The unique experiences of Yiorgos Rerakis, 16, and Alex Lewis, 21, and Paul Lewis, 20, who got connected even before they were born through Greek history, show how Greece and its history can bring together people from different cultures and walks of life.
The three young Australians travelled to Crete with their families as part of the Australian delegation for the commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Crete. Little did they know that through this trip and their experiences in Crete, they would become eternal admirers of the island.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
I travelled to Crete for the 70th year anniversary of the Battle of Crete to commemorate those who fought to ensure the freedom of the island and the world from a terrible force. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to go with three of my cousins, my dad, my uncle and my grandfather who is now 81. He had helped hide Australian diggers when he was a child younger than me. We were also lucky enough to be at the memorial services with diggers from Australia, England and New Zealand who made a huge effort to come, considering their age and fragile state. My family also had the pleasure of meeting up with the grandchildren of Charles Jager, an Australian digger and his family.
The time during the war must have been extraordinarily difficult and my family and John Lewis’ family Charles’ son in law, got a small taste of what it would have been like when we walked through the Samaria Gorge after having only two hours of sleep the previous night. It was really a great experience travelling through the gorge with the grandchildren of Charles Jager, especially because their grandfather travelled through the gorge to escape from the Germans.
It meant a lot to me to be there with Charles Jager’s grandchildren and the veterans who travelled to the other side of the world to pay their respects. It just occurred to me that three generations on we have developed this friendship with this family which eventuated from this ten-day battle. I’m really glad that I got the opportunity to come this year because next time I go the same opportunities might not be around. The thing that had the most effect on me was when a veteran wanted to get up and say a speech, he was struggling to stand but the people said that he didn’t care if he died right there where he stood. I will never forget this trip as it was my first specifically for the battle of Crete.
My family were shown the remarkable friendliness and generosity we had always been promised and we were treated as though we were guests of honour, as though in some way Cretans owed us, through my grandfather, some debt of gratitude. But it was really completely the other way round. It was we who owed the people of Crete everything. Had Cretans not kept the young Charlie Jager (my grandfather) safe for all those months he was on the run after his escapes from the prison camps at Skenes until he escaped by fishing boat to Alexandria, then me, or my brother Paul, or his mother Claire would be here. That’s a debt we can never repay, but one which sustained Charles’ life-long love affair with Crete and its people – and of which we now feel a part.
The two weeks we spent in Crete for the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Crete were emotional and unforgettable.
Our trip to Crete was fantastic on two levels – simply as a holiday, but also as an important experience for my family and I. In the first sense, we had a great time – the landscapes, towns, villages, beaches and – in particular – food were all beautiful, especially when we were able to get off the beaten track and head to the tiny traditional towns tucked away in the mountains. But more importantly, the trip to Crete was an experience of connecting to my family and my history – my grandfather fought on Crete during the war, and would not have survived had it not been for the courage and generosity of the Cretan people. I think it is fitting that we could not have done any of this ourselves without that same generosity, particularly of the Rerakis family, who could not have been kinder in organising, then hosting us during our trip – especially in the beautiful village of Episkopi.
While we fluked a beautiful little pension – Pension Nora – in the old city of Chania, Episkopi was the highlight of our trip as a base for our travels to the various commemorations – especially the very moving ceremony at Preveli. Nothing prepared us for the beauty of Episkopi, but John Rerakis had promised we would be knocked out by the hospitality, too. Sure enough, on our first night we were invited for dinner – some dinner! It seemed to us the whole village turned up! It was a great night, the start of a wonderful stay, but as John keeps saying, “That’s Crete – I told ya!”