Thursday, September 3, 2009

Dukakis At Eleni's Memorial, Lia Greece

Michael Dukakis, who ran for the presidency of the United States in 1988 and was the longest-serving governor in Massachusetts history, arrived in the small northern Greek village of Lia last week on Aug. 24, causing great excitement throughout the country, and especially in Lia, where the village had been spruced up, pot holes filled, foliage pruned, and a heliport repaved to receive Dukakis' entourage, (although the man himself chose to drive up the vertiginous mountain roads so he could see the countryside on the way.)

Dukakis' maternal grandparents came from Vrisohori, another small and, until recently, isolated village not far from Lia. Although Mike and Kitty have visited Greece many times, they had never visited Northern Greece and his grandparents' village. The couple, along with Kitty's sister Ginnie and Ginnie's husband, Al, used the Grand Serai Hotel in Ioannnina as a base. After a lavish dinner hosted by the Mayor of Ioannina, they left the next day to see Vrisohori where Sen. Dukakis, with tears in his eyes, lauded the village which had produced his mother Euterpe, who became one of the the first Greek-American women to earn a college degree. (The small village also produced the father of film director John Cassavetes.)

The next day, Monday, Aug. 24, the Dukakis group arrived in Lia to attend a memorial service for Eleni Gatzoyiannis, my mother-in-law and the mother of my husband Nicholas Gage

Eleni Gatzoyiannis was executed by a firing squad of Communist guerrillas in Aug. 1948-- her body left in a ravine along with 12 other murdered civilians. Before that day, she was imprisoned, crowded along with 31 other prisoners into the tiny basement of her own house--which had been taken over as guerrilla headquarters.

When the guerrillas, who occupied the village in the last months of the Greek Civil War, started collecting children to take them behind the Iron Curtain, Eleni began to plan a nighttime escape for her own children. (In the end 28,000 children were kidnapped in the pedomasoma.) The escape succeeded after two abortive tries--but on the third try, she was forced to stay behind, to provide two women from her household to harvest wheat for the guerrillas. She chose herself and her 15-year-old daughter Glykeria, and said goodbye to her nine-year-old son, Nicholas and three older daughters. After her children disappeared, Eleni was questioned, tortured,imprisoned and ultimately executed on Aug. 28, 1948.

Nick's book about his mother, «Eleni», has told her story around the world in 34 languages. It was followed by the film Eleni. Her sacrifice to gain freedom for her children was cited on national television by President Ronald Reagan.

Last week, 61 years after Eleni’s execution, Michael and Kitty Dukakis attended a memorial service in her honor in Aghios Demetrios Church, where she worshipped, and where her remains were placed in the ossuary after her body was recovered from the ravine where she fell.

Also at the church last week were survivors and descendents of the 12 other civilians who died that day. After the service, mourners were given the traditional kollyva to eat--a sweet combination of boiled wheat, pomegranate seeds, almonds, sugar and raisins-- to symbolize the resurrection and immortality of the soul.

From the church, Mike and Kitty Dukakis came up the mountain to see Eleni's house as it is now--rebuilt from ruins in 2002 by our daughter and Eleni's granddaughter, author Eleni Gage. (She spent a year in the village restoring the house and writing a travel memoir "North of Ithaka" about the experience.) The house has been decorated to look just as it did before the Civil War. On the mantle is a photograph of Eleni Gatzoyiannis and her husband Christos--who was working as a produce seller in Worcester when war broke out in 1939, preventing him from returniing to Greece for the next decade.

Nick then showed the Dukakises his grandfather's house, lower on the mountain, and the path that the children took when they escaped down through the minefields at night, until they reached the Nationalist soldiers on the other side. They were sent to a refugee camp where they lived until their father was able to bring them to the United States a year later.

Finally, the villagers of Lia gathered with Mike and Kitty Dukakis in the village Inn for a celebratory meal, including the traditional local pita pies. There were tears as well as smiles as Mike and Kitty greeted and hugged the villagers, old and young, who had lost loved ones and grandparents on that day in 1948.

Nick welcomed the visitors, saying in part «I’m very moved that Mike and Kitty Dukakis have come here to remember the fate of Eleni and to recall how she suffered and from whom.»

In turn Gov. Dukakis, also speaking in Greek, said «Having read several times the powerful work of Nicholas Gage about his mother, we are are very moved to come to Lia and see the places of her martyrdom.»

This celebration of her legacy--the legacy of a simple Greek peasant woman who died to save her children--was something that Eleni Gatzoyiannis, murdered at 41, could never have imagined happening 61 years after her death. Hundreds gathered in her village as she was honored by the only Greek-American to run for the presidency of the United States--the country she longed to see, but never did. (After Nick's father Christos died in 1985, Nick brought his mother's bones to Worcester, MA to be buried next to her husband, in Hope Cemetery)

It was an honor that Eleni Gatzoyiannis could not have imagined when she was alive --but the spirit of Eleni has often been felt in the village over the years since her death, as people from around the world have made the pilgrimage to see where she lived and died.

I think she knew.


Anonymous said...

Terrific writing and great story Joan!
I've always liked the Governor. I missed voting for him in '88 by a month.
I remember being VERY young and waking up while a newscaster was reporting that Ed King had beaten Dukakis in the Mass Governor's race and being worried that Mike wouldn't be our leader anymore!

Jenny said...

Thank you for sharing your story with us! I love reading anything pertaining to Eleni and the village of Lia!

Unknown said...

Just catching up on your blog and really enjoying it. I must finally read Eleni!

Peter Brady said...

What a truly magnificent person Eleni was.I read the book while in Greece in 2007 and just had to visit Lia to see for myself where it all took place. I promise to return to Lia one day in the near future.

SueD said...

I came across this website while looking for more information about Eleni. I read "Eleni" in the mid-80's and it was the first book I can truly say that I could not put down until I finished it. Since then my tattered and stained copy has been picked up hundreds of times and flipped through to re-read my favorite passages. I wish I had known Eleni. I feel like I could arrive in Lia and walk the paths she walked daily, as well as the route her children took to escape. I have never been to Greece and perhaps never will get there, but Eleni will always remain an astonishing person to me. Once I became a mother the book took on an entirely new meaning to me and at last I understood why she sent her children on alone into that cold night. She should never have died; she was not a traitor nor a threat. She was the mother of all mothers and she remains a hero to me today. Blessings to Nicholas and all remaining members of Eleni's extended family.

irinaki2001 said...

I read and re-read the book - it brings tears to my eyes each time. Saw the movie once on TV... poignant. Tried to find the DVD - no luck. Finally... I found a website where I could download it for free. I dislike ''stealing'' so if somewhere I can buy the DVD, please do let me know. A mother's love is unselfish...and the story of Eleni is proof. She was a brave woman who gave her life to save her children.
Thank you

kleingut said...

I have been married to a Greek (from a small village near Kavala) for almost 40 years. Since my retirement, we split our time between my home country Austria and Greece, where we have an apartment in Kalamaria. A couple of weeks ago, we took a trip out West and spent a few days in beautiful Ioannina. One day we spent criss-crossing the Zagoria and I loved the beautiful villages there. I was surprised to see, almost near the end of the world, so many sites referencing Nazi atrocities. I hadn’t known that this remote region had been the center of action during the 1940s.

I was familiar with Nicholas Gage because I had read two of his books years ago (Land of Light, Callas/Onassis) but my dear Greek wife never told me about Eleni. Why I browsed the Kindle Shop for Nicholas Cage the week after we returned from Ioannina, I don’t know, but I did. And there was only one book – Eleni.

Needless to say, I joined the millions of other readers who were simply taken by this powerful story. Apart from that, I learned so much about life in a small Greek village which I should have known before I married my wife. I would have understood many of her actions and reactions much better.

For the last week or so, I have been driving my wife nuts with innumerable comments/questions about Eleni. She considers me “obsessed with Eleni”. We have now reached a compromise: she loves the vibrant city of Ioannina and would like to return there for another visit (and another stay at the Grand Serai...). And I would like to return there to spend a day up in Lia while my wife is shopping. We are planning to leave tomorrow.

I attach a little post which I made about this in my blog. Even though my blog is about economic/political subjects, the quote by Eleni’s father fits quite well into today’s Greek politics.

kleingut said...

Well, I had to reach the age of 63 to read the book Eleni but after reading it, it only took me another 2 weeks to visit Lia and spend a night at the Lias Inn. By the way, driving from Thessaloniki, I chose the “local” route via Edessa-Florina-Kastoria-Konitsa-etc. (particularly the last part was VERY adventurous!). I had driven through Albania a couple of months ago and was prepared for the worst on the Southern side of Albania’s border. Instead, I saw some of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen in Greece so far (a mix between Black Forest and a US National Park!). God must really have been a Greek!

Lia surprised me because I had, in my mind, imagined it along the lines of the village where my wife comes from (Nikissiani in the Kavala region). Whereas in Nikissiani you hardly see any green because of all the stones and hardly any space between houses, in Lia you see hardly any stones among all the green! And most of the houses are beyond shouting distance. From the book Eleni, I had expected to see about 100-150 houses around a village square. Instead, I had trouble at first finding more than 10 houses. By the time I left, I had figured out why one couldn’t see all of the other houses at first glance (and I liked that!).

And the vertical dimensions! I guess most villagers must have climbed the equivalent of one Mt. Everest every month!

I really hate to admit it, but deep down – as an Austrian accustomed to 150% marketing of names like Mozart – I possibly expected signs like “You are now entering the village of Eleni Gatzoyannis” or “This is where Eleni Gatzoyannis went to school; went to church;” etc. Instead, I found decent peace and quiet; or perhaps true respect? Thank God Greeks are not like Austrians…

I asked myself how I would have seen Lia if I hadn’t read the book. My answer was that Lia is probably not the place for a short visit to understand what it is all about. One would probably have to spend time there and absorb a time long gone by. Nikissiani today is full of young people with modern cars, smartphones and cool girlfriends. If they had a chance to live in New York, some of them might get excited about it. Lia is a place where some New Yorkers might get excited about living there.

Finally, as an Austrian I wondered what it would be like to drive the roads of Lia during high snow in winter time. My Greek wife would probably panic…

by Joan Gage said...

Mr. Kleingut--I'm very touched by your comments and wish that Nick and I could have been there to show you Lia--Hope you were able to find someone to take you inside the Eleni Gatzoyiannis house which is restored to what it looked like during her lifetime. This summer Nick and I will be in the village off and on during the second half of July and most of August. There will be a memorial service on August 28, the day Eleni was killed. I hope you will return and that we'll be able to met you.

Joan Gage

by Joan Gage said...

irinaki2001--thank you for your beautiful words about Eleni! I know it's hard to find a DVD of the film except for the versions that play on European machines. My husband's mother was indeed a wonderful example of the power of a mother's love.

Joan Gage

kleingut said...

Dear Joan, no, I could not visit the house inside because Lia at the hotel (possibly the nicest of all the nice Greeks!) told me that this was possible only when you and your husband were there. She said that you would be there July/August but that presents a problem for us. My dear Greek wife had always blamed me wherever I took her (7 countries in all) that the weather was bad; that there was nothing like Greek summers. Now that I am in retirement and could spend all summer in Greece, my wife feels that, over 60, she can’t stand the sun/heat anymore and July/August in Greece would be off limits for her. Obviously, if one of our two sons told us that he planned to spend time in Greece during July/August, “Mana” would be on a plane within 24 hours and go overboard for her “children” (31/29). As I said before, the book Eleni taught me a lot of new things about Greek mothers.

So, I guess all I can say is that if it gets too hot for you in Greece, take a trip to Austria and we can welcome you by a lake near Salzburg (coordinates are under my link).

Incidentally, at the hotel was your daughter’s book “North of Ithaka” and, sitting in the sun on the terrace this morning, I started reading it. Good writing seems to run in the family! I was surprised how “Greek” your daughter seems to be. So far I thought only Greek wives turned Xenos’ into Greeks. I guess Greek husbands can do that, too. When I saw that she is married to a Nicaraguan and has a daughter, I immediately wondered: will the child’s second language be Spanish or Greek? And will she later be allowed to marry a non-Greek?

Best regards, Klaus Kastner

Cathy Egerton Manchester England said...

Joan, you must be incredibly proud of your husband having the skill to portray the life and loves of his family and the bond a mother has for her child. I think we'd all like to think we would die to save our children, but without being put to the ultimate test as Eleni was.
I'm reading the book for the 4th time.

by Joan Gage said...

Comments like those above are a great comfort to the children and grandchildren of Eleni Gatzoyiannis, because they dramatize the power her story and her courage have, even so long after her death. She was executed on August 28, and every year on that date her son (and my husband) Nicholas has a memorial service for her in the village of Lia. We will all be there on Aug. 28, 2012 to honor her. Nick has also used the income from his speaking appearances to establish a number of scholarships in his mother's name at Boston University.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful book describing such a beautiful mother - thank you for writing it.

macbishop said...

Reading Eleni in 1984 ignited a fascination for Greece and, two years later, I found myself working in Yannina. We visited Lia on a cold January day and tracked down what I'm sure were the ruins of Eleni's house - recognisable by the rectangular gateway, the building largely collapsed and overgrown. The photos take me straight back there, so I'm very interested to read the house has been rebuilt.

by Joan Gage said...

Johnny Mac--So nice to know that you visited Lia so long ago when the house was in ruins. Yes, our daughter Eleni, (named for her grandmother) is a writer and journalist who left her job in New York to spend most of 2002 in the village, overseeing the rebuilding of Eleni's house and learning to know the villagers and their stories. The result of that was her travel-memoir "North of Ithaka" which can be bought on Amazon. A very brief story of the rebuilding of the house is a blog post I wrote on July 12, 2011 called "A House in a Greek Village."( I would be wonderful if, on one of our annual trips to the village (usually in July and August) we could meet you and show you the way the house looks now.

Joan Gage

Ann said...

Joan I have read all three books numerous times and am half way through Eleni again. I am so sorry for what happened to Eleni but you have all done her proud.

I am in the process of planning a trip to Lia but won't be able to go in July or August so won't be able to see inside the house :-( but will be able at least to see the outside and remember with sadness what happened to Eleni.

God bless you all.

by Joan Gage said...

Ann--Please let me know when you will be in Lia! Write to me at If no one from our family will be there when you are, we'll get one of the villagers to take you inside the house so that you can see it. And the keepers of the Inn--Elias and Litsa--will be able to give you a map so you can see the various sites that figure in the book "Eleni." Thank you for your kind words and thoughts about my husband's mother, Eleni Gatzoyiannis.

Anonymous said...

I am reading North of Ithaca and just can't put it down. I feel
as I know the family. I would
love to see the house on maps/net
but can't bring it up. I am thoroughly enjoying this book.
I want to go and see it. We love
Greece and have visited so many places in the islands and the Pellopanese too. my email is Thankyou
Rachel Cumbria, U.K.

Anonymous said...

I first read Eleni many years ago when I was teaching in Athens and it had a profound effect on me. Elena was a wonderful strong woman and who knows what she would have achieved had she made it to the USA. I was lucky enough to visit Lia having read North of Ithaca, the family were not at home but a kind gentleman who was working on the house allowed me to look around. I still get goosebumps remembering my trip there. There is for me,something very spiritual about the area and I so want to make a return visit and spend longer there. I think I have told hundreds of people over the years about Eleni and I know lots of them sought out the book and always they would tell me they want to visit the area having read the story.
Thank you Nick and Eleni June for telling the story.
Lynda Doukanaris
Cheshire UK

by Joan Gage said...

Lynda, I also feel there is something so spiritual about the area and each summer, when we return to Lia, I can feel Eleni's spirit all around. If you do come back to the village, I hope we will be there to show you around, but if we are not, the innkeeper and his wife--Elias and Litsa--can help you with maps and hopefully access to the Eleni Gatzoyiannis house/museum.

Unknown said...

I am 26 with a baby boy of 11 months. I chose the book from my dad's library as i have been seeing it there for ages... I have to admit that last night i was crying for an hour while reading it. Yet, I would like to adress the importance of the book to a greek citizen like myself is that it makes me understand why left governments like the one we have now act the way we do and why people vote for them. I wish more young greeks read the book now that is more current than ever!!! Other than that i will try to visit Lia at some point simce my husband 's village is not that far (Velventos in Kozani) it is worth visiting it for tge peach festival in August they are the most hospitable people i have ever met!please thank your husband for a very well written book that gives you "terpsi" to ypur soul! Looking forward to reading the rest of the books of the whole family ��

by Joan Gage said...

Dear "Anonymous", Thank you for this beautiful and moving comment about the book "Eleni." I'm glad to say that people are still reading it--It was just now published in Hungarian with much press attention in Hungary. Nick and I would love to show you and your family around Lia--Nick is usually there for most of the summer and the rest of the family (including our grandchildren) come for a while every summer. If you do make plans to come to Lia let me know in advance at

Theresa said...

I read Eleni and A Place for us two years ago and I found the books truly inspirational – so much so, that it is our intention to visit Lia next year. My daughter has married a Greek and now lives in Athens so we have driven there from the UK twice. Her husband’s grandparents live in Emporio and on one occasion we found ourselves there and also in Ptolemeida but unfortunately that was before I had read the books. As I read them I was gutted to see just how near we had been to Lia. Next year our intention is to drive again but to cut out the Balkan drive and sail instead from Italy to Igoumenitsa – from where there will be no excuse!

by Joan Gage said...

Theresa! I'm so glad that you're considering visiting Lia next year! We always go with the family in the summer--usually in June or July. And Nick goes there much more often. When you have decided on your dates for the visit let me know at and we can give you lots of advice on where to stay, who can show you around, and whether or not we will be in the village at that time!

Unknown said...

We are coming to Lia from Kefalonia, actually, we are making a pilgrimage to visit the place where this courageous woman, Eleni was born and martyred. We are so excited to finally make the journey.

Rosemary said...

I have read both Eleni and A Place for Us three times. Having been born in America, I cannot imagine the atrocities that Eleni and her family suffered. She is my hero. A woman who had all of her priorities straight. A woman who showed compassion, bravery, resilience, love, honesty, and intelligence even when subjected to the very worst of circumstances. A woman whose ingenuity could create food out of scraps and twigs, clothes out of rags, beauty out of ugliness, love out of hate and faith out of fear and loneliness. Eleni and A Place For Us should be required reading for every American school child so that they could experience, if only through a book, the hardships, fears, rejections, and obstacles that many imigriants endure in search of a better life. I am so grateful for her son, Nicholas Gage, who shared his family’s painful journey through perilous times with the world. It makes me more mindful of how fortunate I am and makes me more compassionate for those who are leaving their own countries and families in search of a better life. We should open our arms and hearts to those brave souls, not build a wall to keep them out.

by Joan Gage said...

Rosemary, thank you for this extremely eloquent comment about Nick's book and his mother. I feel the same way you do about Eleni Gatzoyiannis, but could not have expressed it as beautifully as you do here.