkis named after him, and small sculpted head, should be remedied by a statue of Mordechai on his horse, just as he had fallen, and by the bridge guarding the approach to Chalkis.

On 27 October 1979, a bronze cast of Mordechai was once again unveiled, in this case in the town of Kalpaki in North-western Greece. A detachment from the Greek Army was present at the ceremony, and an officer spoke of Mordechai's bravery: "If Greece gave the Allies their first victory Frizi's detachment gave Greek weapons their victory".

Simultaneously, in the Chalkis Synagogue a memorial service was held for Mordechai Frizis in the presence of this widow.

One last thought

It is tempting to speculate what would have happened had Mordechai Frizis survived the war of 1940. He might have taken part in the campaign of 1941, when Germany finally managed to capture Mainland Greece. Perhaps he would have escaped to fight on Crete, where Greek forces distinguished themselves in the island's defence. >From there, he might have been evacuated to Egypt along with the British and empire forces.

Tragically, however, Colonel Mordechai Frizis might well have joined the tens of thousands of Greek Jews slaughtered during the Holocaust. That he never lived to learn of – or share – his compatriots' fate is scant consolation for the loss of Greece's finest officer during Greece's finest hour.

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