Monday, December 22, 2008

Memory Eternal!

Yesterday in church, Demetrios bought one of those huge candles that burns many days and had it brought to the front of the church. It was in memory of his father, who was executed on the same date, December 21, during the Communist insurgency in Greece immediately after World War II. Here's the story of our 2005 search for the place he was killed, as well as the story of why, taken from my journal.

02 December, Friday, Kavala (biblical Neapolis)

We had breakfast in the hotel dining room, looking out the window over the waterfront, watching the Americans from the cruise ship wandering around.

We had a specific agenda for today: to find The Wall.

There used to be a Zoe camp on a nearby mountaintop. Demetrios attended it the summer he was twelve years old. One day, during free time, he and another boy went exploring a little distance from the campground itself. Not too far from it, they came upon a very thick, stone wall, maybe 100 meters long and 10 meters high. By then, Demetrios lived in Kilkis and only spent some summers in Kavala; but his companion, who lived in Kavala, informed him, “This is where the Communists used to execute people.”

It wasn’t until years later that Demetrios read his father’s death certificate, which said his father had been killed “at the monastery of St. Silas”— in other words, at that wall, which was just up the mountain a bit from the monastery.

We took a taxi as far as the Monastery of St. Silas. It’s where St. Paul and St. Silas are said to have rested on their way to Philippi (and thence to Thessaloniki). Well, I don’t know how anybody would know where the holy ones rested; they were anonymous in Greece at the time. However, it’s certain, given the terrain, they had to rest somewhere. The monastery, about halfway up the mountain, sits at a likely location.

“We used to come from the camp down the mountain to the monastery every Sunday for church,” Demetrios told me.

It’s not so easy today! Now there is a junction of two super highways between the monastery and the face of the mountain and along each road there is a high fence. Nevertheless, we plugged on, darting across this highway and that, and then good luck struck. We found an opening in the fence, and a little dirt road giving access to the mountain. Several cars were parked there.

A man in a sweat suit was just returning to his car, breathing heavily from his jog. We stopped him and asked about the camp and The Wall. He had never heard of either one (wasn’t old enough). He said he came here almost every day, and The Wall didn’t exist.

Well, it’s a big mountain, we said to one another. Maybe he sticks to one area and just hasn’t found it. But if it’s here, we WILL find it! We looked at each other, I in my new black suit, Demetrios also in dressy clothes and in his brand new, elegant overcoat, and we said, Yes! Let’s go! And not on the road, which leads who knows where, but straight up.

So we did. Yes, we two old fogies, out of shape and ill dressed for the occasion, hiked up that mountain. We did it in slightly zigzag fashion, both for ease and the better to spot The Wall. We held onto bushes and picked our way between rocks, peered into little caves and slid on the mud, but we kept going.

Finally, I spotted an opening ahead, with an orange sign that showed a man falling to the ground, face first. I said, “That has to be a marker! It must be near here!” Demetrios sprinted ahead to read the sign and burst out laughing. “The sign says, ‘Do Six Push-ups Here.’ It’s an exercise trail!”

Ah, yes. The man in the sweat suit we had met...this was the same trail we had seen below.

Ignoring that fact, we kept going straight up, until we had reached the top.

“Yes!” said Demetrios, “This is the camp! This flat spot is where it was, and this is the same view. Look over there. You see those two villages? I’m not sure now which one, but one of them is Philippi.”

So we paused to remember what had happened in Philippi (Acts 16:16-34) and I resolved, when I get home, to re-read the Epistle of St. Paul to the Church at Philippi, as well as the two to the Church at Thessaloniki.

“So now that you are oriented,” I said, “which way to The Wall?”

“This way!” So we struck out in what we now knew to be the right direction, on the opposite side of the mountain from the one we had just climbed.

The Wall is no longer there. Trust me, if it had been, we would have found it; we surveyed every meter of that mountain. When we had gone quite a way from the camp, Demetrios said, “It wasn’t this far away. It was right there, about where the exercise trail is.”

And that’s when he had an idea that I feel sure is correct. He pointed out that until the last election, Greece had been under a Socialist government for twenty years. “And they were very sympathetic to the Communists, and kept trying to say what the Communists had done hadn’t been so bad. They re-wrote the history and tried to erase the bad times from the Greek mind. I’d bet they removed The Wall to prevent it becoming a place of pilgrimage.”

He described The Wall, and what the stones had looked like. I stared down at the squared stones lining the walkway. “Stones similar to these?”

“Stones just like these. And have you noticed? There aren’t any others like them on this mountain; they came from elsewhere.”

“Could these be the very same stones?”

They almost certainly are. Sure, that has to be it. Why else would you go to the trouble and expense of edging a mere exercise trail with tons and tons of hand-cut stones? The Socialist government had not only removed The Wall, but had gone one better: they had replaced The Wall with something pleasant, something fun: an exercise trail. The gimmick had worked, too, because nobody we could find in the town could remember any such wall. (We didn’t meet anyone old enough to have known of it firsthand.)

So in a way, we had found The Wall, after all.

We sat there for a while and Demetrios told me the story of his father.

His father, Phideas, had been a post office clerk and a Communist sympathizer because of his opposition to the German Nazi occupiers. After World War II, and during the Greek civil war, the Communists had assigned him to the post office in Kavala. They needed someone there who knew Morse code and how to work the telegraph.

At the Kavala post office, he used to receive by telegraph all the messages from the Communists in the field, including battle plans and troop deployments. However, he had changed his mind by this time; his loyalties now secretly lay with the nationalist government. Thus, after decoding all these messages for the Communists, he would secretly transmit them to the commanding general of the Greek army.

Eventually someone became suspicious of him and conveyed her suspicions to her superiors, so they began watching him very carefully. One day they sent him out into the field to repair a telegraph line, presumably to see what he would do.

What he planned to do was escape. He had notified the general that he was in danger, and the general was sending a warship, the Eagle, to come fetch him.

“He must have been rather important, I should think,” said Demetrios, “for the general to divert a whole warship to come pick up one man.”

I said, “What information could possibly be more important than troop movements and battle plans? That information may very well have been a deciding factor in winning the war!”

At any rate, as his goodbye present to the Communists, instead of repairing the telegraph line, he destroyed it.

Then for some reason nobody knows, he changed his mind and conveyed a message to the general that he was safe after all and the warship needn’t come. He was going to hide out in Kavala and sneak from there to Kilkis or Thessaloniki.

He was wrong. He wasn’t safe. The Communists caught him and imprisoned him. They tortured him for three days and then took him up the mountain to The Wall and shot him.

“And presumably he’s buried right here somewhere, too,” said Demetrios, “because they didn’t have funerals or anything for prisoners. They just dug shallow graves and put the bodies in…”

Phideas was a bit of a loser in some ways; he was a gambler who never managed to get home with anything left of his pay and his marriage was in shambles — but in the end, he did something heroic with his life after all.

He was only thirty when he died.

So we said silent prayers for the man over whose grave we had probably walked, and then headed down the mountain for the monastery, our backsides muddied up from where we had each slipped and fallen on the way down.

By an odd coincidence, my first father-in-law, Irving Kendall, also died on December 21. We buried him on the morning of Christmas Eve of 1974, the church already decorated for the Christmas mass.

God rest both of their souls!


Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Memory Eternal !!

DebD said...

I'm so glad you've shared this story.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting story! Thank you for sharing. Memory Eternal!