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22/10/2004

Media Challenge: Who and Where Are the Seven?

It has come to light that George Bizos, the 2004 winner of the International Bar Association’s (IBA) prestigious Bernard Simons Memorial Award for the Advancement of Human Rights, helped save seven New Zealand soldiers in World War II when he was 13 years of age. It is fortuitous that the presentation of the Award this year is being made in Auckland, New Zealand, and could help to bring about closure to a 63-year quest to find the seven men. George Bizos says, ‘I have always dreamed of meeting these men again, and now that I am coming to New Zealand, it would be wonderful to do so, and to learn about their lives.’

The distinguished human rights lawyer, who defended Nelson Mandela during Apartheid, will receive the Award at the IBA’s Annual Conference during the morning of Monday 25 October 2004 at the Aotea Centre in Auckland. Whilst this is Mr Bizos’s first visit to New Zealand, his first contact with New Zealanders dates back to 1941, when he took part in an audacious rescue of seven New Zealand soldiers during the Nazi invasion of Greece.

The full account is below, but the hunt is now on to find the progeny of, or the seven New Zealand soldiers themselves; any of the British troops aboard the deck of the rescuing ship, HMS Kimberley; or any of the Allied troops (New Zealanders, Australians, British, Greeks and Yugoslavs) who hid from the Nazis in the hills of the small village of Vasilitsi in Greece where the story began. ‘If the media… could help George locate any of these men and their families,’ said Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the International Bar Association, ‘it would make a thrilling and very emotional new chapter in this amazing story. While George and his father helped save these New Zealand soldiers, it is equally true to say that by helping to row and steer the boat over those difficult days at sea, these men helped save George, and played a part in a life story which went on to engage in the freedom struggles of South Africa, and the eventual world recognition of Nelson Mandela.’

Here’s the full amazing story:In three weeks in April 1941, Nazi armies swept through Greece, forcing the small allied expeditionary forces, to plan an evacuation to Crete. As the plans fell through, some 2,000 of them took to the hills, hiding in bushes and caves away from the roads and villages. George’s father Antoni, who was mayor of the small village of Vasilitsi, was tipped off by a local shepherd to the presence of a group of soldiers hiding nearby. He organised other villagers to equip him with supplies of food, clothing and a small boat, and set off with his 13 year old son George, who insisted on accompanying him. In the last week of May 1941, the seven NZ soldiers, the mayor and his son, set out to sea at night, with a sixpenny compass and a map torn from an atlas, intending to escape to Crete.

On the second day at sea, rough winds took the sail out of control and tore through its canvas. The men had to take turns to row, right through the night, until they managed to repair the sail the following day. At the end of the third day, they spotted a ship in the distance, and there were exclamations of joy from the New Zealanders when they recognised the flag. It was the Union Jack of HMS Kimberley. Crowds of sailors came out on deck to applaud as the ship pulled alongside the small boat, and hauled the men and 13 year old George up on deck. Crete, they learned then, was already falling to the Germans, and the ship headed straight there to attack the German planes supporting the invasion.

After this battle, it sailed to Alexandria in Egypt. In Alexandria, the New Zealanders said goodbye to Antoni and George Bizos, giving them a piece of paper with their names and addresses. Antoni kept this in his trouser pocket as he headed for a new life in Pretoria, South Africa. One night, while he was sleeping, his trousers were stolen through an open window of the room. Thus the main link with the New Zealanders was lost. The only name George remembers was Lewis or Louis, the soldier who spoke some Greek. There is however also a photograph, which George still has, taken by a crew member of HMS Kimberley, of the men in the small boat as they came alongside the navy vessel. - Who are the New Zealanders in this photograph, and where are they now?

The Award, sponsored by LexisNexis Matthew Bender, will be presented to George Bizos by IBA President Ambassador Emilio Cárdenas, in recognition of a lifetime devoted to defending those whose basic human rights are being threatened or attacked.

ENDS

For further information please contact:

Tim Hughes
Deputy Executive Director
International Bar Association
Aotea Centre
Mayoral Drive
Auckland Central
Tel: + 64 21 407 169
E-mail: tim.hughes@int-bar.org

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