“The Realm of the Miraculous” – the wartime story of a saintly Monk, a German Commander and the saving of 125 lives

During a recent trip to Paros, I’d set myself a mission to visit the Monastery of Longovarda in order to pass on to the monks the story of an Englishman, Vincent Clarence Scott O’Connor, who’d visited the Monastery in 1927 and had written warmly of the welcome and hospitality shown by the Abbot and monks. I too experienced that hospitality and kindness and, in my conversations with the monks, I learned of the miraculous wartime deeds of the Abbot at that time, Philotheos III.

Father Philotheos III, formerly Konstantinos Zervakos, joined the Longovarda Monastery in 1907 and became Abbot in 1930. He is credited with many miraculous, courageous and humanitarian deeds which have led him to be regarded as a saint amongst the people of Paros and beyond.

Philotheos III
Philotheos III

Philotheos was Abbot during the period of the Second World War when food shortages affected the entire Greek nation. Under Philotheos, the Monastery and its 40 monks saved the local people from hunger and starvation by feeding them three times a week from their own produce. During the entire period of the war, the supply of wheat never ran out! This was seen as a  sign of Philotheos’ saintly influence.

Katherine Clark tells us of the one time the Monastery did get caught concealing Allied soldiers under the Italian occupation, which preceded the German one. “The Italian commander on Syros, furious, wanted to burn the Monastery to the ground with the monks in it! Fortunately he was persuaded not to. Nevertheless, the finger of blame clearly pointed at two monks – Father Grigorios and Father Ilias – who were directly, though inadvertently, responsible for this particular deceit. They were dispatched to Athens and imprisoned under unspeakable conditions in Kallithea with hundreds of others. There they played a pivotal role in leading prayers for the salvation of all and keeping everyone’s spirits up in their despair. Their prayers were answered with the Allied invasion of Sicily, which marked the end of the Italian alliance with the Axis powers and resulted in the prisoners’ release, including a handful who were to be executed that very day.”

The Monastery also gave help to Allied soldiers who were working undercover against the occupying Italian and German forces. Many times, occupying soldiers visited the Monastery, but the monks almost always managed to hide the Allied soldiers under the noses of the enemy, despite the monks’ own lives being at risk if discovered.

The plight of the Parians deteriorated in 1944 when a group of British commandos, in conjunction with local partisans, attempted to sabotage a new airfield being built by the Germans near Marpissa, killing 2 German soldiers and injuring the German commander of the island, Commander Tabel. The courageous Paros patriot Nikolas Stellas was captured and was later hanged for his involvement in the raid. Read more about the raid and about Nikolas Stellas.

Commander Tabel left the island shortly afterwards and was replaced by one, Major Count Von Merenberg, to whom fell the unenviable task of implementing the inhumane German policy of retribution – 50 local lives for each German killed and 25 lives for the injured commander. Village elders were instructed to prepare a list of the names of those to be executed.

A series of miraculous outcomes ensued which further enhanced Philotheos’ saintly reputation. A group of local people, with Philotheos at its head, was formed with the aim of attempting to persuade Von Merenberg to spare the lives of the innocent 125 men.

It seems that Von Merenberg had a certain empathy toward the Greek Orthodox church and had, in any case, wanted to visit the Monastery. It later transpired that his mother was Russian and was Russian Orthodox, so he himself had been brought up with some exposure to the faith.

Philotheos invited Von Merenberg to meet with him at the Monastery. The offer was immediately accepted by Von Merenberg and he arrived the very next morning. After an extensive visit, Philotheos took the commander to the reception room to partake of the usual hospitality toward visitors. Von Merenberg studied closely one of the pictures on the wall of the reception room. “Where did you get that picture?” he asked. Philotheos replied “The picture came from a Russian monk who donated it to the Monastery.” “That picture is of my mother’s village of Yalta where I spent my childhood summers!” replied the commander. The bond of mutual respect and trust was sealed between the two men.

Philotheos later recounted that at that point, “the atmosphere around us filled with peace and goodwill. I felt within me that we had entered the realm of the miraculous.”

To thank the Abbot for the hospitality shown, the commander said “You can ask any favour of me and I will not deny it.”

Philotheos sent everybody else out of the room except for the interpreter, Father Nektarios.

“Spare the 125 innocent men!” was Philotheos’ predictable request.

“It is not in my power – it is an order from above. If I were to do so, I, myself, would face certain execution!”

“Then let me stand in the place of the 125 men” said Philotheos.

“I cannot do that. The order calls for 50 men for each of the dead soldiers.”

“Let ME be the first to be killed and take the place of one of the men” Philotheos demanded.

Von Merenberg, clearly immensely moved by Philotheos’ spirituality and bravery, agonised over his decision and finally said “I offer all of them to you!”

Some days later the execution order was rescinded. The saintly influence of Philotheos had touched the soul of the German commander. The 125 men were saved!

As he’d predicted, shortly afterwards, Von Merenberg was recalled to Germany to appear before a Court Martial which would inevitably lead to his execution. But miraculous intervention saved him.

On June 6th, 1944, on what came to be known as D-Day, the Allies invaded northern France. The writing was on the wall for Germany and, on July 20th, 1944, an unsuccessful attempt was made on Hitler’s life in a plot aimed at overthrowing the Nazis and suing for peace with the Allies.

In the ensuing round-up of suspected plotters, the fate of the once-doomed Paros commander took less priority in the minds of the German High Command. The Court Martial dishonourably dishcarged him from the Army and, by the time of the Armistice in 1945, Von Merenberg must have thanked God for the miracle which had saved him. His humanity and compassion toward the people of Paros absolved him from any possibility of war crime prosecution and, it would seem, he went on to lead a fulfilled life.

There is a final footnote to this saga of the miracles associated with Philotheos. The author, Katherine Clark, has long been a friend and supporter of the Monastery of Longovarda. Knowing that she lived in Germany, the monks asked her, ten years or so ago, if she could trace what happened to Major Count Von Merenberg. In a feat of detective work, she tracked down his family and told his daughter the story of how, more than 60 years before, the wisdom and humanity of her father had saved the lives of 125 men on a remote Greek island.

On May 30th, 2010, Count Von Merenberg’s daughter attended the commemoration ceremony held at Marpissa for Nikolas Stellas, the patriot killed in the airfield raid. She later returned to Paros and presented a picture of her father to the Monastery. That picture of Count Von Merenberg now has pride of place on the wall of the very same reception room where he had first seen the photograph of his mother’s Russian village and where he and Father Philotheos III together saved the lives of 125 men.

The picture of Count Von Merenberg on the wall of the reception room
The picture of Count Von Merenberg on the wall of the reception room

Father Philotheos remained as Abbot until his death in 1980 at the age of 96. He is regarded as a saint by the people of Paros; his commemoration day is July 23rd – the day of Count Von Merenberg’s visit to the Monastery of Longovarda. See the photographs from the July 23rd 2019 ceremony.

Count Von Merenberg died in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1965. He never talked about the war to his family, but, thanks to the efforts of Katherine Clark, they are now aware that the actions of this principled, wise and heroic man helped prevent the massacre of 125 innocent men.

This account has been compiled from conversations at the Monastery with Father Leontios and Novice Monk Hector, and from the meticulously researched and moving article, ‘Closing the Circle’ by Katherine Clark, published in Paros Life Magazine (issue 138 – July 2010).

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