My Father’s Hidden Weapon: Reflections on WW II

Photograph Source: Dimkoa – Public Domain

It must have been late 1943 and I was about ten months old. A woman who hated my father told the Germans in the village that my father was hiding a pistol at his house. In the German-occupied Greece of World War II, this was an accusation that could lead to death, indeed the murder of my entire family.

The Germans surrounded our home. They ordered my mother, two of my sisters, and an aunt to stand against the wall. A couple of soldiers started searching the home for the banned weapon.

My family lived in the village Valsamata of the island of Cephalonia in the Ionian Sea between Greece and Italy. My peasant father had hidden a gun in the house.

My oldest sister, Reggina, who was holding me, knew where the gun was located in the second floor of the house. She passed me to my aunt and, unnoticed, she disappeared into the house where, despite the searching Germans, she went straight to the secret place, hid the gun in her clothes, and jumped through the window to freedom with the forbidden pistol. The searching soldiers in the first floor heard a crack in the upper floor and one of them fired a shot. The bullet grazed Reginna’s left arm. However, Reggina fled to a nearby field of olive trees where she buried the gun. She then returned home. At that moment, Reggina heard our dog barking, a sure sign my father was on his way home. Once again, the eleven-year-old girl evaded the Germans, run out of the house, and warned my father of the German danger.

The Germans finally left and my two sisters, my mother, my aunt and I survived. Had it not be for the courage and intelligence of this little girl, Reggina, the Germans would have probably massacred my entire family.

The year 1943 was the beginning of the end of German supremacy in Europe. Italy was divided in its war purpose. Hitler ordered the killing of Italian soldiers. In Cephalonia alone, about 3,000 Germans killed 11,000 Italians.

The Germans departed from Greece in 1944, but not before they looted the country’s archaeological treasures and smashed its infrastructure. They left few things standing.

The Germans’ other legacy in Greece was just as deleterious. They bankrupted and divided the country. The Greeks who worked for them were armed. They wanted to take over the country. But many more Greeks fought the Germans. The communists also fought the Germans. These desperate forces clashed in a bloody civil war, which spilled to every corner of the country, including Valsamata.

There was tension in the village long before World War II. Valsamata does not have enough land. The inevitable result of landlessness and increasing population was poverty, class conflict, and exploitation.

And here is where religious superstition made the social and political struggles explosive. The coming of Gerasimos Notaras to Valsamata in the sixteenth century brought to the surface the conflicts over land.

The religious authorities made Notaras Saint Gerasimos. This was no small thing in the sixteenth century. Cephalonia was run by Venice.  Sainthood was divisive and expensive. But once the monastery of Saint Gerasimov passed the test of power, it opened the gates to the monastery becoming the largest landlord of Valsamata and the region of Omala.

The dead man-saint did not ask for land. Superstitious villagers, probably egged on by unscrupulous priests and bishops, donated part of their land to the monastery, hoping for favors from the Saint and political rulers. In four centuries, Valsamata’s only valley became property of the monastery.

It was this invisible hatred between those, who like my father, had some land and the landless that broke out in war during the global upheaval of the 1940s.

Those without land bought Russian communism because it promised them revenge against landlords, and, in particular, it made possible to contemplate the confiscation of the extensive monastery land holdings. And those with land turned to the support of the Greek royal family and the Greek government in exile in Egypt fighting with the British against Germany and Italy.

My father had negligible property. At the most, his scattered strips of land amounted to around six acres. Olive trees covered nearly all this land. Besides, this land was not my father’s alone. It belonged to my father and his three brothers. The oldest of those brothers, George, lived in the United States since the 1920s.

The youngest of the brothers, Argyris, was a lawyer working in Athens. Argyris made the fatal error of visiting his brothers in Cephalonia in 1943. He had barely arrived in Valsamata when a communist death squad made him “disappear.” Residents of Valsamata found his body not far from the village.

Spyros, brother of Argyris, was then the president of Valsamata. The Germans learned of the death of Argyris. They saw the killing as an opportunity to decimate the village communists. They ordered the peasants to gather in front of the village church. They asked Spyros to name the communists and potential murderers of his brother Argyris. They would execute them. Spyros hated the Germans and did not wish to precipitate a large massacre. He said he did not recognize any communist in the crowd.

However, Spyros sought his own revenge. He thought he knew who had killed his brother. He went to that suspect’s home and, failing to find the man he held responsible for the murder of his brother, Spyros at gunpoint abducted that man’s son right out of the stone press where he was treading on the grapes to make the family’s wine. It was late August. Spyros took that young man outside the village and shot him.

Three years later, in 1946, at the height of the civil war, Spyros was assassinated while riding our mule home from the field. My father was with him following in the path at some distance with the donkey.

The killer was waiting for the brothers behind some mature cypress trees. My father heard the murderous blast that cut down his brother — he was probably no more than fifty meters behind Spyros. The murderer vanished.

My aunt Aggeliki found her dead husband sprawled in the path with his brains scattered all over. She tried desperately to put the brains back into the opened head. From that moment in 1946, until she died in 1987, Aggeliki remained in a state of mourning. She wore black clothes. She never recovered from that tragedy. And the mule that carried Spyros on that fateful day in 1946 died exactly a year later in the village path on the exact place of Spyros’ murder.

From the moment I heard this story, I suspected that my father, my mother, my aunt Angeliki and her son, Aggelos, always knew or suspected who the killer was.

The passions of that fratricide have yet to cool down. In my frequent visits home to Valsamata, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, I would ask Aggelos about the killer of his father. He always rebuffed me. My mother also ignored my questions. She was happy to praise her physician mother, Demetra. She never ceased to complain why I did not also become a medical doctor.

My mother could see that I was reluctant to go to the church or to speak favorably of Christianity and Saint Gerasimos in particular. I complained to her bitterly. I expressed my anger that my father had gifted to the monastery of Saint Gerasimos our best piece of land in the valley. I wanted that beautiful vineyard for myself. She reluctantly said my father simply fulfilled the wish of his father.

Nevertheless, my mother was distressed to no ends to realize that the son she sent to America was moving away from her religious traditions. She died in 1994.

With the passing of my beloved mother, my link to Valsamata — and all the memories and strong affection for the place — received a strong blow. Only to megalo vouno, the grand mountain, Ainos, the sanctuary of Ainesios Zeus, Pan, Apollo, Athena, Herakles and the other Greek gods, remains burning in my soul.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.