Editor’s note: This post is excerpted from The Proselytizer, the autobiographical account of 20th-century Greek minister Panos Zachariou, who witnessed divine intervention during business failures, poverty, war, captivity in a German concentration camp, mass execution, and repeated imprisonment for sharing the gospel. The account was edited and prepared for publication by his son Philemon Zachariou, a BibleMesh Greek tutor.
The prisoners exchanged not a word as the camion jounced its way toward a German concentration camp. It was the island of Crete, Greece, in late May 1941, when fierce German air raids had begun to ravage our towns and villages. I looked at those despairing, exhausted faces and found it difficult to accept the idea that I, too, was a prisoner of war.
The camion made its final stop. We were in a German concentration camp in Ayious Apostolous, a small peninsula overlooking the Cretan Sea, just a few kilometers from my hometown, Hania. At first I couldn’t recognize the area—barbed wire and German guards were everywhere, surrounding a large number of working prisoners.
I knew very little about concentration camps, but I suspected that hard labor, uncertainty about tomorrow, starvation, torture, and even execution lay in store. I thought of my wife and three children, whom I had not seen for several days. “Lord,” I prayed, “revive in me the flame of my conviction that You have a definite plan for me in this life. Lay Your protective hand upon all my loved ones, and also upon me.”
Our first task that afternoon was to restore a huge tent that had blown down over the first-aid equipment. The captives were yelling confused instructions to each other, and after a period of frustration I yelled out, “Let just one, not everyone, give orders around here!” The men froze, staring at me. The only stare that gave me a sensation of uneasiness, however, was coming from under a German colonel’s hat.
Working together, we at last drove the final peg into the ground. But I had no sooner caught my breath and gazed into the twilight to see the first stars, when the German colonel and a guard came up and signaled me to follow. The colonel stopped at his headquarters and turned around, looking at me as if he meant to say something friendly. Then he pointed to his guard, who stood a couple of meters to my right and holding a machine gun.
“You are to go with him tomorrow morning,” he said firmly, in broken Greek. “I am giving you twenty-five prisoners. Your task will be to walk into every food store and every garden as far as Hania.”
Vandalism! I thought. Extortion! But I had no choice.
The condition in which I found Hania the next day was beyond description. Buildings had been bombed. People were burying their dead. The city was nearly deserted—everyone who could had sought refuge in nearby villages. Those who had stayed behind now witnessed savagery at the hands of their own friends, for they were people I knew. None dared to object to what was happening, though; none dared protest as he watched his food, the food his family needed, being forced away. With heavy, aching hearts, we stuffed the truck with all the edible goods we could find, until there was barely enough space for us.
As we approached the district of Splantzia in Hania, I felt cold chills all over my body. I began to shake. “Just in time!” I whispered with trembling lips, and a prayer of gratitude to God rose within me for His protecting hand. Had I not moved my family to the village of Perivolia just as the air raids began, all my loved ones would most assuredly have been killed, for an incendiary bomb had exploded inside our house!
That evening we returned from our foraging with great quantities of meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables. Shouts of joy rose from the hungry prisoners, most of whom had not eaten for days. But my own heart was breaking.
This venture gained favor for me in the eyes of the Germans, as well as the captured men. The German colonel announced that night that I was in charge of the prisoners. Immediately I divided the men into groups to facilitate the rationing of food and the organization of labor.
When the British bombed our concentration camp two nights later, the men ran to my tent and found me on my knees, praying and singing praises to God. Surprise replaced their panic, and in moments I was sharing with them my testimony and God’s message of salvation.
But what I had been forced into doing during that food-gathering expedition did not match my Christian testimony. Knowing that I would soon be sent out again, I brought the matter before God for a solution. Of all solutions, the most satisfactory one was also the most impossible—escape. I knew this would be a matter of life and death, but there was no other way out of my predicament.
The next day I assigned another prisoner to take charge of the rations. When I explained my intentions to him and to some of the prisoners, they reacted with fear.
“But how are you going to escape, Panos? You know they’ll mow you down!”
“Certainly not over the fence,” I said with a smile. “God has His way.”
That afternoon I looked half soldier, half civilian. Sack over the shoulder, hat on my head—a gift from a civilian who wished that I have protection from the hot sun—I began to whistle “Onward Christian Soldiers” and walked toward the well-guarded gate of the concentration camp. I saluted the guard, he saluted back, and I exited. So I would not be suspected as an escapee, I purposely passed near a company of German officers standing outside the gate and engaged in conversation. After saluting them, still whistling, I continued my escape without any further complications. Like Peter walking out of prison under the noses of the guards, I walked under the noses of the German soldiers and was free.
Only when I found myself with my wife and children and other relatives in Perivolia did I realize, with incredulity, the apparent absurdity of my action. Logically speaking, it was absolutely impossible! Most assuredly, God had barred every suspicion from my captors’ minds.
My six-day ordeal in captivity was over. God was my Captain, and I was His soldier.
Philemon Zachariou is a native Greek, a retired Greek professor, and the author of Reading and Pronouncing Biblical Greek: Historical Pronunciation versus Erasmian. He currently develops New Testament Greek instructional material, is an adjunct professor of English at Northwest University, and a BibleMesh Greek tutor.