Today is Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) in Israel, which we mark the day before Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day). Somebody with a better way with words than me quipped that there is a reason Israel has two memorial days: one to remind us of the cost of having a state, the other to remind us of the truly terrible price of not having one.
Yet there are also the Jewish military heroes in uniforms other than our own. One amazing story I learned during a recent visit to Greece is that of colonel Mordechai Frizis (Greek: Μαρδοχαίος Φριζής).
Frizis was born in 1893 to a large Jewish family in the Greek city of Chalkis (a.k.a. Negroponte), which sits at the bridge between the large island of Euboea and the Boeotia region of the Greek mainland. The town’s Jewish community were Romaniotes,[*] Greek-speaking Jews whose ancestors had come to Greece in pre-Christian days.
From childhood, his dream was to become an army officer. He applied to the military academy but did not pass the entrance exam — some sources claim his Jewishness was a factor in that. At any rate, he started studying law school as Plan B. When the Balkan Wars broke out, he was drafted and admitted to NCO training. There, because he also had gone to college, he was made a 2nd Lt. in the reserves.
During the Russian Civil War (where he was part of the Allied troops fighting on the side of the Whites) and the Greek-Turkish War, he distinguished himself on the battlefield through bravery as well as ingenuity.[**] When taken prisoner by the Turks in 1922, he was offered his freedom as the only non-Christian among the captive Greeks, but refused, saying his place was with his men. He shared their privations for 11 months until they were released and repatriated when the Lausanne Treaty ended the Greek-Turkish War.
Upon his return, his reserve commission was ‘regularized’ and he himself was sent to France to go study at the Ecole Militaire in St.Cyr (the West Point of France). After graduating with high honors, he was posted to Thessaloniki. He rose gradually through the ranks: the outbreak of WW II found him a Lt. Col. with the 8th Division in Ioannina, the largest town in the northwestern region of Epirus.
At this point Mussolini, displaying his typical level of contact with reality, issued a 3-hour ultimatum to the Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas.[***] According to Greek popular legend, Metaxas just answered “Ochi!” (“No!”), but his actual words, the French “alors, c’est la guerre!” (“well, that means war!”) boil down to the same thing.
The Italian army had bitten off more than it could chew, and got its nose bloodied severely by the Greeks. At one particular battle, Lt. Col. Frizis and his battlegroup of two battalions and an artillery company blocked the Italian advance by denying them the bridge across the Kalama.
The Greeks not only threw the Italians out but counterattacked into Italian-held Albania. It was then that an aerial strafing attack took place on Frizis’s regiment. Seated on horseback, he kept on pressing his men to seek cover, while galloping all over to make sure they did. The planes’ machine guns hit home, and Frizis was mortally wounded. Legend has it that the Greek Orthodox army chaplain said the Shema Yisrael over his dead body.
Both the Greek king and dictator Metaxas eulogized Frizis (posthumously promoted to full colonel) and personally condoled his widow.
Sadly, Mussolini’s senior ally decided he needed to pull his chestnuts out of the fire, and while most of the Greek army was tied up in Epirus, the Wehrmacht invaded from Bulgaria, with tragic consequences for Greek Jews and non-Jews alike.
The Swedish power metal band Sabaton writes most of its songs about war heroes of renown. They never wrote one about Frizis, but they do have one about the Greek resistance to the Italians.
[*] The name comes from their association with the [East]-Roman Empire. They are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, as the community predates that split. The oldest verifiable sign of their presence is a gravestone from 300-250 BCE to a “son of Moschion the Jew”. The community in Chalcis had a tradition of having arrived even earlier: in the 6th Century BCE, after the victory of the Persians over the Babylonians put an end to the Babylonian Exile.
[**] One anecdote has is that, while fighting with the Whites near Kishinev/Chisinau, the Greek troops were in need of supplies. Frizis sought out his coreligionists in their stores and addressed them in Hebrew (being Romaniote, he did not speak Yiddish nor Russian): reportedly they were so amazed to see a fellow Jew as a Greek officer that they gave him everything he asked for and refused payment.
[***] Metaxas was a royalist, monarchist, and antiparliamentarian Greek nationalist, but (like most Greeks) saw Greekness in cultural rather than genetic terms. He saw the Greek Jews, particularly the Romaniotes, as partners in the “Third Greek Civilization” he sought to foster, and had a close personal relationship with the Chief Rabbi of Thessaloniki.