The Interpreter for the German Army in the Labyrinth of Messara

Mimis Kalaitzoglou, Interpreter to the German Army

I happened to learn German from a German worker when we worked together here at the Heraklion airport. Not long after the German invasion, I found myself in Panassos, where I had some relatives, and the mayor of the village put me in forced labour. Initially, I worked in Tympaki and then the Labyrinth.

Mimis Kalaitzoglou, interpreter for the German Army in the Labyrinth

One day at the Labyrinth I heard the Germans say something to one of our own people. The poor man couldn’t understand them so they started to shout and hit him. I couldn’t help myself. I went over and explained to him what the Germans were saying. That’s when the Germans realized I knew their language and was told to stay as their interpreter. The Labyrinth then had only a small little door and they made us open two big doors.

Everyday there were a thousand people working forced labour. Half worked outside to build the road to Kasteli and the other half inside clearing out rubble. As soon as a big part of the entrance was cleared, the Germans installed a generator and the Labyrinth was lighted. The work progressed quickly. They put in railroad cars to take out the rubble. We would take out the rubble from one side while we were building the other.

inside the labyrinth of mesara
Inside the labyrinth of Messara | Source: National Archives of Germany

Small rooms were formed which we had to fill with firearms. There were a lot of Germans around then and it was difficult to accommodate all of them in Kasteli. They had constructed a camp outside the Labyrinth with kitchens, rooms, etc., and lived there.

My being there was compulsory but with the understanding that I didn’t want any part of what they gave out. I did not want any money or provisions. They didn’t like it in the beginning but I told them I want to hold my head in its place, not in my armpit.

There were difficult times and the resistance was around in the mountains. If my position was just a bit unclear they would have killed me. And I, on the other hand, tried secretly to help our side as much as possible. When I knew the Germans were searching for someone I would warn him to leave and hide. We had many stories like that because many people, who by day worked in the Labyrinth, were in the resistance by night, risking their lives.

Twice I had gone to the end of the Labyrinth with Odysseas Markoulakis as a guide, who had learned from Roussos. With Roussos I had only been as far as just inside the entrance where we both worked. The Labyrinth is very large. I don’t know how many kilometers but I do know it starts from the entrance we all know and ends after Ambelouzo at Agios Titos. If when you go in you trun a bit left or turn back you will never come out again. You must keep going right in order to come out again.

I’ll tell you a story. Thirty German pilots had come to see the Labyrinth and asked the commander to provide them with an interpreter and a guide. Odyseas and I went and when we had advanced enough – we were walking for at least 20 minutes after the last electric light – the Germans got frightened and asked us to turn back. I tried to explain that it wasn’t possible to return by the same way because we would get lost. They thought we were trying to imprison them so they took out their weapons and took aim. I told them if they killed us they had no chance of ever getting out and finally was able to convince them to continue on, and finally we came out after some time.

It’s not an easy task to come out of the Labyrinth if you don’t know the way. You will wind up going round and round for eternity. You must keep going right and you will come out at the same point. To do that circle you need about two hours. I have a thousand stories to tell about the Labyrinth. Each day was an adventure. More than 40 villages provided manpower to work in the Labyrinth. They came from Mesohoria down after Pyrgos to Pompia, and north until Yeryeri and Zaros.

We worked from daybreak until night in shifts, and those who couldn’t get back to their villages at night stayed overnight at the encampments the Germans had constructed. Every morning we were given tea and a small slice of bread. At noon we had bean soup, or sometimes rice. Most people, though, brought their own food and wouldn’t eat what the Germans provided.

The interventions at the Labyrinth lasted long enough. The Germans knew what they wanted and followed their plans. Just inside to the left they had installed the generator which was huge. Right next to it on the same side there was a room where they put all the pistols. We couldn’t enter that room. Right across they had the infirmary and a bit further down there was the hole where we had the food provisions, because in this cave you had the privilege to enjoy warmth in the winter and coolness in summer. It’s a matter of fact that years before the shepherds from the area kept their homemade cheeses in those rooms. The Germans knocked all that down and stored their weapons there. There wasn’t an inch up to the second plateau where arms were not kept. They had brought Italian prisoners who, together with some of our own men, cleaned and oiled the weapons. When they Germans had to evacuate they put a bomb in front of each of the rooms and connected them all to the generator so they could blow up the Labyrinth. When I realized what would happen I said to the German commander: What are you doing? If you blow up the Labyrinth you will destroy all of Kasteli. He answered: Only Kasteli? Agii Deka, Mires, Moroni , Roufas and Pluti will disappear from the map. You will see this entire mountain disintegrate so that the English will not take possession of all this firepower. He was a good man and I felt confident in proposing to blow up only the entrance and he said he would try and convince his seniors. Finally, he did it because in about 20 days he called me and said that what I had proposed would happen.

Right away the German automobiles started to arrive. They would bring dynamite and take out all the food stuff warehoused in the Labyrinth. More than 50 trucks arrived. We positioned all the dynamite about 20 meters from the entrance. When all was ready, the Germans gave the word and I warned all neighbouring villages for the people to leave and come down to the plains. It was afternoon when we blew it up. It was a tremendous explosion. Nothing remained in its place. Everything inside the Labyrinth was destroyed but no one was killed. For some time to come no one would come near the Labyrinth. Eventually some people went in search of gun powder endangering their lives in the process. But no one died there until 1961 when another explosion occurred killing five people.

At the end of 1945 and the beginning of 1946, the Greek army came and asked me to make a diagram so they could figure out how to find the firearms trapped from the explosion. I made it and gave it to them, and after studying it they said they wanted to open a hole from the top, on the surface of the mountain. I explained to them that that was a lost cause so they started to open up the cave from the entrance. In fact, I told them about a civil engineer from Athens , Panos Neofytou, whom the Germans had consulted on the building of the small rooms within the Labyrinth, and classifying the firearms. The army did call on him and was assisted by his instructions. However, the army did not really accomplish anything important given that the entrance of the cave was totally destroyed, and with it all of the fire power.

Since then I have never been back to the Labyrinth. It breaks my heart when I think of how beautiful it was, and how they destroyed it…

NOTE. This story comes from the book “The Labyrinth of Messara” by Kaloust Paragamian and Antonis Vasilakis.

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