Today is an important day in Greece. It signifies the beginning of the Second World War for Greece. It is also important for me as a writer, as the novel I am writing is set in Athens during the war; the Greco-Italian conflict and the occupation of Greece by the Germans (and Italians and Bulgarians). In fact Greece was the only country to be occupied by three forces.
On 28th October 1940, in the early hours of the morning, the Greek prime minister, Ioannis Metaxas, received a visit from the Italian ambassador Grazzi delivering an ultimatum and demanding the occupation of Greek territory by Italian forces. Metaxas refused, and that refusal was summed up with the word “Oxi!” (“No!”), which was an inspiration for the people and the fighting troops, and is remembered to this day.
I don’t want this post to become a historical essay, although I could easily write one having done a lot of research on this period for my book. Greeks know about this day and we assume that people know what happened. Friends from other nationalities know what happened in their own countries. But, as I was researching for my book, a number of surprising things came out.
My non-Greek friends had little or no idea what happened in Greece during WW2. People didn’t know about the Greco-Italian war, the battle of Crete, and mostly people didn’t know anything about life during the occupation. For example most non-Greek people don’t know the Greek resistance. Or about the famine, especially the Great Famine of the winter of 1941- 1942. This is one of the reasons that I wanted to write a novel covering this period, to show what the war was like for the Greek people.
The other thing that amazed me was that the Greeks themselves either don’t know about certain things, or are slowly forgetting. There is a reason for this.
While the war ended and most countries went into a phase of rebuilding, Greece entered a period of bitter civil war. The effects rippled through the decades and, even after 70 years, opinions are still very strong about issues relating to the civil war. People on the losing side (the communist party) suffered decades of persecution (including long stints of exile in remote islands) and naturally were reluctant to talk about their part in the resistance or partisans. The above is a very brief and simplified summary of the events.
However, only now are elderly people coming forward with stories of their participation in the resistance. In enquiring of family members and friends about their memories from the period, or for the younger folk, if they remembered anything their grandparents may have said, some incredible things came out.
I found out about people on both sides of my family. One great aunt had gone to the mountains and fought as a partisan. My mother’s side was full of stories about resistance. A great uncle was arrested by the Gestapo and another was sent to Auschwitz (for his part in the resistance). Fortunately, he made it back. Millions of others didn’t.
I asked friends about their grandparents, and tales of fighting on the Albanian front, the hard return when the front collapsed (many had to walk hundreds of miles to return home), and brushes with death and hunger in every day life came to light.
I visited museums and places of historic memory. When I talked with the staff more tales emerged. People in their nineties came to visit and sometimes told stories associated with the site. One of the most potent stories was when I visited the war time site of the Athens Kommandature. http://www.korai4.gr/
The basement was used as a holding center where unfortunate persons were held before being sent to concentration camps, work camps, or being executed at the Kesariani shooting range. The walls are covered in graffiti scratched by prisoners using keys or anything they could find. Many protested their innocence. They had been rounded up from the trolleys to be used as hostages. Others write about freedom, and about hanging on. One particularly harrowing graffiti says: “24 hours without food or water. Only the smell of jasmine.’’
One of the staff I talked to said that an elderly gentleman had come to visit a while ago. He came out of the site very moved. He told the staff that he’d been held there as a boy of seventeen. He had never returned until now. It turned out it was he who had written the graffiti about the smell of jasmine. The gentleman had never talked about his experiences to anyone before. Even his wife of children didn’t know. But now he agreed to give an interview with his testimonial as a piece of history.
If your grandparents are still alive please ask them about the period. I would be very interested to hear the story. If anyone has a story of the period, again I would very much like to hear about it.
It is important that we remember. Not only because our history is important, but also in remembering the suffering of the past we are able to appreciate the peace and tolerance of the time. By remembering war, we can celebrate peace. War is a terrible thing. By remembering how terrible we should do our best to never let it happen again.