A Tribute to Grandmother Lela Carayannis

by George Pararas-Carayannis

On September 8, 1944, at the outskirts of Athens, Greece, the quietness of the morning dawn was broken again by sounds of German machine gun fire. These were familiar sounds at the killing fields at the foot-hills of Dafni, near the concentration camp of Haidari. Daily, German execution squads routinely carried their orders of executing the Greek patriots, the occupants of the concentration camp. This time it was grandmother Lela Carayannis, the brave fighter of the Greek Resistance and the heroic leader of the Greek resistance/intelligence organization known as “Bouboulina”, who fell by the bullets of the Nazi executioners along with 71 of her followers and patriot coworkers. Death was a form of freedom and probably a welcome release for Lela’s mortal body which, for three solid days had been subjected to cruel torture by her SS interrogators. Her nails had been pulled off her fingers one by one and wounds cut on her body with razor blades had been staffed with salt for maximum pain.
Witnesses observing from the hills of Daphni in the distance, related the story that, just before the execution, the group of patriots led by Lela Carayannis begun to sing and that Lela led them in the dance of “Zallogos”, a symbolic dance and song of defiance in choosing death rather than loss of freedom or submission to the enemy. This was the song and dance of the women and children of Messolongi, in the war of independence from the Turks, when one by one, they had jumped off the cliff at Messolongi, choosing death rather than capture by the Turks.

It was in the first few days of the German occupation of Greece that Lela Carayannis begun forming her organization. It started with the humanitarian effort of helping initially a few allied soldiers brought to her attention who had been separated from their units and had been unable to evacuate in time. They had been trapped by the advancing German troops and needed refuge and support. Lela came to their rescue setting up temporary safe havens. Soon thereafter, more and more trapped soldiers would be brought in by Greek patriots of her organization combing the countryside. The rescue operations grew and became more demanding and more daring.

Lela Carayannis’ initial goal was to provide health care and refuge to hundreds of such allied and Greek soldiers and fliers wounded and trapped by the German occupying forces. Lela organized the safe houses where these fighters would be treated for their wounds, brought back to health, and helped escape to the free mountains or back to their units in the Middle East. She helped finance their escapes using fishing boats which took the allied fighters from island to island, closer and closer to the Middle East. Quickly, Lela Carayannis’ organization grew in numbers as more and more Greek patriots answered the humanitarian call to duty.

Lela Carayannis was a woman with remarkable self-control and steel nerves and will. She had admirable organizational skills. Her leadership qualities were recognized and she inspired the respect of everyone around her. In a very brief time she managed to organize into a coherent unit, a team of more than 150 trusted Greek resistance patriots from all walks of life. She organized them into units of intelligence and later into assault teams against the German conquerors. Her organization was given the code name “Bouboulina” named after her own grandmother “Boubouli”, the heroine of the Greek war of independence from the Turks. History has it that Lela’s great grandmother Boubouli assumed command of her husband’s ship right after he was killed and fought bravely against a superior Turkish fleet, at the famous sea battle of Navarino.

In a few brief months following the occupation of Greece by the Germans, Lela Carayannis expanded the activities of her organization to every aspect of effective resistance and intelligence. She managed to plant members of her intelligence team in every enemy service and organization, including the high German Army command, the German Admiralty office, the German Air Force command, even the secret German police, the Gestapo, in the German and Italian high commands. Not only she had Greek patriots helping her, but she even managed to recruit agents from the enemy’s own ranks, disgruntled anti-Nazzi German officers, Italian anti-fashists, and Germans who had married Greek women. Everyone was passing to her bulletins of German army and ship movements, of fortifications, of movements of supplies and personnel and every other type of useful information. This information in turn was wired or forwarded to the allied headquarters in the Middle East and used for strategic decisions and counteractions, in the subsequent allied offensive.

Unfortunately near the closing days of the war, a member of her “Bouboulina” organization made an unforgivable mistake and got caught. This mistake led the Germans to the capture of Lela and many of her coworkers. On July 11, 1944, Lela Carayannis was arrested at the hospital where she had been hospitalizedill. On 14 August 1944, in the office of the well-known for his atrocities, interrogator Beke, Lela was brought face to face with her assistant who had been broken down by the German interrogators and had disclosed everything about the activities of the “Bouboulina” organization. For three days Lela was tortured cruelly by her captors who were unable to get a word out of her about additional members of her organization or on going activities. Frustrated and humiliated by Lela’s courage and strength of character, interrogator Beke finally gave up. He closed the file on the organization “Bouboulina” with the phrase “Lela Carayannis, the most dangerous spy in the Balkans.

Shortly thereafter, Lela, members of her organization and six of her children, her three sons {George, Byron (our father) and Nelson} and three of her daughters (Ioanna, Nefeli and Electra), were transferred to the concentration camp at Haidari, where they were subjected to torture and abuse. On the early hours of that fateful morning of September 8, 1944, before Lela Carayannis and seventy-one of her followers were machine-gunned Lela’s children and some of her coworkers, held at another part of the camp, destined for execution the following day, managed to escape with the help of an anti-Nazi German. They hid in Athens and did not learn of their mother’s execution until several days later.

Such was the fate of Lela Carayannis, a simple housewife forced by circumstances to rise to martyrdom, in defense of her country and humane causes . After the war was over, Lela Carayannis was awarded, post mortem, the highest medals for valor and honor by King George V of the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Attlee who succeeded Winston Churchill, King Paul of Greece, the Greek Government, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, among many other. After the war, New Zealanders and other members of the allied troops whose lives Lela had touched and saved, wrote and expressed their gratitude and appreciation.

Lela Carayannis’ heroic actions and ultimate sacrifice is remembered every year in Greece on the anniversary of her execution. The old house on Limnou 1, still standing among the high rises, is in the register of national monuments. The street has been renamed as Lela Carayannis Street. Her marble statue, in a small square near the Athens Museum, is the site where Government officials and citizens gather every year, on the anniversary of the execution, to hold a memorial service and to pay tribute and respect to Lela Carayannis and the fallen patriots of the Bouboulina organization.

The dramatic circumstance of the war converted a simple mother of seven children and a housewife into a resistance fighter of legendary proportions. Lela Carayannis is Greece’s national symbol and an example of heroism and altruism which transcends, teaches and inspires younger generations of Greeks about the value of freedom and human dignity.