Last month I explored the Epiros Mountains. Besides the splendid panoramic vistas and the soul-refreshing aromas of mountain herbs, I kept running into memorial for World War II veterans. Little mountain villages like Pades, had memorial monuments commemorating the dead and buried—young men not more than 21 years old to middle-aged fathers of four. I thought this was a normal thing; but there were too many. There was even a military museum in
I meandered through the treacherous mountain road, the one that linked the mountains from the ski resort to Konitsa, exploring the vast, quiet corner of the country. I passed through village after village, quaint and quiet, peopled by at most 10 souls. A crooked metal sign bowing from the wind in hand painted white letters signaled something of interest off the side of the road. If you weren’t going slowly or looking out for it, you would miss it, so nondescript was it. I pulled off the road and parked; it was a forgotten military cemetery on a hill underneath Mount Timfis; Konitza and its surrounding valley within eyeshot. A long footpath led to its gate. It was locked. But a little leap from the side all and you were in. (So much for Greek tendency of taking care of the details.) It was nothing but a plain square with a giant rectangular stone tomb in the middle. On the tomb, two extra-large wreaths, maybe ten feet in diameter, by now withered and brown, lay in eternal wait for next year’s memorial commemoration. In the hush of forest, the pines stood sentinel around the marble perimeter of the cemetery, itself like a square jail cell. On each corner a prominent marble cross.
Then it dawned on me—I was standing on holy ground. This was the front, the Albanian Front, the on that had stood up to Mussolini’s ultimatum. It was here that the Greek sense of philotimo shouted back a resounding “OXI” that reverberated through the mountains, through the valleys, and beyond through the annals of recorded history. I was standing on holy ground.
As a Greek immigrant to the US, I had never learned about my country’s history. The closest I got was through the Founding Father’s awe of Greek ideals: Thomas Jefferson spoke Greek fluently, the Capitol building constructed in classical style, the craze to name newly incorporated towns classically like Athens, Ithaca, Corinth. We never learned about the pivotal role Greece played in World War 2 or any war. It was overlooked, quiet, a country of a few million backwards farmers. We were told how it was Marshall and his plan that saved Greece from the communists.
Walking through those mountains, I remembered the stories about my grandfather. He too was conscripted from his island in the Cyclades to fight in this very front. My yiayia remembered how the Italians who overpowered the islands took over their house as headquarters. My grandparents had a lot of arable land and were known on the island for their generous giving away of their goat cheeses, yogurt and flour. My yiayia, clever as a fox, made sure to hide the large heads of cheeses in a ditch near the aloni, the stone chaffing mill. She waited till the company of Italian soldiers had descended the large mountains; she knew they were watching with binoculars, so she hid the stuff just as the bushes hid their view of the house. She has 7 months pregnant with four small children at the time in a remote village in the back side of a remote island. “Dove queso?” they questioned her putting their hands to their mouths. “Look,” she said pointing to the four small children hugging her legs, “picolli” She made a motion with her hands to show them they needed to eat a lot.
The Italians even while they were following directives were bon vivants. They painted the stone house a rich salmon. Smoked tobacco and drank wine. As clever as my grandmother, they stamped on the stone tiles in the kitchen, rummaged around the hay near the mill and eventually found most of the hidden cheese. They had a party. But they fed the four little kids jumping around like wild goats.
While this was happening to his island home, Pappou was battling the snow and the nasty Italian fascists in the rugged mountains around the Zachorochorgia.
For what it’s worth, here is a textbook account of events from that time, (gracias to Wikipedia):
The Italian army invaded Greece on 28 October before the Italian ultimatum expired. The invasion began disastrously, the 140,000 troops of the Italian Army in Albania being poorly led and equipped, and having to cope with the mountainous terrain on the Albanian–Greek border and tenacious resistance by the Greek Army. By mid-November the Greek army had stopped the Italian invasion just inside Greek territory, and counter-attacked, pushing the Italians back into Albania, culminating with the Capture of Klisura Pass in January 1941. The Italian defeat and the Greek counter-offensive of 1940 have been called the first “first Axis setback of the entire war” by Mark Mazower, the Greeks “surprising everyone with the tenacity of their resistance”. After reinforcing the Albanian front to 28 divisions, the Italians conducted a spring offensive in 1941, which also failed and by February there was a stalemate.
In the spring of 1941, the failure of the Italian counter-offensive and the arrival of British ground forces in Greece led the Germans to invade on 6 April. During the Battle of Greece, Greek and British forces in northern Greece were overwhelmed and the Germans advanced rapidly into Greece. In Albania, the Greek army made a belated withdrawal to avoid being cut off by the Germans, was followed up slowly by the Italians and surrendered to German troops on 20 April 1941 (then to Italy for propaganda reasons several days later). Greece was occupied by Bulgarian, German and Italian troops. The Italian army suffered 154,172 casualties from all causes and the Greek army about 90,000 losses.
Against the stereotypes of the ruffian, disorganized army, it was men with women and children back home, far far away, as well as local mountain boys, who withstood the fascist advance. A handful of soldiers, hungry and slipshod, chattering in the bitter wind—these have always been the thin line of defense against the barbarian horde.
In his best-selling book, Los Soldados de Salamina, Jose Caceres makes the same point. The survival of civilization has always depended on a handful of simple men who fought against incredible odds on the side of goodness, righteousness, and democracy.
It is men and women like my Pappou whose sacrifice we remember today under the somber stillness of the cypress and pine in the forgotten military cemetery dotting the mountainsides in a rugged landscape.
It is the loudness of their simple acts that translated Metaxa’s defiant “OXI” that can be heard in the silence of their graves.