Greece Trip 2017

16.12.17: It ends

As we move back to Athens, I can say that this research trip has given me so much more than I expected.

I have identified that the uniform my grandmother Olga was photographed in was not British, but Greek, and in fact Greek naval.

Version 2

(Photo: Stambolis Family Collection)

This could mean many things. It could be that she was at some stage on a Greek naval vessel. That would fit with the information I gained about Lele Caryiannis, who did similar work to Olga in the same place at the same time. Lela used to rescue allied flyers and soldiers caught behind German lines. Lela used to travel with the rescued soldiers by boat to Egypt. Perhaps this uniform demonstrates that Olga did the same.

I also saw where the Germans committed savage acts. These weren’t just acts of war, but war crimes, such as the 1944 massacre of hundreds of civilians at Distomo in central Greece:

IMG_4956

(Photo: Distomo. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

I also saw where the resistance fought back, exasperating the Germans, such as the blowing of the Gorgopotomos bridge near Lamia:

IMG_5122

(Photo: Gorgopotomos Bridge. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

I saw the frigid passes the resistance and the British Special Ops had to walk in the middle of winter:

IMG_5718

(Photo: Katara Pass. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

And I saw how the Greeks have remembered the terrible times, but also the help of the British and the other Allies:

IMG_5357

(Photo: Theodoriana. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

Then there were the Greek women. The fighters, the helpers, the rescuers. They were revered within the resistance, and are revered to this day:

Eomen Greek caps

(Photo: Courtesy the War Museum of Rendina)

And Sofia Vembo, the woman who sang the Greeks into fighting back:

Sofia

(Photo: Courtesy the War Museum of Thessaloniki)

So as I end this journey, I remember all these people.

The next stage is the updated draft of Unbroken, my one woman play adaptation of my novel Someone Else’s War. It may have some Vembo music. It may incorporate Lela. It will certainly have an authenticity of place, time and events that it would not have had before this trip.

Thank you to my supervisors Chris Mackie and Steinar Ellingsen for supporting this journey, and to Lawrie Zion who suggested this blog. And thank you to all the people I have met and continue to meet on this trip. It’s been wonderful.

 

15.12.17: When a buck means a buck

As my research trip comes to a close over the next day or so, I have to get all the things I have discovered into perspective.

For example, today I saw stories about how the unemployment rate in Australia is 5.4%, which economists say is still above  the acceptable level. In Greece unemployment is at 21% (a big improvement on 28% two years ago, but still, 21% is no economic oil painting).

Australian inflation is low and has been for some time. In Greece it is also low at 1.1%. This means prices are kept manageable, but growth is still not where the government would like it to be.

But let’s compare this to what happened to Greece in WW2. According the CNBC, German occupation pushed the value of the drachma through the floor. It did this by forcing Greece to loan Germany the equivalent of billions of U.S. dollars (which many argue was never paid back), and at the same time trade with other countries was disallowed by the Germans, so there was no way Greece could right its economy.

To give you an idea of how the currency sank, in 1940 this 1000 drachma note would buy one gold sovereign:

IMG_5899

But immediately after the Nazis took over Greece, you needed one of these for that sovereign:

IMG_5901

Yes, an invasion can make your currency go to a fifth of its value. Overnight.

But, for the Greeks things were to get much much worse. Inflation over the years got to ridiculous levels. In one month in 1944, price rose by 14,000%. Not 14%. 14,000%. In a month.

As you’d expect, you need to start printing more notes, or add a few zeroes.

This is the kind of note you’d need:

IMG_5900

It looks a lot. A five million drachma note. One of these before the war, and you could’ve bought a house or two or ten.

But soon even these notes meant nothing. The government started issuing notes worth 100 trillion drachma.

The other day I stopped in an antique shop in Metsovo in central Greece and found this:

Drachma Millions

Piles and piles of 5 million drachma notes. Monopoly money. How many businesses, shops and traders lost it all, we can never know. We do know it was a long road back. A road that some might say Greece is still walking 70-plus years on.

Yes, it’s another tragedy of war that the delicate balance of an economy is the first thing to be destroyed when another country decides to make an empire of its neighbours.

 

14.12.17: A myth set in stone

Greece is full of myths: Zeus sat on Mt Olympus; Oedipus married his mum; Odysseus was seduced by a goddess.

They’re everywhere. But here’s a modern tale that is so extraordinary that some believe it had to be a fable. Many though, believe it is true.

It goes back to the times when the Ottomans (today’s Turks) ruled most of Greece (up until 1821 or so). The muslim Ottomans had little time for the teachings, philosophies and religious belief of the Greeks. Education in Greek history was banned.

Greek educators and priests became terrified that this edict would mean that their culture would die.

So the story goes that in the areas where the Ottomans did not have control, such as the hard-to-access Pelion Peninsula on the very east coast of Greece (think across the Aegean from Gallipoli), at least one priest set up a secret school to educate men in the ways of the Greek. Greeks reportedly came from all over Ottoman-controlled Greece to be educated in the ways of their forebears.

Of course the priest had to be careful, so he set the school in a almost unaccessible place in the side of the cliff in Tsangarada. Even today the path is almost impossible:

IMG_5950(Photo: The path to the Hidden School, Tsangarada. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

But myth or not, there is a cave set into the side of the cliff, which has plenty of signs of ancient habitation:

IMG_5962(Photo: Hidden School, Tsangarada. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

And if you look closely, you can see what might just be a classroom laid out in stones inside the cave:

IMG_5956(Photo: Hidden School, Tsangarada. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

And the remnants of a priest’s shrine built next to the classroom:

IMG_5954(Photo: Hidden School, Tsangarada. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

Now I’m not saying this was the fabled secret school, but the locals in Tsangarada all seem to know the story, (and their families have lived for as long as the story has existed). They all have opinions on whether the cave school was real. Some are in two minds and will recite the arguments for and against whether it is nothing more than a fable.

This argument has been going to more than a century. In the 1880s, the painter Nikolaos Gyzis depicted the scene of a secret school, which looked a little more flash than our cave in a cliff:

Secret School(Photo: From the Nikolaos Gyzis painting “To krifo scholio”)

What remains of this story, be it fable or not, is tale of resistance from oppression, a desperation to keep one’s culture alive, bravery and ingenuity.

I really hope this story is true; that there were these ancestors of the WW2 andartes, who resisted not with guns but with knowledge, and in doing so kept alive the tie between modern and Ancient Greek.

 

13.12.17: The voice that sang a nation

In  writing the play of my grandmother’s story I had to consider a lot of things in making the transition from novel (Someone Else’s War) to stage (Unbroken).

Writing for the stage is as different from writing for the eye, as painting is from sculpture.

The stage play must create a mood, a sense of the times. It’s as much about showing the emotion of events as telling the facts of what’s happening. That’s because an audience will remember what they felt long after the facts are forgotten.

To give this sense of the times, I decided  early that music must be an important part of the play. It won’t be a musical or anything like that, but it will have the central character (my grandmother Olga) making musical references, singing snatches, maybe playing some music on a wireless.

I just needed to incorporate a kind of music that would work for the play. Perhaps a singer who spoke of the times. Someone who was as sassy as Olga, and sang of the period in a way that would help Olga tell the story.

I initially thought of rembetika, northern cafe music.

Sofia 3(Photo: From a mural in Ioannina. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

That was indeed sassy, a kind of blues, but it didn’t speak to me of the times. Rembetika was more Salonica than Athens, and more 30s than 40s.

In driving to war hotspots around Greece, there was just one voice that represented all this, a woman who spoke to Greeks in 1940-5 and, as a bonus, was a motivator for Greeks under stress. Because her stirring songs spurred Greece onto defeating Italy in 1940, she became known as The Songstress of Victory This woman, a simple singer/songwriter was considered so dangerous by the occupying Germans, that she was banned from singing political songs, and had to flee to Cairo.

Her name was Sofia Vembo:

Sofia 4(Photo: Courtesy the War Museum of Rendina)

Her most famous song was “Children of Greece”, a motivating song for Greece after the Italians invaded Greece. Some historians credit that song with having a lot to do with the Greeks pushing Italy back across the Albanian borderland most of the way back to Italy too.

Such is the power of the right music for the right time.

She also used that most powerful of verbal weapons: satire. She speaks of the “Master Macaroni’ Mussolini, how he’s going to lose to the Greeks and lose Rome as well. She was certainly edgy, which is why there is a shrine to her in just about every war museum in the country. This one was in Thessaloniki War Museum:

Sofia(Photo: Courtesy the War Museum of Thessaloniki)

Yes, sassy, taunting, rude and in-your-face. Just the kind of music for my Olga.

 

12.12.17: A 74 year old Memory

Litochoro is a village on the east coast of Greece. It is in the foot of a massive pass next to Mount Olympus, the most majestic mountain in Greece, an Everest in stature to Greeks and greater than it in mythology, for this was where Zeus sat as the god of gods. Its shards and many vertical snowy peaks certainly suggest this is not a place to be easily reckoned with:

IMG_5841(Photo: Litochoro, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

But plenty of people do reckon with it. Mostly hikers or ambitious tourists trying out their new climbing shoes. But in the war, recreational climbing wasn’t really on the agenda. The country was occupied by the Germans, Bulgarians and Italians; starvation was everywhere and the Greek andantes were using mountains like these as places to launch raids on the invaders.

And the invaders fought back, as you’d expect.

I had been told about the old Monastery of St Dionysus. It lies 13 kilometres up towards the Mt Olympus peak, and has lay there since 1542. It’s been pillaged at times, but always survived. Until, I was told, the Germans thought it was being used as a base for resistance operatives.

They sent in the bombers in 1943.

Climbing through the mountain pass today, the first glimpse of St Dionysus’ was one of majesty befitting the monastery of Mt Olympus.

IMG_5871(Photo: Near Litochoro, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

But getting closer, you can see it resembles part of the decaying Roman Coliseum:

IMG_5872(Photo: Near Litochoro, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

Until finally you can see where attempts have been made to make new buildings behind the old:

IMG_5848(Photo: Near Litochoro, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

But the truth is that much of this graceful old monastery is the same as the day it was bombed. There is a new Monastery of St Dionysus a few kilometres down the road. Services can no longer be conducted here. There are danger signs everywhere. yet the walls stand as they have done for nearly 500 years.

The people who made the decision to bomb this sanctuary have long passed. It is probable the pilots and the men who pressed the button that dropped the bombs have too died.

The broken walls of St Dionysus prove who stands the longest and proudest.

They will stand for a long time yet, continuing to make sure we never forget.

 

11.12.17: The Cap. One riddle solved. Another opens

My grandmother didn’t have many photos of her time in Greece during the war. In fact there were only two. One was of her waving the Greek flag on the day of liberation from the Germans in 1944, and this photo of her wearing a military outfit:

OlgaUniform (1)(Photo: Olga Stambolis circa 1943., The Stambolis Family Collection)

A couple of weeks ago I asked if anyone could identify the cap she was wearing. I got a few guesses but no cigar yet.

Over the week I visited a couple of military museums in western and northern Greece, and spoke to some Greek army personnel, but no-one could identify it.

Then yesterday we were walking through the flea market area of Thessaloniki and we passed this shop:

IMG_5798(Photo: Thessaloniki, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

It that sold military stuff.. German helmets, dented WW2 water bottles, moth-holed old jackets with buttons missing. You know the kind.

Jac suggested asking the owner. There’s no-one like a military buff/nerd for this kind of trivia.

He knew straight away. He identified her cap as Greek from the badge in the centre, and the white top meant it was naval, probably from lower rank. Her shirt was also Greek and could have been summer dress come from several of the services.

He even pointed to a cap that has similar origins although with a badge of a different era:

IMG_5786(Photo: Courtesy Ioannes Tzelepithes, Thessaloniki)

So there you are. Or ‘oriste’ as they say in Greece when serving you your dolmades.

The question now is: why was she wearing that outfit?

We know she rescued British flyers and got them out of the country. So was she on a ship escorting them to Cairo? Or was that a uniform she was given when being trained?

Or was the photo just a bit of play. A bit of dress-up during one of the less intense times? Could it even have been taken after the war perhaps?

I suspect we’ll never know. On the back of the photo my mum wrote that this was Olga in British uniform. Obviously this was conjecture. Wrong conjecture.

Olga never told her, or probably anyone, about the nature of the photo.

I guess we’ll just have to take the photo for what it is, a display of sassiness from a woman who could wear an umbrella and make it look good.

 

10.12.17: A Possible Breakthrough

My grandmother Olga Stambolis worked in the resistance in Greece, rescuing trapped British, Australian and New Zealand flyers, and like all andartes (resistance fighters), killing when she needed to.

Information about her has been scant. She died when I was a couple of months old, so I could never talk to her. Finding anything in Greece that mentions her name (apart from pass applications and money documents) has been fruitless. You see, resistance groups hardly kept records. They’d be pretty poor underground operations to do that.

So for half my life I have been searching for anything that might pinpoint she she did and who she worked with.

Today I found the story of a Greek woman, whose parallels with the story of my grandmother was extraordinary. It was almost as if it was my grandmother’s story with the names and a few other details changed:

IMG_5764(Photo: Bust of Lela in the War Museum of Thessaloniki. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

Before the war Lela Carayannis (in Greek: Eleni Karayanni) was an Athens housewife. In the early occupation days she formed a resistance group (called Bouboulina). For a person untrained in organisational operations, she did a freakish job of putting it into sub-groups for rescue, sabotage, espionage and other operations:

Lela's Organisation (top)(Photo: Courtesy of Dr George Carayannis)

The similarities between Lela and Olga were amazing. They both were involved in rescue of British, Australian and New Zealand flyers. They both were based in Athens at the same time. And like Olga, Lela was captured by the Germans, even staying in jail for the same amount of time: six months, in the same year (1941). Like Olga, when she was released, which in itself was a miracle, she returned to resistance work.

Here there story differs. While Olga’s children were safely out of there reach of the Nazis in Australia, Lela’s children were much closer. In fact six of them (three boys and three girls) worked as operatives with her. And where Olga was lucky enough to stay alive for the rest of the occupation, Lela, her children and her close associates were caught after a mistake by a person in her organisation. Lela was interrogated and tortured for three days by a notorious German inquisitor. Then she was executed. Her children, who were kept in a different part of the Haidari prison, were given help by an anti-Nazi German and were able to escape.

The more I read this story, the stronger the possibility became that my grandmother worked with Lela’s group.

Lela’s grandson found a list of the names of some of the people in Bouboulina. There were 100 people on this list. This morning I took it to an English speaking Greek I know here in Thessaloniki to see if Olga’s name, or any of her possible aliases were on it:

Lela's People (1)(Photo: Courtesy of Dr George Carayannis)

Olga wasn’t on it. The chances that Olga will be on it were always slim.

But this is the closest I have come to finding my grandmother’s group.

The search continues.

 

9.12.17 The Little Carpark of Horrors

This research was a never going to focus on the treatment for Jews in Greece in WW2, but the more one looks at life under the Nazis, the Jewish decimation comes up everywhere.

Nowhere more so than in Thessaloniki. This was the city that was so Jewish that it was known as The Mother of Israel. Half the population of Thessaloniki were Jewish. They had been here for 1000 years and were central to life in the city. As in the nearby city of Veria, Jew, Musilm and Christian lived peacefully. It was an example the world could look at today.

Like in Veria, like in Ioannina, Nazis called the men of the place into a square, and after being belittled, bullied and treated like slaves, were shipped out of the country. To a place called Auschwitz.

Let’s look at that square. On the day all male Jews aged between 18 and 45 were called there, it was called, ironically, Liberty Square.

Some men, the elders in the community, some business people, people of high esteem, were mocked, and forced to do pretend calisthenics. Not for their health. To belittle them:

German taunts(Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki)

Today Liberty Square is far different to that important square of the pre-war years. It has become a car park:

IMG_5778(Photo: Liberty Square, Thessaloniki, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

The only thing that speaks of its terrible history is a beautiful and celebrated sculpture in one corner that honours the Jews that died in that war:

IMG_5776(Photo: Liberty Square, Thessaloniki, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

I don’t know why a square, usually a place in Greek cities that honours victory over oppressors, has been allowed to become a place to leave the car while going shopping.

Maybe it is that the Greeks of Thessaloniki did not have the heart to keep this place and its memories alive. Maybe that day 9000 innocent men and their families lost everything is too much to remember.

Or maybe they just needed a car park.

 

8.12.17 A 2000 Year old Tale

In the northern Greece city of Veria, there was a vibrant Jewish community that had existed in there since BC became AD. It is mentioned in the bible. The apostle Paul even tried his hand at trying to convert Veria’s Jews to Christianity.

Writer Mike Arkus puts the result of these Paulian preachings this way:

“The Book of Acts says they were quite receptive to his preachings that Jesus was the Messiah until the larger Jewish community in Salonika, who had already kicked him out because they were ‘jealous,’ got wind of it and had him booted out of Veria too.”

So despite the efforts of Paul and his like, the Jewish faith remained intact here for 2000 years. Veria has the oldest synagogue in northern Greece. Not down the block or in the next street, but right there in the centre, on the doorstep of just about every house:

IMG_5741(Photo: Jewish Quarter, Veria, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

1500 years later more Jews were invited here by the Ottomans to help build the city. The Ottomans admired their fine skills in weapon-making and other arts.

Veria’s Jewish quarter has a lot of Ottoman (now Turkish) architecture. It is a beautiful little village where Jewish people were integrated in the wider Greek community.. the kind of integration that comes through centuries of co-existence and co-respect.

Then came WW2 and the Nazis.

Like in Ioannina (see blog of 1.12), these members of the community were rounded up on the 1st of May, 1943 and sent out of Greece, to places no-one should ever go.

Before the invasion there were 600 Jews here. 150 lived to return after the war.

Then, in 1948, and the establishment of Israel, many of these people went to their new homeland.

A few return to Veria for visits because their family homes are still there. Some places have been restored to things of beauty:

IMG_5733(Photo: Jewish Quarter, Veria, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

And some lie neglected because there is no-one to claim it, even after all these years:

IMG_5742(Photo: Jewish Quarter, Veria, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

I know they are only houses, but you can feel the hole left by the pogrom. These places where babies were conceived, feasts were eaten, stories told and children raised. All this to stop so cruelly, so swiftly.

The old synagogue rarely opens now. Many houses accommodate tourists or are used by the government departments. It really is a Jewish quarter in name only. The Nazis succeeded where evangelists could not.

Tomorrow I go to Thessaloniki, the Greek capital of the north. The Nazi treatment of the Jews and the Greek people generally is still a hot topic there. I look forward to seeing what I find.

 

7.12.17: The Battle for the Pass

When my grandmother was trained by the British in WW2, she would’ve learned many skills, including self-defence, how to kill, and perhaps how to sabotage.

Sabotage played a big role in the war in Greece.

I have already written about the Gorgopotomos Bridge in eastern Greece, which was destroyed to disrupt the German supply route to the south.

Not all sabotage was for such a direct reason. The British and Greeks blew up the Katara Pass, north of Metsovo in central Greece simply for a diversion. A red herring.

The Brits were trying to fool the Germans into thinking the Allies were going to invade Greece from the west coast. But there never was such a plan. Instead, the Allies were planning on invading Sicily, and wanted to distract the Axis into thinking Greece was the target.

To make this deception work, the Brits and the Greek resistance blew up the main road west to east over the mountains: The Katara Pass. The Germans would then think (and did think) that the Allies were trying to stop the Germans having any way to go west to meet these mythical forces invading Greece.

The Katara Pass was a difficult path even in 1940. It’s been closed for years, and visiting it in the snowy conditions today, I could see where the road has fallen away:

IMG_5715(Photo: The Katara Pass, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

I found some of what was probably the original road that followed the telegraph lines, and it frankly looks like Siberia:

IMG_5717(Photo: The Katara Pass, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

And pity the poor donkey that had to walk on this in 1943, especially with the ice making it impossible to walk without slipping.

IMG_5719(Photo: The Katara Pass, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

So it was hard to cross in 1943. Blowing it up made it impossible.

British Brigadier Eddie Myers afterwards described how his team blew up bridges culverts and even blew out the cliff faces and mined embankments.

It succeeded… for a while.

Eventually, as different factions in the resistance started fighting each other, the Germans were able to get through to the west and they took over this very pretty village of Metsovo.

The West was lost.

IMG_5708(Photo: Metsovo, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

 

6.12.17 SIDENOTE: The Self Preservation Society

This has been a pretty intense research trip: driving from Athens across the country to the central mountains, through tiny villages perched in folds of hills (inaccessible by car in WW2), then to the far west, and up cliffside dirt tracks.

Today we began the next stage, which is cross country towards the northern capital of Thessaloniki.

Are we’re doing it all in Mini Cooper:

Mini 2(Photo: Near Vourgareli. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

I grew up in a Mini Cooper S. My brother Terry Kaff was a groovy 1960s dude. He was a singer in Sydney, a regular on TV and a member of Channel 9’s Bandstand team alongside Little Pattie and Col Joye. He was on stage with the Easybeats, and the Atlantics and the Delltones used to come around to our house all the time. It was enough to turn a little kid’s head. And it did.

It followed that this flash singer drove a flash little car. And there was no flashier car in 1970 than a Cooper S.

It was tiny. Terry would drive all over Sydney, me crammed in the back seat, trying my best not to throw up. I often failed. Many a time we would be on the side of the road, the little back bench seat pulled out to dry after my lunch was hosed off.

Go forward 47 years and Terry drives a Mercedes, Mini is made by BMW, my stomach is settled, and here I am driving around sheer mountains in a.. Mini.

 

Mini 3(Photo: Near Vourgareli. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

And thank God. It may be bigger than the original, but when you’re meeting a bus on a three metre dirt road that has mountain on one side and 100 metre drop on the other side, you are glad your car is as thin as a piece of toast. It helps that it handles like it’s on rails.

Then there’s the risk of landslides. There’s no ‘if’ about it. It happens all the time. Guess who has to clear the road:

Mini - Rocky Road(Photo: The road to Theodoriana. Taken by Jackie Rees-Kafcaloudes)

Back to the Mini. My favourite childhood movie was the original The Italian Job, where three Minis traversed stairs, buildings and sewers to get Italian bullion out of Milan after an audacious heist:

Mini - TIJ

The movie ends with the Minis being repayed for their efforts by being thrown off the Italian alps.

As we climb these mountains everyday (I’m writing this in Mikro Papigo which is a town that is at the end of a McCartneyish long and winding road), I remember the scene as the Minis are flung into the abyss. We sing the song that accompanies that travesty: “We Are the Self Preservation Society” and just hope we are not going to be joining them.

We won’t be. Our Mini is looking after us just fine.

Mini final(Photo Vourgareli, Greece. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

 

5.12.17 When one word says it all

There are war memorials everywhere in Greece. Almost every village has one. Quite often it’s a small marble obelisk.

Not at Kalpaki in western Greece, the place the Greeks made the frontier in the battle against the Italian invasion in 1940.

This one, on the hill over the town, is huge. It would rival the Colossus of Rhodes:

IMG_5617 (Photo: Kalpaki, Greece. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

This statue commemorates the soldiers who stood on this hill and watched westwards for the Italian Air Force planes coming from Albania.

Just as I was leaving, I looked the hill opposite, the hill in the direction where the watchers would have been staring:

 

IMG_5619 (1)(Photo: Kalpaki, Greece. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

There was something tiny written on the hill. In rocks, I thought. Out came the telephoto and I saw what it was:

IMG_5620
(Photo: Kalpaki, Greece. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

It reads “OXI”

That’s the Greek “No”.

It commemorates the famous refusal by Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas to the demands of the Axis powers.

I depict this famous refusal in my novel, Someone Else’s War. It happened like this:

The Italian ambassador Count Grazzi knocked on the door of the Metaxas residence at 3am on the 28th of October 1940. He demanded that Italy be given full access to Greek lands. In effect an occupation.

Metaxas, a former military man who knew his country was not prepared for war, made one of the biggest gambles any politician had made in WW2.

He said no.

He reportedly said it in French. Then in Greek.

Grazzi then told Metaxas that in three hours, the Italians would invade across the Albanian border.

Greece was at war.

I wrote yesterday about how Greece fought hard with old equipment, and won that part of the war.

Up until then, Metaxas was not a loved man in Greece. He was a fascist who took power illegitimately, jailed  his political opponents and shackled the press, jailing left-wing journalists.

But that one word, that “no” is celebrated to this day on the 28th of October every year.

Greece was to be ravaged by the Germans the following year, and then torn apart by a terrible civil war after that, but people remember the day that one small word was uttered.

It was the day that a small country stood up for itself.

 

4.12.17 Now this is the Thing About the War in Greece..

In the 1940’s there wasn’t one. There were three, each following on straight after the other:

The Italian War of 1940, when the Italians invaded through Albania.

Then, when the Greeks pushed the Italians two-thirds of the way back through Albania..

The German invasion. Then, after the Germans were routed in 1944..

The Greek Civil War which ran from 1945 through until 1949 and killed more Greeks than the Germans had done (and the occupying Nazis weren’t squeamish about blood).

But as I say, it started in 1940 with the Italian invasion. It came quickly, with only three hours notice (more on that tomorrow), but it was carried out by an army that, on paper, was formidable. Today a young Greek soldier in a war museum in Kalpaki told me just how superior were the Italian numbers.

Mussolini’s forces had 4000 planes. 400 of these were devoted to western Greece. Greece had 150. And most of those were not military. Many were crop dusters. Seriously.

Italy had battalions of tanks. Greece had none.

Italy even had smart technology. Its soldiers didn’t have to rely on horses and mules. They had bicycles that were light and built for all terrains. More importantly, they were foldable, so soldiers could sling them over their shoulder when the going got rough.

And when we talk about guns, the contrast was amazing.

The Greeks didn’t have a lot of machine guns. The ones they did have were from WW1 like this one:

IMG_5624(Photo by Phil Kafcaloudes. Courtesy of the Kalpaki War Museum, Greece.)

They looked powerful, but the technology was from the very beginning of automatic weaponry. They could fire 20 rounds or so, then the barrel would be so hot that the gunners would have to wait 30 minutes for it to cool down before it could be used again. 30 minutes is several lifetimes in a battle. Gunners would shove snow in the barrel to speed up the process. That was how desperate they were.

In contrast the Italians had the latest in machine gunnery, such as this model made by Fiat (yes, the car maker) which had been ordered to convert its automotive ingenuity into weapons manufacture:

IMG_5625(Photo by Phil Kafcaloudes. Courtesy of the Kalpaki War Museum, Greece.)

When the barrels of those machine guns got too hot, the Fiat engineers designed them so that they could be detached and replaced with a cooler one. Hence the Italians could keep firing, while the Greeks were cooling off.

The Italians got some pretty sophisticated automatic rifles too. Germany had supplied them with automatics. Just pull the trigger and dozens of bullets would fly:

IMG_5628(Photo by Phil Kafcaloudes. Courtesy of the Kalpaki War Museum, Greece.)

Meanwhile the Greeks made do with some rifles barely out of the Victorian era. Single shot. Well worn. Well used:

IMG_5627(Photo by Phil Kafcaloudes. Courtesy of the Kalpaki War Museum, Greece.)

These weapons the Greeks supplemented with axes, scythes, pitchforks, and knives. Hardly encouraging.

But the Italians had a number of enemies in this war, only one of which was the Greek people. The biggest enemy was their own lack of desire. This was not a great war of expansion. It was a vanity project by Mussolini.. an attempt to show Hitler that he too was a great warrior. His soldier’s must have known this. Why else would Italy be invading its Ionian Sea cousin? They had no beef. Their hearts and souls had not been won. they were sent into atrocious conditions at the beginning of winter. More than a few might’ve questioned the tactics and the need.

Italy’s second enemy was Greek local know how. Bringing tanks into wet Greece in November was not horses for courses. One smart Greek general baited the Italians to cross a river near Kalpaki. The general, who was disobeying orders in carrying out this strategy, had banked on the November rains flooding the river. The Greek rain gods complied. It poured, and the Italian tanks were bogged. As the Greek soldier told me, the Greeks commandeered the tanks after the Italians abandoned them. But the Greeks had never seen a tank before, so they took some photos of themselves draped on the tanks, and then left them to go chasing the Italians on foot.

Which all goes to prove my mother’s old saying (which she may have got from her mother who would’ve known about these things), you might have all the weapons in the world, but its not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.

 

3.12.17: How Comes Greece Looks Like New England?

I’m doing this Greek trip as part of an PhD. I’m writing a play about my grandmother the Greek spy in WW2, and the PhD is being done on the process of creating the play.

So I’m in Greece to see the places she might’ve been trained by the British, and the places she might’ve worked rescuing British, Australian and New Zealand flyers who were trapped behind lioness the Nazis moved south through to Athens in April 1941.

Part of what I am looking at is the terrain. What would she have encountered? What was the landscape like? I’m here as the weather is turning into wintery conditions (so it’s not your ideal holiday). Yesterday we had flash flooding, ironically on the same day we had flash floods home in Melbourne. This Greek flash flooding was a different beast to the antipodes though. When it rains here, it keeps raining. Little village lanes became rivers; roads became lakes; mountainside dripways become waterfalls. And it never seemed to end. This was only the start of winter. The snows will be here soon, and much of the andante work in WW2 was done in the snow. It is easier to escape when you know what lies beneath the white blanket.

What surprised me though was the foliage of western Greece. Here there are a lot of deciduous trees some of them very brown/golden of an oak variety:

IMG_5398 (1)(Photo: Vourgareli, Greece. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

Plane trees are also common, and have been for many years, like this one that has survived in this little flood and snow prone plateia (square) in Difolo for 400 years:

IMG_5502(Photo: Difolo, Greece. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

This interspersed with the many fir and olive trees in the hills gives a mottled landscape that is very dense. The mix of colours and foliage would provide camouflage.

IMG_5433(Photo: Kallithea, Greece. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

 

And there is a contrast where the wooded hills stand against snowcapped Alps. A mix of terrain that must have made pursuit difficult. Notice how it’s hard to know where alp ends and cloud begins:

IMG_5399(Photo: Vourgareli, Greece. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

All this is that its highest in late autumn when the leaves are green and the mountains are getting their first snow. This could be the time when I set the central Greece action in the play.

The paths in central Greece in many cases are rough where rocks have fallen off the hillside. Many are hard and sharp, especially the shale or marble mixed in with the other rocks on the ground, and the tendency for the mountains to landslide. But often there is no other way around:

IMG_5549(Photo: Tymfi, Greece. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

These paths can be difficult to negotiate, which is what the andartes wanted. Germans carrying heavy backpacks would’ve found this very hard especially as the paths are steep leading down from the mountains or up the next hill.

I’m not sure how I will incorporate these factors into the play, but they set a context for me. I have walked in the paths of the andartes (resistance fighters) and seen what they must’ve seen. My mind’s eye is closer now to my grandmother’s. And that is something important for a playwright.

 

2.12.17: The Smart Kid Who Kept His Head

In times of terror some good things can happen.

Take in 1940 in western Greece. Hitler’s ally, the somewhat limited Benito Mussolini decided to invade Greece. He didn’t do it for any particular reason. He just did it. Actually he did have a reason of sorts. As the Nazis were swathing through Europe, he wanted to impress Hitler that he too was a warrior.

He invaded through Albania only three hours after the Greek prime minister Ioannes Mexatas had refused Mussolini’s demand that Italy occupy Greece.

What Mussolini isn’t know was Greeks, especially the mountain Greeks of the west, don’t take kindly to someone trying to take them over. So, as I write in my novel, they fought against the Italian halftracks and machine guns with aged rifles, pick-axes and scythes, and forced the Italians back over the border.

It was an embarrassing defeat for the Italians and led to Hitler invading Greece.. ruining his plans for an autumn invasion of Russia. He had to push it back to winter.. leading to his first big defeat.

But in that initial Italian invasion, Mussolini sent over bombers to help his ground troops. As they attacked the western town of Perama, the locals raced to find shelter.

In the rush, an 11 year old boy discovered that air was rushing through a hole in the side of the rocky cliff that abuts the town’s main road:

IMG_5481(Photo: Perama. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

Some residents dug it out and found a massive internal cave full of the most beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations:

perama(Photo: Courtesy of the Perama Caves)

The locals used this cave to hide during the bombings, and later, in 1944, when the occupying Germans started rounding up Jews for deportation to concentration camps, the Perama Cave once again became a place of refuge.

The Perama Cave is now a tourist attraction:

IMG_5477(Photo: Perama. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

Travellers come from around the world to see the massive tite-mite formations, and the site inside where the remains of an ancient bear were discovered after the war. The speculation is that the bear must’ve been fallen in and been trapped all those thousands of years ago and sadly starved to death.

But for me, the fact that this place saved so many people makes it much more than your usual tourist attraction.

And all this is owed to a little boy who kept his head in a time of terror.

 

1.12.17: A Terrible Secret in Paradise

In Someone Else’s War I wrote a chapter where my grandmother goes to Thessaloniki on a reconnaissance mission to find out whether the stories of the mistreatment of Jews there were true. In the novel she gets there too late. She witnesses Jewish families being loaded onto trains and sent to concentration camps in the countries to the north.

Although I have no indication that my grandmother was actually sent on a mission like this, I put this into the novel because the horror of the Jewish pogrom in Greece was such a big part of the occupation that no story of the war in Greece could be complete without it. I wanted, through the eyes of my characterisation of Olga, to bring this terrible event to readers. I also intend, with the play Unbroken to again refer to this.

In a week’s time I’ll be in Thessaloniki to see where that exile occurred. But the pogrom did not just just happen in Salonica. Today I was in the beautiful acropolis above Ioannina, which is the main city in western Greece, a magical city on a lake with a fortress wall that surrounds an old city known as the Kastro.

This acropolis contains Byzantine buildings which were added to by various Ottoman leaders. It is a quiet, gentle place, even on a rainy day when the clouds come across to this high-lying city. With its old buildings and the tomb of the brutal Ali Pasha (in the cage on the right), this is a place a photographer can spend whole days:

IMG_5465 (1)(Photo: Ioannina. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

At the end of the acropolis is a Byzantine museum and across from that is a silver museum. Yes, this is a place for tourists and those interested in crafts, as well as the remnants of millennia past:

IMG_5467(Photo: Ioannina. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

The place chilled me out. Then I saw the plaque on the wall of the Byzantine Museum which tells a story at odds with what is there today.

I share this story here: https://youtu.be/DUtqVV1iPMw

 

In short, the plaque says that in the spot where I stood, the Jews of Ioannina were forced to present themselves on the 25th of March, 1944. From there they were put onto trucks and sent across the north of Greece and taken to the same concentration camps as those unfortunate people of Salonica. The only Jews who survived were the ones who managed to escape the city when the edict came from them to come to acropolis. Others were hidden by Christian families, who risked their own safety to help them.

On this day, as I looked over the grass towards the museum, the poignancy of this place changed with that one plaque. It became so much more than the untended and patchy grass that greeted me. Lest we Forget.

IMG_5473(Photo: Ioannina. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

 

30.11.17: SIDENOTE: Loving the Dogs of Greece

It was once said that you can tell a country’s humanity from the way they treat their dogs. Actually, I might just have made that up. But I think it’s true.

In Australia we fawn over our dogs, make sure they get the very best food at regular times, pick up their poo on their scheduled walks, and stand around in the dog park talking to other proud dog-parents watching our little ones play with the other furry little-ins.

It doesn’t quite work that way in Greece.

Some people have dogs. They are collared, controlled and named. But there are many many more that are not owned. They wander the streets of the small villages, walking from house to house little a mobile guard service. And they do their job well. Anyone unusual walking  down the road causes a barking frenzy. Not an angry frenzy like you see from chained and yarded Australian dogs. Just a few barks to let everyone know that (1) A stranger is around, and (2) That this  dog is doing its job.

Most of the time however, the dog will come to you, maybe a little wary (you may not be a dog person, and be a little too willing to show them your sole), but easily losing that wariness once you give them a warm hello (in either Greek or English. It doesn’t matter. They know.)

Take these characters for instance. Today in the archeological site of Dodona, just south of Ioannina. We had just got out of our car when two dogs joined us. Not for food. They just wanted to say hello.

IMG_5447(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

Once we got inside the site, the feller dog decided he liked me very much:

Dog(Photo: Jackie Rees-Kafcaloudes 2017)

 

That’s how it’s been this whole trip. When we arrived at Montenema in the Karditsa region a week ago, we were met at the front gates by a large wolfish dog who smiled at us, pushed against our legs and almost directed us to reception. They next day we started a hike to a 16th century church, St George’s, three kilometres up and down the forest. We were only 200 metres into the walk when a white sight came up the track behind us. It was the same dog. He stayed with us all the way up to the abandoned church. When we went inside, the dog walked around the grounds. We stayed for about an hour, taking pictures of the decaying frescos and icons inside. The dog waited for us. Then she stayed with us for the long return walk. Back at the hotel the manager told us that this is what “Bou Bou” did. She made sure every walker got there safely, and got home safely. She wasn’t trained to do it. She just did it, and always had.

bou bou(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

Now I know we think we know what goes on in our dogs’ heads. Maybe we think they are after food; that they get jealous; that they are simply protectors of their territory.

Nah. Shakespeare wrote that there were more things in heaven and earth. Creatures like Bou Bou are proof that he wasn’t talking through is hat.

 

29.11.17: Vourgareli: A bombing remembered

We are in the western Greek town of Vourgareli which is a place that really is on the ceiling of the world:

IMG_5365(Photo: Vourgareli. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

I mentioned yesterday that Vourgareli that was bombed by the Germans in WW2. They were after the British Operatives like Brigadier Eddie Myers who were working from nearby Theodoriana.

That’s only 74 years ago, so you’d have to think that such a momentous event would stay in the DNA of this small town. As we walked through the place we saw many shells of buildings that no-one bothered to rebuild, even after all this time.

IMG_5404(Photo: Vourgareli. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

The church St Georges on the plateia (town square) shows two dud German bombs out the front, scrawled roughly with the date of the bombing raid, beneath a monument to those who perished:

IMG_5401(Photo: Vourgareli. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

Yes, it would be hard in Vougareli to forget that war and that bombing.

Costas and Irene have not forgotten. Irene runs a restaurant (not a taverna, she insists this is a restaurant) on the road into the village. It’s a sparse place with half a dozen tables, a blaring TV in the corner, an upright wood heater near the TV and surprisingly, a dusty jukebox. There’s also a wood fireplace burning on the opposite corner, but Irene and her husband Costas use the upright for their warmth, and when we walked in they encouraged us to share the upright with them because they insisted the fancy open wood fire wasn’t warm enough.

I say they ‘insisted’. They insisted by gesture because they couldn’t speak a word of English. It followed that they could not understand vegetarianism, let along veganism. When I explained it was no meat, horice tiri (“without cheese”) and horice avgo (“without egg”), Irene slapped her head in disbelief, as if to say ‘how could people live like this?’ She had lived with meat for her 69 years.

She then supplied us a feast of Greek chips, salad, pasta, thick bread, kokkino (red) wine and olives. We may have been weird vegans, but she made sure we were fed well.

Across the room, Costas ate and watched the Greek parliament on TV. It’s his routine now. At 82, it’s what he does.

Through my mottled Greek we learned that Irene was a grandmother of 3 girls and two boys, and that the children were becoming masters of the iPhone, do things she could not understand. When I needed to use google translate for a word, she thought the fact that the word came in the screen in Greek was hilarious. We laughed together a lot.

She brought us some gratis preserved fruit for dessert and she wrote down our translation that the fruit was called quince in English. Then she went off to tidy up, although I should say the little eatery was pretty clean as it was. No dust would survive under Irene’s watch.

Irene told us of this quiet town’s place in war history. It was the scene of a revolution against the Turks in 1821 where the priest was shot in the head. They demonstrate the bullet going in the forehead as if they had seen it themselves. I write down the date 1943 on a piece of paper for her and they animate. Yes, the Germans destroyed everything. Costas was 8 years old. Irene, who wasn’t even born when it happened, is annoyed that there have not been reparations. But she says, this year it might happen.

Irene and Costas have the war in their blood. Their parents lived through it. Although far from the German epicentre in Athens, the bombings brought the horror to this place here on the top of the world. And the horror of it goes on still.

 

28.11.17: Betrayal in Theodoriana

My grandmother was given up to the Germans in 1941.

She believed she was given up by the one person she thought she could trust.

I’ll explain via the story of Theodoriana. This was the mountain village that British Special Ops leader Brigadier Eddie Myers chose for his base in 1942 in planning operations against the Germans. He and his team walked and donkeyed it from the east, through snow and rain. He describes the village as beautiful, and waxed about the colour of the trees and the peaks that surrounded it. You can see what he means:

IMG_5353(Photo: Theodoriana. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

Myers and his team had a joyful time in Theodoriana. He writes of waking to see the sun highlight the tops of the mountains, then the almond-coloured trees, then the white buildings of the little town. It was a village of hospitable people who were grateful that Britain supported the Greek people. The village was also special because its doctor was a man of vision who organised for the village to have electricity.. an amazing feat considering so much of Greece in those days had no electricity, and this village was so far from any large town, and was only accessible from small passes at each end of the village. The people lived in their own bit of paradise.

This peace wasn’t to last. Myers tells that the Germans found out their location. He suspects it was when a local trader brought three women into the village for the services of the British men. The Brits refused those services. Just as well. One of the women was a spy. The locals put her on trial, and had her shot. Right there in paradise. The other two were handed to the andartes and disappeared. Myers hoped they were jailed, but he couldn’t be sure.

Either way, the Germans knew the Brits were in Theodoriana, and conducted two air raids on the village, blowing up houses. The Germans than attacked the closest town, Vougareli, killing many people.

How did the people of Theodoriana react to these Brits who had brought so much misery?

With acceptance, support and continuous hospitality.

My grandmother met and worked with people who were just as brave and caring as the Theodorians. Then again, she had to battle the constant possibility that maybe some of those nearest to her were not on her side. It would only take one whisper for her to be undone.

It happened. She was given up to the Germans. She never knew for sure, but she believed she was betrayed by her own sister.

I met that sister when I was a child. Of course I knew nothing of the betrayal allegation. I just knew this pleasant little woman and her giant of a husband who had moved to Australia in the 1950s. They were quite exotic to the younger ones of us in the family because they lived in Melbourne (the rest of us were in Sydney).

When I first heard the allegation against this smiling woman, I couldn’t relate her to such an act of treachery.

But this was war. And this is the thing about war: it forces people into action. They act with the greatest of intention or with the greatest of fear. The Germans’ greatest tool was the constant threat. If your friend, cousin.. or even sister.. was in the resistance, then the tool of the occupiers was to make you just as liable. It is this kind of implied threat that forced people to betray those they love.

This may have happened to my grandmother. It may have happened to Eddie Myers.

The thing is though, that for every person that committed betrayal in WW2 Greece, there were many more who risked their lives to protect new friends.

War does that. As I wrote in the novel, it turns life upside down.

 

 

27.11.17: Olga’s cap

This trip is a magical mystery tour. Every day I’m finding new things about the war and the Greek people. Like a couple of days ago I learned how much women were essential to the resistance effort. They weren’t just members of teams, but they were in charge of units, trained other andartes, and had reputations as being really tough. Considering the horrors that were happening across Greece at the time, it’s no wonder they were this way.

I know that my grandmother Olga also killed people. In my novel I write a scene that was almost verbatim as it was told to me: she was standing with another resistance worker in a queue at a shop, when she saw a collaborator several places ahead in the line. At that moment the man looked back and saw Olga and the other woman together. He twigged that because they were together these two must’ve been working in the resistance. He left the shop. Without stopping to think or hesitate, Olga and the other woman broke out of the line and followed the collaborator. They needed to stop him before he could get to a police station or German headquarters. As he came to a lane, they grabbed him from behind, pulled him into the lane and stabbed him to death. They then walked on like two friends on a day out.

You did what you had to do. If they had been caught, the Germans would’ve extracted everything from them.. names, places, safe houses, hideaways, plans.. and then killed them.

As I say, they did what they had to do. And what they did was replicated hundreds of times in this war.

Being in the resistance meant there were no records kept. Very little was committed to paper, even by the British. It would’ve been dangerous to everyone, providing just the kind of evidence the Germans would need to reprisals against families and acquaintances.

So it was unusual that a photo survived of Olga in uniform. On the back of the photo it says she was in British uniform:

Version 2

But I can’t be sure. Looking up some shots of other caps, the closest British one was a naval cap that bears some similarity. It’s worn here by someone whose face I know, but..

British Naval Cap

This is a Greek WW2 hat. Wrong colour but it matches in other ways:

Greek cap

And to make matters just a bit more confusing, women andartes wore a range of caps, but none seemed like the one Olga wore:

Eomen Greek caps(Photo: Courtesy of the Rendina War Museum 2017)

Alas, just another mystery in the long journey to find out more about my grandmother. I wonder what tomorrow will hold.

 

27.11.17: A Greek Family

I saw a lovely thing this morning. It wasn’t momentous. It was just a little window into a relationship and a jogging of the memory.

We were sitting breakfast in our little mountain taverna. At the next table was a young Greek family: mother, father and daughter who could not not have been more than 15.. the surly age. She sat away from her parents and scowled every suggestion they made. Nothing unusual in that for that age. Then another family came to share the table, so daughter had to sit next to her mother. The surliness continued. The girl didn’t look at her parents and barely acknowledged them.

Neither her mother nor father took any notice. They knew it was just the nature of a teenager and was probably nothing different to what they themselves had gone through.

The extraordinary moment was, in its way extraordinary in its ordinariness. It was when the mother leant over and dipped her bread into her daughter’s egg yolk and mopped it up as the girl was eating her eggs. The daughter didn’t react; she just kept eating. In many places this would’ve been the crossing of a line; an invasion into personal space, but even for this surly girl, this was fine. That was what her family did. It was okay. Then the father made a joke of something and the mother and daughter burst out laughing. That’s family life for Greeks. Hormones might affect you, but in the end you adore those in your gene pool, and they adore you. What happened at that table wasn’t momentous. It was just a nice moment and a memory of a childhood long past.

IMG_5262

(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

26.11.17: Montenema’s Hiker

One of the challenges in organising this trip was working out how to visit the villages where so much of the action happened in WW2. In those days many of the villages were inaccessible by car. That’s why the resistance and the British Special Ops organisers chose them. The Germans would find it too difficult to get troops to these places, and would only be able to do it by traversing paths that would leave them exposed to the andartes.

The man who led the British operations was Brigadier Eddie Myers. He used to walk from one part of central Greece to another. Occasionally he was lucky enough to have a grateful villager who would lend him a donkey for the trip. But mostly it was all on foot.

Today, may of these villages are easier to access. Some homeowners rent them out to tourists for the ski season, so there needs to be a relatively safe road.

I wanted to visit a couple of these villages in the Karditsa region, but being so isolated it presented problems for accommodation. Or so I thought.

Five years ago a hiker walked into the mountains and when he stepped into a clearing what opened up before him was a beautiful vista between two mountainsides. He decided there and then that this would make a great spot for an eco-village. So in a time of economic meltdown in Greece, he got funding, made plans and built what he called a “handmade village” complete with restaurant, cafe, animal farm, crops and accommodation, which consisted of individual homes.

Standing on the cafe balcony you can stand on there spot where he must’ve stood when coming out of the forest:

IMG_5219

(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

So Montenema has offered us a place of peace and sanctuary after hours of winding up and down roads. It is also a great spot to recoup before the movement further into the mountains.

We went for a walk this morning and what we saw was history.  In the hills are the ruins of homes that are hundreds of years old. These are homes that go back to the days when the Turks ran this land, before the Greek revolution of 200 years ago. These homes were probably occupied when the andartes controlled these hills, and planned the assaults on the invaders. But now they are empty, not much more than piles of rock. There are still goat farmers in these hills. St Georges church survives in the folds of the mountains, its roof caving but its icons still watching and its candles still burning. There is celebration in Montenema because news has just come through that the national government is going too pay to have it restored.

But no such luck for the old homes. Economic times and tourism have done that war and oppression couldn’t: move out the old to make way for tourism and the visions of enterprising hikers.

 

25.11.17: Rendina and the Power of Women

I’ve had two inspirations for this research trip. One was my grandmother Olga Stambolis, who was a spy in Greece in WW2, and whose major role was rescuing British, Australian and New Zealand flyers who were caught behind enemy lines. She was trained in the arts of the resistance fighter by the British. I don’t know where and when, but it was likely it was in the mountains in central Greece, in the hills where the andartes (resistance fighters) felt safest.

My other inspiration was my godfather, Nick Manning, who was a teenager in the war.  He was, like so many others, caught up in the action, and started to follow the communist leader Aris, a tough man who had little time for people who disagreed with his ideology. Nick the teen was told that his training would be in central Greece, so he did what so many other andantes did. He walked there. From Athens. That’s hundreds of kilometres, many of them through the mountains. Unfortunately for Nick, when he got to Rendina, the trainers had moved onto Karpenisi (see post of 2 days ago). So he walked to Karpenisi.

Today we drove this Rendina road. It seemed interminable with its twists and turns, and back in the day it would’ve been even more twisty. We pulled over and saw part of the old track, perhaps the very track Nick would’ve walked:

IMG_5165

(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

It’s pretty spectacular, and would’ve been in 1943, if you weren’t looking over your shoulder for Germans.

Once we reached Rendina, we found, like with so many other villages, that the war still hangs heavy. There are memorials. In this case, like Koryschades, the memories are of the atrocities of war, but also of the achievements and bravery of the locals. There was a war museum here too. We had to bother the local cafe owner to open it for us, but his semi-reluctance lifted when I showed him a photo of my grandmother in uniform:

OlgaUniformHiRes

(Photo: Stambolis family archive)

It was then that I noticed that of the hundreds of photos of andartes in the museum, many featured women, some fierce looking, some looking seriously dangerous with rifles, and others were like this shot, where a woman andante was teaching men about dismantling and cleaning their weapon:

IMG_5181

(Photo: Courtesy Rendina War Museum)

I still search for anything that might reveal news of where Olga worked, but I’m not hopeful. This was war in a country under occupation. The war was followed by a civil war that took many lives. There wasn’t much time for the keeping of lists of personnel, especially in a secretive underground movement. What I’m hoping for is anything of her. A photo like the above with Olga in the background somewhere. What a joy that would be.

 

24.11.17: Our Marriage in Greece

This research trip is my sixth trip to Greece. The first time was in 1988, and it was pretty frantic. We had wanted to get married, and thought it would just be a case of turning up to the church. Not to be. Just like the scene in Blues Brothers where the Mother Superior’s doors were slammed on Jake and Elwood, the priest in Santorini shut the church doors in our faces. After much translation and negotiation involving a local hotel owner, we were given a list of tasks to complete. Do these things, they said, and the priest might marry us. So we traipsed to Athens, made promises to the archbishop, posted banns in newspapers we couldn’t understand, paid monies to more people than we needed to, translated documents into English and back to Greek, and donated to churches. After seven weeks, just as our time to return to Australia loomed, we finished the to-do list and returned to Santorini. The priest took our package of evidence and didn’t even look at it. He knew what we had been through. Yes, he said, he’d marry us. Our hotel owner, Lefteris (of the Hotel Galini) agreed with tears to be our best man (it is a great honour in Greek culture), and we planned the wedding for the Wednesday, June the 8th. When the day came, the whole village of Firostefani turned out. They had been watching our fight to be married and over the weeks they had come to cheer for us. Lefteris and Lambrini lent us their home to get ready. Jac somehow came up a million dollars:

Wedding0028

(Photo: Lambrini Roussos 1988)

Gorgos and Christina were fascinated by these aliens who took over their bedrooms. They are now two beautiful people probably with kids of their own. We seen them occasionally on Santorini. They are family you see. A best man becomes a brother, and if we had children Lefteris and Lambrini would have been their godparents. So we have a family on the other side of the world. A lovely culmination to an adventure, an adventure that continues..

23.11.17: The Koryschades Conference. So much Promise. So Much Unfulfilled.

This stop: Karpenisi. This is a central Greek town that I first heard about from my godfather Nick Manning. As a young wannabe resistance fighter in 1942-3, he walked from Athens to here to be trained. More on that in a couple of days. Karpenisi bore a lot of action in WW2. First it was controlled by the Italian invaders, then the Greek leftist ELAS group took over the town. The term ‘scorched earth’ really applies here because Karpenisi was flattened in all the fighting. The nearby village of Koryschades was saved, simply because it was surrounded by mountains and thus was inaccessible to German bombers. In 1944 Koryschades hosted a convention attended by the left and rightist resistance members and the British to try to work out a future post-war government structure (remember that before the war Greece was in a dictatorship).

This conference happened in this former schoolhouse:

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(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

Unfortunately, the detente didn’t hold. The leftists wiped out the rightist andarte group EDES when the Nazis were driven out, infuriating the British. Images exist of British snipers on the acropolis picking out communist fighters in downtown Athens. Everywhere there were reprisal killings. Family members were against family members. Nicholas Gage’s book Eleni tells how his mother was murdered by the leftists in a small village simply because her husband and son had fled to imperialist America. There were many of these kinds of cases in 4 years of civil war that killed more Greeks than the Germans had done in their brutal occupation.

All the hopes generated in this little building in the Greek countryside came to nothing.

 

22.11.17: Gorgopotomos. The Resistance Strikes Back.

Pilgrimages are odd. You go to see something you have only imagined maybe for your whole life, and when you reach the destination, it is often something so different to what you expected. Smaller maybe. Less grand.  Today, the Gorgopotomos bridge in central Greece was not at all like that. I had been wanting to see this valley and the huge rail viaduct since I first read about in many years ago. The viaduct spans the valley and carries the major rail line that runs from north Greece to the south. In WW2 it was more than just a rail line. The Germans relied on it to supply their troops, carrying food, fuel and ammo down to their forces in the Mediterranean, including those in North Africa. No surprise then that Churchill wanted it destroyed. He dropped a group of Special Operations soldiers into the area, headed by Brigadier Eddie Myers. Their job was to blow the bridge and cut off supplies to German soldiers. But this mission was never going to be simple. Myers had to negotiate for help from the Greek resistance, which had by this time split into the communist ELAS and the more right wing EDES. These two groups were so opposed that ELAS spent as much energy trying to wipe out EDES as it did in attacking the Nazi invaders. Somehow Myers talked them into co-operating for this job and the bridge was blown in November 1942:

Gorgo Blown

(Photo: Protothema.gr)

Of course it’s been rebuilt, and is a majestic wonder. It took me a while to find the bridge today, but there was the glorious moment when I walked through bramble to almost stumble onto the tracks at the top. Luckily when no trains were nearby:

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(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

But it was from down below that the power of this bridge, and the magnitude of the sabotage work was apparent.

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(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

Despite a bit of Greece being destroyed on that day in November 1942, the locals celebrated, and still celebrate the destruction to this day. In a local taverna there are pictures on the wall of Brigadier Myers that were taken when he revisited Greece 15 years later. I suppose any spit in a Nazi eye was worth a thousand bridges.

 

21.11.17: Delphi and the Nature of Truth

On this trip we are going to visit some of the places where the Greek resistance plagued the Germans during the war. They did it all over the country, even though in many cases the reprisals were terrible (see my entry for 20.11). It seems that almost every village we have passed through saw some horror at the hands of the invaders. Just today our guesthouse owner told us of a mass killing of 25 civilians by the Nazis at the nearby village of Kalami. Strangely though, the invaders did seem to have some respect for Greek antiquity. They posed on the acropolis like conquering heroes, and they visited the ancient site of Delphi, so close to the sites of their most brutal activities. Delphi has a history that goes back to the earliest days of written stories. Herodotus and Homer wrote of it hundreds of years before Christ. Herodotus in particular talked of the Kastalian Spring which is on the road near Delphi. It was a luxurious bathing house in the BC days. Now it is really a hole in the ground:

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(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

Yes, it would have been something special when Herodotus wrote of it. Herodotus features heavily in my PhD study because, like me, he wrote history but in a non-fiction way. This fictionalising was controversial in his day. While he was known as the Father of History for his Histories, he was also dubbed The Father of Lies by Plutarch for using a flourishing style. As I write the play of my grandmother’s story, I need to tread the same path as Herodotus (hence the name of my PhD: Going the Way of the Ancients). I need to constantly question how far I should go when turning fact into fiction. Does the narrative need of a stage performance justify changing a story? If I don’t have facts, do I have the artistic licence to add in parts? For my novel Someone Else’s War (which is the primary source for the play) I took this licence, making it clear on the cover that this was a novel, not a non-fiction piece. Even so, at writer’s festivals, launches and even book club events, the first question I was asked was about which parts of the novel are absolutely true. Few people asked about my grandmother’s spying, her killing, her sabotage or her rescuing of trapped allied fighters. I suppose that’s what led to part of this PhD including a discussion of the nature of truth in art. It’s an honour to think I am a tackling the same questions that dogged Herodotus, the man who could fairly be said to have founded the recording of history.

 

20.11.17: The Horror of Distomo

This trip is only three days old, and we’ve found an extraordinary story of the second world war, almost by accident. It was the kind of story that makes it easy to understand why my grandmother Olga Stambolis decided to risk her life to undermine the Nazi invaders. This photo was taken at the top of a little village called Distomo which is close to Lord Byron’s favourite place, Delphi in central Greece. On the 10th of June 1944, only four months before they were expelled by the Allied forces, the Germans went through the homes of the people from Distomo and killed 218 of them.  The youngest was a one year old baby. The oldest was 84 years old. This artwork at the memorial captures the anguish of the village’s women:

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(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

And no wonder. The memorial has a wall of the names of the 200 killed. 32 of them have the same surname. If they were from the same family (and in a small village, it’s a good chance they were) then this family lost infants aged 2, 4 and 7, as well as the family matriarch, an 80 year old woman. The Germans must’ve known the end was near, and just like their Norwegian ‘scorched earth’ retreat, this was an act of of bitterness and spite. Many of the children they killed that day were girls. (See below: 3 year old Maria and 5 year old Katina). Reports were that a baby was shot in her mother’s arms; children were bayoneted in their cots, pregnant women were stabbed. All because the SS wrongly suspected the townspeople of abetting an attack on Germans troops. This kind of loss must stay in the village DNA.

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(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

Postscript: I just came upon this extract from a book by Sture Linner, who in 1944 was the Head of the International Red Cross in Greece. He had been to Distomo just after the massacre and had found the desecrated bodies of many victims. He returned to Distomo some months later as the Germans were in retreat and met a remarkable man. He records:

When we reached the outskirts of the village, we were met by a committee led by the elderly priest. He was an old fashioned patriarch, with a long, wavy, white beard. Next to him the guerilla captain, fully armed. The priest spoke first and thanked us on behalf of everybody for the food supplies. Then he added: “We are all starving here, both us and the German prisoners. Now, though we are famished, we are at least in our land. The Germans have not just lost the war; they are also far from their country. Give them the food you have with you, they have a long way ahead.”

Forgiveness. With people like this Greek priest, Greece was able to find a way back.

My godfather’s father was a victim of a massacre. He was one of 200 prisoners executed on Hitler’s orders on the 1st of May 1944 in Kaisariani, Athens. It was in reprisal for the resistance killing a German general.. I doubt my godfather ever was so forgiving as this priest.

 

19.11.17: A scene from my Novel

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(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

These two Athenian churches featured in my novel Someone Else’s War as the site where the resistance started building an tunnel to get supplies and people out of Athens under the noses of the German occupiers in WW2. In the novel the tunnel was sanctioned by the local priest. However, this action was a fiction. I wrote it into the novel to demonstrate the ways the Greeks were thumbing their noses at the Nazis, even when it was a great risk to do so. The clergy often secretly supported action against the occupiers. There were also collaborators who co-operated with the Germans, but there were so many who risked everything. For my grandmother Olga, she risked her life everyday as a spy for the resistance and the British, but the risk was hers only. If the local Greeks who worked with her were caught, not only they would die, but their families. The Nazis didn’t see families; they saw groups of human hostages. They didn’t see villages; but opportunities for reprisal shootings.

 

18.11.17: Coming to one of my homes

There’s something special that happens to me when we land in Athens. If my Greek roots go back thousands of years, then touching Athenian concrete probably has some kind of osmotic cosmic effect. After all, a lineage of 500+ forebears must leave some electricity in the ground. Three hours ago that electricity shot through me as our Airbus something-or-other banged on the tarmac. It was drizzly, the plane’s windows were foggy and it looked quite miserable outside. But it could’ve been Christmas for how I felt. Just 20 hours before that moment we were in St Kilda. Now I was in my second favourite place on earth. I’ll take the tube into Athens tomorrow morning. The last time I was in Athens the mood was as miserable as today’s weather. Let’s see. I’ll let you know this time tomorrow. Tonight it’s a taverna next to where we’re staying in Peania, just S-W of the city. There’s Retsina to be had and whatever kind of vegan they can manage. The adventure begins.

 

17.11.17: The start

I’m sitting in a plane waiting to take off from Melbourne. I am beginning a month-long research trip for my exegesis PhD. It’s about the production of a performance piece based on the activities of my maternal grandmother, who was a spy in Greece during world war two. She was a resistance fighter, rescuing Australian, British and New Zealand airmen caught behind enemy lines in central, western and northern Greece. While I have conducted research from Athens and London on many trips over the years, this will be the first time I’m visiting the sites of the resistance work in central and northern Greece.

This will be a driving trip, starting with Athens, and following the routes of my grandmother’s rescue routes, visiting each town where she would have worked.

This trip also involves going to the sites of the resistance fighting during WW2, and includes the sites of other resistance centres such as Rendina and Karpenisi where the resistance cells were based (even though my grandmother did not work there). I will also visit the site of a turning point for the resistance (the blowing up of the Gorgopotomos Bridge). In Greek Macedonia I will go the sites of the Jewish deportations. These will provide essential background for the thesis, especially for the factual background for the writing of the performance piece, and also for the staging of the scenes, some of which will be set in the areas to be visited.

Defence lines 1941

(Photo: from To Greece by McClymont, WG, New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1959)

The drive will start to the east of Athens, move north across Thebes to Lamia (where the Gorgopotomos Bridge was blown in as British operation, then west to the resistance strongholds in the Pindhos Ranges towards Ioannina. Then north again to where the greek resistance factions (the left wing ELAS and the royalist EDES) fought for control. Then we go eastwards towards Salonika (Thessaloniki). We then move south through the Aliakmon Line, through the Pinios Gorge, following one of the routes of the April 1941 German advance.

Can’t wait. But I guess I’ll have to. This plane trip will be a long one. Not as long as my forebears who took months to get to and from Australia by boat back in the day. I suppose I can’t complain really..