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About 13,000 Jewish soldiers, including 343 officers, were serving in the Greek army at the beginning of the Second World War. They fought against the Italian army that invaded Greece in October, 1940, and, from April 1941, against the German army. Many Greek patriots exhibited defiant independence, but one soldier, Colonel Mordechai Frizis, became a national hero.

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A Lion From Judea

Mordechai Frizis, son of Jacob and Iopi and one of twelve brothers and a sister, was born in Chalkis on the Greek island of Evia on January 1, 1893. His family was directly descended from the Romaniote Jews of Greece who trace their lineage to the Jews that were taken to Rome as slaves after the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash. Although Mordechai studied law at Athens University, he went against his family’s wishes and in 1916, he volunteered in the Greek army and began officer training school.

 

Rising Through The Ranks

The start of the First World War found him fighting in Greek Macedonia against the Germans and their allies the Bulgarians. In 1919, he emerged from battle as a fully commissioned Second Lieutenant. A year later, the Greek military joined the French, Polish and Romanian forces and the anti-communist White Russians to fight in the Crimea on the Ukrainian front against the communists. While stationed in Moldova in Kishinev, the site of anti-Jewish atrocities a few years earlier, Mordechai, accompanied by a fellow Greek officer, followed the orders of his commander-in-chief and went to garner supplies. The shopkeeper he approached, initially astonished by this officer’s mastery of Hebrew, was even more astonished to hear that in Athens there were senior Jewish lawyers and civil servants. Brotherhood prevailed and wagonloads of gratis supplies arrived when fellow vendors heard about the Jewish officer.

After Mordechai’s success in Ukraine, in 1922, newly promoted to First Lieutenant, he joined the Greek campaigns in Western Turkey known either as the Turkish War of Independence or the Asia Minor Disaster. A month into battle, after initial successes, the Greeks were trapped by the Turkish Army outside Ankara. As the only non-Christian officer captured in the campaign, Mordechai was offered his freedom. He refused and remained with his comrades through eleven months of brutal captivity. This act of self-sacrifice was never forgotten by his soldiers and superiors.

After the defeat in Asia Minor, with Greece in ruins, radical changes took place in the Greek system of government: between 1924 and 1935 there were 23 changes of government, a dictatorship and 13 coups. Military life, however, continued and Mordechai was promoted to rank of Captain. He was sent to France to study at l’Ecole Militaire Superieure. When he returned to Greece, he was promoted to Major and assigned to the Third Army Corps, located in Thessaloniki, known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans. Here, aware of Greece’s volatile relations with her neighbors, he learned how to deploy limited numbers of soldiers to the best effect.

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World War Two

His excellent performance gained him the rank of Lt. Colonel and in 1940 he was assigned to the Operations Office of the Ioannina VIII Division in the mountains of Epirus next to Albania where, while halting the torrent of Fascist Italy’s attacks through the narrow valleys and ravines of Northern Greece, he became a national hero. Mordechai and his men shared a strong mutual loyalty: he referred to his soldiers as his children and they described themselves as the Frizaens, or Frizis’s boys. Private Michael Tapas, in a letter to Mordechai’s wife, wrote that Mordechai was better to him than a father could be.

On October 28, 1940, the Italian Army launched a major offensive against Greece. Although heavily outnumbered, the Greeks were initially successful. On November 2, Mordechai, commanding two infantry battalions, two reserve platoons and one artillery battalion, succeeded in repelling the Italian forces, which included 60 tanks, and remained entrenched defending the bridge of the Kalama’s river. The Italians retreated leaving hundreds of dead and 700 prisoners of war. The Italian suspended their offensive six days later. The Greek counter-offensive began and led to more successes. On December 5, however, the tables turned.

Aware that the Greeks lacked air power in the area, the Italians led an aerial attack. As their planes bombed the Greek positions, Mordechai ordered his men to dismount. Despite the danger and the pleas of his officers to also dismount, he continued to ride his white horse among them, calling out “areas,” Greek for courage, to rally their fighting spirit. In the late morning, an enemy shell exploded close to Mordechai wounding him in the stomach. Bravely, he continued to rally his soldiers. But when the Italian planes withdrew and the Greeks left their trenches, they found Mordechai dead, the first high-ranking officer in the Greek Army to be killed in World War II. The detachment’s priest arrived and without hesitating, placed his hand on Mordechai’s head and recited: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. He was buried on the battlefield. In 2004, his remains were reburied at the Thessaloniki Jewish Cemetery with full military honors in the presence of then-Greek President Kostis Stephanopoulos. His grandson, who was named after him, was the rabbi who officiated at the services.

Greece eventually succumbed to the onslaught of Italy’s German allies. Four years of occupation followed, leading to the deaths of 400,000 Greeks through starvation and tens of thousands more through reprisals. Tragically, 60,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka.

 

A Hero Lives On

Both the monarchy and the government sent letters of condolence and praise to Mordechai’s family. Notably, the Greek state continued to honor his memory by erecting busts of him at the War Museums of Kalpaki and Athens, and in his birth town of Chalkis, and by naming a street in Athens after him. The words of a senior naval officer, published in 1976 in the newspaper Israilina Nea, serve not only as a yardstick for measuring patriotic duty, but also as an impetus to anyone reaching for greatness today: “Colonel Mordechai Frizis did not die. Every time Greece is in danger, he goes among us, bolt upright on his horse, inspiring us.”

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Rhona Lewis made aliyah more than 20 years ago from Kenya and is now living in Beit Shemesh. A writer and journalist who contributes frequently to The Jewish Press’s Olam Yehudi magazine, she divides her time between her family and her work.