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)
(Dear Reader, Chapter 3 has been revised March 4, 2017. If you have not read the revised Chapter 3, it is recommended you do so before reading this chapter. Thank you.)
After twelve days of constant seasickness, Yianni and I landed at Ellis Island in New York City on August 21, 1946. A thick fog enveloped us as we stepped off the ship onto a dock crowded with a sea of people. The dock was cold and damp and smelled of iron, rust, and wet cloth coats. So many people jostled about us, carrying luggage, talking, laughing, crying as they met loved ones that we just stood there. Hundreds of people were packed like sardines, nearly everyone wearing black because they had lost a loved one in the war. Our mother told us our father would meet us, but we didn’t know what our father looked like. My mother had given us his photograph, and told us he looked like his sister, Alexandra, in Efpalio. But there were so many faces. Then I heard a man call, “Athena.”
“Yianni,” I said above the din, and nudged him with my elbow. I was afraid to put my suitcase down among so many people. “I heard a man call my name.” We looked around and inched toward the sound.
“Athena,” I heard again.
A man was behind me, a man with blue eyes that I recognized. He looked like his relatives in Efpalio. His eyes were like Alexandra’s. His name was Christos Alexandris. He said, “I’ll introduce you to your kids,” and he turned to a handsome man on his right dressed in a gray overcoat and fedora. “Bill,” he said, “Here is Athena and Yianni, your children.”
Again, I saw eyes that I recognized, the eyes of my aunt in Greece, my father’s sister.
My father spread his arms and hugged us in the fog, enveloped us like the fog, but he was warm and firm and real. We all kissed. We all cried.
For my father, for all those war years, not knowing what had happened to us, to now be able to hold us and kiss us was a dream come true for him.
My father escorted us to a taxi and we drove to a friend’s house. In the taxi, my father had an odd request of me: he asked me to sit on his lap. He told me that, when he had driven my mother, Yianni, and me to the dock to see us off on the ship for Greece 14 years earlier in 1932, I’d sat on his lap in the taxi. I was a big girl then, but I sat on his lap.
My father’s friend had dinner for us. On the table was corn on the cob, boiled. It was the first time I’d seen corn on the cob boiled. In Greece, we always ate it roasted. We stayed with my father’s friend for a couple days. Christos Alexandris’ wife took us clothes shopping in the city. Then we left on the train for Chicago.
The train was pulled by a black steam engine that belched a plume of black smoke that trailed behind it. It was a long ride. We crossed streams and rivers, passed through towns and cities, and traveled through expanses of farmland that rolled between woodland and pastures. The land was far from the warm mountainsides, olive trees, and crystalline blue sea of Greece. A rich smell of earth replaced the thin dustiness I was used to. A constant clanking and chugging of the engine propelled us forward. The plume of smoke from the engine drifted back over the cars. By the time we reached Chicago, the insides of my nostrils were black with soot. My father left us for a few moments on the train and came back with sandwiches. It was the first time I’d seen a sandwich. We ate only cooked meals in Greece.
We stayed our first two weeks in Janesville with the Chrisos family while my father looked for a house for us to live in. Kostas Chrisos, shortened from Chrisanthakis, was partners with my father in the restaurant. He was also from Efpalio. The house my father found was at 314 St. Lawrence Avenue on a hill across from a city park. The house had two floors and one fireplace. It was enormous. My father set our suitcases in the front hall and watched with a smile on his face as Yianni and I wander from the hallway to the living room to the dining room and back through the hallway to the kitchen. My father had furnished every room with everything we’d need to live a life of luxury from the furniture to the bedding to the dishes and the silverware. This was to be our house, finally, all the family living together comfortably in peace and prosperity after so much war, deprivation, loss, anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. We were all together except for Christos. Christos had stayed behind in Athens to finish university. Our family has no photo of all of us together because we were never all together at one time. One or more of us were always missing, either in America or Greece.
Three months later, my father traveled back to New York to meet my mother. With him he carried a new wedding ring. During the Depression, my mother had sold her wedding ring because we had little money. Her new ring was a yellow diamond in a gold setting. When they’d first courted, years ago, my mother’s father, the mayor, had suddenly died at the age of 45, leaving behind his wife and 13 children. My mother assumed that wedding was to be called off. She’d even returned her engagement ring to my father. But my father put the ring back on my mother’s finger and told her, “Sotiria, I love you. I would marry you, no matter what the circumstances.” When my parents met again on the dock in New York City, after not seeing each other for fourteen years, my father opened the ring’s box and showed my mother the new ring in its small box. My mother slipped on the new wedding ring at the dock and cried.
My parents came back to Janesville to continue their marriage from where it had been interrupted, together for the first time. My mother was content to live in Janesville. She could now share her responsibilities for raising Yianni and me with my father. No longer did she have to worry about where our next meal was coming from, or when or where the next threat to our safety was going to appear, or have to worry how to deflect or defeat it. I appreciated how my mother felt, but to me those daily certainties of life in Janesville gave me no excitement or any meaning to life.
The other kids, the American kids, in Janesville High School were very nice to me, but they couldn’t understand what I’d been through during the war. I’d seen things by my age that the other kids might never see in their lifetimes. And I could not express how I felt to them because I did not speak English. Yianni and I took English lessons from a private tutor hired by my father when we got to Janesville. We had taken a few English lessons in Greece before we left, but I didn’t know enough to converse in English. Yianni and I hung together in school. We had only each other, and Bill Chrisos and his sister, Anastasia, to talk to. We were always together. After school, we ate at my fathers’ café. It was a store front restaurant, a long rectangular room with tables in the middle, booths on the right side as you entered, a shiny chrome counter with stools upholstered in red vinyl on the left. The kitchen was in the back. Up front, the cash register sat on top of a display glass filled with candy, including Hershey bars. I could have anything I wanted to eat at the café, of course: steak, chicken, fish, and afterward pies. My father made all his pies fresh: apple, pecan, lemon meringue, and cherry. He made a great custard pie. And I ate ice cream with fresh strawberry jam and pecans. I ate so much that I could scarcely believe how much I ate. But I never gained weight. My father thought I was sick and took me to the doctor. I was fine.
When home, I was very close to my mother. I helped her with cleaning the house and preparing meals. Every Sunday my mother served dinner for all the other Greeks in Janesville. Some had been there from before and during the war; others came afterward—about two dozen all together.
My father’s two partners in the restaurant were always there, Kostas “Gus” Chrisos and Dimitrios “James” Zanias, whom I called “Uncle Zanias.” After dinner we sang Greek songs and danced. We had a piano in the living room. My father played the lute, Christos Alexandris (when he was visiting from New York City) played the clarinet, and a man from Beloit, Wisconsin, whose name I don’t remember, played the violin. And we spoke Greek. It was nice to speak Greek with these friends and relatives.
My father hired a woman to tutor Yianni and I in English. We took lessons from her for about six months, then we started high school at Janesville High. The students there were very nice to us. They had little idea of what we had gone through during the war. They thought of us as exotic and glamorous like movie stars. I still didn’t know much English after my tutoring, and asked them to correct my accent. “Oh, no,” they said. “We’re trying to copy it.”
Life in Janesville was far from glamorous. Our life was routine. Yianni and I woke up, went to school, went to the restaurant for lunch, went back to school, went home, eat dinner, went to sleep, with maybe a little shopping in between, and then do it all over again the next day. Nobody was out after eight p.m. There was no sidewalk café nightlife and music on the streets like in Athens. I once asked Bill’s mother, Maria Chrisos, “Why are there no people out in the evening.” She said, simply, “This is not Greece.” The entire situation was a letdown after the eventfulness of Greece.
At night, alone in my room, I cried myself to sleep. I was miserable in America. I told my mother again and again that I wanted to go back to Greece, to the whitewashed buildings, the mountains, the smell of olive trees and thyme. She couldn’t forget Greece, either, but she wasn’t going back and, frankly, she couldn’t understand why I wanted to go back to that life of hardship after what we went through during the war, especially when I had all the opportunities that America offered me. Even if I returned to live in Athens where we had indoor plumbing, telephones, and electricity before the war, the country was extensively destroyed and the people were suffering desperate shortages of basic goods and the essential services. My mother sent package after package of clothing and household items back to Greece after we arrived in Janesville. She made weekly, often daily, trips to the post office to mail her “care packages.” Each package had to weigh no more than 22 pounds, be wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. My mother’s fingers were cut and bled from tying the stings on thousands of packages. When the man at the post office saw her coming in with her next shipment of packages to mail, he’d say, “Oh, no, not again?” My mother nearly emptied by father’s café of silverware.
I threw many temper tantrums over going back to Greece. My mother bore the brunt of these pleadings, but always said, “No.” My father did not want me to go back to Greece, either. He’d just gotten me back safe and sound; he was not about to let me go back into the situation from which I’d been saved. Beyond his quiet but trenchant opposition, he didn’t involve himself in my desire to return to Greece. My mother had raised Yianni and me in Greece, and he left the discipline to her. When my mother refused me, I told her she was being unfair. I reminded her that I had voted to stay in Greece. I thought I should be allowed to go back to Greece. My mother still said, “No.”
At home, my mother made the Greek dishes we were used to eating in Greece, and in the middle of dusting and cleaning the house, she’d turn off the vacuum cleaner, place a Greek record on the phonograph and we’d dance Greek dances on the Oriental rug in the middle of the living room, but it wasn’t the same as being in Greece. On the back of the black and white photographs my father had taken of Yianni and me with his friends and relatives on our reunion with him in New York, I’d written in ink, “Taken in New York City, away from my beautiful Greece.”
My parents thought my desire to return to Greece was a phase that would pass. I had little to hold me to America. I did have a boyfriend in Janesville: Bill Chrisos, the son of my father’s partner in the restaurant, but we could never be alone, so we were secret boyfriend and girlfriend. Maybe we could kiss, but that’s it. Our families were always together. When our families found out about our romance, all Hell broke loose. They were very unhappy. Eventually, Bill and I went our separate ways. He went to Marquette University in Milwaukee and became a dentist.
My father was overly protective of me, but that was the only part of my life in which he intervened. Not being able to save me or protect me during the war bothered him. Although my father never mentioned it, I knew he wanted me to marry a Greek man. I don’t think my father would have approved of any man was good enough for me, Greek or not. Despite his traditional paternal protectiveness of me, we did have a good relationship. He did not treat me as his inferior. On the contrary, again because I had seen so much during the war, taken on so many responsibilities, and had acted with maturity in difficult situations far beyond what my years had prepared me for, he treated me as an equal, even with deference. We were certainly, at least, equals.
I was taking piano lessons in Janesville. It was one thing that I liked to do; although, I wasn’t very good at the piano. I wanted to go to Milton College in Milton, Wisconsin. It had the reputation of being a good school and its music department was renowned. Milton was only five miles away. I could take the bus and be home in the evenings, but I was my father’s china doll and he did not want me to go to university because he was afraid I might meet a man who was not good enough for me. I told him, if I married and had children and then got divorced or my husband died, I could teach piano to kids in the neighborhood and earn money to support my children, but I was my father’s china doll, and he did not want me to work. He asked me once, “How much would you make a week working?” I said, guessing, “Fifty dollars?” He said, “I’ll give you the money.”
There was a jewelry store next to the café. My father bought me many bracelets, rings, earrings, and other gold jewelry from this store. Once he wanted to buy me a mink coat. I said, “But mom doesn’t have one.” So, he bought both my mother and I each a mink coat.
Despite the luxuries I had in America, I did not want my love for Greece to waste away, so one day, I simply told me mother, “I’m going.”
“What if there is another war?” my mother said.
“I’m not worried about that,” I replied.
My mother looked wearily at me, “So, how are you going to pay for your ticket back?”
“I’ve been saving some of my money.”
“And you have enough?”
“Almost,” I said. “I have most of it, but if you pay for the rest of the ticket….”
“What are you going to do once you get there? What are you going to do for a living? How are you going to live?”
I hadn’t figured out all the details yet. “Please, let me go see what this is inside me. Let me find out why I want to go back to Greece so much.”
My mother took my request to my father. It wasn’t that they didn’t understand my desire to go back to Greece. They missed it, too, but they missed Greece under different, better, circumstances. I was nineteen and would be graduating high school in the spring.
“Okay,” my mother said, “We will pay for your ticket, but it will be a one-way ticket.”
A one-way ticket? The thought chilled me. What if things did not work out in Greece, what if I could not find a job, how would I live? My head filled with these doubts, I hesitated, and then dropped my request for my parents to pay my ticket back to Greece.