ATTENTION: The following article are true events recounted to me by Maria Kioulpali. The events described in this article are quite graphic and may be disturbing to young readers. Thank you for your awareness.
Recently I wrote an article describing the Cretan Diet, its benefits, and its historical significance. While writing the article I sought help from local experts on the subject, specifically people who have lived with this diet and way of life throughout their lives. One such person is Maria Kioulpali, the wonderful grandmother of a close friend and a
novice historian, who lived through the German invasion of Crete and their occupation of the island. Her memories from WWII and the impact that the war had on her island home are still incredibly fresh in her mind, and when speaking with her, she recited the events as if they had happened yesterday. While the purpose of my visit to her central Heraklion home was to speak to her about the Cretan Diet and the reality of living in the traditional Cretan way, the topic of our conversation quickly evolved to cover a range of topics – from her memories of being a high schooler in post war Crete, to the actions of the German soldiers who occupied Heraklion and the war crimes and events she witnessed as a young child living through such an historical and distressing period.
For many people it may come as a surprise to learn that Crete, as small and remote an island as it may seem, actually played a large part in World War Two and that the events which took place here are believed to have drastically changed the course of the war itself. While the war is an event of the past, those who lived through this crisis remember it as if it had all taken place yesterday. From the provisions set in place for the citizens of the island in regards to food and community activities during the occupation, to the bombings and mandatory military conscriptions, these events helped to shape the Cretan mentality and way of life for many years to come, right up to the present day.
Crete is a place where the past haunts the present. The island’s strategic position in the Mediterranean has sparked countless invasions throughout history, from the Venetians and Ottomans to, most recently, the Nazis. Hitler’s army set its sights on Crete in May 1940 after its conquest of Greece the month before, launching an airborne attack on the island using glider and parachute forces. Crete’s residents joined forty thousand British, Greek, Australian, and New Zealand troops in defending the island, often shooting down parachutes using their own rifles. However, the Allied forces misjudged the attack and, after an intense eight days of fighting, Crete fell to the Germans and the Allied forces withdrew. Feeling abandoned, the Cretans – who only four decades earlier had fought for and won their independence after 250 years of Ottoman occupation – came out of their homes and continued to challenge Hitler’s forces using whatever weaponry they had. It was the first time the Germans had encountered significant opposition from a local population. The Cretan Resistance is cited by The National Herald, an English-language Greek newspaper, as one of the factors that lead to the fatal delay of the the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, while also reducing the number of troops available for missions in the Middle East and in Africa. Despite repeated attacks from the Nazis on local villages and communities, the Cretan Resistance remained active until the Germans surrendered four years later, in 1945.
Mrs. Kioulpali, or Yia-yia (Grandma) Maria, as she prefers to be called, lived through all of these events from start to finish. Born in 1934 in Heraklion city, her family owned and operated a bakery between the city’s center and the port. At age six her father was called to be part of the draft and she and her mother moved from their comfy home in Heraklion to a small village house high up in the Cretan mountains. This rural move was quite common for much of the remaining Cretan population after the first wave of national conscription, because the island’s big cities were bombing targets and landing points for the invading German army. The inland mountain villages were considered to be too remote to bother with and also too difficult to occupy due to the locals’ expert knowledge of the surrounding terrain and their willingness to defend their land and home to the best of their abilities. Maria and her mother took only the necessities that they could carry and began the long walk up into the mountain village accompanied by a few other mothers and their young children. Their city homes were left clean – and full of all the family’s worldly valuables – photos, memories, and heirlooms. The citizens of Crete had been told that this war would only last a few days and that soon their fathers and husbands would return and all would be as it once was. This was a story told not only to the Cretans, but also to people living all around Europe, and one that was horribly inaccurate.
Maria and her mother, who believed that they would be returning to their home in a matter of days, reached their small mountain village and began settling in. After five days, their pantry, stocked with flour, grain, cheese, and dried meats slowly began to dwindle. After a couple of weeks their food was all but gone and Maria and her mother had to rely on the land to feed themselves. The other people in the village had to do the same. Weeks turned into months and people began thinking the war might never end, but thanks to the resilient Cretan mindset Maria and her mother endured. They used their knowledge of the land, and the help from the local community, and made do with what they could find. From horta, to snails, to fruit from the trees, they found just enough to fill their bellies and pantries and survive from day to day and month after month. “We always had potatoes and oil. We had beans and lentils, whole grains, leeks, and fresh vegetables from the garden. When one of the few villagers with a donkey made a trip to another village in search of grain or flour all the mothers in the village would chase him down and hand him money or some kind of valuable and beg him to bring them back a bag of flour for bread.
My whole life we always had bread, and now it was as if bread was a kind of gold, the rarest and most valuable thing one could find”, explained Maria. “One day I remember my mother managed to buy a tiny bird to cook, it was only the size of your fist. She scooped out the insides of a potato, stuffed the bird inside and wrapped the potato in paper. Then she shoved it between the coals in the fire. Ohhh the wonderful smell! It was the best thing I had ever smelled in my life. I remember walking into the house and for the first time in months smelling fatty meat. I sat in front of the fire and just watched the paper burn away and the potato skin slowly get blackened by charcoal and gently roasted. We shared it between the two of us that night and it was the best thing I had ever tasted. Still to this day I remember the salty, fatty feeling of its juices sliding down my throat, the crunch of crispy potato skin and gooey resistance of well cooked meat. My mother wanted me to eat all of it but I couldn’t not share it with her. We were both in this together. We shared everything.” This was not the only time Maria talked about the importance of sharing and working together to look after the whole community. Even in a time of scarcity and fear, the Cretan people came together to survive the worst, instead of turning on each other and fighting over the little resources they had. If someone else needed something, others would make sure they got what they needed and more. It was so impressive listening to Maria recount these stories, keep in mind she was only six to ten years old at the time, and the depth of awareness and empathy she seemed to carry at such a young age is touching. “I remember another time when I was in the garden one afternoon and found a snail. But this was no ordinary snail, it was the biggest snail I had ever seen, and to this day this is still true. It was almost as big as a small orange! I was so excited, I ran back inside and put the snail in the embers of the fire.” Again Maria described the incredible smells and tastes of the meal. “I ate the whole thing by myself, and after I was done I felt so ashamed. To this day I still feel ashamed. The snail was so big and instead of sharing it with my mother, the person that worked so hard to feed me and who remained strong through even the most frightening moments, I kept it all to myself. I later told my mother what I had done and began to cry, and she just smiled and held me and told me it was ok. I know it doesn’t seem like much food, it was only a snail no matter how big, but to us at that time it was quite a lot.”
After ten months of living in the remote mountain village they got word that the men who had left as part of the countrywide draft were returning to Heraklion. For the first time in ten months Maria and her mother returned to their city home. In all that time in the village, they had watched from the hilltops as planes zoomed over their city and dropped bombs on its center. They had heard stories of villages closer to the big cities fending off German troops, and how Cretan villagers in the more remote villages had shot down German paratroopers and forced the German army to retreat from the mountains and stay in the coastal cities and towns. Maria and her mother were excited to welcome their father and husband home, yet they were scared to see what they would find, or not find, when they returned to their beloved Heraklion town house. They reached their home to find it still standing happily erect and seemingly untouched, however, when walking inside they found the place to be ransacked. All of Maria’s mother’s jewellery and silver was gone. Old family heirlooms that had been passed down for generations were missing. Even Maria’s large collection of porcelain dolls which could open and shut their eyelids (a sign of a very fancy toy back in the day) were gone…. Upset by the destruction of their home, they were at least grateful to see that it still existed, something that many of their close friends and neighbors could not say for themselves. Even the family’s bakery, which stood just across the street had been left largely untouched although any flour or cooking materials that it had once held had long been seized. Later that day they ran down to the Heraklion docks and welcomed home their father and husband. The joyous, tearful reunion is one that was probably experienced by almost every Cretan citizen of that time, for almost everyone had a family member, brother, husband, or son, who left as part of the draft. However, while the Cretan soldiers may have returned, the war was not yet over. Crete was now fully occupied by German forces and the island’s inhabitants had to get used to the all too common flurry of bombings which blasted the cities of Heraklion and Chania from air and sea.
One day Maria’s father was walking home when a German army van whizzed around the corner and knocked him over, breaking multiple ribs and greatly damaging his back. He was left on the street when luckily a group of Cretan passersby found him and took him to a local hospital. Maria’s mother rushed to the hospital and left nine year old Maria in the house alone. There were a few neighbors around but most of Maria’s family who lived nearby were either at the hospital with her mother or dealing with their own problems. That night, still home alone, the air raid siren went off. Knowing what to do, little Maria ran to the bomb shelter which was located just outside her apartment building, and huddled in the dark with the other tenants of the building. These were people she had known her whole life, her aunt, neighbors, distant cousins, friends. They sat silently, all except one woman who was sobbing uncontrollably and trying to crawl to the shelter’s exit She was screaming for her husband “Manolis!”, while being restrained by a friend who was whispering to her, “it’s too late, it’s too late….” He hadn’t made it to the shelter in time and was still somewhere above in the house.
“And then… Wwwiiiiiiizzzzzz wwwooooooossshhhhh…. BBBOOOOOOMMMMM!!!,” Maria threw her arms up in a big show, mimicking the explosion of the bomb that had dropped just over their heads. “Everything shook, and dust and bits of plaster fell off the ceiling onto our heads. Then again, then again… There were four bombs, one right after the other each one getting a little farther away then the last. My baby cousin was crying, the woman whose husband hadn’t made it to the shelter was still crying, but everyone else sat in terrified silence. With our heads bent, and our bodies curled up into protective balls we tried to protect ourselves by becoming as small as possible. Then we waited. We waited throughout the night, and nobody said a word. Finally, after hours and hours of sitting in the cold, dark, silence, we heard voices from above us. Greek voices. Still no one moved, I don’t know if it was more out of shock or fear. Finally one of the young boys got up and made it to the entrance.He left and we waited. Minutes later he came back and we were told we could leave… We went outside and everything was obliterated.” The side of the street where Maria’s house once stood was completely destroyed. Nothing stood any taller than eight feet high and what did was just haphazard piles of rubble. “And then, among the wooden beams and concrete I saw a piece of Manolis. An arm here, a part of something, a leg maybe, there. The woman, Manolis’ wife, saw this too and began screaming, falling to her knees. We all began gathering up the body parts and placed them onto a white sheet that someone had found.
On the other side of the street the bakery was still standing. The glass was broken and the big kneading machines inside were hanging half off the wall and ceiling, but for the most part it was alright. But as I went further into the shop I saw Manolis’ face,” Maria gestured to the right half of her face, from the ear to the cheek to just before her nose, then to her eye and forehead, “Hanging from one of the hooks on the kneading machine… Just hanging…” Maria looked off into space for a second, voice dying low. Even though this is a story she has recounted many times, it still has a tremendous effect on her, as any traumatic and horrific experience would do.
After being reunited with her parents, the three of them, along with a group of their extended family and close friends, journeyed up into the mountains in order to go into hiding in a remote cave where they hoped they would be safe from the Germans. They stayed there for several days, her father still receiving treatment for his wounds and broken bones by an accompanying doctor, until they ran low on food and were forced to journey to a nearby monastery to seek food and shelter. After living here for a couple of months they finally returned to Heraklion. At this time the constant air bombings had almost ceased and only a few German soldiers and war ships still occupied Cretan territory. Now Maria was ten and her mother was newly pregnant with the first of Maria’s brothers. “We were excited to return home. Now there were goods, and flour, being shipped in for the German soldiers and some of that was given out to the Cretan community as well. Things were a little better and we were even able to reopen the bakery. Food, fresh food, was still hard to find. But I remembered that at our old house, the one that was bombed, we had a garden in the front, and the garden had not been destroyed by the bomb. We had been growing carrots and lettuces, potatoes and onions, and my friends told me that it was my garden, so I should go see if there was any food in it. So I went down and found the garden and sure enough there were carrots and potatoes growing underneath the soil. I excitedly began pulling them up, but then all of a sudden a German soldier appeared and started yelling at me, pointing his gun,” Maria remembered the soldier’s cry perfectly, and recited the command in heavily accented German. She remembers the words clearly, although to this day has no idea what they meant, she got the idea however, “I immediately threw my hand up and chucked the few carrots and potatoes right at him and ran away, crying.” What she described was a life riddled with uncertainty and fear, injustice and malice. Nothing was hers and anything could be taken away from her at a single command.
It is amazing how much has happened to this small island and to the incredibly strong and resilient Cretans that live here. Walking down the small intertwining streets that make up Heraklion’s center it’s hard to believe that the place was once nothing but a pile of smoking rubble. If you look at the photos of Heraklion taken in the 1940’s, and the carnage that ensued during and after the German occupation of the island, and compare those pictures to the hustle and bustle of the modern, prospering life that can now be found throughout the city, you will feel nothing but pride and appreciation for the Cretans’ uncanny ability to rebuild and prosper – even amidst the harshest of terrains and after the brutality of war. Speaking to Maria now, you would never guess the terrible things that she has seen. You would never believe, after meeting such a genuine and kind person, that she has lived through the most trying tests and witnessed the most obscene horrors. I believe that she has allowed these events to shape her by forcing herself to appreciate not what one lacks, but what one has. Just like all the others who survived those dreadful years on Crete.