Out came her needles, gray wool, and a sweater in progress. She picked up a skein and asked if I would like to help. At age five, I had little experience with knitting, but I nodded, pleased she had asked me. She draped the yarn over my arms and began to wind it into a ball. Aunt Marika had settled down on the couch and was sewing a loose button on her dress; my grandfather, Papous Costandinos, was still in his bedroom. In the kitchen, Yiayia Athena was talking with her married son, Lakis, who had come to pick up for his family some kefalotiri, the hard cheese we made sahanaki appetizers with.
Mother and Aunt Marika were discussing January happenings in town and planning a visit to a friend’s home when an ambulance whizzed by, interrupting them. At the sound of the siren, Aunt Marika shifted the conversation.
“Nitsa, that siren reminds me of World War II.”
Mother explained, “When the war broke out, life turned miserable. I remember the first time the Italians bombed Thessaloniki. It was an early evening in 1941, just as we were sitting down for dinner. Do you remember it, Marika?”
Not waiting for an answer, Mother turned to me and continued. “I was 23 then, and Marika just a year younger. We heard the sound of sirens, just like now.” Mother frowned, her brown eyes fixed on her needles.
“How did you know what to do?” I asked.
“Announcers had warned us over the radio to locate the nearest shelters and run there when we heard that sound,” responded Aunt Marika
“I hate the sound of ambulances,” I said with alarm. I imagined the shrill siren warnings in the night that my aunt and mother had endured. It was as if I were stepping into the era of the German occupation myself.
Mother’s hands busily moved loops from one clicking needle to the next. She went on. “In the confusion, the five of us grabbed two coats and ran down a flight of stairs and around the corner to the shelter. We barely made it. We huddled, shivering, with our neighbors, wondering if our home would still be there when the bombing was over.
“Once the sirens sounded again, we returned home to cold food on our plates and no appetite.” Mother’s face grew even darker. “Buildings shook all around us each time the Italian bombs hit the ground. They even struck St. Sophia’s Orthodox Church. It took several months to restore it.”
Mother had witnessed destroyed buildings and people desperately looking for their families and salvaging their belongings. “At night the city was quiet, like a graveyard. Gone were all the old merry gatherings we loved to attend.”
“You did keep safe, right?” I asked her, seeking reassurance.
“Hold your arms a little higher.” I adjusted my position, but my arms were getting tired.
“We learned to draw dark curtains over the windows to keep our lights from showing to the night sky. The Italians aimed their bombs at Thessaloniki’s downtown, the port, and the west suburbs. We were right downtown.”
“I remember when they bombed us during the day, Nitsa,” Aunt Marika interjected. “We worried about Father, who was at his warehouse in the Ladadika commercial district near the port.”
Papous entered the living room and sat in his armchair. He took the paper and started working a crossword, half listening to his daughters.
Mother spoke, looking at her father. “Yes, it was a relief when you returned home, and we knew you were safe, Father.” Papous nodded.
In April 1941, five years before my birth and after the Italian bombing, the Germans invaded and occupied Thessaloniki.
“We had to line up and get coupons for food rations during that time. Marika and I took turns standing in those long lines to get our family allotment. It was a good thing Father’s connections in the cheese distribution business brought milk and cheese into our house.”
Throughout the 1950s, Aunt Marika, Mother and I often viewed film footage from the British Pathé archives that were projected before the featured films in movie theaters. In moving black-and-white images, the screen quivered with tanks and foot soldiers who marched along our shoreline. They crisscrossed the city on roaring motorcycles with sidecars, and posted German flags on government office buildings. Each time I saw the scenes of goose-stepping soldiers marching victoriously through cities and desolate landscapes with their fixed bayonets, I felt danger and death looming.
“We worked through the Red Cross. It was a way to contribute to the recovery effort,” Mother said. Then she quoted proudly: “Churchill said, ‘Hence we will not say that Greeks fought like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.’”
My grandfather had his own stories, but he never shared them. He was not a talkative fellow and did not care to be reminded of the war times. As I handed another ball of yarn to my mother, Grandfather dismissed my questions about bombs.
He stood up quickly and grabbed me by both my arms. “Here, hold on to me!” he said as he swung me high in the air. I loved his bursts of playfulness. Mother and Aunt Marika smiled, watching their father come alive as we twirled around the room.
To recover from the wild swings and dizziness, I had to plant my feet and stay put for a minute or two. Then giggles, and more giggles!
Aunt Marika returned to telling more war stories: “Father tuned in shortwave stations on our Tesla radio. It was verboten to have a radio.”
“Where did you hide it?”
“Behind the encyclopedia shelves. We kept the volume low, for fear of being detected. Father did not allow anyone else to touch that radio, although I could manage it fine.”
Overhearing this, Grandfather said, “You always thought you could do anything you wanted, Marika. You probably could handle the radio, but it was a risk I did not wish you to take.”
Aunt Marika just shrugged.
I liked to tune into the Tesla and listen to music. It had a magic glass “eye” the size of a quarter set on the left-hand corner of the speaker cloth. When I turned on the radio, it came alive. The eye shone like an opaque crystal, then became a clear, bright green bead once I tuned into a broadcasting station.
“One could get hard labor if they were caught listening to the shortwave. Father tuned into the BBC news to learn what our allies reported,” Aunt Marika said.
All the newsreels I had seen and stories my family shared frightened me about wars and the misery and death they cause. But it was not until years later that Aunt Marika shared the most frightening story of all.
“One day, two soldiers knocked on our door. Nitsa and I followed Father into the hallway, curious because we did not expect anyone,” she said.
From that vantage point, the two sisters had watched their father exchange a few words with the soldiers. Marika pulled the handkerchief out of her sleeve, a nervous habit without purpose.
“We heard them speak in an officious, military tone: Sie sind verhaftet! Raus!”
“What does that mean?”
“You are under arrest! Let’s go,” she said in a metallic voice. “They did not allow him to take anything with him. He went protesting, ‘There must be some mistake.’”
“But there was no mistake. They confined him for the next three days,” Mother added.
After the arrest, Yiayia Athena sent her three children to family and friends, pleading, “Is there a way to get him released? He did nothing to deserve this.”
The arrest was not about the radio. It was part of Nazi tactics to control the city by intimidation. The family lore goes that one of my father’s older brothers, Alexandros Kouidis, fluent in German (he worked for a German company at the time), intervened and used his contacts on my grandfather’s behalf.
Alexandros rushed to the police station with gentle Costandinos’ wife They were told the soldiers had taken my grandfather to Victory Square, along with other prisoners. Fearful that it might be too late, Alexandros, Athena, and the soldier who accompanied them arrived just in time to pull Grandfather out of the firing line.
I held my breath until I knew Papous was out of danger. With a sigh of relief, I looked over to my grandfather. He was reading his paper, halfway listening to my aunt.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” he said.
As soon as Mother and I returned home, I looked for my box of tin soldiers in WWII battle gear with bayonets resting on their shoulders. I dumped the box on the tile kitchen floor and lined up half a dozen in the middle of the room. I aimed my largest yellow marble, releasing it with force, and knocking four of them down. They were the German execution squad soldiers and I had two more to kill. An eye for an eye.
Aunt Marika was much more willing than others in my family to talk about the German occupation – usually in my grandfather’s absence. She spoke about the German invasion and their hold on the population following the Italian bombings. The occupiers stationed their leadership there because of the city’s strategic importance; they requisitioned buildings and set up headquarters in the center of town all around where Mother’s family lived.
“No matter where I went during the day, I encountered the Germans,” Aunt Marika recalled. “It was impossible to avoid them. We walked fast past them, making no eye contact.
“And then, there was a time when our neighbors were ordered to pack, and they abandoned their homes, never to return.”
My aunt revealed an even darker story, one of the city’s bloodiest secrets: the death and destruction of its Jewish community. Before WWII, half the population of Thessaloniki was Jewish (about 70,000 Jews). Adolph Eichmann ordered his deputy, Rolf Gunter, to organize the SS and develop an extermination plan throughout Europe. Initially, the Germans forced all Jews to wear the yellow Star of David badge and confined them to living in ghettoes. Later, Jews were rounded up en masse and transported to death camps. In Thessaloniki alone, in 1943, 50,000 Jews were rounded up in Victory Square and sent in packed trains to Birkenau and Auschwitz. The carnage accounted for the extermination of nearly 98 percent of the Jewish population of our city. Only the Polish Jews experienced a greater level of destruction. .
“But my friend Anna, Aunt Marika, she is Jewish and she is alive,” I offered, as I tried to make sense out of this time of terror. “We were together yesterday.”
“If your friend were alive when the Germans were here, the odds would be against her survival. When was she born?” she asked.
“Born in 1948, after they had left,” I confirmed.
Years later, I met Anna, also an expat, for a cup of coffee in Thessaloniki’s Aristotle Square. We were only blocks from Victory Square.
I had not seen Anna in a few years Her parents had both passed away. I saw deep creases form over my friend’s eyes. Anna said of her mother, “Her death was a redemption for her.” There was enormous sadness in her voice.
I remembered our teen years, the arguments, the irritability we both had shared in dealing with our mothers. They were both such demanding ladies about “good manners.” We scoffed at them because we considered ourselves to be on the right side of decent behavior. They were so intent on tracking our whereabouts whenever we chanced short side trips to talk or meet with friends, that we felt justified in being annoyed at them.
Anna’s mother was one of the 800 Jews who fled to the Macedonian mountainside to join the Greek resistance, mounting a fierce opposition against the occupiers. When I used to visit my friend’s home as a teen, I had noticed her mother’s unusual mannerisms, frequent deep sighs, and gestures as if she were chasing clouds that blocked her sight and interfered with her breathing. I realize now she was chasing ghosts – lost parents, relatives, and friends who had been exterminated during the war.
But she had her Anna, her only child, her solace and relief from the losses life had handed her.
My friend grew up in a guilty city filled with prejudices among her handful of friends. That guilty city lost not only almost half of its citizens during the war; it lost the rich traditions of a once-thriving Jewish community.
When I visit Thessaloniki and cross the Square today, I see the monument the Jewish community erected, a sculpture of dark torn arms, legs, and bodies. And I think, That has not changed.