|Books and Good Reading - PREVIEW - 'Eleni' by Nicolas Gage
Eleni. Author: Nicolas Gage.
Eleni Gatzoyiannis died, to my mind, because of many things - a conspiracy of fear; jealousy; hatred; selfishness; intransigence; politics; the Greek Civil War itself. Above all, again to my mind, she was murdered by an Elas kangeroo court held in her own village before her own neighbours. Because she would not seek her own safety and leave without every single one of
her children. And one, until it was too late, was beyond her reach....
Below - our first Complete Review of 'Eleni'.
This is an extraordinarily powerful book that has left a searing imprint on my memory. It is the story of Eleni Gatzoyiannis as told by her son, Nicholas Gage.
Eleni was executed by Communist guerrillas in August 1948, one year to the day before the end of the civil war in Greece which killed 158,000 people. Eleni was not a freedom fighter, a terrorist or a secret agent – she was a mother who had been trying to save her children.
Eleni lived in Lia, a tiny traditional mountain village just inside the border with Albania. Duty was everything to her – to her surly, violent father, to her manipulative and weak mother, to her absent husband who preferred to live in America and visit Greece occasionally to beget another child, and to her five beloved children, particularly her only son Nikola. She had the chance of moving to America when she married Christos, but her mother threatened suicide if Eleni left her, so she stayed. The visits from Christos, when he brought gifts for the family, and his occasional cheques through the post were what provided for Eleni and the children. She even shared what she could with her neighbours, but instead of feeling gratitude to her they felt envy and started to refer to her as ‘the Amerikana’.
The advent of the Second World War cut off postal links with Christos in America and Eleni’s family had to rely on the occasional handout from her father. Life in the mountain village was harsh, and zealots from the newly created leftist Greek Popular Liberation Army – ELAS – found plenty of enthusiasm for their cause, as their arrival in the village coincided with the retreat of the invading Italian army from the region. Meanwhile, the resistance party of the right, the National Democratic Greek League – EDES – also gained strength in Greece and instead of working together, the two groups concentrated on annihilating each other, each determined to take control of Greece once the war was over. A British presence arrived in Lia to try to get the warring factions to work together to defeat the real enemy, the Germans. This proved spectacularly unsuccessful and the villagers had to run to the hills when the German army marched into the village, destroying half of it and burning the church.
Late in 1944, the disheartened Germans crept out of Greece, leaving the Communist-controlled ELAS the most powerful military force in the country. The people in the ravaged country were barefoot, ragged and close to starvation. When the longed-for mail from Christos finally arrived, Eleni wrote a heartfelt plea to her husband to start making arrangements immediately for the children and her to join him in America.
Christos replied that as soon as he had enough money he would send for them. Meanwhile, he sent them four trunks of flashy American goods – items totally inappropriate for life in a hard-pressed Greek mountain village in the 1940s – most of which Eleni distributed to her neighbours.
The next letter from Christos was bitter with anger against Eleni’s father who had demanded payment from him for feeding the family during the occupation. This brought about an estrangement between Eleni and her father, which was never mended.
Eleni wrote to her husband in terror when she heard that the Communists might come to the village, suggesting she might take the children down to the safety of a nearby town. Christos wrote straight back to tell her she had ‘no business going anywhere’. He explained that the ‘andartes’ were ‘fellow villagers, fighting for their rights’ and saw no reason why they should bother his family.
The new Democratic Army of Greece was now solely under the control of the Communist party, and it intended to set up a provisional government in the north of Greece. Unfortunately, Lia was right in the middle of the area it intended to ‘liberate’.
The Communist idea of liberation was to take all the food from the village, stable cattle in the church, set alight the homes of the priest and the elders and set the villagers to work turning the area into a vast fortification. Eleni’s house was raided and ransacked and she realised she had enemies in the village and that someone had made a report about her.
Very soon, Eleni realised that her two teenage daughters were at risk. She had brought them up conventionally, their faces covered in public, and they had never spoken to a strange man. But now the Communists were conscripting all the girls over fifteen from the villages to turn them into ‘andartinas’ – female freedom fighters. For a while, she tried hiding them on a mountain ledge, but the girls rebelled and returned home. Other hiding places also proved unsuccessful, and eventually she took the agonising decision to mutilate her eldest daughter Olga’s foot so she would be unable to walk. Unfortunately the guerrillas just took the next daughter, Kanta, instead, and Eleni herself had to work from morning to night for the guerrillas, cooking, mending and building fortifications.
Luckily for Kanta, she failed her initial training as an andartina, and was sent back home.
The area around Lia became a war zone again, as the government troops tried to dislodge the communists from the area. As the guerrillas retreated, Eleni waited for the government soldiers to pass her door so she and the children could escape down the valley to safety. But her moment had gone – the guerrillas evacuated the villagers ‘for their own safety’. Shortly afterwards, the government troops retreated and the Communists were in control of the area once more.
Eleni had not thought things could get any worse, but they did. The Communists started to implement ‘pedomasoma’, which meant that all children between the ages of three and fourteen in the area they occupied would be taken from their parents and sent behind the Iron Curtain. This was presented as a way of protecting the children from famine and the war, but was of course just another way of ensuring total servilitude from frightened villagers. And as if this terror was not enough, Eleni and her family were evicted from their house, which was to become the village’s new police station and torture centre.
Eleni began to plot an escape with her children. But her choice of trusted confidants was not a wise one, and their first two attempts had to be abandoned. As the next attempt was in the planning stage, the guerrillas took her third daughter, Glykeria, to help with the harvest and days later, demanded another woman from the family to assist them. The escape attempt was ready to be implemented, but Eleni would not leave without Glykeria, so she said a desperate farewell to her other four children. She sent them on ahead with a relative on the escape route, and went herself to gather the harvest with Glykeria, thinking the two of them might have a chance to slip away together and join the others.
But, of course, fate intervenes again and Eleni and Glykeria are separated before they can plan anything. Not only that, word gets through that the children have escaped the area in a party of twenty, and Eleni finds that she is going to have to pay for the freedom of her loved ones.
Eleni was taken to the security police station, formerly her family home, and interrogated. The head of security in the region knew that an escape of this size would reflect very badly on his regime and a man called Katis, an investigating officer and judge, was sent to find what happened. Eleni was released temporarily, but kept under watch, and she quickly found all her former friends had turned against her because they could not afford to be seen to have anything to do with her. Many of them in fact incriminated her in an attempt to save themselves, and before long Eleni was taken back to jail.
The grim Katis took over Eleni’s interrogation, which soon turned into systematic torture by rotating teams. Finally, she admitted to having planned her children’s escape.
Eleni was tried with six other defendants from the village in front of Katis, the investigating officer. Eleni was held up to be a fascist sympathiser (her father had been a fascist) who was married to an American capitalist. She was accused of planning the successful escape from the village, and that by sending away her children she had undermined the efforts of the Democratic Party in her village. The outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion as people she had trusted rose to testify against her, and Eleni was put to death a few days later by firing squad.
Little Nikola and his three sisters escaped to the coast, then eventually to the United States to live with their estranged father, Christos.
In adulthood, Nikola – now Nicholas Gage – became an investigative journalist, then eventually his newspaper’s foreign correspondent in Athens, always knowing that one day he would research his mother’s story to find out what actually happened and who was responsible for her death. The final part of this harrowing book is the story of how he pieces together the detailed facts and tracks down those involved, with the intention of making them pay at last for their dreadful crime against his mother.
It took a long time before I felt able to write this book review. It is a compelling story and such an important work of history that I did not want to under-sell it, nor did I want just to precis the story so that you felt you did not need to read the book. Please read the book. Although it tells the story of one woman’s struggle, it encapsulates the true horror of war and its effect on real people. It is as relevant in our modern world – where human values are still sacrificed to ideology - as it was when the events took place.
If you read no other book this year, read this one.
Reviewer - Ann Lisney.