Eleni by Nicholas Gage

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Word PressThis is one of the best books I’ve read in quite a while, covering the experiences of the author’s family in the Greek village of Lia, in the remote mountainous area of Epiros, close to the Albanian border, during the Second World War and the Greek Civil War. Greece was occupied first by the Italians and then by the Germans and, even during the German occupation, right-wing and left-wing Greek forces were fighting each other. Full scale civil war then broke out, with the Greek government forces, backed by Britain and later by American too, fighting communist forces backed by the communist regimes of Bulgaria, Albania and Yugoslavia. The region where Nicholas Gage (Gatzoyiannis)’s family lived was occupied by the communist forces. Many of the men had already fled. Gage’s own father had for a long time been living and working in America, leaving his wife and children in Greece, his argument being that his four daughters might be tempted away from the straight and narrow in America. Women and girls, although not sexually abused, were forced to work – cooking, cleaning, threshing crops, etc – for the communist forces, and many young girls were conscripted as guerrillas, and everyone came close to starvation. When it became clear that the communists were going to lose the war, they began taking children from their families and sending them away to be brought up in communist countries. At this point, the author’s mother, the Eleni of the title, decided to try to escape. Nicholas and three of his sisters managed to leave, but Eleni and another of her daughters were unable to get away as they’d been taken to work in the fields. Amid an atmosphere of panic and distrust, neighbours denouncing each other, often in a desperate attempt to save themselves, many civilians were tortured and executed. Eleni and her sister-in-law Alexo were amongst them.

Many villagers were, as the government forces approached, forced by the communists over the mountains into Albania. The author’s sister, the one who’d had to remain behind, was amongst them, but managed to get back to Greece and, not long afterwards, to join her father and siblings in America. Many others, including children taken away from their families, were scattered across the Eastern Bloc and weren’t able to return to Greece for many years. The book tells the story of the atrocities committed by the communists: atrocities, including taking children away, were committed by the government side too. Years later, Gage returned to Greece to try to track down his mother’s killers. He felt that he wanted to kill the man responsible, but in the end held back from doing so. Instead, he wrote this wonderfully moving book. Not only does it tell the story of a horrific period in history, it also describes the life and culture of people in a small village in one of the most remote parts of Europe at that time – the role of women (sadly very repressed), the role of religion, the interaction between neighbours, the very traditional outlook. There were a few annoying typos/spelling mistakes in my edition of this, but I assume that they were the fault of the publishers/editors!

It’s easy to … not forget, but, as time moves on, not to think about what has happened in some parts of Europe since the Second World War. Greece, the one part of the Balkans which didn’t become part of the Eastern Bloc, has been through some very turbulent times. This book is an excellent starting point for learning about some of them.

And one final thought – it would be interesting to read an account of this period written by one of the leaders of the communist guerrillas. Whatever the supposed ideology involved – communism, fascism, Islamic fundamentalism -, what is it that drives people to commit such horrific atrocities against others? What turns people into the sort of people who do that?

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