© Theo Pavlidis

I started school in late September 1940 but on October 28, 1940 Italy invaded Greece from its borders with Albania and schools closed. The Greek Army was able to push the Italians back into Albania but in April 1941 Hitler came to the help of Mussolini and the Germans took over Greece in a few weeks. The fighting had ended but the long night of the German occupation had begun. During the six months of the fighting there were several air raids near Athens and while no bombs fell in our neighborhood, we still had to look for safety in the shelter of a nearby hospital. We shared the shelter with many injured soldiers who were in the hospital. Many had suffered from frostbite and their legs had to be amputated. One time I heard some screaming (from another part of the hospital): “my feet, my feet, what happened to my little feet?” Apparently the screams were coming from someone who woke up from anesthesia and realized that he no longer had his feet.

The German occupation was awful. The winter of 1941-42 was particularly bad because of widespread starvation. In Athens people were dying in the streets. My brother and I went to eat in the soup kitchens run by the Greek Church with provisions given by the International Red Cross. One day I was asked to say the Lord’s Prayer as part of the grace before the meal. However I had not been taught that prayer (or for that matter any other prayer) and the priest in charge expressed great surprise for my ignorance. That probably was the start of my breakaway from the Greek Church.

My paternal grandmother who lived with us died in 1942. She had suffered a stroke a few years earlier and she had been in poor health, so her death was not unexpected. We could not afford a funeral, so my father had the municipal hearse come up and pick up her body. She had been wrapped in a shroud but when the workers opened the door of the hearse to put my grandmother’s body inside I saw another body already there, without a shroud. I never forgot that image. It was the body of a young man with long dark hair and beard. Obviously he had been picked up from the streets where he must have died from starvation.

Schools stayed closed for most of the period of the German occupation. They would open sometime but then they would close again, often to be used as shelters for people whose homes had been bombed. So my schooling in grades first to fourth was at best sporadic and I learned to read on my own. On the other hand I received an intensive education in politics and world events. You cannot ignore those subjects when they affect your own life directly.

The district of Athens called Kolonaki had become a fashionable sector in the last 30 years or so but before that time it was a rural area. Some of the houses from that era survived and we moved into one of them at the end of the summer of 1940. It had two floors and we lived upstairs while the owner lived downstairs with a niece of his who cared for him in his old age. The stairs leading to the second floor were outdoors and there was a courtyard surrounded by cavernous halls that used to be stables for cows. At the time we moved in, they were used as garages for the cars of the more affluent people in the neighborhood. The house was old and not in very good condition but that was all that we could afford. There were a few other houses like ours in the neighborhood but most of the buildings were luxury apartment houses (at least by the Greek standards of the time).

We moved to Kolonaki because I had been enrolled in the experimental elementary school of a Teacher’s College that was located there. …. Although I made little use of the school because of the war, the move to Kolonaki proved a good one because the area saw much less fighting than the rest of the city.

There was another school building, directly across from our house, and during the occupation it had been taken over by an Italian military police unit (militia dela strata). The garages/stables around the house were also taken over by the Italians to park their cars and motorcycles. It was supposed to be an elite unit, wearing black shirts (the distinctive fascist garment), but the soldiers were quite friendly to the children and did not seem to be happy with their roles as occupiers. They would show pictures of their families and tell us stories about their hometowns. My mother knew some French and she was able to communicate with them. I remember that one of the soldiers described his hometown as a place where the streets were water canals. Years later I decided that he must have been from Venice.

Stories about Italians who during the war put their human side ahead of the soldier side have found their way into books or movies, so our own experience was not unusual. Sometimes Italian soldiers went out of their way to help us. Amongst the hardships of the winter of 1941-42 was the scarcity of fuel. One of the soldiers told my mother and other women from the neighborhood that he would let them know when there were no officers around and they could then come and siphon fuel from the vehicles parked in the garages. Later my mother told me she found it too nerve racking an experience so she attempted it only once. There were also German troops billeted in the area but they were intimidating. It seems that they had a central kitchen and soldiers from one place would march in their jackboots every day around noontime while singing a martial song. (It was always the same song, and I remember it.)

Eight or nine year olds do not usually follow political events but these were not usual times so I was well aware of what was happening. One day in 1941, two months into the German occupation, we woke up to see large graffiti on the walls of the house across the street. One of the drawings was a hammer-and-sickle, the symbol of the Communist party. I was told that the Germans had attacked Russia and the graffiti were a sign of support for Russia. It seems that the Greek Communist Party (KKE), already underground, had kept quiet while the Nazi-Soviet pact was in order. When the Soviet Union was attacked, then it became active.

The KKE led the resistance against the Germans, in particular through the front organization EAM. (The letters are the initials of the Greek words for National Liberation Front.)  The military wing of EAM was ELAS. The initials stand for National People’s Liberation Army and the pronunciation of the word is a homophone of the Greek word for Greece (Hellas).

I remember hearing about the British victory at El-Alamein that stopped the German advance towards Egypt. The news was spread in Athens by the street peddlers who were shouting “vasta Rommel” that means “hold on, Rommel.” It may seem paradoxical that occupied Greeks would sound encouragement to a German general but there is an easy explanation: first, the peddlers could not shout anything anti-German; second there was a clear implication that Rommel was in trouble and that was good news for us.

A few months later we heard even better news, about the crushing German defeat in Stalingrad. The Wehrmacht was no longer invincible but there were still tough times ahead. In September of 1943 Italy capitulated and the Italian troops across the street packed their gear and left. Then the German occupation became even harsher. Finally, on October 12, 1944, the Germans left Athens without a battle to avoid being cut off by the Soviet advance in the Balkans. In spite of their rush, they sent a detachment to blow up the power plant that supplied electricity to Athens. Fortunately, there were ELAS troops nearby that were strong enough to fight and capture the demolition unit. We heard that the ELAS troops included an Italian who had deserted a year earlier and had brought a mortar with him. That mortar helped decide the outcome of the clash.

The liberation brought great joy, but it was short lived. On December 3 a civil war broke out between ELAS and Greek government forces. During the month of December, fighting raged in the streets of Athens and stray bullets often hit our house. Kolonaki was one of the few neighborhoods under the control of the “unity” government and the nationalists. Most of Athens as well as the rest of the country were under communist control. The Greek government had no time to organize an army, and had to rely on British troops and a brigade that had fought with the British in the Middle East and Italy that was rushed to Greece. The British troops included Indian units and I remember seeing Sikhs with their beards and turbans riding on trucks.

The lines between the two forces were less than a mile away from our house and one day I heard a horrible noise. British airplanes were machine-gunning the communist lines and they would open fire when they were over our area. I was so scared that I quickly hid under a table.  One night we were told that the front was reaching our area, so all of us (my parents, my younger brother, and I) went to sleep in a small room that had no windows. Fortunately, the advance of ELAS was stopped. They had overrun a British base, but instead of pressing their advantage, the troops started looting the British supply stores. Discipline in ELAS was not very tight and that was the turning point in the battle of Athens. By the end of January a truce had been signed and most of the country came under nationalist control.

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