Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A House in a Greek Village

                       

(This watercolor of the restored Eleni Gatzoyiannis house was done by visiting British artist, Bill Peake.)

On Saturday, my husband, Nicholas Gage, and I returned, as we do every summer, to his small Greek village of Lia near the top of a mountain in Epiros, Greece, just a kilometer below the border with Albania.

As the sun began to set, we joined the villagers sitting at tables in the courtyard outside the inn under the plane trees.  Soon some visitors to the region came over, one by one, to introduce themselves.

This happens every time Nick returns to the village. The visitors have come up this twisting, vertiginous mountain road into the Mourgana mountain range because they want to see the places that figure in Nick’s 1983 book “Eleni” about the life and death of his mother Eleni Gatzoyiannis, who never left this village. 

In 1948 she was executed, at the age of 41, by a firing squad of Communist guerrillas because she had managed to get four of her five children led out of the village and down through mine fields to freedom under cover of night.  Eleni organized this escape after she learned that the children in the guerrilla-occupied village were to be taken away to camps behind the Iron Curtain in the last days of the Greek Civil War. (28,000 children were taken from Greece in what is called the “pedomasoma”, or “gathering of children”). On the last day before the escape, she was forced to stay behind with one of her daughters to work for the guerrillas in the threshing fields.

Since the book “Eleni” was published in 1983, it’s been translated into 32 languages. People from around the world come regularly to Lia to see where Nick’s mother lived and died. A week ago, Nick showed his village and his childhood home to 14 students from John Jay College in New York and their professor, and on August 2, he will welcome 30 students from Northeastern University, who read the book in their Greek History class.

Once the weather turns good in the spring, nearly every day brings a foreign visitor or two on this pilgrimage, although they find that some Greeks, even in this village where so many were executed, still harbor pro-Communist sentiments, and may be unhelpful in answering their questions—even to denying that Eleni Gatzoyiannis ever lived there. 

Last Wednesday night, the two couples who were astonished to find themselves sitting in the Inn’s courtyard with the author of the book included David from Wales and his Greek companion Effie, and a couple who had come from Austria, Hannelore and Claus. 

                                                                Effie & David with Nick

The next day Nick led them on a tour of the spots that are significant to the story, including the ancient church of Saint Demitrios where Eleni worshipped every day and where her bones were kept in the ossuary after being recovered from the ravine where the guerrillas threw the thirteen civilians they executed on August 28, 1948. 


  Nick looking at a relative's recent grave.  His mother's remains have been moved to Hope Cemetery in   Worcester, MA and buried next to his father.

The guerrillas had taken over Eleni’s home for their headquarters and they kept her and 30 other prisoners confined in the basement where the animals had been stabled, while the prisoners were questioned and tortured.  (It always brings a gasp from visitors when they step into the cave-like basement and realize that the prisoners were packed in so tightly that they couldn’t even lie down.) Now the basement contains display cases showing artifacts discovered during the reconstruction, including a hand grenade, a rifle, plates and cups, even part of the wrought-iron bed that Nick’s father had brought up the mountain to the village, where most people slept on pallets on the floor.

Some 37 bodies had already been buried in the yard around the house when Eleni Gatzoyianis was taken prisoner.  There was no room for more, so on August 28, 1948, the guerrillas marched their last group of 13 condemned prisoners to a distant plateau where their bodies would be thrown into a nearby ravine.

In  2002 our daughter Eleni, her grandmother’s namesake, spent a year living in Lia, rebuilding the family home, which had been allowed to fall into its foundations.  She spent nine months restoring the house as it had been in her grandmother’s life. She was moved to find that the elderly villagers who remembered the terrible events of the war helped her and donated their own belongings, including a painted wooden cradle and many embroidered textiles, to keep the house authentic to its period.  In 2005, "North of Ithaka",  Eleni's travel memoir describing that year and her experiences living in he ancestors' village, was published by St. Martin's Press. 




During the rebuilding, the stonemasons found a coin under the original cornerstone which showed that the house was first built in 1856. A new keystone over the door of the gate to the courtyard indicates that Nick’s father added on to the house in1924, and that Eleni rebuilt it in 2002.

A local carpenter carved two panels of the exterior gate, one showing the eagle of Epiros and the other representing Epirote mothers.

Here is the fireplace in the restored “great room” with a photograph of Eleni Gatzoyiannis and her husband Christos at the time of their wedding.  She dreamed that Christos would bring her and the children that followed to live with him in Worcester, MA where he was a produce seller, but her dream was blocked by the outbreak of war in 1939.



Nick took his visitors to see the spot where he got his last glimpse of his mother, as she turned and waved before being led around a bend toward the threshing fields. After we returned to the Inn and the nearby church of St. Paraskevi, and Nick pointed out the route the escaping children took down the mountain, our visitors left, amid tears and hugs all around.

(Here is part of a group of 11—two families from Omaha, Neb.-- who departed today, after spending two nights in the inn and touring the Eleni Gatzoyiannis sites.  Notice the mud swallow who has built a nest in the light fixture over their heads in the reception area.)

Like the hundreds of strangers who had come before them, these visitors left their names inscribed in the guest book in Eleni’s house, a tribute to a Greek peasant woman who sacrificed her life in her remote Greek village to save her children so that they could live her dream of America.


18 comments:

lactmama said...

Today I went on a shiva call to a friend whose dad died at the age of 87. In 1939 he came home to his village in Poland from Warsaw and met his mother waiting for him on the road to the village. She said the Nazis were rounding up men and that he and his brother should leave NOW, the young man wanted to say goodbye to his father and brothers but the mother said go - and run toward the Russian lines - which he did. All of the Jews were executed that day. The young man managed to get to Uzbekistan where he met and married and then went to the US.
My comment was the these parents were a generation we would never see again - my friend called them a generation of giants.
Eleni was a giant. I am thrilled that people are coming to Lia to see where and how she lived. And to understand that this kind of hell should not happen again (though it does even today) and that they should never be a part of the bad stuff - only the good.

Matthew said...

A few years ago, I loaded our rented Hyundai Accent (the standard model for automatic rentals in Greece) with my 3 children and wife to visit Eleni's house. We left from my father's village about an hour and a half south of Ioannina and traveled across the city northward to find Lia. At one point, haven traveled slightly too far north, we almost encountered the Albanian border.

When we did make it to Lia and the house, it was mid-day and found a rather sleepy village. We stopped in at the cafe in the center of town to ask about the house and were told that Mr. Gage had recently left the town for the US. After a frappe and some ice cream for the kids, it was back to Ioannina for us. We did spend some time looking at the house and admiring the beautiful reconstruction although we were not able to see the interior.

The trip was worthwhile in that both my wife and I had read both books (your husband's and daughter's) and have seen the movie several times and the story is not very foreign to my family as my father's family underwent similar circumstances in their village. My father lost his brother to Communist guerillas and the town tinker knew your husband's family somehow.

Thanks for sharing!

by Joan Gage said...

Matthew, I just caught up with your beautiful art on Stretchbook. Next time you're anywhere near Epiros let us know and Nick and I will organize a private tour of the village and pita-filled dinner at the inn!

Matthew said...

Thanks Joan! I'll keep that in mind. Planning on a trip next summer. —Matthew

Carly said...

About a month ago I read the book Eleni. It has forever changed me. I wish so badly I could been among those people in Lia just recently to meet your husband. Please let him know how grateful I am he wrote the book Eleni. I can not think of a more courageous woman. Her example and courage has changed me and I think about what she had to go through on a daily basis and it has helped me be a better mother. I am a lucky mother of a 15 month old who's name is also Eleni, I am so proud she has that name. What Eleni Gatzoyiannis had to go through to me was tragic, but her death was not in vain because her legacy has affected so many-even a young girl like me in Chicago:) God bless:)

by Joan Gage said...

Carly--I just saw your beautiful comment about Nick's mother and the book Eleni and of course I passed it on to him. We both hope you'll be able to come to Lia some day. In the mean time, congratulations on your beautiful daughter Eleni. Nick and I both wish you the joy that our daughter Eleni has brought us--named for her brave grandmother.

Alejandra said...

Today I read the chapter that describes when Eleni says goodbye to her children. I cried and prayed for her and for so many other mothers who, throughout history, have had to face such terrible pain because of the evils of war. I, too, am thankful that your husband was brave enough to research his mother's life and write about it, since so many readers will never forget his story and will find the courage to face life's daily struggles by remembering Eleni's sacrifice. I will cherish her example always, and "introduce her" to everyone I know.

With love, from Nicaragua.

Li ♥ said...

Hi Joan, I have had this fascination for Greece since childhood. Not sure why as I don't appear to have any relatives from Greece! I got to read a bit about Eleni in 1983 (Readers Digest - book was not available in South Africa yet) I was pregnant at the time and completely convinced that I was having a girl, called her Lia. I plan to visit Greece sometime this year and while researching where to go I came across your daughters book North of Ithaka which in turn led me to your blog and all the memories. Such a sad but inspiring story and monument to an amazing women. Going to go out and buy both books! Lia will be 30 in December and I am hoping to finally visit Greece, especially the village of Lia. Thank you for the update even if I only got to it nearly 2 years later! Just got to love the world wide web!

LOVEisTRUE2 said...

When I was a little girl (born in 1979) I remember my mother getting lost in a movie she watches everyday. I would wonder why it was important as I studied her face at times. What I remember most was The women she watches was named Eleni and the movie was named after her. I never at such a young age connected to the whole movie. Parts that stood out to me still stand out but take new meaning for me at 34 now. When Olga's leg was burned I got lost in that part understanding her mother hurt her to save her stuck with me. The other part that captivated me was was near the end no matter what I was doing I would stop to see the bad guys take Eleni up the hill and feel her shout MY CHILDREN as it repeated over and over. Wow, what a mother. In 2007 being the youngest of four I held my mothers hand as the doctors removed her tubes that life support kept her on. The dr said she had AIDS for years. We , Rivera four, never knew she suffered in silence. Was a strong tower till that day. I learned more about her abuse in life later. Her only peace, death. Since then my own pain looks for a glimpse of reconnect when she was alive. I went to my brothers a week ago and he have me a book from the Library called Elena. I was wowed there was even a book. I thanked God as a 34 year old in a different place I read every word as one would a Bible because they were in love with God. I stopped the whole world outside to read that book and cried feeling and understanding my mothers connection to Elena cause, saving her children. I feel renewal but most of all I feel connected to the last page where Mr. Gage said to take revenge would take the beauty of Elena out of him and be yearly dead...my words of understanding. Thank you all for spirit and truth. God bless you and your generations. My name is Angela Rivera just a mixed girl Mexican/Puerto Rican from Waukegan Illinois. captivated my attention

by Joan Gage said...

The comments above demonstrate how the example of Eleni, who gave her life to save her children, remains an inspiration today. I can only thank you for sharing your feelings about my husband's mother, who was executed over fifty years ago. Nick and I and our whole family take comfort in your words. Thank you for sharing them!

Janelle Foster said...

WOW - how happy I was to come across this blog! I have been a fan of your husband's for quite some time and even contacted your daughter some time ago when I was in my "Eleni" phase - where I read the book over and over again and gave it to all of my friends. I have dreamed of taking a pilgrimage to the village for years and am finally travelling to Greece from the US this summer with a group and so hope to be able to break away for a day to spend in the village that I feel I know. Thank you and your husband for sharing your lives and your passions with us. My mother actually gave me the first book years ago and she and I read it together although we live 10 hours apart. Such an incredible story showing the strength of the human spirit, faith and love.

by Joan Gage said...

Janelle, Thank you for these beautiful words about Nick's book and how you read it together with your mother. We all go to the village as a family every summer--this year it will probably be in May because of things happening in the summer, but Nick often stays in Greece for the summer months and may still be there when you arrive. In any case, let me know the dates you'll be in Lia so that I can make sure there's someone who can give you a tour of all the spots that are important in the book.

Joan

Anonymous said...

I remember reading Nick's book shortly after it was published, and I was both horrified and inspired by the story. My mother's parents are Greek immigrants and my father is a Greek immigrant, and having grown up in an ethnic household I cannot conceive that Eleni would do anything other than try to save her children.

At the same time, I believe that the story does point out some subtle and not so subtle elements of the Greek character. As I recall, the Lia villagers were not all that hospitable to Eleni once her husband left for the US. And, Greeks have been described as "fierce fighters", events just after the revolution, the civil war, the Seven Years, in my opinion, demonstrate that that Greeks are fiercest when fighting each other.

I have visited Greece three times, and am now in the planning stages for my next visit. I love the country. I have found the Greeks to be, for the most part, warm, hospitable, decent people. But some of those villages are insular and should be avoided at all cost. I can't help but think that today's Lia would be one of those insular villages if it weren't for the book.

by Joan Gage said...

Thank you so much for this insightful comment!I hope you will visit Lia on your next trip to Greece. Nick and the rest of the family are there every summer--usually during the months of July and/or August. Eleni's granddaughter, our daughter Eleni, re-built the destroyed Gatzoyiannis house where her grandmother was imprisoned and tortured in her own cellar, and the house now is furnished just as it was when Eleni Gatzoyiannis was alive. And Eleni Gage wrote a memoir about the year she spent rebuilding the house. It's called "North of Ithaka".

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the invitation, but I doubt that I will ever visit Lia. Nick has obviously come to terms with the past. But I think I would find it difficult to sit there in the plaza with an ouzo or a coffee, and wonder which of the villagers had a parent or grandparent who helped push Eleni to her execution.

Tara Lawrence-Stuart said...

Dear joan, thank you so much for your blog. I am 79 and read Eleni way back when it first came out. I had already read Nick's book Portrait of Greece before that. He has such a way of transporting me to Greece so when I first saw the book Eleni with Nick's name on it I bought it immediately and devoured each word. I also had bought and read A Place For Us and had re-read them every year until I went to Savannah for year and a half and when I returned to San Diego it was among at least 100 books that had been sold out from under me by my sub-let friend (no friend now). So I bought another copy and have just (way too late but not late enough thank goodness) discovered Eleni Gage, your lovely daughter's wonderful book North of Ithaka, as well. I am re-reading that as well. Being on Social Security it is impossible for me to travel to Greece, so my vivid imagination, aided, thanks to you and Nick, by your blog, Nick's and Eleni N. Gage, and nd the Internet I am easily transported to places I dream of. It is New Year's day of 2017 and amid reading Eleni's Ithaka book, my thoughts and prayers soar up for you and I hope this finds you all in good health and spirits AND that your blog is still active. If you get this and it is not, and if you wish to, it would please me so much if you would e-mail me at talstuart9@gmail.com. Yours, Tara Lawrence-Stuart

by Joan Gage said...

Tara, Thank you for your beautiful words which Nick and I read on this first day of 2017. I'm so glad you found, in addition to Nick's books, daughter Eleni's book "North of Ithaka".
Every summer we go as a family back to the village of Lia to see the house which Eleni rebuilt and furnished as it was when Nick's mother was alive. I'm so sorry we cannot welcome you there this summer, along with the many strangers who arrive every year to see the places described in "Eleni." But you might enjoy reading a couple of other blog posts I've written about Lia in "A Rolling Crone", including one dated Sept. 3, 2009, called "Dukakis at Eleni's Memorial", and one dated June 6, 2014, called "Amalia Visits Papou's Greek Village of Lia." We try to go there every year, especially around the time of the village's annual festival, which is July 19 to 21, on the feast day of the Prophet Elias.
I'm glad you can travel there in your imagination and I wish I could personally give you a tour of the village myself.

Anna Petrocelli said...

Dear Joan,
This is for your husband. I just finished his book Hellas, A Portrait of Greece and I had to come to this site to further experience where Nicholas now lives. I came up to your site which has been another educational stepping stone to what your husband's family represents to me. I was born and raised in Athens and have been here since 1958. It was only recently that I discovered your husband's books. I have read all with the exception of East of Ithaca, your daughter's accounts of living in Lia which I will read next. Your husband's books have brought me in contact with my country all over again and I savor and memorialize its beauty, its trials, tribulations, poverty and Oh... its richness and unbelievable beauty. I would love to be able to visit the village that your husband so loves. However, the years remaining are short and the strength has diminished with their passing. So I will continue to read his books repetitiously until I will no longer be able to read or see. Until then, I wish you and your beloved family Adio. Anna Strikou Petrocelli