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OXI Day: Greek women were heroes in WWII, too

Wednesday, October 23, 2013  |   |  Tags:

In commemoration of OXI Day, HALC will bring you content highlighting the courage, bravery, and life of Greeks during the war.

“When every man was needed for fighting, Greek women have brought supplies and ammunition up the mountainsides – 80 pound packs on their backs up 3,000 foot peaks.”

That’s how one 1940s piece described the contribution of Greek women in WWII. The heroism of Greek fighters during WWII is legendary and is often cited in OXI Day celebrations. What receives less attention outside of Greece, however, is the fact that Greek women themselves often joined the fight in ways that give testament to the strength of Greek women throughout history.

One award given out by The Washington OXI Day Foundation aims to remind the world of that bravery. Each year, their Battle of Crete award “honor[s] a woman for courageous action for freedom and democracy, in memory of the role women played against the Axis Forces in the Battle of Crete in World War II.” The foundation explains how women were key to the Greek resistance, including to the Battle of Crete:

crete womenBetty Wason, a CBS News correspondent covering the battle, wrote of the heroic action of one Cretan woman named Maria Georgalakis. Wason wrote “Among the first prisoners brought to Athens by the Germans, during the battle of Crete in May 1941, was a woman wearing a cartridge belt…who put on one of her husband’s uniforms. Like a modern Joan of Arc she led her fellow townsmen in battle, shooting at the German parachutists who landed on the island by the thousands. She claimed seventeen German soldiers killed by her own hand.”

The director of a humanitarian program noted in his journal a conversation he had with 17 female prisoners of war from Crete. He wrote “They and other women of that historic town scaled the walls of the houses where Germans had entrenched themselves during the street fighting, tore off the tiles and leaped
upon the invaders, slaying them with short swords. “ In response to a reported Hitler policy of sparing some because of their gender it was said, “Hitler cannot honor the women of Crete!”

In reprisal for their bravery: in battle; in hiding and caring for wounded fighters; in smuggling arms and messages when they knew that discovery meant certain death; nearly 1,000 Cretan women were killed by the Nazis, and the London Times reported that an additional 500 women were deported to Germany for taking part in the defense of their island. Even with their lives and freedom at risk, the women of Crete demonstrated bravery and commitment to the cause of freedom and democracy. Their actions will inspire generations of women to come.

History also tells the story of the heroism of Greek Jewish women as well:

Sara Yehoshua (b. 1926 in Chalkis), known as Sarika, at the age of fourteen became a nurse in her native Chalkida, the capital city of the island of Euboea, where wounded soldiers and amputees from the Albanian front were sent. In 1943 she and her mother escaped the German roundups and went by mule to the mountain villages, where she taught for a while until the Germans burned the village for harboring Jewish refugees. Sporting bandoliers she went higher up the mountain to work at the Resistance Command Post in Steni. When it was decided to form a women’s unit she was a natural candidate and so, at the age of seventeen, she became a kapitanissa and chose a squad of twelve girls from those she had recruited.

Sarika and her squad functioned as a diversionary unit. Armed with Molotov cocktails, they attacked outlying sites to draw the Germans away from the main target. When the Germans arrived all they found was a group of girls playing.

While the role of Greek women in WWII does not get the attention it deserves today, during the war, newspaper editors wrote about “those Greek women” who were helping their male counterparts fight off the Italians in the snow:


women of WWII editorial

One diary item by a solider in the mountains of Pindos notes that all women threw caution to the wind to the help the war effort, even an 88 year old woman:

7 Νοεμβρίου 1940. […] Συνάντησα γυναίκες που κουβαλούσαν πυρομαχικά. Μία ήτο 88 ετών. Μία μου είπε κλείδωσε το μικρό σε μια καλύβα για να βοηθήσει τον στρατό. Το βράδυ είδα μια γριούλα να κρατά δυο μικρά και η μητέρα τους ζύμωνε ψωμί για τον στρατό με το φως δυο κεριών που είχε μέσα σ’ ένα ποτήρι. Τα χιόνια, ο πάγος, το τρομερό κρύο, δεν φαίνονταν να τις τρόμαζε. Όλες γεμάτες χαρά ήθελαν να προσφέρουν στο στρατό ό,τι δεν μπορούσαν τα μεταγωγικά. Αλήθεια γυναίκες θαύμα. Τι διαφορά με τις πόλεις!”

Another notes how the women dove into rushing river waters, clutched each other closely by the shoulders to form a human wall in order to curb the water’s flow so that bridges could be built:

Οι νικηταί της Πίνδου προχωρούσαν. Καθώς έφτασαν στον ποταμό Βογιούσα κι είδαν οι ατρόμητες γυναίκες της Πίνδου πως το απότομο ρέμα εμπόδιζε τους σκαπανείς στη δουλειά τους, έκαναν αυθόρμητα κάτι, που ξανάγινε ύστερα στον Καλαμά και στο Δρίνο: μπήκαν οι ίδιες μέσα στα νερά και, πιασμένες σφικτά από τους ώμους, σχημάτισαν πρόσχωμα, που ανάκοβε την ορμή του ποταμού και ευκόλυνε τους γεφυροποιούς!


"Women of Pindos", Pavlos Vrellis, Museum of Greek history.

“Women of Pindos”, Pavlos Vrellis, Museum of Greek history.

Let there be no mistake, beyond their skills and assistance on the field, the mere survival of women during the war was a feat in and of itself.  In a November 1944 edition of LIFE, photos showed the extent of brutality Greek women suffered at the hands of German occupiers, including a photo of one woman whose baby was shot to death in her arms. She bore the scar of the bullet on her back:

LIFE distomo

The contributions of Greek women went well beyond keeping their families alive and enduring the effects of war. Women also were key to documenting the war as well. From the Benaki museum, we can learn more about Voula Papaioannou, whose work has captured some of the most stirring images of Greece in WWII and beyond:

Voula Papaioannou (source: Benaki Museum)

Voula Papaioannou (source: Benaki Museum)

Voula Papaioannou began working as a photographer during the 1930s, concentrating at first on studies of landscapes, monuments and archaeological exhibits.

The outbreak of war in 1940 marked a turning point in her career, as she was intensely affected by the suffering of the civilian population of Athens. Realising the power of her camera to arouse people’s conscience, she documented the troops departing for the front, the preparations for the war effort, and the care received by the first casualties. When the capital was in the grip of starvation, she revealed the horrors of war in her moving photographs of emaciated children.

After the liberation, as a member of the photographic unit of UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), she toured the ravaged Greek countryside recording the difficult living conditions faced by its inhabitants. She often exceeded her brief, immortalising the faces and personal stories of ordinary people in photographs that stressed dignity rather than suffering. […]

Voula Papaioannou’s work represents the trend towards “humanitarian photography” that resulted from the abuse of human rights during the war. Her camera captured her compatriots’ struggle for survival with respect, clarity, and a degree of personal involvement that transcends national boundaries and reinforces one’s faith in the strength of the common man and the intrinsic value of human life.

Papaioannou’s photos captured the dedication of Greek women. Below are some of her most heralded photos of that period:

"Conscription", 1940

“Conscription”, 1940

Nurse reading to the wounded of the Albanian front the Greek newspaper "Nike", 1941

Nurse reading to the wounded of the Albanian front the Greek newspaper “Nike”, 1941

"Preparing clothing for the front," 1940

“Preparing clothing for the front,” 1940

repatriation papaioannou






You can email us your suggestions or submit photos of your own for this series at contact@hellenicleaders.com.

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