Thursday, October 8, 2020

a theater of memories

 

Athens under Nazi occupation

My parents grew up in a rural village in the Peloponnese - during WWII, the German occupation and then the Greek civil war. I grew up in the US, and my childhood consisted of playing kickball with the neighborhood kids, as we waited for the ice cream man to come so we could get snow cones.

My parents never really said too much about their childhoods. I got random bits and pieces of their memories – my mother and her family, together with most of the women, children and elderly in the village, hiking up the steep hillsides under the cover of night, to hide in caves as Nazi soldiers advanced. She offered no other details. Just the facts. But that’s all I needed to get her message. We endured unspeakable circumstances. We survived.

As a teenager, I visited the village of my parents’ birth, I stayed in the house where my father was raised. I slept in the upstairs bedroom, flaking blue paint on the faded walls, creaky metal-framed bed, wide window sills with strange holes here and there. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. Just another detail of decay, like the broken door handle to the closet under the stairs, which always came out in my hand whenever I tried to open the door. But the little holes in the windowsill by my bed were useful. At night, I’d take off my earrings and put them there for safekeeping.

In my twenties, my college years, I came to Athens to study. I read, I wandered, I explored. I learned about the war years, visited museums, listened to lectures by professors – a few of them had lived through it all as children, and had lost siblings, parents, loved ones.

After college, I moved to Athens. I began to pay closer attention to all the worlds that existed here before me. The ruins, the remnants, the signs, the marks, the stains, the scars, the wounds, the holes – and there are many. The city and its walls began to speak to me in a different voice.  

I noticed buildings in downtown Athens, and some in my own neighborhood, with pockmarked facades, and came to realize that they are not a result of urban decay, or of disinterested owners, unable to maintain their properties.

 

***

 

Back in 2012, during the financial crisis and the rise of far-right extremist groups in Greece, I wrote about a book presentation I had attended:

The author, an elderly man with white hair and beard, was seated at the front. There were only about 12 people in the audience. He spoke about his book, which chronicles the years during World War II, when Greece was under German occupation. The book is his personal account of life in occupied Athens where the Nazi flag was raised on the Acropolis in 1941 and flew over the city until 1944.

My parents also lived through the war. But they hardly ever spoke about what they had witnessed and experienced…

And so I found myself at this book presentation in Athens, talking about such memories with a group of strangers. An elderly woman wearing a flowered dress stood up to speak. She held onto a wooden cane with an unsteady, bony hand and described how as children, she and her brother were forced to stand at attention and salute the Nazi flag at gunpoint.

During his talk, the soft-spoken author paused. He tried to compose himself but tears gathered in his eyes and his voice became hoarse. I sat there among my parents’ generation, listening to their personal stories, my eyes wet and raw, as people outside on the sidewalk stopped to look through the glass at this curious gathering. They would come a bit closer to examine the book display in the window, and perhaps once they realized what the subject was, they walked away, their interest fading.

Afterwards, the author signed a copy of his book for me. I thanked him for telling his story, and added that there is much I don’t know, as my parents could never share their own stories with me. I asked him his opinion about the financial crisis in Greece, the rise of the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn; the violence against immigrants; the ultra-nationalist sentiments. He commented that he believes things will only get worse. There were others waiting to speak to him so I thanked him again and slipped the book into my bag and left.

I walked through Syndagma Square towards the tram. City workers were still cleaning up after the latest scuffle. Another incident with members of Golden Dawn trying to set up “Greeks only” food distribution stalls, where the needy can receive food only after showing their ID cards as proof that they are Greek. Police get involved, TV crews show up, desperate people shout, immigrants cower, Golden Dawn members dressed in black pants and black t-shirts with swastika-like logos bellow into the camera. 

I made my way onto the crowded tram and managed to get a seat by the window. I took the book out to read the author’s inscription. I looked down at his thin, scrawled handwriting:

I hope you learn what your parents suffered.

 

***

 

The author of that book was right. Things did get worse. And through the years, I began to learn more about what my parents, and their generation, suffered.

In my wanderings around Athens, I learned that many of the pitted building facades were the result of bullet holes from WWII, from the Nazi occupation, the resistance, the civil war. Physical reminders of battles fought, of triumph and loss, of life and death.

I joined a group, led by a professor, and went on walking tours throughout Athens, learning about what happened during the Nazi occupation in Athens.  

Here is where resistance fighters were gunned down by Nazi soldiers; during the winter of 1941-42 there was a famine, (40,000 Athenians perished) and here is the building which was the city morgue at the time, where wooden carts would dump the bodies of those who died of starvation in the front garden, because the morgue inside could hold no more. And here, 4 Korai St, this building served as German headquarters, there were offices above, and below in the basement is where prisoners were held and tortured by the Nazis.  

Part of this building has been made into a memorial museum.  I descended into two of its basement levels, with the professor leading the group.

Here are the cells where the prisoners were kept. I looked around at the walls which were covered in etched graffiti, writings – their names, messages of resistance, last words to loved ones. The warm, stale air pressed on me like a lead weight. I lasted less than ten minutes down there. All I could do was search for the exit, find the stairs and scramble back up to the light, the fresh air, the street level, the city noise, to normalcy. But the feeling of simply being present in that space, is a feeling I will never forget. From that day on, I saw Athens in a different light. I watched closely and listened.

Look. The bullet holes. See? Here, and here. This building, this street corner, this cell, this basement. This is what happened here.

 

***

 

In the neighborhood where I live, a public library opened a few years ago. Housed in one of the few remaining neoclassical buildings in the area, it was beautifully restored. It was built in the early 1930s and the wealthy Vernikos family lived there. It was one of the very few “villas” of the time that had central heating and a boiler room in the basement.


But as I learned, this basement also had another story to tell. During the Nazi occupation, in that basement, in that boiler room, the Vernikos family hid a Jewish family, from August 1943 to October 1944. Sam Modiano and his family lived in the basement boiler room of that house for 14 months and survived the Nazi occupation of Greece.  During the Holocaust, 60,000 Greek Jews perished.

boiler room 
 

In 1985, members of the Vernikos family [Nikos Sanikos and his wife Ellie (Vernikos) Sanikos] were granted the Righteous Among the Nations honorific, given by Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during WWII, German Occupation and the Holocaust. A total of 355 Greeks have been honored with this title.

The grandsons of the Modiano (L) and Vernikos (R) families reunite in the house-turned-library.

 

***

 

Yesterday, (Oct 7, 2020), the largest trial of Nazis in Europe since Nuremberg took place in Athens. The neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was found guilty of being a criminal organization, its leaders found guilty of murdering anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas, and guilty of a string of additional charges. The trial had begun in April 2015.  Yesterday, none of the 18 Golden Dawn members appeared in court to hear their verdict.

Golden Dawn was founded in the 1980s. During the financial crisis and the resulting austerity measures which left many Greeks destitute, Golden Dawn gained supporters. They targeted immigrants (and anyone who opposed them) and carried out violent, racist attacks.

In May 2012 elections, Golden Dawn won 21 seats in the Greek parliament. In June 2012, one of their MPs physically assaulted two female politicians on live TV. In January 2013, Shehzad Luqman, a Pakistani immigrant, was murdered by two Golden Dawn members. In September 2013, Golden Dawn member Giorgios Roupakias, fatally stabbed anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas. In 2014, Golden Dawn won three seats in the European parliament. By the 2015 elections, Golden Dawn were the third strongest party in Greece, with about 7% of the votes and 18 seats in the Greek parliament.

Currently, they hold zero seats in the Greek parliament and two seats in the European parliament (although the two Golden Dawn MEPs declare themselves as “independents”).

And today, October 8, after yesterday’s verdict, we await the sentencing in the Golden Dawn trial. The guilty will go to jail, but is this really over? For Greece? For Europe? For everyone, everywhere?  Fascism, neo-Nazi ideologies, white supremacy still exist.

The rise of neo-Nazis happened, they were voted into parliament as lawmakers in a country like Greece, where the visible and invisible signs of WWII’s Nazi occupation still remain. In the country where the ideals of democracy were born, the rise of Golden Dawn serves to remind us that democracy itself remains fragile.

But yesterday, with the momentous guilty verdict, and forthcoming sentencing, has democracy been strengthened? Are we rid of extreme ideologies? Are we so sure this will never happen again?

Video of the announcement outside the court. 



Just moments after the triumphant, landmark ruling was announced, the joyous crowd of over 15,000 people who had gathered peacefully in the streets around the court, were teargassed and water cannoned. The celebration turned into chaos, as people gasped for air and tried to get away, eyes stinging and vision impaired.

 

***

 


Have I learned what my parents suffered?

By the time I went back to the house in my father’s village, years later, I had learned a bit more. In the upstairs bedroom where I stayed, I looked closer at those ‘details of decay’ -  the holes which once stored my earrings each night, were bullet holes. I still don’t know how they got there. During WWII, Nazi soldiers had occupied the house, and slept in the very bedroom where I had once slept. The closet under the stairs with the broken door handle is where my father and his siblings would hide from the soldiers, where he had held his little sister tight, his hand over her mouth, so she wouldn’t give them away.

On walks through the surrounding hillsides, I’d look up at the caves among the rocks, among steep inclines and thorny shrubs and wonder, is that where my mother and her family hid?

I still don’t know much more about my parents’ childhood. The bits and pieces that I have discovered through the years, I have come to realize, are enough to understand.

The walls and buildings in Athens, in my own neighborhood, in my parents' village - still speak to me.   

Look. Here, and here. See? This place, this cell, this basement, this bedroom, these hillsides. This is what happened here.

Filtered through time and generations, I am surrounded by a theater of memories, marked by their scars.




 

 

Magda Fyssas, the mother of Pavlos Fyssas, hears the verdict in court.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

watching and waiting



Spetses.

I don’t know how I ended up here. But now it all makes perfect sense. 

Back in Athens, June and July dragged on - by the sweltering heat of the day, and the stale air-conditioned cool of my nights. I steadily anticipated, day by day, the announcement of new coronavirus cases in Greece as the country opened up, with restrictions, to tourism. 

Due to various obligations and June cancellations (covid restrictions), so far summer has been spent in Athens. Cautiously watching. Will there be a sudden coronavirus spike? Nervous anticipation. Will there be another lockdown? Impatiently waiting. Will I ever make it to the sea this summer?

However, last week, an unexpected granting of time off found me scrambling to book a last-minute escape to the seaside. After a day of online searching and desperate calls to all our usual, favorite places I found that everything was booked. We preferred to stay on the mainland and avoid ferries, but… One last frantic search turned up a good opportunity on the nearby island of Spetses. But it took some convincing…

-Spetses?! I’ve been there a million times!
- So? That was literally decades ago…
- We’ll have to get on a ferry! We’ll have to wear masks!
-So, we’ll wear masks then…
-The beaches are filled with rocks and prickly sea urchins!
-So? We’ll wear water shoes…

And 24 hours later, I won the battle as we sat on the flyingcat ferry, masked up, in socially-distanced seating. And in only two hours, we walked off the ferry, removed our masks and found ourselves in another world… So close to Athens but it felt like we had arrived on another planet. Sea, sun, horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping down the street, beautiful historic buildings… Ah, Spetses, it’s been too long.  



I walked past harbor, past the statue of Bouboulina – she is Greece’s heroine of the 1821 War of Independence from the Ottomans, and was a commander of her own fleet. 


The mother of seven children, Bouboulina was married (and widowed) twice – to sea captains and was left with a sizeable fortune. She used it to fund the construction of her warship, the Agamemnon, armed with 18 canons. Bouboulina also funded the purchase and shipment of arms and ammunition for the revolution. Twelve days before the revolution officially began, Bouboulina raised her own flag on the Agamemnon, and in early April 1821, the island of Spetses was the first naval force to enter the uprising. Fleets from nearby islands joined Bouboulina to create over 300 vessels which played a prominent role in the Greek War of Independence.  Historians argue that without Bouboulina’s naval power, Greece might not have won independence from the Ottomans.

Our seafront accommodation was perfect. An oasis. Exactly what we needed. The first night we sat on the large veranda, looking at the sea, listening to the waves, the cool air on our skin. Bliss. 

And by day two, the world seemed a million miles away. Athens? Work? Coronavirus? Increasing tensions in the Aegean? We were cycling through streets shaded by pine forests, whooshing along the seafront; swimming in shady coves, napping by the shore under the shade of pines… Ahh, finally. This.

-I wish we could stay here all summer.
-Yeah, why haven’t we been coming here more often all these years?

And then his phone rang. It was duty calling, literally. 

Tensions in the Aegean between Turkey and Greece were heating up. So much so that time off for military staff was revoked and he was ordered to return… 

Hours later, I stood at the port, the late afternoon light fading, watching him board the ferry back to Athens. Walking towards the house alone, I passed Bouboulina’s statue again. Her left hand at her brow, her gaze over the sea is constant, her right hand rests on the pistol at her waist, tucked into her belt. Locals say her gaze alternates - during the day it’s stern and brave but at night it becomes troubled and concerned. 

I spent the rest of the evening on the terrace overlooking the sea, staring at the distant mountains on the mainland, the horizon. The wind had picked up, the boats moored in the bay bobbed and swayed, and the sound of crashing waves filled my restless night.

***
A morning swim provided a respite from the early news of the day: situation unchanged, advisories from both sides issued and counter-issued… It seemed surreal, the country on alert, but here a sense of normalcy prevailed. Beach-goers on bicycles, tourists buzzing by on mopeds, families with happy kids trotting past on horse-drawn carriages. 

Walking through town, I came across the home of Bouboulina. The mansion, over 300 years old, is now a museum, open to the public (visitors must follow new covid rules).  After disinfecting my hands with sanitizer at the entrance, and putting on my mask, I wandered through the rooms where Bouboulina once lived, and stood on her front balcony where a bullet to the forehead struck and killed her in 1825 the shooter was never identified.   


Bouboulina's house

Plaque at entrance, a quote by historian Filimon: "Before her, the coward is shamed and the gallant retreat."

Walking home that evening, past the large square by the port, Bouboulina stood silent and serious, her ever-watchful gaze surveying the seafront. Parents sat on benches and stood in clusters as kids criss-crossed the square on bicycles and scooters, the sound of their carefree laughter carried on the wind.

Checking my phone for updates, there was news about Germany playing a role as mediator in an effort to diffuse the situation, news of forest fires near Corinth and other regions of Greece. 

I spent the second evening sitting on the terrace overlooking the sea, a greyish smoke cloud visible in the distance, as firefighters battled the forest fires across the way in the Corinth area and as people there evacuated their homes. The winds had intensified, I looked below at the crashing waves and decided against a late afternoon swim.

I fell asleep with the windows open… the sound of the whipping wind carrying the smell of burning across the sea, into my bedroom.


***
During the next few days, the winds died down, the firefighters managed to get the blaze under control. By the end of the week, the situation in the Aegean seemed to de-escalate as EU leaders, the US ambassador to Greece, and the US State Dept issued statements and for the time being, Turkey’s seismic research vessel Oruc Reis never left its port, near Antalya. Greece remains vigilant. 

However, the exchange of heated statements continued on Friday, as the Turkish government showcased the conversion of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia* into a mosque, amidst controversy and opposition from UNESCO and the international community. Islamic prayers were held at Hagia Sophia on Friday, which were attended by Turkish President Recep Erdogan. 

I spent the day alternating between reading and writing on the shady terrace, gazing at the sea, swimming, sitting on the shore with the searing sun on my back. Checking my phone for updates, avoiding the TV news…
***
The next day, the sea was calm when I left Bouboulina’s island. As I walked to the port, I passed her statue for the last time, and paused to read the message on the base:  

ΜΠΟΥΜΠΟΥΛΙΝΑ1821ΘΕΛΕΙ ΑΡΕΤΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΤΟΛΜΗΝ Η ΕΛΕΥΘΕΡΙΑ
 Bouboulina – 1821 – Freedom requires virtue and bravery

The kapetanissa stared out to sea, shading her eyes; one hand on her pistol, at the ready.







 
*A UNESCO Word Heritage site, Hagia Sophia was built by Emperor Justinian I in 537, and has stood as a symbol of the Eastern Orthodox Church for centuries. After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, it was converted into a mosque. For the past 85 years, since 1935, Hagia Sophia had operated as a museum.