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Former German Soldier Helps Restore Greek Monastery Destroyed by Nazis

Agios Dionysios Monastery
The old Agios Dionysios Monastery on Mount Olympus. Credit: Juergen-Olymp/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

A letter sent by a former German soldier helped spur the restoration of Agios Dionysios Monastery on Mount Olympus which had been destroyed by the Nazis during WWII.

It was one day in 1996 when prior Maximos of the New Monastery of Agios Dionysios received a letter from Germany addressed to him by an unknown sender named Karl Faber.

The German man admitted to the monks of the monastery that they would certainly be very surprised to receive the letter from him.

Indeed, the letter brought back dark memories from April 29, 1943, when the occupying Nazi forces blew up the whole monastery.

At the same time, the letter brought a message of hope to the monks of Agios Dionysios Monastery, albeit 53 years later.

Agios Dionysios Monastery
Nazis prepare to blow up Agios Dionysios Monastery on Mount Olympus in 1943. Credit: Karl Faber/Wikipedia CC0

Nazis destroyed the monastery in 1943

On April 29, 1943 a select unit of commandos from the German military occupation force based in Litochoro climbed Mount Olympus for one entire night, with mules carrying explosives, to an altitude of 800 meters (2,624 feet), in the heart of the mountain.

The Germans approached the historic Agios Dionysios Monastery at the top of the Eniipeas gorge; and after laying large quantities of dynamite all around it, they blew up the monastery.

Twelve monks managed to flee the the monastery, rescuing only one icon, that of its patron saint, Agios Dionysios.

The monks then took refuge in the convent of the monastery, at the foot of Mount Olympus, where they were subsequently arrested and interrogated by the Nazis.

Prelude to the destruction

The original monastery was established way back in the year in 1542. A new monastery was established at a distance of some 5 km (3 miles) to the northeast of the old one, closer to the town of Litochoro, which is considered the gateway to Mt. Olympus.

Agios Dionysios Monastery is a stavropegic monastery, which means it is directly under the Patriarch of Constantinople.

During the German occupation, the Monastery of Agios Dionysios had been targeted by the occupying forces, which claimed it had information that the monastery had functioned as a center of support for the Resistance groups on Mount Olympus.

Indeed, the location of the monastery was ideal for sheltering the Greek Resistance forces; just as they had in the past, during the Greek War of Independence of 1821, when the monks and their prior were active in the struggle against the Ottomans.

Tragically, the monastery was the site of a three-day siege and battle in 1821, when it was set on fire and Prior Methodius, along with twelve monks, were hanged.

During the Macedonian Struggle (1893-1908), the Monastery of Agios Dionysios again actively participated in the conflict.

Reconstruction of Agios Dionysios

After the destruction of 1943, the monastery’s monks took refuge in the New Monastery of Agios Dionysios, three kilometers above the village of Litochoro.

However, their love for the old monastery on Mount Olympus drove them to reconstruct it. The restoration was based mainly on testimonies of elder laymen and monks since there were no architectural plans and the old monastery had been completely leveled.

Slowly but steadily, the reconstruction of the monastery began, with the only guide being the faith of the people participating and their scattered memories of what it once looked like.

Letter arrived like a message from God

The arrival of the letter written by Karl Faber in 1996 was like a message from God.

Along with a formal apology for the deplorable act perpetrated by the Nazis, Faber sent  four photographs of the monastery taken only minutes before the explosives were detonated by a member of the unit.

Towards the end of his life, the former German soldier had sent the photographs in the hopes that “they might be useful for the restoration of the monastery.”

Indeed, the photographs were a great help and a team of architects and engineers drew up a restoration plan for the monastery. Works are now in progress so that Agios Dionysios Monastery on Mount Olympus will return to its former glory once again.

An apology long overdue

In the letter, the former German soldier not only apologizes but also gives some details about that dark time for humanity that day on Mount Olympus.

“I was 21 years old, a soldier in the Hunters team’ (the code word for his unit) and we had camped in Litochoro on April 27, 1943. A lawyer from Hamburg, a lover of Greece, sent me color photographs of the ruined monastery, which he took himself,” he wrote.

“I do not need to explain to you that I am deeply saddened by the destruction of this great and beautiful monument.”

He continued: “I was a radio transmitter to the unit commander, who was a professor from Vienna. I also heard him tell his successor to take over the administration, because he wanted to see the monastery…

“I always had my Leica camera in my bread satchel, and I asked him to let me go with him. He was kind enough to let me photograph (the monastery).

“I am sending you four enlarged photos that I took then. From these photos one can see partially what the monastery was like. My photo shoot had to be done quickly because I did not have the time to do so. Perhaps these photos are useful in the renovation of the monastery.

“Thank you very much and I wish you health and peace to all of us on earth so that no more monasteries are destroyed.”

 

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