Mordechai Frizis: The Pride of the Greek Jewish Community

Mordechai Frizis was a Jewish Greek military colonel who died in action during World War II.

He was born on January 1, 1893, in the town of Chalkis (on Euboea, Modern Greece’s second-largest island), son of Jacob, he was one of twelve brothers and one sister. He died in battle on December 7, 1940.

Mordechai graduated in law from the Athens University, his parents believed he would one day be a lawyer but this particular son saw a different road for himself. The Balkan Wars of 1912-3 installed a sense of patriotism in young Mordechai. In 1916 he entered as an officer in training in Euboea.

In the Turkish-Greek war of 1921-1922 Lieutenant Mordechai and his soldiers were captured by the Turks. As a non Christian officer he was offered his freedom. Mordechai refused, enduring eleven months of captivity with his Greek soldiers.

The Greco-Italian War started on October 28, 1940 and marked the beginning of the Balkans Campaign of World War II. By then Italy had concentrated a large part of the Italian Army in neighboring Albania boarding Epirus. Italy’s ambassador in Athens handed an ultimatum from Mussolini to Ioannis Metaxas, Greek General and the Prime Minister of Greece, to “Surrender!”. To the Greek people responding in one word: “Okhi Day” (Greek for “No”). This day has come to be known as Okhi Day (Oxi Day) and is celebrated throughout Greece on October 28 each year. Within hours Italy was attacking Greece from Albania.

By now Mordechai was a Major in the Greek army, based out of Ioannina in Epirus, Greece, commanding the Independent Division, his orders to stop Italian attacks from Albania and through the narrow valleys and ravines of Northern Greece.

December 4, 1940 Major Frizis and his men encounter the Italians for the first time. Mordechai never left his men during fighting and always though of their interests first earning him the strong loyalty of his soldiers he would call them his “boys”, they inturn gave themselves the nickname the “Frizaens” or Frizis’s boys. His troops would be the first to be captured by Italian soldiers.

During the crossing of the Vistritsa River, mounted as always on his horse, Mordechai, lead his troops against Italian and he is fatally wounded but refuses to dismount, choosing instead to rally his soldiers with the now famous battle cry “Ayeras” (Courage in Greek) which every Greek still learns about from the moment they go to school.

Not having a Rabbi near a priest was brought over. He place his hand on Mordechai’s head and prayed: “Hear, O Israel, the lord our God, the Lord is one”. Colonel Mordechai Frizis, was the first officer in the Greek Army to be killed in World War II.

One December 17, 1940 the Vradhini newspaper declared that Mordechai Frizis’ name was written in golden letters in the Pantheon of Heroes who had sacrificed their lives for the independence of Greece.

Kind George II of Greece, wrote: “On the glorious death for his country of your beloved husband, the heroic Colonel Mordechai Frizis, His Majesty the king has instructed me to convey to you and your family his deepest condolences”.

Ioannis Metaxas, Prime Minister of Greece wrote the following letter to Mordechai’s wife: “I learnt of the death on the field of honour of your husband, before you knew of it and I did not know how to inform you. Now from your letter I see that not only was he a hero, but he had a wife worthy of him. You and your family as well as those families, who have lost their protectors, will become the families of this state of ours. Please be assured that the protection of Greece will never leave you or your children. The children of Colonel Frizis will be revered by our nation’s youth. With feelings of honour and love”.

When the Axis forces entered Athens, a senior Italian officer named di Camp sought out Mordechai. He wrote in 1949: “The first thing I did was to learn where Mordechai Frizis was. He was a noble fighter and I wanted to meet him close up, to shake his noble hand. When I learnt he was dead, I was saddened Noble people cannot die. Perhaps they live on in our hearts, although they have left us in our lives.”

Metropolitan of Chalkis wrote to Mordechai’s widow in 1954: “Heroic Colonel Mordechai Frizis will be a continuous and praise worthy example of sacrifice for religion and country – and he will be the permanent pride of Chalkis “.

In 1976, the newspaper Israilina Nea[Isreal News] published a letter from a senior Naval officer which read:”Colonel Mordechai Frizis did not die. Every time Greece is in danger, he goes among us, bolt upright on this horse, inspiring us”.

Greek poet writer Alexander Gavrielidhis wrote the following in dedication to the fallen hero under the title ‘Heroes are not Forgotten':

“A legend was created in October 1940, as Greece refused for ever to accept Fascism. In a corner of the fields of Kalpaki history was written an example of great courage to younger generations. A shining courage brought glory to Greece, as one icy-cold morning a group of men died. On a proud horse he galloped to victory – the laurel wreath and the crown of roses belong to Mordechai. The name of Mordechai Frizis, pride of Chalkis, will live forever, a golden ray of sunshine. No one has forgotten him – heroes are not forgotten. He passed among the Immortals, and hymns will be sung in his honour. The mountains of Albania and the narrow banners and Flowers of Chalkis will ring out with song. The Greek people – Christians and Jews – will pray for you, young and old Farewell my hero, who gave your life – my brother, we will always be in your presence”.

A memorial to Colonel Mordechai Frizis has been erected outside the National Military Museum in Athens.

In 2002 the remains of Mordechai Frizis, the first senior Greek officer to be killed in during World War II, were returned to Greece. They are buried in Thessaloniki’s Jewish cemetery today.

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