Generations after Greece first responded to Benito Mussolini’s ultimatum with a simple, but very strong “No!”, many still remember the tragedy they lived through thereafter.
Members of our Neos Kosmos readership share their stories of that fateful day in October, 80 years ago and how as children, the world around them ceased to exist as they once knew it.
In 1940 Kostas Grivokostopoulos was only 5 years old. Memories from the days of war blur in his mind, however isolated images remain, still haunting him. The trauma of war does not discriminate. As a small child, Mr Grivokostopoulos went from playing carefree in his village of Mali with his two brothers, to learning the hard game of survival.
“I remember it was noon and my father, an uncle and I were sitting in a corner. The two men were enjoying homemade cask wine and gazing out the window when they saw soldiers coming from afar. My uncle tells my father ‘soldiers are coming’. The man was an old warrior, who spent eight years in the first World War. He continues, ‘It is a trained army; Italians or Germans. The war had started’,” Mr Grivokostopoulos recalled.
He remembers a time he came across a soldier in the street.
“I once met a soldier in the street. ‘Can you hold on to this horse?’ he asked me. I looked him in the eyes trying to cover my fear and said, ‘I have to ask my father first’. ‘Where do you live?” he asked me again. ‘In a house down there’ I answered him and proceeded to run wherever my feet would take me,” Mr Grivokostopoulos said laughing.
Years later, much like many Greeks, he took those gloomy memories along with his luggage and immigrated to Australia. Since moving, he has visited the picturesque mountain village of Mali five times.
“Now only 17 people live permanently, but once it was full of life”, he said, his voice breaking with emotion.
When Greece entered the war, Kostas Katsabanis was almost 13 years old, living in Kalamata. He vividly remembers the morning of Monday, 28 October 1940, as sirens were blaring and bells were ringing.
“We went to school but when we arrived, the teachers told us to go back to our homes. Leaving school, we decided to go down to the city. The chief commissioner of Messinia and the mayor ordered for people’s cars because then there were no state vehicles, in order to send the recruits to the Training Centers according to their specialty,” he said.
Mr Katsabanis was surrounded by fear and sorrow, however he was influenced by this enthusiasm and passion of the Greek soldiers to help those around him, along with other teenage boys.
“The next day we started making shelters. The Mayor knew many houses that had basements that were empty. We cleaned them and wrote ‘SHELTER’ outside and when the siren sounded we ran where there were shelters to help any elderly or disabled person go down the stairs. That’s how we spent that time. This was my offer,” Mr Katsabanis recalled emotionally.
The now 92-year-old Mr Katsabanis remembers the New Zealand troops who came to Kalamata to help with the fight. When reinforcements arrived from the German side, the New Zealanders scattered and the people of the town hosted and cared for them until it was time for them to leave.
Expatriate Thomas Kourtis remembers the tragic story of his uncle George Zahos, who fell fighting on the Albanian border, his wife driven to death by her grief along with their unborn child.
In the summer of 1940, the then four-year-old Mr Kourtis was at the house of his grandfather Nikolos Zachos in a village outside Karditsa. The house buzzed with joy as his uncle George returned to marry the beautiful Glykeria and take her back with him to America. The couple were grace with the news that they would be welcoming a child into the world shortly after the wedding.
As the newlyweds prepared to leave for America, Greece entered the war. George, instead of returning to America, found himself on the Albanian border fighting for his homeland, leaving behind his pregnant wife and their dreams.
A very young Mr Kourtis remembers that it was one or two weeks before Christmas in ’40 when he was at the house of his grandparents. It was just before noon when the door slammed open and in came the village president, the priest and the teacher.
“As soon as he saw them, my grandfather became upset and as if he understood that they had not come for good, he addressed the president and asked him, ‘My dear president, what bad news do you bring?'”
The president fell silent, took a deep breath and with sadness explained that George had been killed.
“The grandfather reacted more calmly, but at the sound of the news, the grandmother and aunt fainted,” Mr Kourtis recalled.
“I ran like crazy to my mother, I rushed into the house screaming the news. She jumped up as if she had been electrocuted, grabbed her scarf and we started running back together to grandfather’s house, my father followed behind. I remember that they were trying to bring back my grandmother and aunt to consciousness and soon the whole village started to gather at home to mourn and offer help, as was usual then.”
George’s widow, Glykeria, had taken the loss of her husband very seriously. She did not eat, drink or lie for hours crying. Eventually the doctor came to examine her and gave her some medicine, but the pain was too strong and so just before Easter of 1941 the beautiful newlywed widow passed, taking her unborn baby with her.
Nikolos tried to bring the body of his lost son to the village to bury him alongside his wife and child, but in the middle of the war this was impossible.
John Papadopoulos was 6 years old when his father left to join the army. A few days after his father was enlisted, his mother was informed that his order, the Order of the Florinians, would pass sometime after 8:00pm. His father took him by the hand to the monument of Alexander the Great and waited.
“My mother asked me ‘Do you see your father?’ I looked up and saw him, wearing his helmet, loaded with the old weapons they had then. He also saw us and greeted us. I have had this image alive in my mind for 80 years. It was very moving and beautiful. Two weeks later after Greece had entered the war, he sent us a letter from Korytsa describing how the Greek army was superior to the Italian one. I remember that he wrote to us that they had gone and camped in a deserted church outside the town,” Mr Papadopoulos said.
In the meantime the Italians attacked Florina from above. We had shelters but my grandmother took me to the mountain, to Agios Panteleimonas for protection. But the Italians flew high to avoid our planes, so they could not find the city and the bombs fell on the mountain. So, the next day, I said to my grandmother: ‘I will not come to the mountain again, I will go to the shelter with the others’.”
During the German occupation, Florina was a place of recovery for the wounded of the German army. Mr Papadopoulos remembered that they really liked the turtles and would give the children in the town chocolates. His grandfather owned the hotel ‘International’, and would host wounded German soldiers. Some others lived in our neighboring houses. By then half of the Order was lost, his father wrote another letter to let his family know that he was alive and well.
“One morning I was out playing. We had caught fish at the river. Suddenly a familiar whistle was heard from afar. I looked up and saw the figure of my father approaching vividly. He wore civilian clothes and did not carry a weapon. He was finally coming home. From what he told us later, he wanted to follow the others to Egypt but his love for his family kept him going. The day of his return was the most beautiful day of my life,” Mr Papadopoulos recalled.
Marina Ioannidi was a little girl when the war hit Greece.
“I am of Pontian origin and from the villages of Amyntaio. From there the army for the Albanian Front passed.The first thing I remember is my father reading a newspaper and saying to my mother, ‘Sophia, Dunkirk has fallen’. Growing up, my father explained to me that World War II had begun,” Ms Ioannidis recalled.
As the war began to unfold, a young Maria heard cries and voices. Fellow villagers left, including two of her mother’s brothers.
On Monday, 28 October 1940 Ms Ioannidis left for school. Her worried teacher sent all the children back home. Arriving home, she found her mother crying. The main road of the village was filled with soldiers, wet from the snow and rain. They walked for hours to the battlefront. All the women of the village knitted socks, gloves and t-shirts for the army.
“I remember and I never forget, every morning, my mother would boil milk and when the soldiers passed by, she would go out on the street and give it to them. I once heard a soldier shout, ‘Doctor, come on, she has hot milk’. The doctor came and my mother offered him the milk with great joy,” Ms Ioannidis said.
When Spring came the Greek army began to retreat. Despite the retreat, they had laurels of victory, winners returned, frostbitten and tired. The whole village on the street welcomed them with baskets full of bread, cheese, olives, pies and water. They were very distressed and asked to rest. Three soldiers stayed at Ms Ioannidis’ home and asked for the president of the village at the time, who happened to be her father.
There is however one incident that really stuck with Ms Ioannidis. One of the fellow villagers betrayed her father and two youngsters to the Germans.
“He said that they brought a cart full of weapons from Kastoria. It was true. The two young men carried them. That day, I was with the other children in the school yard when we suddenly saw five black cars. The older children told me that they saw my father entering on of them. It was the Gestapo. As the father later told us, he thought he would never see his four children again,” Ms Ioannidis said.
Eventually her father and the young men were saved, because as it turned out the traitor was illegally harvesting state pastures and school estates. The Germans were very strict in obeying the law and turned against the traitor. They thought he was denouncing the others in order to cover up his own illegalities and so they set them free.
“I wish we do not experience such dark days again.”
Dimitrios Karmis shares his recollection of the war that began in October.
“I remember the war like yesterday. I went to Krestena High School. That day the whole school we were on a picnic in Mouschoula. Suddenly, planes appear announcing the war. My village Anemochorio, is located at an altitude. The church was owned by the Germans and the slope by the Italians. When the war ended, the Germans blamed the Italians. They were pushed on the trains and in the Isthmus of Corinth they were knocked down. Only one Italian survived.”
The neighborhoods in Argos Orestiko, Kastoria, were buzzing with children waving wooden weapons and swords, playing war, stirring up the place with their voices and laughter. Among them is expatriate Dimitris Koutlemanis, a seven-year-old boy who fought carefree for the honour of his neighbourhood.
On 28 October, 1940 little Dimitris, his four brothers and their parents along with the whole village awoke to the sound of shell explosions and the noise of Italian planes that flew overhead. Argos Orestiko is only 25 kilometers from the Greek-Albanian border, so inevitably from the first minute that Greece was involved in the war, it was in the eye of the storm.
The women of the village immediately entered the fight in their own way, knitting socks and woolen clothes for the soldiers, who either loaded them on their backs or on their animals along with the ammunition they carried to the front line, creating the mythical figures engraved on the modern Greek history as ‘The women of Pindos’.
On 1 November 1940 the then seven-year-old Dimitris lived through the terror of the cowardly Italian air attack on their fortified city. There was no siren to signal the danger, no shelters to hide the civilian population. The six bombers pounded Argos mercilessly with bombs, but fortunately most of them did not find a target.
“I was with my grandfather that day. It was a huge disaster…We saw a lot of hardship, hunger and much more. It took us until ’49 when the civil war ended so that we could recover,” Mr Koutelmanis recalled.
As he recalled the days of the war, Mr Koutelmanis would stop every now and then to wipe a tear from his eyes.
“I remember everything but I can not tell you because the memories drown me before they have time to become words.”