While Nancy Wake was fighting the Germans in France, another Australian woman was doing the same thing in Greece. Like Nancy, Australian wife and mother Olga Stambolis was recruited and trained by the British Special Ops (SOE) to sabotage, kill, rescue. Using the cover as an employee with ambassadors, she was responsible for rescuing Australian, New Zealand and British flyers caught in the north of Greece as the Germans made their push from the north.
Based on true events, Someone Else’s War is a novel that tells the story of that woman, my maternal grandmother.
Up until 1936, Olga Stambolis had been a Sydney mother and wife. A family tragedy ends the marriage and she disappears from the family shop in Ultimo in the middle of the night. She is next heard from in Athens working for the Greek underground. Her skills as an actress and her ability to speak six languages attracts the British foreign office, and for the rest of the war she turns into one of the most valuable members of the Greek resistance.
Until the day she is caught.
Meanwhile in Australia, her family, who now believe her dead, are facing their own wartime challenges. They had moved to Darwin and are caught as Japan prepares to bomb the town.
Through the entwined stories of mother and daughters, we are taken into the events of two countries and two sets of lives from 1916 to 1943.
Someone Else’s War is an historical fiction novel. But it was not necessarily always going to be so. Originally I intended to make this a biography of the activities of Stambolis from 1936 to 1943, the period of her activity as a spy in Greece. Everything in the book would be true and certified. The final book was intended to take its place as an addition to the world’s knowledge about the war in Greece.
There were problems with getting these facts, and greater problems certifying them. As explained later in this chapter, the activities in Australia involving Stambolis’ husband Michael and his daughters in Sydney and Darwin were also included in the novel. These events were easier to certify, because Nellie and her sisters were telling their own stories, not relying on hearsay and had documentary evidence of where they were. They were personal eyewitnesses to the events. In the early drafting, I could phone them and check facts.
For the activities of Stambolis, I had no such sources. The part of the book devoted to Stambolis’ activities was going to be very short. The alternative was to consider turning itinto an account that used all the facts available but in the framework of a historical fiction piece.
Fictionalisation appeared most attractive because times could be manipulated and places and characters invented. It gave the space to make minor changes to help dramatic tension. For example, there is a scene early in the novel where the Greek prime minister John Metaxas shoots a protestor dead. This was a scene that I felt was essential for the character of Metaxas to be established, but this particular event was fiction. It could only be included if the story was told as historical fiction.
This would not be a strict work of fiction. It was more a hybrid historical fiction because there are real people in the novel. The real names of the Greek leadership and some other historical figures such as some of the resistance fighters are used. Stambolis, her husband, children and Jean are all real characters. Their real names are used. The writing of what was to become Someone Else’s Warfollowed the Homeric tradition of using research and knitting her story into established facts to provide a piece of work which provided much truth.
Among the scenarios invented for the novel was a rape scene. In the novel Stambolis is raped on the day the Germans entered Athens. Although many women were raped in Greece, Stambolis never claimed to be raped. This was invented for a number of reasons: a final motivating force for her; a symbolism of what was happening to the ancient capital on that day; a device to show her personality as she responds; and to give an example of what was happening because Greek women were raped.
Some scenarios were created using only the briefest of primary information. This included an ongoing scenario where Stambolis is given a house in the Athens suburb of Pendeli by the French ambassador. This house was later confiscated by the German command while Stambolis was in Averoff prison. The factual basis for this story came not only from oral history, but also from a single document lodged by Stambolis with the British Ambassador claiming compensation for the lost and damaged items in the house. From this document was knitted a series of scenarios, including the ambassador giving Stambolis the house, Stambolis moving in, exploring the furniture left by the ambassador; the Germans showing interest in the house, and finally the decrepit state of the house when she finally returns to it after the Germans have moved out.
It wasn’t just scenarios that were invented. Also invented were characters, such as a character in Greece named Nicky, who was deaf. Stambolis had a real son who was deaf, and who is present in the Australian side of the novel. This Greek Nicky was placed in the novel as a literary device, to be a subtle link between the two sides of the world. Through the invented Nicky Stambolis’ maternal side was shown, and also how disability was approached in the two countries at that time.
Other invented characters were drawn to give an insight into the wider personalities in the resistance. This included a man known only as The Captain who was the leader of an Athens cell in the resistance. He, along with another fictional resistance fighter, Stavros, were both introduced as contrasts. While both were capable and passionate, they had very different personalities. The Captain was tough and confident (a fact demonstrated by his murder of a suspected informant). Stavros was more fragile minded, badly affected by the loss of a relative. As a third contrasting character, there was a man who was enthusiastic but child-like; not at all tough; glorying in the killings and the successes of the underground, but certainly unable to be relied upon.
With this mix of fact and fiction, I used the facts available, but had a number of rules that I kept throughout: I made sure the context was true; didn’t explode her story into that of a great war hero and didn’t make Stambolis into in something that she wasn’t. However, to make this a credible work, the publication needed to clearly state that this was a historical fiction piece, that was no more than based on a true story. This allowed a broadening of the story, and the inclusion of fictional elements to help tell the story of the Greek experience under occupation, and of a woman’s role in that situation.
The result was that the final novel was a fictional re-telling of historical events in Greece, Egypt and Australia while also moving backwards and forwards through a time period that extended between the first world war to 1952. These movements were chosen because I came to the view during the writing process that these were the most effective ways to tell this story, filling in the gaps in the story while staying honest about the nature of the work.
Someone Else’s War was published in 2013 in Europe as “Olga’s War” and was reprinted after 3 weeks.
Available on iTunes: In English and in Greek. Search for Phil Kafcaloudes
Available in book form:
Greek version ISBN: 978-618-01-0055-6 (through Psichogios Publications, Athens)
English version Someone Else’s War ISBN: 978-1-742840-64-2 (contact the author directly firstname.lastname@example.org)