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Saturday, 8 February 2014

Chapter 1 - In the Dark of the Night

 The Family History Writing Challenge:

I have been silent for quite sometime, intending to finish the story of my search in Scotland, but I found myself distracted.  My father had a mtDNA match, his first one.  Through that match we engaged for many Sundays with his match, a Serbian living in South Korea, who had me working with my father on family history in a completely new way.  That led to a decision, to focus on my Greek family history while my father's memory is still good.  This in turn, found me participating in Lynn Palermo's Family History Writing Challenge during the month of February.  A wonderful way of beginning to turn family history into something real.

And so begins George's story:

National Resistance Monument - Site of the Massacre near Megalopolis - Photo by DenaP August 2008

Time had slowed to a crawl, as I sat in the wagon, coaxing the stupid horse to go faster,  cringing with every “clip, clop” his hooves made upon the hard dusty road.  It was dark, the air was clear, with no moon and only the stars to guide my way.  The air was still, except the occasional “chirp, chirp” of the cicadas in the fields.  I was perspiring profusely, my shirt sticking to my back.

Playing in my head, over and over“Ηλίθιος,ηλίθιος…..idiot, idiot”.  Alternating between evil thoughts of Theo Nickos and cursing my own stupidity at once again being conned by that good-for-nothing bastard who called himself family.

I gripped the reins in my hands, steering the horses and wagon up the road to Tripolis, only a few hundred metres past the German’s encampment on the high promotory.  Wishing I was snug in my bed in the hovel we called our home in Thoknia.

I would not be getting any sleep that night.  I had run into Nickos in Megalopolis in the early evening.  It had been good to see him and in the delight of accidentally running into him, he had convinced me to drive his cart back to Tripolis.  It was filled with, I did not know what.  Some kind of contraband, no doubt.  Was it hashish?  I did not dare take the time to stop and look under the rough tarpaulins.  Instead, I continued up the long curving road from the green plain where Megalopolis lay, to the more arid hilltop of Tripolis

I should have known better.  Even though hashish was legal in Greece, with the occupation, the Germans controlled everything and to take a load such as this, through the cloak of darkness, was risking my life.  How did I let him convince me?  Nicholas, or Nickos as we called him, was my mother’s first cousin, their fathers were brothers.  He was at 30, four years older than me.  Although we were now grown men, he still had that influence that comes from the days we were boys playing with the others and he would be the ring leader.  The mean tricks of the school-yard bully had become life-threatening predicaments in occupied Greece .  At this point, I couldn’t even remember whether he had promised to pay me.  No amount of money to deliver these goods, even if it was at night to avoid the Germans, was worth it.

After the tight curve in the road, creeping slowly upwards, I passed the road to Valtesi.  I could not see even the tiniest flicker of light, but I knew the village was there, off to the left.  This was where Yaya was born.  How I wished I could go to the old house in Tripolis, where Yaya would welcome me with open arms, kisses and biscuits.  I remember the smell of her fine calendula soap, as she would hug me tight with her “Γεώργιος, παιδι μου….Yeorgos my child!” Handsome Papoo with his big moustache and my beautiful Yaya were long gone, passing away before we moved to Preveza, before our world had changed so much so, that the old life was a dream.  Maybe it was a good thing, I prayed they were resting peaceful in their graves at Epanos Chrepas.  Any other day, I would have taken the time to turn off the road and visit them at the monastery that I knew was not far from where I would be going.  I hoped that Yaya’s spirt was watching over me, as I was travelling this night.

Travelling by horse and cart, uphill much of the way, the 30 kilometres would take at least five hours, a lot of time to think.  It was the spring of 1944 and things seemed to be going from bad to worse. We were lucky, we were scraping by.

When the Italian’s invaded October 28th, 1940, they sent their ambassador to meet with  oPrime Minister Ioannis Metaxis, a dictator who had tight control over Greece.  His reply to the Italians was “Alors, c’est la guerre”, “then, it is war”.   This very astute refusal, kept the nation united. The Greeks rejected the Italian ultimatum with the famous  'Οχι “NO” and it looked like we would keep them at our borders.   Mussolini’s responded with an attack, so Metaxas said to the Germans “Molon Lave” “Come and Get it!”

Then began the Greek Italian war, up in the Grammos[ Appears that George has mixed up the Greek-Italian war with the Civil War in 1949.
] mountain range at the Albanian front.  The Italians suffered tremendous casualties, as did the Greeks who found themselves battling in mountain snow.

By 1941, food had been in short supply and daily life in Athens, and life at 40 Nereidon Street had become unsustainable.  My work with Professor Balis was finished and my time in the military had been short-lived.  I had joined February 1st, but was discharged May 1, 1941, just weeks before we finally lost the battle and the Germans occupied Greece.  We had scraped together our last few drachmas and found our way back to Arcadia in the Peleponnese, to Thoknia, away from the starvation and death of Athens.

Thoknia, a little village, had the last of what was left of  my father’s property, there was a farm on which we could subsist.  I became a full-fledged farmer.  This was a far cry from what I ever imagined life would be like, what life had been.  With the arrival of the German Reich, my mother, my sister Nitsa and I were safer here and we could grow food.  Vasili my younger brother had been drafted into the Navy and was somewhere in the Mediterranean.

 By August of 1943 the German troops were given the following orders: "All armed men are to be shot on the spot. Villages from where shots have been fired or where armed men have been encountered are to be destroyed, and the men of the village are to be shot. Elsewhere all men capable of bearing arms are to be rounded up and sent to Ioaninna."[1]

In January 1944 alone, 456 hostages from the prison in Tripolis were shot, then on February 24, 1944,  hostages where killed at Megalopolis it was all too close, the killing, hanging, looting and burning of homes and villages.[2]

That massacre was up on the promontory up from the plain of Megalopolis as you went to Tripolis.  They had killed about 300 people. [3]

Now here I was, in the middle of the night, trying not to get shot, going through this haunted, terrifying place.  The sweat poured down my face, the reins were slick in my hands and every step of that horse seemed to resonate out into the night.  A large group of  German soldiers were camped at the top of the hill, up high above the village and I was the mouse ready to be caught in their trap.  I kept on plodding along the road, listening, watching, waiting.  Right by the Germans sleeping in their tents.  And they didn’t pay any attention to me, so I kept on driving all the way to Tripolis. 

When I arrived at Nickos' shop in Tripolis, the soft rose of dawn was beginning to show in the sky.  The roosters were crowing in the backyards and the stray dogs were barking here and there.  Some of the shop keepers, those that had anything left to sell, were sweeping their front steps and throwing pails of water down to wash off the dust and start the day.  He had gone ahead of me with a different cart and horse, and was there waiting to collect his cargo.  His greeting was curt and he was oblivious to the life and death journey I had just travelled.
 
 “ Καλημέρα, τελικά, είστε εδώ…Good morning, finally you are here!”
My reply was equally curt, “what did you expect? That I was shot?”
There was no point in getting into a shouting match and attracting attention, so I left as quickly as I could, leaving behind the cursed cargo with my equally cursed cousin.

I headed off to the shop of an old friend of my father’s to say hello and ask if he knew of anyone heading to Athens.  Saint Christopher was watching over me that day, because I soon found a farmer who was just about ready to take a truck load of currants to market in Athens.

The truck was old and dusty and piled high with burlap bags of currants.  The farmer had already accepted payment for transportation from several other men and they were crowding into the cab.  He said “sure, I’ll take you, but you’ll have to ride on the top of the bags”.  A ready ride, for a few drachmas and we were on our way.

With the fresh early morning air, and the rumbling of the truck, after the stress of the sleepless night, I began to relax and soon found myself sleeping amongst the sweet smell of currants.

I don’t know how long I was sleeping, when I felt the truck come to a stop.  I awoke to a terrible headache.  The sun was high in the sky and the currants no longer smelled sweet, but stunk like the rotten mush of a still.  Costas the owner of the truck, called out “hey, time for a quick stop Yeorgo”.

As I got up, I wobbled and struggled to find my footing, stumbling out of the bed of truck.  Something was wrong, but they were laughing at me and I couldn’t help laughing back.  Costas, slapping me on the back saying “Yeorgo, you’re drunk!”  “How can that be, I haven’t had a drop to drink”.  His reply, “you fool, it’s the fermentation of the currants, you’ve inhaled the alcohol”.  With that, the laughing grew louder and I laughed with them, as we wandered to the side of the road.  We relieved ourselves, had a drink from the spring by the tree and gathered ready to move on.



Corinth Canal  - Photo by DenaP August 1991

The next stop would be nerve wracking, the checkpoint at the Corinth Canal, crossing the Isthmus, now controlled by German troops.  The strain was felt by all aboard the truck, and Yeorgo sat up straight upon the bags of currants, looking at the road ahead, the fog of intoxication, clearing with the impending confrontation.

The truck slowed as it approached the checkpoint, the dust dying down as it rolled to a stop in front of two armed guards.  They motioned for everyone to get out, which we all did, the driver and his two passengers, as well as myself in the back.  They were shouting instructions.

“Your papers! What is in the truck?” It was clear the driver did not understand.  I nervously stepped forward and explained in Greek to my fellow travellers.  They looked at me in surprise.  “You speak German?  Why didn’t you tell us?  Explain to them, we’re just poor farmers, trying to bring some food to Athens.”

I went forward slowly toward the Germans,  Their uniforms were worn and wrinkled and their helmets perched loosely on their heads.

“Guten Tag, excuse me, my German is poor, I am travelling here with my Uncle and cousins.  We are just poor farmers.  We’re going to market in Athens”  a white lie falling smoothly off my lips..
The stouter, older soldier looked at me, confused that I was addressing him in German.
“You, where did you learn to speak in German? What is in the truck?"

I slowed my speech and explained, that I learned to speak a little German in the Gymnasium.  Another white lie, as it was easier than suggesting that I had been to the University in Athens and that I might appear to be something other than a farmer with my uncle.

He motioned us to the side of the road, while the younger, skinner soldier, looked at the bags of currants.  He opened up one hand, motioning for our papers.  While he was examining our papers, over his shoulder we heard, “Fritz, it stinks to high heaven in here.  How am I supposed to find any weapons?” “Karl, just move the bags around, check underneath and on the sides.” Meanwhile, we stayed stiff, under the watch of Fritz, wondering whether he would let us through.

“Hey you, what is this stuff?” Karl said to me.  I struggled to find the right word in German. 
“Like raisins, but not quite, in Greek it’s κορινθιακής σταφίδας.  In German, I don’t know the name.  Do you know French?  In French, it’s groseilles. Come, they are good to eat.  Try a few.” And I took him over to one of the sacks and pulled out a handful of currants.
“Fritz, it’s Johannisbeeren!  Mmm”
“Costas, I think you should offer a bag”. I said in Greek, to the farmer.

For a moment I thought he would refuse, but he looked at the two soldiers, Karl still licking his fingers, and said “Nai, yes, give him the small sack in the front.”

I turned to Fritz, who was clearly in charge and said with a flourish and a smile.  “My uncle says, he would be most honoured if you would accept our gift of a bag of currants “ while I reached and pulled the small sack out, offering it to them.  Fritz, snatched the bag from me, as Karl motioned with his rifle for us to get out of here.

We all climbed back into the truck as quickly as we could and moved slowly across the bridge.  I sat in the bed of the truck, facing backwards, only breathing once the checkpoint could no longer been seen.

As I began to relax, the heat of the sun, and the vapours of the currants, began to cloud my thinking and I became increasingly intoxicated.  My thoughts rambled as I watched the little villages and old rough houses pass us by.  Greece was a shell of what it had once been.  As we passed the occasional peasant, walking slowly along the road, I saw the wretchedness of our people, starving in their rags. 

My eyelids grew heavy and my jumbled thoughts held images of my old Greece drifting through my mind.


[1] August. Greece in the Second World War. n.p., n.d. Web. 1 February 2014.
http://www.ahistoryofgreece.com/worldwarII.htm.
[2] Administrator. ". - Τα εγκλήματα του ναζισμού στην Ελλάδα 1941-1944." . - Τα εγκλήματα του ναζισμού στην Ελλάδα 1941-1944. n.p., n.d. Web. 2 February 2014
[3] George P, interview by Dena P, interview notes, at Ottawa, Ontaro, 2 February 2014. From his memory but matches well with most written sources.

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