A Greek-American Woman’s Resistance to the Nazis and the Greek Junta
by Athena Mihos Psyhogios Henderson with James C. Henderson
(A memoir serialize in chapters)
(Revised March 4, 2017)
After the war, my family had an opportunity: because Yianni and I were American citizens—I born in Detroit, Michigan in 1929 and my brother, Yiannis, seventeen months later in Springfield, Massachusetts—we were offered free passage to America. In 1946, United States foreign nationals in Greece were being evacuated back to America by the U.S. Armed Forces. My mother was not an American citizen, so she could not go with us, at least not right away, but being the mother of American citizens, she could follow us three months later.
For the entire Nazi occupation, my mother raised Christos, Yiannis, and I alone, without the help of my father and she was tired. She wanted to get away from war-torn Greece and go to America where my father had been throughout the war. Not by choice. He had sent us to Greece in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression because he thought we would have a better life in Greece. Greece had been ravaged by the Great Depression, as America had, but in Greece we had relatives. We also had a house in Efpalio, a small village in the province of Roumeli, located in the middle of Greece, just north of the Gulf of Corinth. It was my father’s village; the house was a home my mother had built in 1924. It had a backyard with a vegetable garden and fruit trees that could feed us. The little money we had would buy more there. My father was going to stay behind, work, and send as money as best he could until we established ourselves, then he would join us, but before he could, the war broke out. We were stranded in Greece and he was stranded in America. During the war, there was no way for us to communicate with one another. All those years, my father had no way of knowing what had happened to us, whether we were dead or alive. He went to the movie theater and saw in newsreels children in Europe rummaging through garbage cans in bombed out cities looking for something to eat. He searched for us among these children. We had grown and he wasn’t sure what we looked like then, and left the movie theater wondering how we were living in Greece, wondering if he might have, unknowingly, seen his children that evening.
Three years after the war had begun, he was finally able to re-establish contact with us through the Red Cross. He wrote a letter to us. In return, we each wrote him a letter telling him that we were alive. He insisted on this. He wanted to see in our own handwriting that we had survived the war.
When the war ended and he could reliably get it to us, my father sent us a trunk. We had left Efpalio by this time and were living in Pagrati, a suburb of Athens, with my aunt Anastasia Gaveras and her husband, Panagiotis in their home. At that time, there were only one or two apartment buildings in Pagrati. Most all the homes were two story neoclassical houses of stucco and red tiled roofs. My mother, my brothers Christos and Yiannis, and I shared two rooms on the top floor. My aunt and uncle lived downstairs with their family.
The trunk my father sent us was full of clothes. My mother immediately felt the hems and linings of all the clothes until she found a thousand dollar bill sewn into the hem of a black coat. Also in the trunk were reams of cotton and wool fabrics and several big Hershey bars. I had never seen a Hershey bar—we hadn’t had sweets of any kind for years during the war—but I loved chocolate. My mother gave me one Hershey bar. We had a big armoire in one of our rooms. I hid my Hershey bar on the top shelf of the armoire parceling out one square at a time to myself. It was hot in the top of the armoire, however, and the Hershey bar melted, but I ate it anyway—it still tasted good. My mother gave the other Hershey bars to our relatives and other people in our neighborhood.
From the fabrics in the trunk, my mother had a seamstress make me several fine dresses. When I wanted more, she told me, “You have enough. There are people here and in Efpalio who don’t have any clothes or money.” She gave these people some of the fabrics so they could make clothes for themselves and gave them much of the money from the thousand-dollar bill my father had sent.
During this time, my mother and father wrote each other about what they were going to do now that the war had ended. My father’s finances had recovered during the war and option one was for my father to come to Greece and buy an apartment building in Kolonaki—a fashionable suburb of Athens—and for all of us to live in one unit and rent the others. Option two was for my mother, Christos, Yiannis, and I to join my father in Janesville, Wisconsin where he had opened a restaurant in the center of town named the Central Café. The four members of our family in Greece got together to discuss the two options. My mother sat us at the kitchen table and put the two options to a vote. I raised my hand to buy the apartment building and remain in Greece. My mother, Christos, and Yianni raised their hands to go to America. I lost. We were headed for America.
I knew that being an American citizen had its advantages—people told me it did—but in 1946 I did not see any advantage in being an American. I saw only the disadvantage in being an American citizen because it was taking me away from Greece, my relatives, and my friends.
I understood why my parents thought it best for my mother, Yianni, and I to rejoin my father in America. Our family had been separated for 14 years and my mother and father wanted to be together again. The responsibility for the safety and upbringing of my brothers Christos and Yiannis, and me during the war had been immense for my mother and she did not want to continue bearing the burden alone, and, although the war was over, Greece was still not a safe place. The Germans had gone, but in the power vacuum their departure had created the Greek people were vying among themselves for control of Greece.
There were to groups who fought the Nazis during the Second World War, and for very different purposes. One group fought to free Greece of Nazis so that Greeks could rule themselves democratically free from foreign interference. The other group who fought the Nazis was comprised of those who sought to free Greece of Nazis so they might return Greece to a system of monarchy than ruled Greece in conjunction with and a rightwing puppet government that did the bidding of foreign powers like Great Britain and the United States. During the war, each group, while fighting the Nazis, also fought each another.
In September 1941, in response to the occupation of Greece by the axis forces of Germany and Italy, the first group, the one that fought the Nazis for a free and democratic Greece was formed. It was created by the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and various other small political parties in a coalition of resistance and was named the National Liberation Front (EAM). This was the group my family fought with. Five months later, EAM formed its own army, the Greek Popular Army (ELAS). They fought a guerilla war against the Germans from the mountains. ELAS began small. At first it was only seven men lead by Aris Velouchiotis. They didn’t start with much—only stones with which to kill the Germans and capture the weapons, ammunition, and clothes with which they equipped themselves.
A key element of EAM’s vision from the future of Greece was the ouster of the Greek monarchy. Before the war, in the 1920s and early 1930s, attempts where made to abolish the Greek monarchy and establish Greece as a republic, lead largely by the statesman Eleftherios Venizelos. Despite the fact that King George II of Greece left the country and the throne unoccupied from 1923-1935, these attempts ultimately failed. In 1936, an army general, Ioannis Metaxas, with the complicity of the Crown, ended years of wrangling for control of the Greek government between republicans and monarchists by seizing power in a coup and installed himself as head of a military dictatorship. Metaxas, a graduate of the Prussian Military Academy, patterned his regime on that of Hitler’s New Order and Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party in Italy. Greeks fought fiercely to expel the Italian in early 1941, not to save the government of Metaxas, but to save Greece from both the fascism of Mussolini and the evil of Metaxas they’d suffered firsthand.
Not all Greeks sided with the ELAS guerillas nor were they pleased with EAM’s political administration in the villages or the countryside. Many of the villagers in across Greece, while opposed to the Nazis, also opposed EAM and ELAS. They preferred a return of the monarchy and a Metaxas-style strongman regime after the war rather than the style of peoples’ government, which they considered too socialist and too leftist. Another guerilla organization formed about this time, the National Greek Republican League (EDES). In the first months of the war, EDES cooperated in joint operations with ELAS against the Nazis—most notably in blowing up the viaduct over the Gorgopotamos river near Lamia, denying the Nazis a vital rail route in their re-supply of Rommel’s army in North Africa for six weeks—but while EDES was initially anti-monarchist, it was also anti-communist, much more politically to the right than ELAS. It gradually grew even more so until it came to represent the “monarchist” or right wing faction of the Greek populace. EDES’ turn was influenced, in large part, by the British who sought to use EDES to counter the growing political power of EAM/ELAS within Greece. EDES fought not only the Germans and Italians, but also ELAS.
Great Britain, who had supported the Greek monarchy and the dictatorship of Metaxas before the war, continued to support it in exile in Cairo, Egypt with an eye to restoring the monarchy and a rightist regime like that of Metaxas in Greece at the conclusion of the war and with it British influence in Greek affairs—a Metaxas-like regime because Metaxas, himself, had died in 1941, shortly after the Axis victory over Greece. ELAS stood in the way of the Britain’s plan. To this end, the British supported the right-wing guerilla army of EDES over ELAS—to the extent that they supplied exclusively the right-wing guerillas. So, while ELAS wore rags, the right-wing guerillas wore clean khaki uniforms and shiny boots.
It was mainly the Greek people who supported ELAS—a broad-based and popular support. The Greek people had never really wanted nor fully supported the Greek monarchy. If not a condition of support from Great Britain, France, and Russia in the 1821 Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire, it was a byproduct. Greece was shaped by these “Great Powers” as a constitutional monarchy, and the first man and woman found to fill the newly created roles of King and Queen were Otto of Wittelsbach, Prince of Bavaria, and Marie Frederika Amalia, Princess of Oldenburg, Germany. They ruled Greece as King Otto and Queen Amalia until they were exiled from Greece in 1861 for, in addition to a general dissatisfaction with their presence, their unwillingness to support a more democratic Greek constitution. In 1863, a new king, George I, was found in the second son of the King of Denmark. Thus, from its fitful start, the Greek royalty were outsiders who, despite assimilating the culture, language, and in latter generations the religion of their new Greek subjects, remained in large measure an imposition and symbol of foreign interference in Greek affairs and became more and more an archaistic appendage on Greece society as Greece moved into the twentieth century.
Support for EAM grew quickly among the people as did the strength of ELAS and, although the Greece was occupied, most of the countryside was free. The Germans and Italians were confined to the cities or towns and villages near the sea, like Efpalio. They moved cumbersomely in trucks and tanks, so they could not reach very deeply or very high into the mountainous. EAM administered the area controlled by ELAS.
Life under EAM was beautiful. Freedom of speech was allowed, women had the right to vote, and for the first time, we held elections to determine the representatives of our village governments.
Late in 1944, the Nazis abandoned Greece because the Soviet army was pushing through Eastern Europe and threatening to cut off their retreat to Germany through the Balkans. The Greek guerillas were harassing the last of the Nazis out of northern Greece when the British arrived in Athens October 1944. The war was over for Greece, and the reconstruction, the putting back to normal of daily life that had been shattered to pieces, begun. The British did not liberate Greece. They arrived when the Germans were gone. It was the guerillas that pushed the Germans out, but when the British arrived, they took over like it was before the war, pushed aside the leftist guerillas of EAM and ELAS and took over, making a pact with the rightwing guerillas only, putting them into positions of power.
At the end of the Second World War, it was risky for leftists to stay in Greece because those who fought the Nazis with EAM/ELAS became targets of the restored Greek monarchy and the newly formed rightist government. The monarchy was actively supported politically and militarily by the British government and, in particular by Winston Churchill following its restoration, in spite of the fact, that at the end of the war, not only the leftist factions in Greece but the rightist factions had become opposed the king’s return in favor of a new government that was democratically elected in a Greek republic. But the British were adamant. Churchill was obsessive about the restoration of the Greek monarchy. He even made a trip to Greece himself to ensure its revivification.All opposition to British policy being forced down the throats of the Greek people was silenced with the whitewash of a communist threat. Any Greek who opposed the British plans for Greece was labeled a communist. The communist threat was a gross exaggeration. Churchill and Stalin agreed, in exchange for a free hand in the reorganization of the internal politics in Romania, Stalin would allow Britain a free hand in Greece. Although the overwhelming majority of those who participated in EAM/ELAS were not communists, because the Communist Party of Greece, the KKE, was in charge of administering the organization, and had ties to the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, EAM/ELAS was seen as the major threat to British plans.
When British armed forces under the command of General Scobie arrived in Athens October 14, 1944, on the heels of the Nazi withdrawal from Greece, General Scobie assumed command of the Greek Army as well. He then ordered the ELAS to remove from Athens to a distance of two hundred kilometers within twenty-four hours. On November 4, Scobie demanded ELAS disarm. ELAS objected and organized a rally in Syntagma Square in Athens for December 3 to draw attention to the interventionist tactics of Britain and the Greek Right’s collaboration. This peaceful rally was broken up by British tanks and soldiers and, as a result, many Greek civilians were killed.
As the bodies of the fallen were picked up from the streets, another, larger rally was called for the following day, December 4. It was, in a sense, a funeral for those slain. The British Army again fired into the demonstrators. These rallies were the beginning of what became known as the December events, which lasted for forty days.
Despite the objections of the Greek people, the British and Greek governments insisted ELAS disarm. Such a disarmament was brokered to take affect January 1945, and, in the interest of peace, with promises of participation the formation of subsequent, freely elected Greek governments, ELAS laid down its arms. But soon the truce that then existed between all political and military factions in Greece was broken when the government reneged on its promises to accommodate the left in elections and acts retribution began by right-wing paramilitary groups against individual leftists.
Aris Velouchiotis, who had formed ELAS at the beginning of the war to fight the Nazis, warned that ELAS was being tricked, and he did not give up his weapons. KKE disowned him, and government forces trapped Aris with a few followers in the mountains of Pindos in Thessaly in north central Greece, and Aris committed suicide rather than be captured. The government soldiers cut off his head and played soccer with it before carrying it to the town of Trikala, where it hung from a lamppost for three days in the central square. I remember the moment I learned the devastating news of Aris Velouchiotis death. I was standing on the veranda of my house in my village of Efpalio, and it was nine o’clock in a morning a few days later that June.
At this time, Nazi collaborators were welcomed into positions of power and influence in the Greek government. The Minister of Transportation, Padogonas, had sent a telegram to Adolph Hitler after the assassination attempt on his life failed, congratulating him on his narrow escape from death. The man appointed chief of the Greek Military Academy had stated during the occupation, “In our fight, every German wounded is a loss to our side.”
Conversely, the Greek government persecuted those who had fought the Nazis but did not support its embrace of a conservative, intolerant view of what modern Greece should be.
In the winter of 1941, with the Nazi’s firmly occupying Athens, Glezos, along with another man, Santas, scaled a difficult approach to the summit of the Acropolis and struck the Nazi swastika flag. When the people of Athens awoke in the morning, and looked up, they saw the Greek flag flying above the Acropolis in its place.
After the liberation, the Greek government arrested Glezos and sentenced him to death for his political activities during the war, but he wasn’t executed. Glezos was rearrested when the Junta seized power in 1967, tortured severely and imprisoned in a concentration camp on the island of Leros for several years.
In response to the retribution the Left was suffering at the hands of the Right, ELAS took up arms again to protect themselves. The Greek government, supported by British forces, attacked ELAS to eradicate not only their military but considerable political influence and support among the Greek people.
Despite its position of political power and military might, the British and Greek government could not subdue ELAS. It did carve out enough breathing room for the rightist government that the Greek monarch, King George II could arrive safely in Athens on September 27, 1946.
Five months later, in February 1947, bankrupted by the Second World War, the British government pulled out of Greece. Not wishing to see what he had wrought wither on the vine, before withdrawing, Winston Churchill urged the United States to step in and assume Britain’s guardianship of Greece. Seeing it as one of the opening moves of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the United States did so. Truman enunciated a new policy toward this end in Greece in what became known as the “Truman Doctrine” in an address to Congress on March 12, 1947:
I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting subjugation to armed minorities or by outside pressures…the very existence of the Greek state today is threatened by the terroristic activities of several thousand armed men, led by the Communists…Assistance is imperative if Greece is to survive as a free nation….
Our way of life is based on the will of the majority and is distinguished by free institutions,
representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of
speech and religion and freedom from political oppression.
This policy decision defined and set in motion what would be the foreign policy of the United States for the next four decades. The United States became the greatest “outside pressure” on Greece and Greece the first nation in which the United States tested its postwar role as “policeman” of the world. As a result of America’s involvement in Greece, many new agencies specializing in the analysis of revolution and the means by with to suppress it through subterfuge and economic and military aid to rightist forces were created. It was during this time that President Truman signed the charter of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and then the United States created a mirror organization in Greece, the Greek Intelligence Agency (KYP).
Because my family and I had fought the Nazis in Greece during the war and opposed to the British takeover of Greece, following the cessation of hostilities between the Greek guerillas and the Nazis, and with the rise of a post-war rightist, fascist government in Greece, we were in danger. The worst of the clashes between the Greek people and the rightwing that would eventually develop into an armed civil war had not yet happened by 1946, but there was violence in the streets, social unrest, and worries about the oppression that was occurring and that which was looming.
My family sensed we were being watched. Neighbors were turning in neighbors. The woman who lived in the house next to us in Athens had two sons who had worn Nazi uniforms during the German occupation. Outside our home in Athens, a man sometimes patrolled the sidewalk with the black muzzle of a submachine gun poking from under his light-colored jacket. I told my mother about this man and my brother, Christos, and cousin Yiorgios Gaveras stayed away from our house thereafter.
Members of the people’s resistance were being arrested, imprisoned, and even killed by death squads of Nazi collaborators. My family feared we, too, might be arrested, imprisoned or killed, but this was a worry more of my parents than me. I reasoned that it was mainly young men and women who had been in the guerillas fighting the Nazis who were in danger, men like my older brother Christos who had been in the mountains during the war with the guerillas lecturing and educating villagers in the countryside about the process and benefits of democracy and about how important it was to restore it when the Nazis left. I thought Christos should go to America to avoid capture. My cousins, Yiorgios and Yiannis Gaveras, sons of my aunt Anastasia and uncle Panagiotis Gaveras, left Greece about this time because they had been very active in the resistance to the Nazis and feared they would be targeted by the rightwing. They were also American citizens, being born in Alpena, Michigan. Like me, they had returned to Greece during the Depression. Once during the war, Yiorgios Gaveras was arrested in Athens by Nazis collaborators with about ten other young men and marched down the sidewalk. They somehow knew they were to be executed. One of the other men had a premonition that my cousin Yiorgios would survive, so he gave Yiorgios his gold wedding band to give to his wife. As the men were being pushed to their fate, Yiorgios bent down to tie his shoe, slipped into an open doorway, and escaped. He gave the wedding band to the man’s wife.
Summer evenings my family and relatives would sleep on the flat roof of Aunt Anastasia and Uncle Panagiotis’ house. We put down blankets and pillows. The summer breeze was cool. Concerts were sometimes held in the park across the street. A couple singers performed with a band would play swing music and we would dance the jitterbug. At night the sky was full of stars. Once, about three in the morning, three policemen came up to our roof and woke my relative, Nikos Papaioannou. Nikos had been involved with the resistance to the Nazis. The policemen told Nikos to get dressed and go with them. He did. He had no choice. There is a song that says, “Ta sidera tis filakis einai yia tous levendes,” “Prison bars are made for the brave.” We did not sing the song but repeated the line while Nikos was getting dressed. Nikos was held for three days at the police station then released.
Despite the dangers, I would have stayed in Greece. I had fought the Nazis and we had won the war, and I believed in myself. I was also headstrong and I had a purpose. I had fought the Nazis and I wanted to continue to fight for justice.
I cried and complained about leaving Greece. I did not know what America was like or what I would do there. My parents asked me to go to America for just six months to see where I was born. I said I would go see it when I felt like it. Still, yet, I’d been raised to honor my parents’ wishes and I never had a serious thought of disobeying them, so despite my protests, when it came time to leave, I packed my suitcase and went. I had only a few clothes to put in it and a small, thin, brown book in which I had written the lyrics of about 53 of the revolutionary songs that we sang during the war, composed not by poets but by the people. I kept the book beside my bed every night the way some people keep their Bibles. The only time I parted with it was once when the Germans were searching some of the houses in our village for guns. It was incredibly dangerous for me to possess the book because the Germans would have killed by entire family if they had found it. I gave the book to my friend, Koula, to hide it for me. Koula’s family was not political and so I was sure the Germans would not search her house. Collaborators in the village had pointed out our house to the Germans because they knew my brother, Christos, was in the mountains with the guerillas. “But where?” Koula asked me. I told her to nail the book to the bottom of her kitchen table. The Germans didn’t search her house, and the book bears two small nail holes through its covers and all its pages to this day. When I left for America, I could not leave the book behind. It represented the revolution to me and what was important. It had made my life beautiful during the occupation.
My mother took Yianni and I on a streetcar from Pagrati to our ship that waited in the port of Piraeus to take us to America. I was seventeen-years-old, and I was crying.
A man on the streetcar asked my mother, “Why is she crying?”
Someone said, “They are sending her to America.”
The man said, “I wish I could go.”
“I’ll gladly give you my place,” I said.
Many friends and relatives came along to see us off. Someone had a camera and we took pictures. I tried to keep up a brave front and smile, but I was very depressed.
Our ship was a United States merchant vessel named the SS Marine Carp. Used as a troop ship and cargo ship during the war, it was now packed with refugees bound for America. We were squeezed onto the gray and ugly iron ship. In a hot and stuffy dormitory-like room at the very bottom of the hull filled with bunk beds, rank with body odor, I was jammed together with thirty other women. I was putting my things away at my bunk trying to keep myself together after an emotional farewell with my mother and my friends and relatives, when one of the women called out that we were underway. I hadn’t felt the ship leave the dock. I ran up the metal stairs to the deck. The air on the stern of the ship was fresh and smelled of brine. Over an expanse of water, I saw the dark shape of Piraeus receding behind us. It was just a thin black line on the water. I panicked and gripped the iron handrail. Below me, the ships’ propeller churned the water white. If we’d been closer, I would have jumped over the handrail and swam back to shore. If I’d been able to reach out and hold onto Greece, I would have. Instead, all I could do was watch as the land grew thinner and thinner then disappeared below the horizon. My body was going to the United States, but my soul was staying in Greece. I vowed some day I’d return. I didn’t know how or when, but I knew everything I did from that day forward would be so I could be reunited with Greece.