Opinion | The story of an unknown great Jewish hero of WWII

Dr. Michael Matsas
Dr. Michael Matsas (Courtesy of the JCC of Greater Baltimore)

By Dr. Michael Matsas

In October 1940, large Italian forces suddenly invaded Greece from Albania. The newspapers kept informing us of a “strategic retreat” until the day the Greek army stopped the enemy advance and pushed the Italian troops back. It was rumored that “enas Evreos Colonel,” a Jewish colonel, stopped them, but it became “Hythreos” colonel or a colonel from the Island of Hythra because nobody could believe that the gallant officer Mordechai Frizis was a Jew.

The Greek army retreated in panic, except for the forces of the Jewish Colonel Frizis. Prior to the war, Frizis developed a plan to expel the enemy, which was approved by the Greek General Alexandros Papagos. Frizis implemented his plan and, thanks to his victory against the Italians, the Greek army counterattacked and occupied one third of Albania and stayed there until April 1941. Frizis fell in battle while leading his troops on his horse on the front line. The fascist Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas and Papagos gave him the greatest honors and sent deep condolences to his family.

The Germans who wanted to attack Russia could not wait any longer. They attacked Greece on April 6, 1941. A British expeditionary force was stationed in Greece and in the Greek island of Crete. The conquest of Greece delayed the attack against Russia until June 22, 1941.

In the meantime, a Russian spy discovered that the Japanese army was issuing summer uniforms to the Japanese soldiers. He suspected that Japan was not going to attack Russia. He advised that Russian troops could be sent to defend Moscow against the rapidly advancing German army. Joseph Stalin placed General Giorgy Zhukov in charge of the defense of Moscow. By the time the Germans arrived in front of Moscow, it was winter and the German soldiers were still dressed in summer uniforms in the subfreezing weather.

The German army had to fight not only the Russians already there, but also the newly arrived fresh Siberian troops. The German army was defeated in this frozen environment and this was the beginning of the end of Germany in the Second World War. The Russian counteroffensive was successful, ultimately marking a turning point in favor of the Allies in the war in Europe.

Because of Frizis’ counterattack and Greece’s occupation of one-third of Albania, Germany spent precious time conquering Greece, delaying its attack on Russia and putting Russia at a military advantage.

Supporting this idea, during the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel said the resistance of the Greeks delayed the German attack against Russia by at least two months, changing the course of the war. In addition, the Greek historian Anastopoulos, in his book “History of the Greek Nation,” writes, “Frizis executed a defensive maneuver and then a tremendous counterattack, without which the victory of 1940 would not have been realized.” Another Greek historian, Simopoulos, wrote in his book, “The Italian Division Julia in Pindos,” that, “The honor of the most glorious victory, which basically put an end not only to the battle of Pindos and Smolika, but along the entire front, belongs to the military tactics of Colonel Frizis.”

When I read these statements, one from an enemy general and the others from two historians, my admiration for Frizis rose to astronomical heights. They emphasize and describe the instinctive military initiative put forth by Frizis on the front line.

This is a unique case in history. The chief of staff of the German army attributes the defeat of Germany to the delay produced by the Greek army. The Greek historians credit this delay to Frizis. The unbelievable conclusion is that Frizis is elevated after his heroic death to the status of a mythical Greek hero and is a great hero of World War II.

Greece was extremely proud of its victory in Albania and its contribution in the Allied victory of WWII. Frizis was acknowledged as a heroic officer only by a few people every year on the October 28 Greek national holiday (which celebrates the Greek refusal of the Italian ultimatum of 1940). Due to antisemitism, the Greek governments did not officially honor him from 1945 until 2002.

This has been adapted from “The Illusion of Safety: The Story of the Greek Jews During the Second World War,” (second edition, Vrahori Books, 2021) by Dr. Michael Matsas. Matsas was born in 1930 in Ioannina, Greece, and from October 1943 to October 1944, he survived WWII in the free Greek mountains with his immediate family. He graduated as a dentist from the University of Athens in 1953 and served as a dental officer for three years in the Greek Army. In his last year, he was the dentist of the Military Academy of Athens.

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