In the Night of Sleep by Maria Fokas
“I will feel my way into it again, as I do every time I recall her story”, Marianna said to me. We sat on the deck of her summer beach home, with the endless sea stretched out before us. A vintage white table set between us, covered with a fragment of a past time; a delicate ivory laced tablecloth her grandmother had knitted in her youth. The soft ocean hushed between the faint melodies of singing birds. I could feel the sea air caressing my skin. She smiled and then gestured to the tray on the table; homemade cookies and iced-lemon-tea filled the air with a scent of hospitality. “All the times I’ve told my grandma’s story,” she whispered, and picked up her tea, “and still it’s hard”.
“Tell me like she told you”, I said.
“I’ll tell you what WWII took from my grandmother”, she said and, began her story. And with her first words, the melody of a bird’s song and the gentle ocean waves disappeared.
“It was an icy cold morning, that black day when the Germans captured our men. Every single home in the village was hammered. One by one, they unlocked their doors, only to be dragged out into the black cold streets with their boys and men.
‘Wait!’ my grandmother begged a soldier, ‘please, let me give them their coats’, but no German head turned to acknowledge her request. They watched in terror, as they violently handled the men into a queue and, as the wives cried out their names, their boys and men disappeared into the cold black night.
The soldiers who had stayed behind gathered all the women and children and took them to the village school. They were locked inside the school and were told to keep their mouths shut if they didn’t want any more trouble. My grandmother waited in the pitch-black, holding her children tightly in her arms, whispering promises she didn’t know if she could keep. “Everything will be over soon, we will survive this, I promise”, she told them. But she knew punishment was unavoidable since the Resistance had killed seventy-eight Germans in their attempt to free the village.
My grandfather had left the village three times with my uncle, to escape from the inevitable, but he kept coming back. She told him, not to worry about them, that they’d be fine as long as he was safe, but he kept coming back. In a time where one German life was equivalent to a hundred Greek lives; he kept coming back.
The women were now numb from the cold, and the cries of the children had turned into weeping. And in that pitch darkness, a woman across the room shouted, “look a light”.There was a faint light coming through the cracks of the locked door and then smoke. It was coming in fast, making it difficult to breath; and at that moment when screams took hold of the darkness, an Austrian soldier took pity on them, and unlocked the entrance door. My grandmother felt a hand grab her arm and pull her out of that fire and guided them out.
Into the street, they could see the school burning in flames. She took his hands into hers and thanked him. She wanted to know his name but he did not tell her. All he did was guide them out of that fire and, paid for that act with his life.
They soon arrived back to their homes, only to see them in flames. There was nothing left; they were too late. Then one of the women saw a faint red line on the ground, like a thin stream, and it was coming down the dirt path from the hill, where the men had been taken. The women followed that path and found their men. Heaps of corpses across the fields; and some further away in a line were wrapped in blankets.
She found my grandfather first; she saw his glasses on the ground by her feet, near his head, and kneeled to the ground beside him – She gently pulled him on her lap to caress his face. She pulled the blanket off his face and realized what they had done to him. His skull had been axed. . . and it all fell into her lap.
Marianna paused for a moment, and in that gap of silence, I felt a knot in my throat; and no words to comfort her. I watched her as she looked straight through me, into that serene sea. There it was again, a sweet hushing melody of gentle waves. I shut my eyes, to pictures in my head of casualties of war, the misfortunes, . . . the endless counting of men killed or crippled for life. Was this the generation gap I felt in my bones every time I looked deep inside the eyes of my father, or grandfather when they’d speak of war? The gap which I believed had been created by the years between us . . . how wrong I may have been . . . for it seemed now that it was not the years but the tragedies they had endured; those hidden stories that dwelt in their heads when they lay to sleep – those scars of war, time cannot make disappear.
She took a sip of her tea, and began again:
“Days later, we found out what had happened. It was an execution by firing squad; they called it a military justice”, my grandmother said. After the squad was done, they began to head down the hill, but one of the men barely moving, reached out his hand in a cry of anguish, and pleaded for his life; “Don’t leave us here to die, I have family in Germany”, he said. That was when the soldiers took hold of their axes.
Over a thousand men were executed in the village on the hill of Kalavryta that night; seven hundred, of which were axed. Thirteen survived; fortunate enough to be unseen beneath the piles of bodies.
My grandmother lost her father, husband, brother, and son, on the 13th of December, that day. The only family spared to her was her three-year-old daughter; my mother.
It took my granny decades before she could speak of that day, and when they would ask her, “What did the Germans take from you?” . . . the only thing she would say was,
“My sleep . . .” “They took away my sleep.”
© Maria Fokas/ March 6th 2016/All Rights Reserved –