Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Napoleon Soukatzidis and the 200 heroic Communists of Kaisariani

Still from the film "The Last Note" (2017)
 By Nikos Mottas

It was in the early hours of 1 May 1944 in occupied Athens when one of the most heroic pages of the Greek resistance was written. In retaliation for the killing of a German General, the Nazis proceeded to the mass execution of 200 communists at the eastern district of the Kaisariani. All of them were former political prisoners and exiles, members and sympathizers of the Communist Party (KKE).

A few days ago, on 27 April 1944, partisans of the Greek People's Liberation Army (ELAS) had ambushed and killed German General Franz Krech and three Nazi officers in Laconia, Peloponnese. 

On 30 April, the occupying forces announced the execution of 200 communists on 1st May 1944, the execution of all males found by German troops outside the surrounding villages in the Sparta region, while they reported that “under the impression of this crime, Greek volunteers (in fact local Nazi collaborators) have killed a further 100 communists on their initiative”.

The selection of the 200 communists who would be executed took place at the Haidari concentration camp. Among them, there was a 34 year-old trade unionist and member of the KKE called Napoleon Soukatzidis. Born in Bursa, Ottoman Empire and growing up in Crete, Soukatzidis became an accountant, being particularly active in trade unionism. Due to his unionist activity he was arrested in 1936 by the fascist regime of Ioannis Metaxas and was sent into exile in Ai Stratis island. A cultivated man and a multilingual – speaking Russian, German, English, French and Turkish – Napoleon had managed to earn the respect not only of his comrades, but even of some German officers. While in Haidari camp, he acted as a translator for camp commandant SS captain Karl Fischer while, at the same time, he became a source of encouragement for his fellow inmates.

The extraordinary and heroic fact in Napoleon Soukatzidis' story is that he was given the chance to avoid execution, by being replaced with another prisoner, but he staunchly denied. That happened just hours before the dawn of 1st May, when Napoleon was calling out the name of those to be shot. At number 71 of the death-list, he read his own name: Napoleon Soukatzidis. Comandant Fischer shouted: “Not you Napoleon! Not you!”. The German officer was willing to save his life by replacing him with another prisoner. But Soukatzidis, as a true communist and man of honor, could never betray his comrades. His response to Fischer will always remain a beacon of heroic self-sacrifice: “I accept, Comandant, but only under the condition that my position will remain vacant and no other prisoner will replace me”.

Napoleon Soukatzidis
The Nazis had no intention to make such an agreement and therefore, 200 communist prisoners, including Napoleon, were taken on board to trucks in order to meet their fate. But even in the face of their imminent execution, they defied death: During their last night at Haidari they sang and danced, showing remarkable defiance towards their executioners. The next day, they marched to their death with the same pride and honor. With their fists raised up to the air, they were executed in batches of twenty by a firing squad at the Kaisariani shooting range. “Long live Greece! Long live freedom! was their final cry as the bullets were penetrating their bodies.

“Dad, I'm going to the firing squad. Be proud of your son”, Napoleon wrote in his final letter to his father, a few moments before his execution by the Nazis. “It's better dying in the struggle for freedom rather than living as a slave”, Nikos Mariakakis, one of Soukatzidis' comrades wrote while Mitsos Reboutsikas, who was also executed on 1st May, stressed out in a letter: “When the man gives his life for higher ideals, he never dies...”.

The 200 communists of Kaisariani, Napoleon Soukatzidis and his comrades, are the embodiment of selflessness and heroism. Their sacrifice is a milestone in the people's anti-fascist struggle in the 20th Century and must be always commemorated as a beacon for the struggles of today and tomorrow.

The sacrifice of 200 communists, focusing on the personality of Soukatzidis, is depicted in the 2017 film “The Last Note” («Το Τελευταίο Σημείωμα») by Greek director Pantelis Voulgaris. 

* Nikos Mottas is the Editor-in-Chief of In Defense of Communism.