A non-fiction piece about my grandfather during the German Occupation of Greece.
|The Tenuous Life of Sparrows
The morning sun creeps up from the east towards the isle of Crete. It is May 20th, 1941. The cool blue of the Mediterranean laps the smooth white sands of Georgopolli, roosters begin to scream their presence to the world, and the freshly woken village dogs yap their protests in a cacophony of disgruntled barking. Somewhere there’s probably a fisherman waking before the fingers of dawn can stretch lazily over the ocean. He needs to gather his tackle and gear for the day. I can picture him clearly in my mind’s eye. He smacks at the morning, rousing himself from sleep and smelling the fresh dew intermingled with the salty scent of the sea. Carefully, he shifts from his bed, making sure that he doesn’t wake his wife. She’s a plump little thing; snoring softly as she lay on her back, but he knows that once she wakes up the household is her domain. Sliding on a blue and white striped shirt – blue and white like the Greek flag – he walks slowly to his wife’s mirror. He analyzes the bushy curvature of his mustache for a moment, before grabbing his black rimmed fishing cap and walking out the door. A second later, he slaps a palm to his forehead and quietly exclaims, “pipa mou!” Returning to his room, he plucks his pipe from a dresser drawer and, wedging its grooved bit between his front teeth, makes his way outside to his small fishing boat. Maybe he was the first one to see the planes. Maybe it was a little boy the same age as my grandfather, rising early to do his chores.
Though the men, women, and children of Crete may be going about their business this morning in much the same way as they always have, the atmosphere is tense with foreboding. Germany is coming and silence is the only part of the isle that welcomes them. Silence is not typical of Crete. Even when the Second World War first started, the island had remained boisterous. Those had been the good days, the days when Greece was winning its own portion of the war. With the help of Ally support, Greece firmly repulsed Italy’s invasion. Winning battle after battle, the Greek army pushed forward and began to claim sections of the would-be invaders’ land. Every time the radio shouted another victory, celebrations ensued. Glasses of retsina and shots of rakid would be passed along, serenaded by laughter and music, and an occasional "Opah!” whenever something was accidentally spilled or broken. The young who hadn’t yet been claimed by the war would probably spend the night feeling invincible, and the old would be able to admit to themselves that they were, perhaps, a bit hasty in assuming the worst.
But by this summer day, the celebrations have ceased. Greece has become the victim of its own success. Upon hearing of Italy’s embarrassing defeats, Hitler decided to show his Axis ally how to wage war. Germany began its Blitzkrieg Campaign on Greece in early April of 1941. After 24 days of constant bombing, Athens fell and Germany took over the mainland. Crete was the last part outside German control. Two Luftwaffe Commanders, eager to end the invasion, suggested to High Command an air attack of unprecedented magnitude. Hitler voiced his favor for the proposal and, on May 20th, the invasion of Crete began.
The resounding victory the Luftwaffe commanders sought was not to be found. In the first wave of Fallschimjagers – the German paratrooper division – 2,000 German soldiers parachuted down to Greece. It must have been an odd sight; hundreds of fresh-out-of-training paratroopers gently gliding down to the soft sunny shores and olive groves of Crete, directly into a storm of fire from the defending infantry forces. Most of the first German wave was ripped apart in mid-air. Some of them must have had their parachutes riddled with holes, to be sent plummeting downwards. Others may have just caught an unlucky bullet, and were otherwise left to drift slowly to the ground like suspended ragdolls. The losses for the German army were horrific, so much so that Hitler refused to use a similar tactic for the rest of the war. Despite the high cost of the invasion, the outnumbered defenders were defeated in only 10 days, marking the start of the German Occupation of Greece.
They have a name for people like me. They call us “Third Culture Kids”. It’s a term that has become much more frequent ever since globalization started making international trade, travel, and communication easier. It’s used to describe people who have been moving from culture to culture, country to country throughout their childhood. By 16, I had already lived in London, Moscow, Texas, and Hong Kong. It sounds like a fantastic adventure to some – or so I’ve been told – and in a way it was, but what some people don’t realize is that it comes at a cost. Third Culture Kids never really have a concrete home. It is a vague concept for us. Bits and fragments of all the various places we’ve been compile themselves into a contradictory and nonexistent place. The effect is a constant state of mild disorientation. I find that no matter where I go, something just seems to not fit quite right, like the old shoe you once could wear but have since grown out of. I think this feeling is the reason I identified so readily with my Greek ancestry. Though I am only a quarter Greek – the other 3/4ths divided up throughout Europe – it is the only part of my heritage that I feel entitled to claim as my own. This is due entirely to my pappou, Eleftherious Kuklakis, who has been telling me stories about his homeland since I was a toddler.
In my memories, Pappou is always a big man. Not fat in any sense of the word. He carried the weight naturally, with a certain aura of strength that mystified me. When I was a kid, I thought he looked like a Greek Santa Claus; they both were jolly and had white beards, even if Pappou’s beard was short and scraggly by comparison.
Sitting on the carpet of his living room, I would watch him settle his girth into a thin chair with a tall backing. He would then start his storytelling, his thick accent rumbling out over his consonants like water. He would joke sometimes about his accent, saying that he had no native language since he apparently now spoke Greek with an American accent as well. Whatever the accent, I would listen, riveted to the low hum of his voice, listen, and stare in wonder at his enormously bushy eyebrows. They were my eyebrows, or mine were his. All I knew was that no other person in our family, including my father, shared the same eyebrows as Pappou and I. Every time Pappou would say something funny or scandalous, I would watch those eyebrows snap up in mock surprise. I was utterly captivated by them.
In the beginning, his stories were light comical tales, such as the origins of retsina, a pungent white wine favored almost solely by the Greeks. He told me that during the Turkish invasions – the mention of Turks always said with a lingering hint of contempt – the Greeks were tired of having all of their great wine stolen. They therefore decided to put their wine in pinewood planked barrels, causing the bitter pine resin to seep into the fermenting grape juice. Through force of will, the Greeks then developed a taste for this bitter wine, just to spite the Turkish invaders and give them one less item to plunder. He said this last bit with triumph, a proof of Grecian ingenuity and stoicism. It was years before I found out that the real reason the Greeks used pine casks was that there were very few hardwood trees in Greece. Even knowing the truth, I prefer to believe my grandfather’s version.
Another story he told me was about his days in the U.S. Army, as a new recruit training in anti-aircraft gunning. He let out a jolly, slightly high pitched chuckle and his eyebrows stretched to their maximum height when he told me about his graduation day, when he and his gun crew shot down a remote controlled military training plane as a joke. It was a very expensive piece of equipment, and his military instructors were less than pleased. Soon after, he was reassigned to mortar duty, one of the most dangerous jobs in the army at the time.
As I grew older, the stories became more serious. In brief snippets, Pappou slowly began to talk more about his earlier childhood, his time spent during the occupation of Greece. It would come up unexpectedly, mid-conversation. I would say how much my school’s cafeteria food sucked, and Pappou’s gaze would slowly become unfocused. His face would slacken all expression, and his brows would fall level. With one hand resting on his slightly protruding gut, he would tell me in a soft neutral tone how he had learned to appreciate food. He would explain a little if I asked, and would tell me some specifics, but the gravity of his tone and expression kept most of my inquisitive impulses at bay. At the time, I think that he just didn’t want to remember it.
After I moved to Hong Kong during my sophomore year of high school, I didn’t see my grandfather much. Even when I moved back to Texas for college, it was difficult for me to find time to drive three hours from San Antonio to his house outside of Houston. On the rare occasions I did see him, during Thanksgiving or a brief visit, I began to notice a certain somber quality in his smile, a slight quiver in his voice. His eyes seemed to mask a wild and desperate emotion; almost as if he feared he would dissolve at any moment. And the stories about his childhood came up more often.
At his 80th birthday party, I could see that beneath the joy – which I believe was genuine – he still masked his strain. He would look at me, side glances at random intervals, and there seemed to be an almost pleading question in his gaze. He had been telling me more and more about Greece, about the war. Just a week before, I had called him and asked him about it. I listened then, as his thick accent rolled like water through the phone, constructing images in my mind like no other story had done before.
Eleftherious Kouklakis quietly crouched at the base of a tall pine tree; his gaze firmly set on a patch of forest loam several feet ahead where a black and brown sparrow was hopping sporadically from side to side. He stared at it with feverish anticipation until the muscles of his abdomen began to clench in that familiar way. He prayed in a silent whisper that the bird would set the trap before his empty stomach betrayed his presence with a low growl. The bird hopped closer to the small pile of seed. Had it seen the bait? It fluttered its wings, and Eleftherious had a moment of despair, thinking it was going to fly away. Instead, the sparrow half-skipped, half-flew the last few centimeters towards the trap, brushing a wing against the narrow stick that supported a large flat stone. The twig, which was already bending under the strain of the heavy rock, snapped instantly. There was a muffled thump, a puff of downy feathers, and silence.
Eleftherious shot forward to claim his prize. The movement caused cords of muscle to writhe visibly underneath his darkly tanned skin. His body was not the body of a normal twelve year old. There was no lingering plump of baby fat hanging off his frame. All traces of excess had melted away in the two years since Germany started its Occupation of Greece. And the war had taken more from him than that. The carefree disposition of his childhood fled during the long months of near-starvation, and on the day that that the German soldiers gathered all the old men in his village together and began counting to 100. On that day, the even numbers were allowed to go home. The odd numbers were forced to stay, to be beaten as an example to any troublemakers. Some of those men never saw home again.
There was little left of a child to be seen in Eleftherious Kouklakis as he lifted the slate stone to retrieve the sparrow. He picked the slightly flattened bird up and examined it in the palm of one hand. The sparrows never offered much meat, but he knew that it was vitally necessary to catch them. They were one of the last sources of protein that he and his family could find.
Over the last two years, his family had learned how to make the most of a sparrow. After Eleftherious plucked its feathers, his mother would grind it, meat, skin, bones and organs, into a thick paste. She would then mix the paste with snails and rice, knead the mixture into small cakes, and dry the cakes in the sun. The rice they used was a true blessing; one of those odd little miracles that spring up from tragedy, as if in recompense. It came from a nearby bay, where a ship had been sunk in the early days of the war. There, young Greek divers regularly disappeared into the heavy blue of the Mediterranean and stretched their lungs to the limit on a journey to the bottom of the ocean, where they would raid the ship’s storage compartment. After years submerged in seawater, the rice had become moldy and overwhelmingly salty, but the bags of it that the divers regularly sent to Hermonia were responsible for keeping many of the villagers alive.
War is unique in that it can show us the best and the worst of human nature, working in some kind of odd balancing act. Though the divers’ actions were incredibly admirable, there was a counterpart, a negative side of those who friended hunger in their bellies under Nazi rule. Eleftherious knew this well. He had a dog once.
It was a horrible mutt with a bad temper. Small, loud, scruffy, it hardly seemed the ideal canine companion. Anyone who had the misfortune of going near it would be chased and bitten, except Eleftherious of course. The dog was utterly loyal to Eleftherious. It would follow him everywhere, barking at every stranger, protecting his master, a stalwart friend despite its flaws. A little under a year into the occupation, Eleftherious exited his house to find the leather cord of the dog’s leash cut, dangling sadly from the wooden gate post in the front yard. He didn’t have to go looking for it. He knew what happened. Times were hard, and people were desperate and hungry.
That had been a bad day, but today was a good one. Today he had once again caught dinner. He began traversing the rolling hills back towards his house, just as the sun began to dip into the horizon. The waning sunlight lit up the rows of olive trees in a sea of golden brown, and a sudden gust of wind engulfed him in the smoky olive scent. The view could have been perfect, if it weren’t for the occasional dark crater of charred earth that a German’s Stuka Bomber had left behind.
He turned away from the scene, wanting to get back before nightfall. He entered his house with an air of excitement, eager to give his mother the day’s catch, but the feeling evaporated when he saw the man who sat inside, boots kicked up onto the table. The man was around 40, handsome, and held himself in a way that was both confident and condescending. With his dark hair, tannish skin, and a fluent accent he had mastered as a professor in Austria, Hanz Baxter was almost a believable Greek. But in this household, no one doubted who and what Hanz Baxter was. He was an SS Agent of the Thousand-Year Reich, living incognito among the residents of Hermonia; more specifically, living in the household of the Kouklakis family.
He had forced himself into their dwelling some months back, and with his unspoken threat of retribution from German soldiers, he was met with little argument. While he was inside the house, the SS Agent didn’t bother maintaining pretenses, but he would leave every day to assume the disguise of a British Agent. His goal was to root out the remaining resistance forces in the area, which had savagely harassed the Germans for the entirety of the Occupation. Though many of the resistance fighters had learned to be wary of people like Hanz Baxter, he was good at his job. He pointed his finger, and the next day a several men would disappear, only to reappear weeks later for public execution.
The effect that Hanz had on the household was one of paranoia. If the Greek resistance found out about him (as they later did) he would quickly be gunned down (as he later was). If the resistance came to the house, there would be no telling who may be the victim of an unintended shot. Mitera Kuklakis feared for her children; for Maria, Harriet, and Eleftherious. Every evening was another day they had scrapped by, every morning was a new threat looming.
Unknown to Mitera Kuklakis and her children, Hanz had another effect on their wellbeing. Months after his death, after a teenage Maria was forced to identify a human-sized lump of bullet torn flesh by a ring on his finger, Hanz would have one last contribution to the Kuklakis family. Another so-called British Agent had arrived at their door, but this time, instead of forcing himself into their home, he offered them a way out of Greece. Mitera knew well the tricks of Hanz Baxter, and this new imposter wasn’t going to fool her. She declined, not daring to risk it. It was only after the war that she found out that this man was a real British Agent, and that his offer had been a genuine one.
I stood by the phone for a while, my mind reeling from everything I had heard. I had known that my grandfather had stories, I had known that he had gone through much in his 80 years of life, but I had never imagined the true danger that he and his family had been in. I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it to him. All I knew is that I wanted to hear more, to record it for my own kids. As if reading my mind, Pappou spoke through the phone, “I’m ready to talk. I want to sit down with you and tell all of it, start to finish.” And I knew then that the stories had only just begun.