I first learned of the Greeks of Zgorzelec in Poland (formerly the German imperial city of Görlitz) from Preston-based Faye Mangos, who describes in her autobiography “A Cry of the Heart,” how she was taken there during the Greek Civil War, along approximately 10,000 of her compatriots, mostly from northern Greece. There, they set about constructing Greek schools, a Greek retirement home, a factory reserved for Greek employees and later on, the Greek church of Saints Constantine and Helen.

Unbeknownst to Faye Mangos, and most of her compatriots, this was not the first time that Greeks had settled in the city. Indeed, some thirty years previously, when the city formed part of the German Empire and was not divided along the Neisse River between modern Germany and Poland, another unlikely group of Greeks had made their way there, under a most unique set of circumstances. They would go on to establish a vibrant presence, Görlitz going down in history as the town where the first ever bouzouki recording was ever made.

On 25 May 1916, amidst the throes of the First World War, German and Bulgarian forces demanded that Greece surrender of the fortress of Rupel on the Bulgarian border to them, as a counterbalance to the Allied forces that had violated Greek neutrality and established themselves in Thessaloniki in 1915. King Constantine I acquiesced to this demand and the German-Bulgarian troops proceeded to occupy most of eastern Macedonia without resistance, causing outrage within an already divided Greek polity.

Greek newspaper from Gorlitz.

At the time of the surrender, the Greek Army’s IV Corps were stationed in the region of Drama. Their commander, Colonial Ioannis Hatzopoulos, was ordered by the King not to hinder the German-Bulgarian occupation of Macedonia in any way. Encircled by the occupation army and in a quandary as to what to do, Hatzopoulos proposed relocating his troops to Germany. Following negotiations with Major Wolfgang von Schweinitz and approval from the German Army Command, the Greek soldiers were considered “guests of the German Empire.” They were thus transported to Görlitz, where the whole contingent consisting of 6,100 soldiers and 430 officers, accompanied by their families, totalling around 500 individuals, were warmly welcomed by the townspeople. Some of those soldiers’ descendants, originating in Crete, live in Melbourne today.

Initially, the Germans treated the newly arrived Greeks extremely hospitably, considering them a strategic asset in the protracted and complex negotiations with the Greek government for their maintainance of neutrality. Though in fact the soldiers were in a state of captivity, they were billeted in homes that were considered by them to be luxurious compared to those they were used to in Greece, they were allowed free movement, and were even provided with funds and a printing press in order to publish their community newspaper, «Τα Νέα του Görlitz». Overseen by Emil Glauber, printer of the city’s German rag, it ostensibly operated “as means for the Greeks of the town to become known to the townsfolk,” and was described by the editors as a “publication of immense historical and scientific importance.” In actual fact, it was a tool of the German Imperial propaganda, filled with reports of German victories and Allied losses on various European fronts. Apart from stirring poems with verses such as «δούλευε τα μπράτσα-Θάρρος Γερμανία!» (work those muscles, take heart Germany!) the newspaper also contained various sympathetic or ambivalent articles about workers’ agitation to bring down the Provisional Government in Russia and remove that country from the war, with analysis along the lines of: “the situation is critical as the army is beginning to debate socio-political and economic issues.”

All in all, the German government allocated over 10 million marks from what they termed “the Greek Fund” to support their “guests”, and some Greeks were able to find employment in agriculture and industry. Some marriages with local German women also took place and according to scholars, the arrival of thousands of troops marked the first mass meeting of Greeks and Germans on German soil in history. Consequently, the presence of the Greeks sparked the interest of German folklorists and social scientists who gravitated to the area in order to research the customs of the Greeks, make recording of their songs and their music. It is within this context that the first ever sound recording of the bouzouki was made. Also noteworthy was the significant intellectual and cultural activity of many Greek captive artists and intellectuals, such as the great playwright Vassilis Rotas, the writer Leon Koukoulas and the painter Pavlos Rodokanakis.

Events soon limited the use of the captive Greeks of Görlitz by the Germans, as a means to perpetuate civil strife within a Greece divided between the neutral but German-sympathising King and the Entente-sympathising Venizelos, who had set up a rival administration in Thessaloniki. Thus, conditions for the internees changed drastically when Greece openly joined the Entente, leading the Greek soldiers to transition from “guests” to prisoners of war. Disarmed and confined to a camp, many succumbed to the Spanish flu. Insufficient food and unbearable cold within the camp also took their toll on the Greek prisoners, resulting in the deaths of four hundred of them, mostly due to tuberculosis.

Photo: Dean Kalimniou archive

Talks about closing the camp began at late as January 1919, and due to transportation constraints, most soldiers only began to be repatriated from Görlitz on 21 February 1919. Not all of the Greeks wanted to be repatriated, however. A number of royalist officers refused to be repatriated, as they feared that they would become victims of reprisals by the Venizelist government once they arrived in Greece. They also hindered the repatriation of the men under their command, causing many radicalised Greek soldiers to join the Spartacist Uprising of Rosa Luxemburg. That uprising was put down with some violence, after which time the soldiers began to escape in small groups by any means at their disposal, many after unimaginable suffering and a whole odyssey of peregrinations around Europe. Some families sought after loved ones incarcerated at Görlitz for seven whole years after the end of the war. For many hapless returnees, life was particularly harsh. Some common soldiers suffered persecution from the Venizelist authorities, were subjected to ridicule and were often accused of treason. Returning offices were sentenced to death, even though these sentences were never carried out. By 1920, only 200 Greeks and 133 graves, including that of Colonel Hatzopoulos, who died on 15 April 1918 remained in the town. In 1921, the Görlitzer Greeks established the Griechische Vereinigung in the town to support cultural activities and their fellow countrymen. The association received financial aid from a Greek government nor longer intent upon retribution in 1930, to maintain the graves of Greek soldiers.

Left largely to their own devices during the interbellum, with Hitler’s rise to power, the association’s activities waned, and notwithstanding Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas’ amicable relationship with Germany, the Greeks in Görlitz faced harassment by the Nazi SS until the end of World War II. Despite these challenges, many Greeks who stayed in the town started families and businesses, owning retail outlets, shoemakers’ and hairdressers’ workshops, and even a factory by 1923. As trade with Greece expanded, they imported exotic products, including Greek snuff, which apparently, was popular in Germany.

By 1948, when the Greek Civil War refugees began to arrive to the town, providing a new wave of Greeks, it was no longer the Görlitz of old. A few years earlier, in 1945, the town was divided by the river Neisse which runs through it, and its eastern districts were ceded to Poland under the name of Zgorzelec, a status quo that has endured ever since. Thus, in the city divided in two, there lived Greeks of different generations, all victims of the two great conflicts of the twentieth century, blissfully unaware of the existence of their compatriots on the opposite bank, or indeed, of their trials and tribulations.