People still talk about the Greek famine of 1941.
In my novel “Someone Else’s War” and in its play adaptation, I wrote about how my grandmother Olga, who worked for the resistance, was miraculously released from Averoff Prison in late 1941 only to find there was no miracle on the outside. For, after six months in what she considered a hell of fear, lack and deprivation, she found that the beautiful city of her birth was gripped by a disaster that few would, or could, have foreseen.
In my novel I write that Olga walked over starving people in the streets. One woman runs across her path cradling something precious. That something was a dead bird that would provide at least some nourishment for that woman’s children. Olga discovers a dead young woman on the road and calls for help but no-one answers; no-one even seems interested. Death is too common here. A man asks Olga if she has any food. He tells her he is the dead woman’s father. Olga gives him all she has, which is a piece of bread given to her by a guard on her release.
When I wrote this scene, I worried that I had exaggerated the situation; that my poetic licence that gone too far; that in telling this story the way I did I had dishonoured those who suffered in that famine. I had researched extensively, but the writings of the times were scarce. I did the best I could, but I still had my doubts.
A few months after the novel’s release I gave an Όχι Day presentation at the war memorial in Sydney. A semi-circle of Greek people watched me speak, most of them men, aged men. One in particular stared at me. He was small man probably in his 80s, bow-legged with a full shock of white hair. But it is his face I remember most strongly, so concentrated it was on me. He never reacted to what I said, he just stared, his eyes on mine all the time. Later when I sat to sign copies of the novel, this man joined the queue. I could see him staring at me even as he stood in that line, even as I bantered with the people whose books I was signing. Eventually it was this man’s turn. I asked him if he wanted me to sign his book. I saw he had no book in his hand.
“No,” he said. “I have read your book.”
This is the moment when a writer’s worst fears invade. I braced for an attack.
“That part when you described the famine, when your grandmother got out of jail. Remember that?”
“I was there,” he said. “In that street at that time.”
I nodded again.
“I was exactly as you wrote.”
For a few moments we looked at each other. Then he smiled and shook my hand. He left. As I watched him go I felt relief, gratification for his kindness, and a little bit of self-satisfaction that I had written this part well. Since then I have come to understand that the reader of a novel conjures their own images from your words. This small man was remembering his childhood horror as he read my scene. He was person who reconstructed that scene perfectly, not me. The most I had done was avoid clangers and wrong information. I had made a scenario into which his memories could slide.
And that told me plenty about this worst of famines. I knew already that the famine killed 300,000 Greeks; on some days up to 1000 people died. The Greek morgues and hospitals could not cope. Dead bodies were allowed to lie on the streets, bodies like that of my young woman.
READ MORE: Olga’s War
What my small man brought to me was that my invention of the times struck a true chord. The times were such that that a mother could relish a rotting bird as food; a father could be so exasperated, so distraught that he could let his daughter lie dead on a road; that the norms of Greek life such as the wailing and grief would have to wait because the living had needs that were not being attended to.
Australia’s Booker Prize-winning author Tom Keneally once wrote that all famines are caused by politics. He points to Bengal in 1943, Ireland in the 1840s and Ethiopia in the 1970s as examples of how disenfranchisement (Ireland), government incompetence (Bengal) or political tyranny (Ethiopia) led to the deaths of millions through malnutrition. The popular belief that the potato famine was the cause of Ireland’s misery is just not true, according to Keneally. It was a factor, but not that prime cause.
To these we can add Greece in 1941-42, when an invader broke an economy, looted its food and exported it out of the country, leaving a proud people to die.
The Greeks recovered, but not until after several more years of occupation and then a civil war. We know now that the German people also suffered famine at the hands of the Hitler regime and its incompetencies. These things are never isolated, and it wasn’t in WWII: see the scorched Norway or the devastating winter in Russia. Eighty years on we should remember what can happen when politics and self-aggrandisement are not checked. Among the worst of these are that young women die alone on a street and proud fathers are reduced to begging.
Dr Phil Kafcaloudes is a writer, academic and broadcaster. He worked for the ABC for 26 years as a TV political reporter and radio presenter. He has taught at La Trobe and RMIT universities. His PhD examined the legitimacy of telling true stories in a fictional context.