MEMORIES FROM THE WAR YEARS (1940-45)
© 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
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.
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
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 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