Her story is the stuff legends are made of— a simple homemaker and mother of seven children, Lela Karagianni was the wife of an Athenian pharmacist whose only responsibility for much of her adult life was to tend to her family’s needs.
As if super-human powers overcame her, when the Nazis invaded and occupied Athens, she became a critical member of the organized resistance movement— even creating her own cell, which she code-named Bouboulina.
The resistance cell operated out of her husband’s pharmacy and provided information to other cells about Nazi movements and helped smuggle people out of the Nazi zone and into the mountains, which were controlled by the resistance.
Lela’s cell also coordinated with a monastery in Megara, where many fugitives were hidden from Nazi capture. She and her team forged documents and were instrumental in also hiding Jews, who were constantly hunted by the occupying forces.
In April 1944 Solomon Cohen and his family had fled Thessaloniki to Athens and were desperately looking for a safe place to hide after avoiding the mandatory registration of Jews. He described their ordeal— and Karayanni’s selflessness— in a letter he wrote to her husband in 1947.
“In the most dangerous days, when we thought all was lost and that there was no more hope for us, we turned to Mrs. Karayanni. We were in deep despair, and this was the very last resort… I will never forget the moment when she opened her door to us. This was at a time when even our closest friends avoided us. She hosted us in her home although she knew that she was already under heavy suspicion”.
In July 1944, Karagianni was arrested in Athens by the German occupation forces. She was taken to the SS headquarters on Merlin Street, known to some Greek prisoners as “Hell House”. There, she was tortured for several days before being sent to Haidari concentration camp on the outskirts of Athens.
Even as a prisoner, Lela continued to coordinate various resistance efforts against the Germans from inside the jail.
She was executed by firing squad on the morning of September 8, 1944, just 34 days before Athens was liberated by Allied forces.
Her house in Athens is a protected monument and the City of Athens named a central road after her. For her work in hiding and saving Jews, she received Israel’s highest honor, recognized as a member of the prestigious “Righteous of the Nations,” a list of non-Jews who sacrificed and risked their own lives to save Jews at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
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