July 19, 2018

The Truth About the Miracle of Saint Haralambos in Filiatra in 1944

By John Sanidopoulos

In 2010 I posted an article on the miracle attributed to Saint Haralambos in Filiatra on July 19, 1944 when he appeared to the German commander and prevented a massacre of the residents of the city. When I did so, I looked for historical corroboration of the event, or at least something close to it, that was not ecclesiastical in origin. I was also a bit troubled by certain contradictions in the accounts from various Orthodox sources. For example, in some accounts it said it took place in 1943 while in others it said it took place in 1944, and in some sources the name of the commander is given as Kontaou while others call him Kunster. As for any historical corroboration, none were to be found, not even close. This surprised me, because the German occupation of Greece is pretty well documented, and I expected to at least find a photo of the German commander, who was said to visit Filiatra annually for the feast of Saint Haralambos. Even more surprising, this only took place in 1944, so surely in 2010 someone must have been alive to corroborate the narrative of the events as they have been handed down to us.

My research continued after 2010 every year on July 19th, looking for something to clear up these issues for me. I figured during this time that it may come down to visiting Filiatra and gathering what evidence they had. The only thing I could clear up was that the event, if it did happen, happened in 1944, because it fits the timeline of the German occupation of the area. Then in 2015 I came across an article that was first published in the local newspaper Filiatra News, from a skeptic and eye-witness named Kostas Spanos, who wrote an article calling this miracle not a miracle, but a myth not grounded in history or reality. I will summarize what he argued, based on his own first-hand experience of the events. He wrote, among other things:

"I respect the unlimited right of everyone to believe in what they want, but I cannot easily accept all those unsubstantiated and malicious constructions of some inexperienced hypocrites who devalue and insult the intelligence of the majority of our people. I find it totally unacceptable, even unethical, to conceal the truth for any reason, even if we are to touch the 'sacred and venerable' of a particular category of believers. Because of this non-existent 'miracle' going back to events of our time, which we experienced and remember very well, we ought not to hide at all the truth about this 'miracle' of 1944 and to transmit 'without fear and passion', all we know, about how and from whom this fairy tale seems to have been made."

"The 'miracle', therefore, proves to be 100% a product of great fiction, probably devised by the narrow circle of the former Metropolitan Stephanos, because he formalized it and supported it verbally and in writing after about forty years of it being in oblivion." I should note here that the Metropolitan Stephanos he mentions is Metropolitan Stephanos Matakoulias, who was Metropolitan of Triphylia and Olympia from 1960 till his death in 2007.

Moving on, he explains how this story came to be. It begins on July 19, 1944, though not in Filiatra but 22km south in Ampelofyto, otherwise known as Agorelitsa, in Messenia. There, at Manousos bridge, ELAS attacked a German garrison and killed 180 men. Who was ELAS? Elas, or Greek People's Liberation Army, was the strongest Greek communist resistance movement, and since 1944 it built its own naval force (ELAN: Greek People’s Liberation Navy) with auxiliary vessels and schooners captured and re-armed. These vessels were successful in harassing local German supply lines between islands and shore garrisons.

About this attack, Spanos writes: "At that time, the news of similar events in Greece did not circulate quickly, nor was it easy to check the truth of any news that came from the fact that very strict censorship had been imposed on all the press and the radio. We could not easily ascertain whether and to what extent any news that we heard and which had come to us was word-of-mouth. No one knew, at least the first day, about exactly what had happened in this sabotage on July 19, 1944. In Filiatra, the news came immediately that some Germans were killed by rebels in a sabotage that took place 'somewhere near', only because they would bury the killed Germans in Limenari, where there was a small German air force. At the same time, however, there were also many terrible rumors about the supposed heavy reprisals that were to be followed. These rumors, however, were those that engulfed the great fear, terror and panic among the inhabitants of our city. Everyone was scared with the thought of only the possible inhuman and horrible retaliation - by the Germans - since the harsh punishments usually applied by the Germans in similar cases were well known."

According to Spanos, this is the seed that fell from which sprouted the "miracle" of Saint Haralambos in the frightened minds of the people of Filiatra when the funeral of the Germans took place. He writes: "For the day of the funeral, all the shops of Filiatra were ordered to be closed and all the residents 'plus women and children' were to be in the main streets of the city, from where the procession would pass. Many German military troops, senior German officers, many military vehicles, philharmonicians, etc. were gathered in Filiatra, but the one thing that frightened the people was that there were a lot of extraordinary and heavily armed soldiers on that day, in many points of the city, due to the possibility of a new surprise attack by the rebels on the funeral day."

He goes on: "At the time of the funeral, there was great silence and anxiety, together with an unprecedented fear and terror, about what was going to follow. The Filiatrians had been literally lost and particularly upset by the unprecedented mobilization of a large number of armed German soldiers and many German vehicles that was supposed to take place for the first time in their city. Many dark and creepy thoughts passed through the minds of all. And the worst of all was, those creepy horrific rumors that were constantly circulating about the carnage that was about to follow after the funeral. The inhabitants did not have their minds on the funeral procession, but only in the heavily armed extraordinary soldiers that had been set up in many parts of the city. So many people constantly made their cross during the funeral, and not a few whispered desperately with shaking lips: "Our Holy Haralambos, do your miracle and save us." They constantly crossed themselves and pleaded with God and the patron saint of Filiatra Saint Haralampos to protect them, 'to do his miracle' and to save them from all that they feared."

With all this going on, Spanos goes on to say: "And the 'miracle' actually happened!!! The Germans did not hurt Filiatra at all after the funeral!!! No other explanation was needed then about how and why this 'miracle' happened! It was 'obvious'! Saint Haralambos 'had extended his hand' and we were saved!!!" Spanos is a bit sarcastic when it comes to how he describes the salvation of the Filiatrians as being a "miracle". He does not believe it was a miracle at all. He believed that the Germans were merely passing through Filiatra, and all the panic and talk of miracles that began to spread after this was the result of naive fanatical individuals.

"From word of mouth, the rumors related to this 'miracle' circulated quickly, and everyone added something 'of their own' to all those 'wonderful things' they heard. There was a kind of competition among the most fanatical believers, who among them was better informed about that 'miraculous' Saint's intervention. Someone from Limenari said that the German Commander himself had said that he had seen in his sleep Saint Haralambos, who also ordered him not to execute the order he had received from Tripoli in order to use Filiatra as an example. And many then believed him. Saint Haralampos had finally done his 'miracle', after listening to the prayers of the pious Filiatrians, and so they fled Filiatra!!!"

And there we have it. According to this eye-witness of the events, this is the origin of the miracle of Saint Haralambos at Filiatra which is annually celebrated there with a procession of the icon of Saint Haralambos till this day every July 19th. Is he lying? Is he a fair and balanced witness of the events? This is hard to know. It sure sounds credible however. He goes on to ask the hard questions: Why did the people of Filiatra think they were going to be punished for a sabotage that took place 22km away in Agorelitsa, especially when not one resident of Filiatra was involved in it? His explanation: "Reason and fanaticism unfortunately never co-exist. No fanatic believer then wanted to hear objections, reservations, and disputes from anyone. None of them wanted to know exactly where the ELAS attack had occurred or who was involved with it. For them it was enough that 'Saint Haralambos had done his miracle'!"

But not all believed in the rumors of this "miracle", says Spanos. Actually, most did not, even in Filiatra, because, according to him, "reason did not allow them to". It was only the most fanatical believers that spread these rumors without substantiation. This is why not too long after the event, the rumors died down, and talk of a miracle was soon to be forgotten.

But then, around thirty years later, some people resurrected this 'miracle' from its grave. They resurrected it, dusted it off, polished it, reformed it, fully adopted it, and formalized it. "They embraced it with beautiful fantastic stories, embellished it with fanfare and with litany, and finally proclaimed it a 'extraordinary miracle' (as Metropolitan Stephanos described it), censed it, praised it, glorified it, and finally it was mythologized! They received it afterwards, the 'close circles around this Metropolitan', and added various touching and tearful stories (such as that the German Commander was baptized Orthodox and that he was coming to Filiatra every year to honor the memory of Saint Haralambos etc.), and they continuously served this to those who easily believe."

Spanos then goes on to ask more hard questions:

Why did the majority of Filiatrians not believe the miracle stories when it supposedly took place in 1944?

Why didn't the two Metropolitans between 1944 and 1962, Anthimos and Damaskinos, never mention the miracle nor show signs of believing it?

Why didn't the municipality of Filiatra not establish this day, the supposed salvation of our city, as the greatest and most important religious feast for Filiatra?

Why did this "miracle" (which was "formalized" by Metropolitan Stephanos and a circle around him), instead of exalting the Orthodox faith, as one would reasonably expect, produce the exact opposite effect, both in the "miracle" itself, and to those who formalized it and "exploited" it?

Why was it that most Filiatrians, when the festival commemorating the event was established, despise and rebuke the summer litany of the Saint, embellishing it with no flattering adjectives?

Why did Metropolitan Stephanos have to lie in order to make the "miracle" more credible by making the German Commander embrace Orthodoxy and having him visit Filiatra annually on February 10th, when this never happened? If it was a true miracle, why add on lies to make it more believable?

Why is there no historical documentation, or any reports from ELAS, of an alleged decision of the Germans to destroy Filiatra and kill thousands of its inhabitants, when all that we have mentioned is that the Germans wanted to retaliate only against Agorelitsa, Chora and Gargaliani, where the sabotage took place?

Spanos then goes on to analyze the story in detail and separates what he considers to be the facts from the fiction. I may translate this at a future date. For now, I think what has been mentioned above is enough to ponder. If there is any evidence to the contrary, I ask that it be passed along.