Greek Scientists Identify Nazi Victims Executed 83 Years Ago in Crete

German massacre Crete
The Nazi occupying forces massacred civilians in Crete. Credit: Bundesarchiv, CC BY-SA 3.0 de/Wikipedia

Greek scientists have recently identified 18 people who were executed by the Nazis in Crete through DNA analysis.

In the Battle of Crete during the World War II occupation of Greece, the German forces faced substantial civilian resistance.

The inhabitants of Adele, a prosperous lowland village in the northeastern part of the Rethymnon regional unit, resisted fiercely and had formed an armed resistance group. As a consequence, the German forces surrounded the village on June 2, 1941, and arrested 18 male civilians (including two fathers with their adult sons, two couples of brothers, as well as two adolescents), from the orchards and the streets of Adele, gave them shovels and led them to the site of Sarakina.

According to inhabitants of the present-day community of Adele they had to dig their own grave, that is, a massive death pit before being executed on the same day. They were found by their families several days later.

Their remains were first kept in the pit for a period of approximately four years, subsequently transferred to the ossuary of the St. Nicholas church of Adele, and finally moved to an ossuary that was erected circa 1960.

Today, a memorial site exists at Sarakina including a display case with the unlabeled skulls as all the victims were exhumed from the mass grave, many years after the execution.

Although the living descendants of the victims know that they have a relative within the victims (the victims’ full names and age at death are known), they are not able to recognize who is who amongst the victims.

DNA study identifies Nazi victims in Crete

The study which is is the first victims’ identification study for a conflict that occurred in Greece was published in the Forensic Science International.

Greek scientists identified for humanitarian purposes the 18 skulls of the victims, following a request from the local community of Adele.

The molecular identification of historical human remains via ancient DNA approaches and low-coverage whole genome sequencing has only recently been introduced. The scientists performed genome skimming on the living relatives of the victims, as well as high throughput historical DNA analysis on the skulls to infer the kinship degrees among the victims via genetic relatedness analyses.

They also conducted targeted anthropological analysis to complete the identification of all victims.

Maria Lioni the deputy governor of Rethymnon said that the victims finally acquired an identity.

“These people, our dead, whom we honor every year, acquired an identity and this is very important, for us as Rethemnians, as Cretans, as Greeks, that our dead acquire an identity. There are lots of people who died in Greece’s liberation struggles. These people gave their lives for two great ideas, Freedom and Democracy, against Totalitarianism and Nazism. Therefore, it was the least we could do as a tribute and as a moral obligation towards these people,” she added.

The study was initiated by professor emeritus of the University of Miami and former president of the Senate Georgios Alexandrakis. DNA analysis was conducted at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology of the Foundation for Research and Technology Hellas (IMBB-FORTH).

IMBB is one of the most prominent life science research institutions in Greece, with an outstanding record of scientific achievements, state-of-the-art infrastructure, and a broad range of research, innovation, and educational activities.

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