You want a horror story? Forget Frankenstein and Dracula and Stephen King and Lovecraft. Read this book. What Greeks went through during the Second World War is grotesque to say the least and indescribably horrific to say the most.
It starts with a description of the famine in Athens at the beginning of the occupation. What happened was that the Third Reich came in and commandeered everything. They took whatever food they could find, whatever equipment from the factories they could use, shipped it off to Germany, and left the Greeks to fend for themselves. In the absence of food or any way to procure some, thousands died. Women, children, families all starved to death. People fell on the streets of Athens and were unable to get up, and wagons came and carted off the corpses. Everyone suffered, except the profiteers and the army of occupation. For many of them it was like a holiday, because they were reassigned in warm sunny Greece instead of the eastern front. Families sold everything to feed their children. Parents starved to death so they could give everything they could obtain to keep their children alive, and then the children ended up as urchins in the streets. The situation did not ease up until international grain shipments began to arrive in the summer of 1942, over a year later. This is the first trauma described in detail in this book.
After that, there is a description of the politics of the insurgents which I have to admit bordered on boring. A bit too much detail for my tastes.
But then, it describes the concentration camps within Greece to which dissidents, or anyone suspected of being dissident, were sent. Terrible conditions, almost certain death. Few who entered ever came out.
Next, the plight of the Jews. Greece was one of the centers of Jewish culture in the East, especially Thessaloniki, to which many Jews fled in the 1400s when they were banished from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella. They thrived in Thessaloniki, even under the Ottoman Empire, so that at independence in 1912 they were the dominant culture in the city. Then came the Third Reich and the Final Solution. It is estimated that 50,000 Jews lived in Thessaloniki at the beginning of World War 2; so many were sent off to Auschwitz and exterminated that after the war there were only 2000 left. Comparable statistics apply to most of the rest of Greece, although Athens and certain other areas managed to save more of their Jews than others. When it was all over, Greece lost a higher percentage of Jews than any other country in Europe. It was a terrifying rounding up of people as if they were pestilent; it was done by surprise, by deceit, by subterfuge – you can’t even find anything in fiction to compare to it.
The thing is, this is fact and not fiction. It makes it all the worse. The evil was real, and walked among us.
In Athens just before liberation the Right and the Left tore into each other. Murder was common on the streets. The extreme Right, in the guise of anti-communism and with the cooperation and help of the German Army and the SS, rounded up whole neighborhoods of people. Hooded Greek informers would go through the crowd and identify those they supposed to be communist sympathizers; some were shot on the spot, thousands of others were sent to concentration camps for extermination or deportation to Germany.
And what happened next? Greece tore itself apart with civil war. It was the nature of the times. There were the communists and the anti-communists, and each of them were convinced of the righteousness of their cause, and there was nothing for it but to duke it out. Much more blood was shed before the situation stabilized and people could get on about their lives.
This book is not easy reading. It is definitely not for relaxation. I wanted to know more about the country in which I reside, and I got more than I bargained for. The curious thing is, all of this is buried now in the past. I asked my wife about her grandparents and what happened to them during the war. She wasn’t sure. They lived, mind you, in one of the hot zones of the resistance, high in the mountain villages near Kozani, where whole villages were burned to the ground, where guerillas lived off the land, where traditional values were put to the test and found wanting in the face of terrors previously unknown. They preferred to forget, these relatives. They preferred not to pass on the stories to the grandchildren. Too much blood had been spilled, too many lines in the sand had been crossed. Better to forget.
But no. This book brings it all back. It is hell, and nobody wants to remember hell, but sometimes you have to. You have to tell others how it happened, and why it happened, and what the outcome was. They may not learn but there is the chance that they might, and then the horrors of the past might not be repeated. That is the value of this book.
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