When Constantine Karamanlis returned to Greece from exile in July 1974 to restore parliamentary democracy after the fall of the military dictatorship, one of the slogans that he made popular was “Lethe sto parelthon“—“Forget the past!” He was not asking the Greeks to forget the seven years of the dictatorship, which had just collapsed under the weight of its own crimes and follies: it was too soon for that. The past to be forgotten was the civil war that had raged in Greece, with a few deceptive interludes, through most of the 1940s. Beginning in 1943, when Greece was still under German occupation, the rival forces led by communists and nationalists had fought each other almost continuously until 1949. This unhappy past was now to be forgotten—or so it was hoped.
Karamanlis himself set the example. He legalized the Communist Party (KKE) for the first time since 1947. He allowed the communist leaders who had taken refuge behind the Iron Curtain to return home under an amnesty. Today Markos Vafiadis, the commander in chief of the communist rebellion from 1946 to 1949, lives quietly in Athens. One of his senior lieutenants, Kapetan Yiotis, leads the KKE in Parliament under his real name, Kharilaos Florakis.
After Karamanlis’s party was defeated at the election in 1981, the attempt at reconciliation was carried further by the new socialist government under Andreas Papandreou. He abolished the annual celebration of the victories that crushed the communists in 1949. He sought to replace it with a celebration of the wartime resistance at the Gorgopotamos railway viaduct, the destruction of which in November 1942 had been the only occasion when the rival guerrilla forces, led by the nationalist general Napoleon Zervas and the communist Aris Veloukhiotis, had fought side by side against the common enemy instead of against each other.
The first celebration of “Gorgopotamos Day” was held last year on the fortieth anniversary. But the right-wing opposition in Parliament opposed the legislation that established it, and virtually all the survivors of the nationalist Resistance refused to take part in the ceremony. The Greeks, it seemed, would not forget the past. Nicholas Gage’s memorable book about his mother, Eleni, goes a long way toward explaining why.
Nicholas Gage (born Gatzoyiannis) spent the first nine years of his life, from 1939 to 1948, in the village of Lia in northwestern Greece. The village stands high on a rocky spur extending from Albania into Greek Epirus, known to the wartime combatants as the “Mourgana salient.” I have never visited Lia, but I feel I know it intimately, not only from Gage’s unforgettable descriptions of his impoverished but once-loved home, but because I have lived in hundreds of such villages, all fundamentally similar, all characteristically different.
The site is bleak but magnificent. The view southward from Lia, some 3,000 feet above the sea, must be very like the view from “monastic Zitsa,’ immortalized by Byron in the first canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Zitsa and Lia are less than fifteen miles apart as the crow flies, but in the Greek mountains nobody travels as the crow flies. For Nicholas as a child even the small towns of Epirus were as remote as the United States, where his father had emigrated before he was born.
His first journey out of Lia was made barefoot, in circumstances of horrifying tragedy, at the age of nine. Lia was at the center of a succession of wars. It had been one of the targets of the Italian invasion from Albania in 1940, but of that he could remember nothing. It had been a headquarters of the resistance to enemy occupation, which in that region had been chiefly a matter of feuding between the rival bands of the communist-led ELAS and the noncommunist EDES under General Zervas. After a brief respite in 1945, the village was again at the center of the civil war between the National Army of the Greek government and the Democratic Army of the communists. Most of the villagers began by supporting ELAS and the KKE—indeed, they had no alternative—but brutal experience converted all but a handful to the other side.
Life in a mountain village was primitive at the best of times. There was no road, no electricity, no running water, no amenities. Young Nicholas never saw a wheeled vehicle or tasted ice cream until he left Lia, and he could not understand what either of them was for. Meat, sugar, and coffee were rare luxuries; tea, boiled from a mountain herb, was the only medicine. The village had a priest and a schoolmaster, but no doctor. Life was governed by superstition, magic, fear, and suspicion. In all these respects, Lia was indistinguishable from hundreds of other villages.
The men were mostly itinerant tinkers and peddlers, sometimes absent from home for years at a stretch. The women were mostly illiterate serfs, who did what they were told by their husbands, their mothers-in-law, or the priest. Custom decreed that a bride should sleep on her wedding night not with her husband but with his mother, to show who was boss. Wives found comfort only in children and religion. Such was Eleni, Nicholas’s mother, until tragedy inspired her to tragic heights.
The Second World War made things even worse at Lia, and the civil war made them far worse still. The village virtually starved, the men left to fight or to evade fighting, the boys and girls were forcibly conscripted into the Democratic Army or deported to the communist countries in the north. Envy, treachery, and false witness were added to suspicion and fear. Armed bands passed through and looted, or stayed and stripped the village bare. In this poisoned atmosphere Eleni struggled to bring up four daughters and a son, while her husband labored in Worcester, Massachusetts, to earn enough to bring his family to the United States. To punish her for being slightly less poor than her neighbors, Eleni was spitefully called the Amerikana; and whenever ELAS or the Democratic Army came to Lia, Nicholas suffered agonies of remorse that his father had not emigrated to Russia instead.
The climax came when he was nine. “During January and February 1948, the muffled thunder of distant artillery became as much a part of life in Lia as the tintinnabulation of the goats’ bells and the morning oratorios of the roosters.” In the summer government troops tried to storm the Mourgana salient, but narrowly failed after reaching the outskirts of Lia. Eleni had been forbidden by her husband, from across the Atlantic, to flee from the village. Now it was practically too late to do so: the villagers were prisoners of the Democratic Army. But despite her promise to her husband, the threat was so terrible that Eleni took the equally terrible resolution to disobey her husband and try to organize her family’s escape.
One of her daughters had already been conscripted into the Democratic Army, but fortunately discharged as unsuitable to be an andartina, or female guerrilla. Then began the deportation of children to communist countries. At first this form of “liberation” was voluntary, but naturally there were few volunteers. So compulsion was necessary. By chance, it was young Nicholas who first overheard the guerrilla leaders discussing the plan for forcible deportation while he was hiding in his favorite “thinking place” in a field of beanstalks. When his mother heard the news, she did not pause to consider the familiar trick question of the fellow travelers, whether it is better to be red or dead. With peasant common sense and courage, she decided that any risk must be taken.
Lia was now in the front line, and the chances of getting through the maze of barbed wire, pillboxes, mines, and machine guns to the protection of the National Army were very slim. How this heroic and inspired woman made her plans is a marvelous work of reconstruction by the boy who was the center of them, using all the skills of the investigative reporter he later became. Her secret intention became known to the village, as all secrets do. In the end some twenty would-be refugees were involved in the attempt to escape, and almost everything went wrong.
The first attempt failed because a baby’s crying attracted too much attention. The second attempt was foiled by fog. Before the third attempt, another of Eleni’s daughters and then Eleni herself were conscripted by the communists for labor in the fields, several days’ journey away. She was certain that before they came back, it would be too late for all of them to escape together. She told her children that they must go without her, escorted by a relative who was a feckless and boastful chatterbox. In the agony of parting, her last words to her children were to “cast a black stone” behind them as they left the village, to make sure that they would never come back.
Eleni was also certain that if they escaped, she would pay for it with her life. By a miracle, all twenty of the refugees somehow stumbled through the fortified lines without being blown up or shot. When Eleni was brought back under arrest, to be interrogated and tortured, the sadistic party bosses told her that all her family were dead. They themselves knew, of course, that unless they invented a plausible story to cover their failure to prevent the escape, their own days were numbered, for there were even more brutal sadists above them.
Mercifully, before their final vengeance fell on Eleni, she learned from the village grapevine that they were lying. Her son and three daughters were already in safe hands, soon to be on the way to a new life in America. The daughter who had been left behind was forced into the Democratic Army, but succeeded in surrendering to government troops a year later. In the end all the childred were reunited with their father in the US. But long before that Eleni had been executed after an unspeakable parody of “justice” in front of a “people’s court.”
The last days of Eleni are almost unbearably poignant in her son’s superbly dramatic narrative. One knows that he is telling the truth when he describes her final acceptance that “death could be a solace, to be embraced like a lover.” He learned the outward events of her ordeal from the few eyewitnesses who shared all of it except the final murder. He learned almost as much from the lies of the despicable men and women who tried to conceal their own part in what took place. He knew his mother’s innermost thoughts because he was her son. It is impossible to doubt a word of his terrible story.
Gage does not say whether he “cast a black stone” behind him, but in fact he returned to Lia several times. The first was in 1963, when the rehabilitation of the KKE was just beginning; but so was the political crisis that led to the downfall of democracy. The second time was in 1969, when the government of the colonels was in power, and the communists were again the public enemy (except for the handful who characteristically changed sides and fervently supported the colonels). The third time was in 1980, when democracy had been restored and the communists were no longer outlaws.
He was amazed to find what had happened to them. The communists and their liberal sycophants were exalting the leaders of the rebellion to the status of national heroes. The past had been so thoroughly forgotten that it was denied that such events as the execution of civilians and the abduction of children had ever happened. That was why Gage decided to use his training as a journalist to track down the surviving participants and to tell the true story.
In Greece his book will be dismissed as sykophantia by the extreme left, who will not read it, and by bien pensant liberals, who will never set foot in the mountains. Greek charges of “sycophancy” do not mean bootlicking but consist of mud slinging, with a clear implication that it is all fiction. If Eleni were fiction, it would bear the marks of genius. There is a class of imaginative fiction that has all the self-evident authenticity of hard fact. When we read a great work of fiction, we find ourselves saying over every page: “Yes, of course, that is how it must have been—yes, that is exactly what must have happened!” So it is with Eleni; but Eleni, though a profoundly imaginative work, is not fiction.
For my part, I accept Gage’s story without reserve. It happens that during the years he describes I knew the Greek mountains better than any other foreigner, perhaps better even than most Greeks. Gage has the advantages of being Greek by birth and of having been an exceptionally alert and sensitive child. He can describe in dazzling detail what happened in one small village. With the advantage of twenty years’ seniority, and of a much wider grasp of the Greek scene, I can confirm that his account fits exactly into the larger history of the Greek civil war.
There are men capable of cruelty and torture in every country. In a civilized society we are protected from them by the rule of law. But when the rule of law breaks down, and the law passes into the hands of the torturers themselves, we have no protection. The destruction of the rule of law began in Germany fifty years ago—not in Russia, where it never existed. The Nazis spread the corruption of law and power throughout Europe. It is not surprising that in Greece it particularly affected the communists, since they suffered more than most under the Nazis and their leaders were trained under Stalin, who had no more respect than Hitler for human decency.
I also happened to know well most of the communist leaders. Apart from Aris Veloukhiotis, they were mostly not sadistic torturers themselves; they were the sort of men who license others to torture, and turn a blind eye. Yet there were also honorable men both in the KKE and in the Democratic Army. One was Nikiphoros Dimitriou, who played a brilliant part in the battle at the Gorgopotamos bridge and was later caught and sentenced to death as a rebel. I was able to save him from the firing squad by giving evidence of his services to the Allies in the Resistance. Another was Manoli Glezos, who as a young boy scaled the wall of the Acropolis by night to tear down the Nazi flag and run up the Greek flag in its place. There were hundreds of others.
There were also brutal bullies on the other side. One of them was the future colonel George Papadopoulos, the head of the military junta from 1967 to 1973. He also turned a blind eye to torture, and now very properly serves a life sentence in prison. Fortunately for Greece, the rule of law was never destroyed for good, and is now restored. Torture and murder can never be forgotten, nor will they be in Eleni’s case, thanks to her son’s devoted and brilliant achievement.
If he lives to be 100, like one of his uncles in Lia, he probably never will write anything to surpass this book. With professional skill, he has carefully constructed it to avoid any hint of exaggerated emotionalism. The first and last chapters describe his pursuit of the evidence and his discovery of the men and women who betrayed and killed his mother. He found the surviving “judge,” and his confrontation with him is unforgettable: though armed with a revolver and determined to kill him, Gage found himself unable to do more than spit in his face. That was indeed enough.
But the center of this book is the story of Eleni’s ordeal, against a starkly fascinating background of village life in the Greek mountains. Gage’s reconstruction of the background alone would make the reputation of an academic sociologist, and save him five years’ work. Between chapters Gage inserts three or four paragraphs summarizing the contemporaneous progress of the war on its larger stage. Within each chapter he occasionally interpolates his own reminiscences of events which, as a small boy, he experienced with great intensity but scarcely comprehended. The separate strands lead to an intensely moving climax, making Eleni one of the rare books in which the power of art re-creates the full historical truth.
August 18, 1983