A series of mixed emotions overcame me during a drive home from Elafonisi Beach in Western Crete. We took a detour to take the coastal road and visit some important sites from World War II history on this extraordinary island.
For students of World War II history, the names Maleme and Kontomari are places out of history books.
Numerous epic events took place along the coastline of Western Crete in late May and early June of 1941. The town of Maleme, with its strategic airstrip, saw fierce fighting as thousands of Nazi Germans parachuted out of airplanes as hundreds of gliders descended on the island.
A few kilometers up the hillside is the village of Kontomari where on June 2, 1941, one of the most atrocious acts of all of World War II took place as the invading Nazis rounded up the entire village and led them into nearby olive groves where they separated the men from everyone else.
A half dozen soldiers lined up the men of the village and began shooting them in firing squad formation while the women and children sat as spectators to this disgusting German spectacle.
Fast forward seventy plus years and visit today, the areas of Maleme and Kontomari.
At Maleme, on a hill overlooking the blueness of the sea and the actual airstrip where they invaded is the German Cemetery– the final resting place for almost 5,000 Nazi soldiers who were killed while trying to take Crete. The site is spectacle to the eye and soul. The beauty of the location– fertile and hospitable and the historic irony of the fact that these men are resting so peacefully below the land they brutally and violently conquered.
The sight and thought is provoking– five thousand men, some still teenagers– are buried on a hillside overlooking the foreign land they were sent to conquer, on land that was given to their predecessors by the very people they occupied and tortured.
The land was given to a private organization based in Kassel, Germany by the Greek government in the 1970s to build and manage the cemetery.
Today, the German cemetery greets thousands of visitors annually— including family members in search of their ancestors to pay respects. The site is complete with a welcome center, a guest book that is signed by people entering the cemetery and a well-thought exhibition that tells the story of the Battle of Crete and the German invasion of the island.
The deceased are in tidy graves with headstones, each marking the name, birth and death date of the soldier, lined perfectly— in perfect German order one might say— along the hillside.
A few kilometers down the road towards Hania there’s a sign for Kontomari, up a windy road into the hills.
We entered the village looking for a sign or something to point us in the direction of a memorial or even a plaque. The village’s main road is named after those who were massacred— a fitting tribute indeed but without any English (or even German) translation underneath as many Greek road signs offer these days— especially in tourist areas.
After driving up and down the road and seeing nothing, I stopped to ask some locals if there was a memorial. “Go up a bit, you’ll see it,” an elderly man said to me.
I drove up a bit— and found nothing, turned around and went back down the hill when I realized I was almost upon the next village.
I asked another lady who was walking up the hill with her dog. “Keep going down, past a big house and down the drive way you’ll see it on the left. I continued— but didn’t see anything. I ended up driving up and down the same road a half dozen times until parking and beginning to explore by foot. Villagers peered out their windows. I overheard one say from inside her window “enas Germanos einai…” (It’s a German).
I finally stumbled upon a wreck of a monument in between houses and trees, saddled by a crooked road that seemed to have been built around the monument or vice versa.
I was shocked— and saddened.
I have spent months researching and working on a short film that I want to produce, highlighting the story of the Kontomari massacre and how a Nazi photographer documented the events and secretly sent the images to the resistance to let the world know of the atrocities happening on Crete by the Nazis.
The photographer was eventually caught and sent to jail in Berlin. He survived to share his testimony at Nuremberg.
Dozens of Cretan men from Kontomari were brutally killed on June 2nd 1941 and in their memory, there is a ramshackle memorial with dead tree leaves and branches strewn about, an illegible monument that is covered in filth and a badly-faded photographic display bearing no explanation of anything.
Not only is the Kontomari monument hard to find in the village— if a would-be traveler were to stumble upon it, he/she would be hard pressed to know what it was or in whose memory it was created.
The activist in me immediately thought— start a fundraising campaign, mobilize the Cretans in America, call the local town council and complain… But given that we are the nation of excuses and bureaucracy, I walked away quietly knowing that I had paid my tribute— and I will continue to do so via the short film that I will produce on the topic and hopefully, some day I’ll be able to do something.
Unless, of course someone with both deeper pockets and more political influence might be inspired to do something before me and give these men the memorial that their sacrifice truly deserves.