Seventy-five years ago this week, by parents’ families on the island of Crete– including my teen-aged father and his parents woke to the sound of bombs dropping and hundreds of airplanes in the sky.
“Human umbrellas” were falling, my dad recalled, as thousands of Nazi German paratroopers jumped from airplanes to invade Crete. My badass grandmother Anna Papadakis defended her family and her home tirelessly. I didn’t k ow here because she died when I was a baby but family stories passed down, as well as those from my father and grandfather who both outlived her, told of a ferociously independent woman who wasn’t afraid to face death time and time again.
She worked tirelessly to help British, New Zealand and Australian troops to escape after the Germans took control of the island and my father recalled stories of her risking her own life to offer food and refuge to fleeing Allied troops in her home.
For her efforts, she was given a letter by the Allied Field Marshall thanking her for her dedication to the Allied cause. Such letters were given to dozens of brave Cretans who– unlike most Europeans— fought and resisted.
The resistance on the island of Crete, as well as elsewhere throughout Greece, rattled the Germans. Nowhere else in the war up to that point had they faced a civilian population that took up arms to defend their towns, villages and homes.
I grew up with these stories and my fascination with Greece’s role during WWII and specifically the Battle of Crete started when I found this letter in my dad’s things right before he died.
Many of us have these stories that we grew up with— of a tireless defense of freedom and protection of our values. Tens of thousands of Greeks died and there are countless memorials throughout the country— including on my parents’ native Crete, where men, women, children, priests, nuns— people from all walks of life— were brutally murdered by the Nazi Germans.
Our responsibility is to recall these stories, memorialize the dead and share their history with future generations.
That letter that was given to my grandmother has inspired me for years now. I’ve spent countless hours researching Greek, British, German and Australian military archives seeking to get a better understanding of the events of the Battle of Crete. I’ve also established a collection of maps, newspaper articles, memorabilia and other priceless artifacts that share the story of Greece and Crete’s role during the War. These artifacts were turned into an exhibition and traveled the nation several years ago by the Greek America Foundation.
Now, I’m writing a book— a collection of stories, photographs and other content called “America Calling” about the response of the United States to Greece’s role during World War II. I have been fascinated by what I have uncovered.
May the memory of all the heroes of the Battle of Crete be eternal– including my grandmother, whose own experiences inadvertently lit a fire in me, two generations later, to document these epic times in our history as Greeks.