Τρίτη, 20 Ιανουαρίου 2015

Memories of a Balkan Easter

Nikolaos A. Stavrou, "Memories of a Balkan Easter", Published in: THE WORLD & I

In 1952 two brothers escaped from Albania to Greece, eventually finding a home where displaced persons" usually end up: in America. Almost half a century later, they decided to confront the ghosts of war and visited their ancestral home.

This story about surviving World War II horrors has been tucked away in the memories of two victims, my brother Paul and myself. At age eight and nine, respectively, we became unwitting witnesses to the fury of Hitler's army as it passed through our village during Easter week 1944, leaving death and destruction in its wake. A return visit to where it all happened, forty-eight years later, revived painful memories that, not unlike September 11, 2001, affirmed history's dictum: evil takes no holidays.
        There were no cameramen or war correspondents to record the horrors committed by the Nazis and their collaborators on the inhabitants of Griazdani, Albania, my birthplace. But neither Paul nor I felt comfortable talking about the brutalities of a war that scarred our lives, at least not before we returned to the scene where the crime had been committed.
        In Easter week 1944, German forces and their fascist ally Balli Kombætar (Albanian National Front), commanded by Gen. Hubert Lanz, conducted a sweep of Epirus, a region straddling the border between Greece and Albania, to clear the way for German army units to move north, toward the anticipated Allied invasion. This operation was commenced just weeks after the Nazis deported the ancient Jewish community of Ioannina, the capital of Epirus. In less than three days Nazis and Ballists would wreak havoc in the pastoral life of my village.

The Spring of '44

Foreign invaders rarely bothered to climb the rocky slopes of the Mourjana Mountains to Griazdani. The village's inaccessibility had made it a hub of anti-Nazi resistance groups and a safe haven for anyone fleeing the flames of hate and war.
        Sparse oak forests surround Griazdani, and numerous caves dot its terrain. The village elders were sure the caves were divinely ordained. In times of crisis they would recite apocryphal admonitions of the Orthodox Saint Cosmas the Aetolian, who, legend has it, passed through the village on his way to martyrdom in the eighteenth century. "Build homes with two doors on opposite sides to run when danger comes; and know where the caves are," the holy man allegedly admonished. Danger did come in the spring of 1944.
        Rumors were in the air for months that the village would not escape the Nazis. These rumors were reenforced in early January by some eyewitnesses--a family of four who knocked on our door seeking shelter, exhausted from days of walking through the mountains. We were already hosting eighteen refugees. The father of the family, Lazarus, never gave his last name. We assumed that he sought our house because my father, Athanasios, was designated by the commander of a partisan battalion to "take care of such cases." Lazarus was introduced as a comrade by the partisan who brought him to our door. In fact, he was fleeing the Nazis' roundup of Jews in Ioannina. With side-glances in every direction, Lazarus shyly asked for food and whispered something about people being loaded in trucks for destinations unknown.
        After they had a brief rest and some hot soup, my father instructed me to take the family to the stone chapel of Saint Nicholas, one of eleven in the village. This chapel held services only once a year, on the feast of Saint Nicholas (December 6). It had a flagstone floor, an altar with the prescribed set of icons, and a tile roof. Lazarus started a fire opposite the altar, instantly converting a church into a home.
        Signs of impending doom multiplied as Holy Week approached. The partisan battalion that had taken over and terrorized the village for almost a year suddenly requisitioned mules and fled with their weapons on Good Friday. When my father asked the commander who would defend the village after they left, the latter retorted with a cliche that confused the villagers at the time. "The struggle has now entered its class phase; there is no point in confronting the Germans," he stated with finality.
        Their retreat signaled the impending arrival of German troops, Albanian fascists, or both. In a twist of logic, the elders were praying that if invaders had to come, they preferred Germans. After numerous and cacophonous deliberations, they had persuaded themselves that a "professional army" would leave civilians alone. The Albanian National Front, however, was another matter. It had a bloody reputation.
        The midnight Easter service was abbreviated by Fr. Vasilios Tzoros, who skipped much of the liturgy. He announced that hostile troops were approaching and prayed for the safety of all and "the softening of the souls of the enemy." Nonetheless, he advised his flock to flee to the mountains. Women and children, he said, should remain in the village so that it did not look abandoned and risk being set on fire; males above twelve should hide. On the way home my father visited the Lazarus family in the chapel and passed on Father Vasilios' advice. He did the same with our Muslim guests, who did not seem perturbed by the news; they had heard that the approaching troops had passed through four Muslim villages and left them intact.
        Lazarus, unfamiliar with his new surroundings, was obviously terrified. My father told him to stay close to my namesake, Nikolaos Stavrou (my great-uncle). On the afternoon of Easter Sunday, a man from a neighboring village brought news no one wanted to hear: the approaching forces consisted of combined German and National Front units, under the overall command of General Lanz. The fear that struck the adult faces was instantly transmitted to the children. Sensing terror all around us, Paul and I insisted that we, too, should go to the mountains rather than stay home with our mother, sister Eleni, and three-year-old Elias. "How can we prove that we are eight and nine and not twelve?" we cried.
        My father rarely ignored Father Vasilios' directions, but he relented to our pleas with one condition: that we would not follow him and our fifteen-year-old brother, Gregorios. If we had to run, he said, we were to go north. He and Gregory were going to the western forests. Dispersing the family would increase the chances that someone would survive, he reasoned. He instructed us to return home if we heard the church bell sounding the all clear.
        By seven p.m. on Easter Sunday the first results of the Balli Kombætar--Nazi offensive became apparent. Smoke billowed from the village of Karoki, three miles distant. The same fate befell Sminetsi, just two miles east of Griazdani. Lazarus, Uncle Nikolaos, my cousin Dimitrios, and two stranded Italian soldiers hid in thick underbrush in the foothills of Mount Christophoros--about a hundred yards from the cave where Paul and I were hiding, spending the night watching Sminetsi burn.

Our Hiding Place

At dawn on Monday, National Front and German formations combed the slopes of Mount Christophoros, our hiding place. The relentless staccato of machine-gun fire was scary enough, but what frightened Paul and me more was the barking of German shepherds. Because we were terrified that the dogs would track us down, we abandoned the cave for a safer place. Knowing that our father was hiding in the western forest, we instinctively ran in that direction. Several adults who were running ahead of us warned us not to tag along: It was every man for himself, and that did not include children. After Paul and I reached the top of a hill, we carelessly sat under a tree to catch our breath. Volleys of gunfire cut off the branches inches above our heads. We ran down a slope and reached the western outskirts of our village. There we debated whether we should return home as Father Vasilios had advised (after all, we were only children) or head for the western forest. We chose the forest, where we found an underground cave that we entered and searched for edible plants. From our hiding place we could hear gunfire. For three days, we could see smoke rising from our village.
        The operation was over by Tuesday noon, but we had no way of knowing. If smoke was rising from our village, we reasoned, the enemy must still be there. On the sixth day, hunger drove us to venture closer to the village. Smoke was still rising from its ruins but we also saw people tending livestock. There were no signs of enemy soldiers, so we decided to go home.
        After a brief family jubilation, we heard the gruesome account of what had happened. Thirteen people were captured in the mountains by the invading forces. The victims from my village had made the mistake of hiding in underbrush outside a cave. They were betrayed by the screams of one of the Italians, who was badly wounded in a barrage of machine-gun fire. The Albanian fascists dutifully presented their "trophies" to the German commanders, who scornfully told them it was their business to finish the task. The captured (all civilians except for the two Italian deserters) were herded into the basement of a deserted house in Sminetsi that served as a command post. The oldest prisoner was Uncle Nikolaos and the youngest was my cousin Dimitrios.
        Two Albanians were posted to guard the sole door of the basement where the prisoners were kept. At daybreak on Tuesday, a platoon of Albanians arrived under the supervision of a German officer. The guards were motioned to open the door, and several Albanians approached the basement with machine guns blazing. The door was locked again. The operation commander retrieved his belongings from the upper floor and joined his troops, already assembled at the village square. After lingering to loot a few items, the Albanians set the house on fire. A half-blind elderly woman living next door heard screams for a few moments but was unable to respond to their anguish. No one else was around. The Nazis retreated through several Muslim villages on their way to Konispoli.

The Martyrs

Once the church bell sounded the all clear, the villagers drifted back, only to be shocked by the horrors committed in the vacant house. The sole "eyewitness" to the massacre was incoherent and unable to say for sure who had been herded in there. For certain she recognized the two Italian soldiers, Uncle Nikolaos, my cousin Dimitrios, and Lazarus. She insisted that there had been thirteen people in there.
As it turned out, she was right.

        The local schoolteacher was the first to reach the massacre site. The flagstone roof had fallen to the basement, and oak beams were still burning. Buckets of water were dumped to extinguish the smoldering rubble before the task of retrieving bodies could start. They were charred beyond recognition. My uncle was still clutching his walking stick with a bronze handle, fingers and cane welded together. Lazarus was identified from a military belt buckle with Greek inscriptions on it. Cousin Dimitrios was still wearing a pair of cuff links that his father had brought from a prewar trip to Constantinople, and the two Italians were identified from what was left of their boots. The rest were captives and could not be identified.
        The remains of all thirteen were initially interred in the cemeteries of Sminetsi and Griazdani. Lazarus' wife and two small daughters were not harmed, but their refuge, the chapel of Saint Nicholas, was torched. A month later they made their way back into Greece.
        After the Germans retreated, the local collaborators were left to fend for themselves. That did not present a problem for the National Front. Its top leaders joined the exodus of the invaders. The rank and file split into two groups. One side professed "genuine repentance" and joined the communists with the enthusiasm of late converts; the other donned the cloak of anticommunism and drifted to the west with the help of Catholic priests, who broke records in speed and numbers of conversions of Muslims into Catholics.
        Eventually many of these "converts" would end up in the United States and, in due course, would provide the bulk of manpower for the CIA's failed attempt to overthrow Enver Hoxha--an operation doomed from the outset by Kim Philby's betrayal. Those who survived the Philby fiasco reverted to a virulent brand of nationalism and melted into obscurity, waiting for new opportunities to pursue a "greater Albania."
        A year after the massacre, a political commissar arrived with shocking instructions: the remains of the victims must be exhumed, he ordered, and transported to Delvino, the seat of the prefecture, some miles west of Griazdani. They were to be interred in a mausoleum for "martyrs of the revolution," he said. The objections of Father Vasilios, on religious grounds, were brushed aside with veiled threats. The charred remains were dug up, stuffed in hastily made wooden caskets, and transported to Delvino on mules and horses. They were dumped in a mass grave with other "martyrs of the revolution," even though none of them had anything to do with it.

My Return

In 1952 my family and I escaped from Albania to Greece. Eventually Paul and I found a home where "displaced persons" usually end up: in America. Almost half a century later, we decided to confront the ghosts of war and made a return visit to our ancestral home. We passed through the village of Sminetsi. The ruins of the burned house were left untouched as a fitting testament to the massacre. The Saint Nicholas chapel was never rebuilt. Its foundations were still visible under a lush growth of grass, which, at the time of our visit, was being savored by a goat that seemed determined to ignore the return of two native sons.

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