By Isa Covo
Wars are never forgotten. They are taught in schools, written about in books, and frequently pictured in movies. But wars are not only what happens on the battlefield, or the heroism of the besieged. In many instances, there are stories of those who try to cope and often suffer tragic consequences. Some stories remain hidden in minds and linger there with strange clarity. Here is one of those stories, which I have carried with me.
After the Nazis marched into Greece in 1941 and the Italians, no longer allied with the Germans, left, Jews were in peril. Did I understand the seriousness of the situation? I am not sure, but there certainly was uneasiness in my surroundings. It was in the whispers, in the fact that we were no longer who we once were. We had different names and were careful not to say that we were, or ever had been, Jews. It was summer and my parents, my younger sister, and myself, left our apartment and moved to friends’ homes willing to shelter us; but they did not dare keep us for long. So we kept on moving. We finally ended in Piraeus, which is the port near Athens, with a family where two adolescents, Maria and her brother Panayiotis, tried to make our stay as easy as possible since we could not go out for walks, to the movies, or cafes.
I think it was a late fall day when we left the Piraeus apartment and went to a pier where we boarded a kaiki, which is a small motorboat used mostly for freight. I was the first one to climb on board and was ushered into a space below deck, separated from my family. I was a little scared, not terrified. At some point, the captain, whose name was Tassos, opened the trap and gave me some hard orange cheese, a hunk of bread, and water.
I don’t know how long our trip lasted, but it could not have been very long because I wasn’t hungry. It was dusk when we arrived and we took a steep, rocky pathway to the village where we were slated to wait out the war. The house had a separate kitchen, a big luxury for the place at the time, and a large-ish common room, but no electricity, running water, or toilet. We stayed there for several months and through the winter.
One day, Tassos, who occasionally came to bring us supplies and sometimes foodstuffs from Athens, I think, came to take us to the island of Spetses where my father had a friend. There were no Germans on the island and very little chance that they would arrive since Spetses presented no particular strategic interest. However, as in many parts of Greece, there were bands of antartes, or Greek militiamen, bivouacking in the mountains.
Spetses had been for many years a resort with nice beaches and a beautiful old hotel; the Poseidonion Grand Hotel was built in 1914. Of course, there was no tourism in those years, and the hotel we stayed in was empty of guests. It could have been the Poseidonion for it was large-ish and close to the seashore, but I can’t be sure. The owners were also living at the hotel and were a very kind family with two sons, one grown up and one an early teen, or so they seemed to me.
They suspected we were Jews, because the hostess mentioned on the second day of our arrival, as we were helping in the kitchen, “You looked so terrified I thought you were Jewish,” but they seemed to accept our version that my father was a political dissenter.
Life on the island and at the hotel was beautiful; we had clean rooms, bathrooms with running warm water, and electricity. The setting was beautiful, very peaceful and close to a promenade along the seashore. In the evenings, all of us, including my three-year-old sister, and a 13-year-old girl we brought along, Annio, who helped my mother in the village, would gather in the hotel lounge. Sometimes, the leader of the antartes would also stop by. This interlude did not last very long.
One morning, as my mother was taking us for a walk along the promenade, two or more British airplanes flew very low over the sea. One of the pilots waved a red sheet as a warning…and then the bombs exploded: The target was a German ship not far from our shore.
I can’t remember too well what happened next: Did we crouch behind some kind of shelter? Did we run to the hotel? All I know is that, soon after, perhaps the next day, I saw the debris of the ship from the promenade. Objects and provisions from the ship were also strewn about in the sea and several islanders were collecting them. That day, the leader of the antartes came to the hotel, my mother told me, and showed her a handgun he had found about the ship; she was horrified and asked him why he took it, why he would do a thing like that. He shrugged, apparently, and said they needed guns.
There were some dead sailors (why do I think nine?) but many were rescued almost immediately by other German ships. The dead sailors were buried with great dignity; a service was performed by the local priest as the island wanted to show neutrality. I was eight years old.
Stay tuned for Part Two!