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The life and war of “Captain Simon"

How a Jew from Ukraine became a national hero of Greece

The history of the Great Patriotic War is full of many amazing, even incredible events, and human fates that are just as incredible and inexplicable. The fate of Semyon Landman is undoubtedly one of them. A lieutenant of the tank corps and a Jew, he not only survived Nazi captivity, but after he escaped from the camp, he became the commander of one of the partisan divisions operating in Greece, and a national hero of the country. However, for a long time few people in Greece knew the real name of this hero, and in the history of the Greek anti-Nazi resistance he was simply known as “Captain Simon”,. Today, the daughter of Semyon Landman, Galina, lives in Israel, and with her help, we have tried to restore both the known and previously unknown pages of her father’s incredible biography.

“My father was born in Ukraine, in the Korostensky region, into a large and very religious Jewish family,” Galina recalls. “He had eight brothers and sisters. Like many frontline soldiers, he didn’t like to recall the war, and hardly talked about it. To all questions he would reply: “I fought so that you wouldn’t know all of these horrors.,” But sometimes journalists visited him, and he shut himself in his room with them, answered their questions, and my brother and I stood by the door and listened. What am I about to tell you is based on newspaper articles from various times, and the conversations that we eavesdropped on…”

Shortly before the start of the war, Semyon Landman enrolled in the Kiev tank and technical academy, and on 10 May 1941 passed his last exam, received a diploma of a military technician of the second rank, and the first circle on his collar insignia, which indicated the rank of junior lieutenant. At the academy, Semyon got to grips with the T-34 tank, which had just appeared in the arsenal. The graduation evening at the academy coincided with the start of the war, so in the first days of the war Landman found himself on the frontline. From the town of Stry, where his tank division was stationed, he was sent to Brody, where junior lieutenant Landman experienced his first battle. Then what official Soviet historiography called “heavy retreating battles” began. Behind the 131st tank battalion in which Landman fought were Kharkov, Chuguev and Belgorod. Then the battalion was sent to the very epicenter of the German attack – by the town of Millerovo. Many of Landman’s comrades were killed here, and half the tanks were destroyed. The battalion stood still, while the Germans slowly but surely continued to move forward. At night, Landman received the order to go to no man’s land with other soldiers and try to dismantle the three tanks that stood there by the morning. Before the dawn, the Germans attacked. The group of soldiers under Landman’s command was not able to fire from the tank cannon, and they fired a light weapon down to the last bullet. In the morning they realized that they were surrounded. Capture was inevitable…

- “Several soldiers and nurses were in the captured group along with my father”, Galina Landsman continues her story. “Everyone knew that Germans only shot officers and Jews, and that they sent privates to labor camps. To save himself, my father removed all the officer’s badges of distinction from his clothes, and when his turn came to tell the Germans his name and place of residence, he suddenly remembered the address of his older brother living in Nalchik, and named him instead, realizing that the Germans would not be able to check this. Additionally, he changed his surname to a non-Jewish one, but I can’t tell you which one it was. Then came the biggest ordeal – the bathhouse. As you understand, my father was circumcised, and the Nazis paid attention to such things. But he was lucky – the nurses who were captured with him were put by the bathhouse to hand out pieces of soap and camp clothing. They knew about father’s problem and ensured that he was given his clothing without having to go into the bathhouse.
- But they could have given him up…
- They could have, but as you see, they didn’t. They could also simply not have helped him… I think that here it also helped that father was a very charming, social person, whom everyone liked and respected, including those nurses.

In the Millerovo camp at that time there were 75,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war, whom the Nazis had deliberately sentenced to death by starvation. But Semyon Landman was young and unusually strong, and so he was fit for work. All of these capable prisoners were transferred by the Germans from the Millerovo camp, first to work in Germany, in the town of Fuerstenwald, and from there they were sent to the concentration camp of Florina in Greece.

- My father was sent with other prisoners-of-war to work on building the railroad which passed not far from Thessalonica,” says Galina,. “But my father didn’t spend much time as a prisoner. Very soon, along with three of his comrades – Vasily Lapshin, Matvei Berezin and Pyotr, whose surname he never learned, he escaped from the camp. They soon reached a Greek village and hid in a wine cellar. Soon the owner of this cellar appeared, a Greek, and they explained as best they could, mainly using gestures, that they were Soviet soldiers who had escaped from a German concentration camp. The Greek also used gestures to tell them to stay where they were, then he left and… locked the cellar. My father and his comrades were horrified, they decided that the owner of the cellar was going to hand them over to the Germans, and they could not break down the oaken door with its enormous lock. Soon they heard dogs barking and the barking sound of the German language. The Germans approached, they were right next to the cellar, but… they walked past.

The Greek, fortunately for them, turned out to be an agent of a partisan division. At night, by a secret path, he led his four guests into the mountains. Thus they joined ELAS – the Greek People’s Liberation Army. My father and his comrades became the first Soviet prisoners-of-war to fight in the ranks of ELAS.
As Semyon Landman himself recalled in one interview, in the partisan division of Yanis Popandopulos there was a soldier who knew Russian, and served as an interpreter. After hearing the story of their escape, Popandopulos ordered to take the guests to the bathhouse, to give them clean clothing, and feed them properly. Some time later, my father was able to contact prisoners-of-war from the “Florina” camp, and he began to help them to organize new escapes. As a result, the partisan division was filled with new “Russian” escapes both from Florina and camps in Thessaloniki and on the Peloponnese. Soon an entire “Russian” platoon was formed in the division under the command of “Captain Simon” – Semyon Landman. In 1943, it was already taking an active part in battles.

Captain Simon was responsible for dozens of successful operations against the Nazis. On New Year’s Eve of 1944, Captain Simon’s soldiers burst into the elder’s house of in the village of Etinke, where the Germans were having a big party, and opened fire. On 20 January of the same year they wiped out the entire Nazi garrison in the village of Flobes. There were also battles for the villages of Lemos, Buflo etc. The Germans tried to destroy Landman’s division several times, and ambushed it, but he successfully got his soldiers out of scrapes, and did serious damage to the enemy.

Thanks to the efforts of ELAS, by 1944 a large part of Greece was practically free of Germans – they were simply afraid to enter it. And an important role in creating this “island of freedom” was played by the division of Captain Simon.

In the same interview, Landman recalled that he and his fighters not only attacked the Nazis, but also held meetings for local residents, where they discussed the course of the war, and the imminent victory. By that time Semyon Landman could already speak Greek quite well. Additionally, he was incredibly cheerful, constantly told jokes, sang well and played the guitar, so he was universally liked in Greece.

At the celebration of the first of May in 1944, a journalist from the partisan newspaper Sofia came to their division especially to interview “Captain Simon”. After this interview was published, Landman was summoned to the ELAS headquarters where he was asked to make a list of all the Soviet prisoners-of-war fighting in Greece.

But let’s give the word to Galina Landman once more.

- On the basis of the list that my father drew up, all the “Russian” soldiers were issued documents confirming that during the war they fought heroically against Nazism. Then they were given a choice – either to return to the homeland, or to be sent to Great Britain or any other European country, where they could receive citizenship. But they were all patriots and decided to return to the Soviet Union. The long path home began via Syria, Iraq and Iran, until finally the former Greek partisans reached Krasnovodsk. Here they had all of the documents taken away from them, and as former prisoners-of-war, they were first sent to a filtration camp in Podolsk, and then to the Gulag, to the Kola peninsula. Most of his comrades were sent there for many years. But my father had an incredible fate, and evidently an important role was once more played by his enormous charm, his ability to draw people to him. Prisoners were forbidden to write correspondence, but a person who had previously been in prison decided to help my father, and agreed to send his request to the Podolsk archive to examine the documents that had been confiscated from him. And a miracle happened – on 1 May 1945, father was allowed to go home, and was reinstated with all the rights of an officer of the Soviet army. Besides his letter, he was helped here by one thing: the commander of the partisan union , General Markos Vadiafis, sent a letter to Moscow in which he wrote that Captain Simon’s division was the fighting core of his union, and that Captain Simon himself had displayed incredible courage, heroism, and also commanding bravery in fighting the Nazis. He returned home at the age of 24, with his hair completely grey.

- What happened to him after the war?

- For a while my father worked as an interpreter at the camp of German prisoners-of-war, as he knew German and Greek, and then got married, my brother and I were born, he began to work as a gas welder at a factory in Korosten, and at the same time he studied by correspondence at the Moscow Engineering and Construction Institute. For many years, until the 1960s, he was regularly summoned to the KGB. A “black Maria” drove up to the factory, my father was put in it, and at the KGB a long interrogation began about how he, a Jew and an officer, was able to survive German captivity, how he reached the USSR, where he got this, where he got that, and so on and so on. All of this exhausted and scared him at the same time. But among the frontline friends of my father was the journalist Alexei Orlamenko, a Ukrainian who had come back from the front with severe shell-shock. Once my father complained to Orlamenko that he was still being summoned to the KGB. And Orlamenko came to Korosten, went to the “bodies” and told the investigator: “I fought with Semyon Landman, so I know who he is and who you are, and you scum aren’t worth his little finger. If you summon him again, I’ll come here and smash your head in. And nothing will happen to me, because I’ve got shell shock!”

Then Orlamenko wrote a long article about my father and his fate in a Ternopol newspaper in Ukrainian, and after this my father really was left alone.

- Was he a member of the party?

- No. When he was offered to join it, he said to the party committee quite openly: “There’s nothing for me to do in the party that you’re a member of!” He wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone, internally and physically he was a very strong person. When one of the workers called him a “yid”, he poured a huge bath of water over him, which was used for gas welding. At the same time, at the age of 35 his blood pressure started to rise, his health began to worsen, and in 1984, at the age of 63, he died soon after his retirement. Despite his numerous injuries, he was never declared a war invalid, he did not have any privileges, and he did not seek them.

- Did your father ever visit Greece after the war?

- He dreamed of going there with me, but it didn’t work out.

What happened to his family during the Holocaust?

- His older sister died during the war. Everyone else survived. His older brother lived in Kazan during the war, as he was one of the leading specialists of the Tupolev design bureau, and the other brothers fought, one of them reached Berlin.

- Did he ever think about moving to Israel?

- No, certainly not. He didn’t even want to hear about it. When my husband and I started weighing up the possibility of moving to the USA, where my mother’s relatives had been living for a long time, my father said: “I didn’t die for this land in order to leave it.” Undoubtedly, my father was quite a special, wonderful person. And it is very important for me and my husband, whose father also went through the entire war, that our children preserve the memory of their grandfathers’ achievements.

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