[This excerpt from "Occupation Child" by T. Styppas contains mature and graphic themes such as poverty, war and death.]
A twelve-year-old boy, Tasouli, narrates his story. Born in Greece in 1938, just before the German Occupation started, he insists that he must tell his own story from the very start. His narration is in late 1950 and covers the period from his first memory to when he was about 12 years old, when he came to Canada. Tasouli is convinced that he must be the sole narrator and that no one else can narrate these previously undocumented events during the Occupation and the subsequent Civil War. He is pedantic, obsessed by the use of language and captivated by dreams. Sometimes he uses rhyme to tie in his dreams to factual reality.
But out of his dreams, a second narrator arises. It is Styppas, who speaks with an authoritative voice and narrates what happened much later, after 1950. Tasouli sees Styppas as a supportive figure and tells him all his problems. But sometimes Styppas gets very angry at Tasouli’s pedantic and obsessive behavior. Tasouli then becomes terrified that Styppas will extinguish him by impalement, like the Ottomans did to a Greek hero of the revolution of 1821 that he had learned about in school.
The excerpts here are from Tasouli’s narration.
Language of Hunger
Hunger was the most pervasive thing I remember during the Occupation. We were always hungry. These were not the familiar hunger-like pangs of the generally well fed of today. Rather, it was a feeling of emptiness. Continual emptiness. And one never felt really well. This feeling unwell was there all the time. You would only notice that you felt better if you had something in your stomach. Even if it was very little.
Of course, there was no meat. If anyone had any meat at all he would immediately be suspected as a collaborator. The Resistance would likely get him or his family sooner or later. Even bread, the staple for the Greeks which was essential for life, was in very short supply. Yes, bread was the staple. Yet 'staple' implies that you might have other things to eat. But bread was often the only thing we had to eat. And bread, the staple, was the last thing that remained before starvation. The very last.
The demotic Greek word for bread is psomί, the affectionate diminutive being psomάki. As a child during the Occupation my big daily question was:
– Mamaka, do we have psomaki today?
And she would always say:
– Oh yes, Tasouli, we have lots of psomaki today.
But what my mommy, my Mamaka, would do is cut what she had of the loaf into thinner slices, so it would appear more. I knew she did this, but I was happy that she made the bread seem more for me … ever, ever so happy. For I knew then that I would not die that day. I would live.
There is still more to psomaki. For it can also refer affectionately to a loaf of bread. A whole, un-sliced loaf was the only form of bread that existed. And the daily allotment would be one loaf per family. That is, if loaves were available at the neighborhood baker. If the loaves ran out for good, life would run out.
For me, and the people around me during the Occupation, the notion of a loaf of bread being equivalent to a day of life was part of everyday speech.
The allotted loaf even in the worst days of the Occupation was still warm from the oven, shortages and all. One chewed the slice with its thick crust and soft core. It started to go down into your belly and your hunger, your fear … that terrible fear would subside. Your Mamaka loved you. There would be lots of slices from the loaf that day.
Your Mamaka had said so.
And you loved your Mamaka.
So it had to be true.
And it was always my mother, my Mamaka, who fed me what food there was for me. My father, my Baba, probably heroically starved most of the time so I could have a little more. But I think I used the affectionate diminutive Mamaka a lot more when speaking to my Mother, than Babaka when speaking to my father.
The greatest hunger was in 1941-42 (mέgas limόs), when hundreds of thousands died. Omonia is a central piazza in Athens. The electrical train from Kifisia to Pireus had its main station under the Omonia platea. There were vents from the Underground to the surface. There, children in rags would gather during the cold Athens winter trying to keep warm by huddling together over the vents of the Underground. They seemed to be abandoned and were starving. Some of them were dying and sometimes one had to step over the dying ones to get across the platea. Many had big swollen bellies. My mother, pulling me by one hand, tried to cover my eyes with her other hand, so I would not see them. I remember thinking my mother’s gesture was unnecessary. I had already seen the kids before and I was curious about them.
The dying children would talk to me. They were begging, I suppose.
I wanted to ask them why they had no psomaki. No psomaki at all it seemed. But I was dragged away.
Civil War: British Prisoners
The Insurgents thought they had essentially won the war in Greece, as the Germans retreated. Virtually all of Athens was under their control and they had massive popular support. They also thought that they had the full material and military support of the victorious Soviets. But it was not to be.
Instead, British forces landed in the port of Piraeus. Their orders were to engage the Insurgents and prevent Greece from going communist.
We lived on a small street in the first floor of two-floor building in central Athens. My grandmother had dubbed our home “the Bastille” because it seemed so dark. The name stuck. I do not remember hand-to-hand fighting on our street, but one could hear guns and explosions close by.
The Insurgents took over the front hallway of our house and set up their heavy machine guns there. They were young, very polite, and mostly from rural areas. Some of the Insurgents were wounded. Thales, my favorite uncle, who was a physician, mostly took care of them, cleaning the wounds and putting dressings on. The first-aid station was our main bathroom, where we usually had running cold water. Water had to be boiled in the little gaziera to wash the wounds. Then, patched up, the Insurgent boys would go out to fight some more.
As the fighting intensified the Insurgents brought to the Bastille a small group of captured English prisoners. I think they were all officers, who came with tattered uniforms. Some were also lightly wounded, with superficial face wounds that had more or less dried up.
I was assigned special responsibility for those with the facial wounds. The reason was that I was the razor-boy. Safety razors were available then in Greece, but with the years of Occupation, it was difficult to find new razor blades. So, razor-boy’s job was to sharpen used safety razor blades. It is a skilled job. One needs a drinking glass with a cylindrical shape. The safety razor blade is put inside, more or less flat against the inside of the glass and then slightly angled, so the edge of the blade is sharpened against the glass, and moved back and forth using the index, the middle finger. And a good clean shave was essential, as a British officer would not want to appear scruffy to his captors.
So, I stood beside the English prisoners, sharpening their safety razor blades. They seemed to be familiar with this trick and showed me how to improve my technique. We provided the soap and the shaving brush, and water was boiled for them. Then, my most important task was done and I was able to watch the English prisoners shave. They all seemed very tall to me, with their heads practically touching the low bathroom ceiling.
However, this was a most excellent vantage point from which I could observe if my sharp safety razor blade was getting too close to the wounds on their face. I had to be especially vigilant as they shaved under their chin and their throats. If it looked dangerous, I would warn them with a tug on their uniform. The shaving went well, without further trauma. The English looked quite happy and I was rewarded with some English candies. They were harder, and less sweet than what I was used to. But they were very flavorful and tangy.
These British prisoners had their own smells. They smelled of nice tobacco and other unusual musty smells none of them unpleasant. Their smells were different than the Italian prisoners in Pyrgos, inside the barbed wire, who smelled mostly of sweat. The English were not as talkative as the Italian prisoners, but they were very pleasant. They smiled after having told me something, which I generally would not understand and which they would repeat and smile again.
I suppose they were telling me little jokes or making amusing comments or else they were trying to speak to me in Greek, which I also did not understand with their funny accents. I think the British prisoners stayed a few days. They slept in the hallway with their captors, the Insurgents. The British were very polite, just like the Insurgents. And politely and quietly one day the Insurgent boys approached my Uncle Thales.
– Mr. Thales, excuse us.
– Yes, what would you like boys?
– Mr. Thales, we have received orders.
– Yes, Mr. Thales. Orders from headquarters.
– What orders, boys?
– Excuse us, Mr. Thales, but we will have to execute the English prisoners.
– What in the world for?
– For retaliation, Mr. Thales.
– The English have executed some of our boys, Mr. Thales.
– But we don’t do these things, we are not Barbarians!
– No, Mr. Thales, we are not Barbarians.
– And you are supposed to represent the people. You are our popular Resistance.
– Yes, Mr. Thales, we are the popular Resistance.
– Then you can’t execute prisoners, boys.
– No, Mr. Thales, we can’t execute prisoners. Excuse us, Mr. Thales. Headquarters said we have had hundreds of casualties. And tortures of our people. And executions.
– But the commanders at the headquarters are supposed to be communists and we are all to be working to build a better society. We can’t start a new society with executions of prisoners, can we now boys?
– No, Mr. Thales, we cannot start like this.
– How can the commanders call themselves communists, with orders like this? The British are our allies to fight fascism. It is outrageous, you cannot just shoot them. I will not allow it! I looked after you all.
– Yes, Mr. Thales. You looked after us very well when we were wounded. We will not shoot them, Mr. Thales.
– Good. You are talking sense now.
– We will decapitate them, Mr. Thales. These are our orders, Mr. Thales.
– Decapitate them?
– Yes, Mr. Thales. To save bullets. We are all running short of ammunition.
– You can’t decapitate prisoners in our home. In the Bastille!
– No, Mr. Thales, we cannot decapitate them in your home. That would be impolite. We will decapitate them in the garden.
I knew exactly how the Insurgent boys would decapitate the English prisoners. They would use a long knife, like my father had brought back from the front. It had the wooden sheath like a long pen-knife. Now I knew what the wooden sheath was for. It was to hold the knife for cutting heads off. Maybe it was even the same knife that my father had brought back from the war. I wondered if the heads of the English would still look clean-shaven, on the ground in our back garden.
A couple of days later the British prisoners were gone from the Bastille. The Insurgent boys did not seem to know what happened to them.
I checked a few times in our little back garden, walled all around as it was, but I could not find any English heads.
So if something at all
is forever the same
in London of then
and Athens of now,
I’ll be looking for you
as I freely wander
on my cobbled paths
my glistening byways
in soft winter rain
of my Athens of now,
and if I tire too much
I’ll just lie down and
after falling asleep
I’ll be sure to find you
wherever you are.
"Occupation Child", by T. Styppas.
Bio Provided by author:
We lived on a small street in the first floor of two-floor building in central Athens. My grandmother had dubbed our home “the Bastille” because it seemed so dark. The name stuck. I do not remember hand-to-hand fighting on our street, but one could hear guns and explosions close by.| Author: The author of "Occupation Child" was born in Greece and came to Canada as a youngster and is now Professor of Medicine (Rheumatology) at Queen's University. Kingston. His literary autobiography is described as magic realist, in which time and characters are fluid over the protagonist's lifetime. Set in WWII Greece, and then Ottawa, Canada in the 1950s. | Artist: The illustrator Athena Moss was born in England and studied Fine Art at Sheffield College of Art and is now living in Athens, Greece.