Thursday, June 21: Today I finished reading Eleni, a book that tells the story of Eleni Gatzoyiannis, 41, who defied intimidation by communist insurgents during the Greek Civil War following WWII and arranged for the escape of her three daughters and her son, Nicola, from their village of Lia. In 1948, children were being abducted and sent to communist “camps” inside the Iron Curtain. Because Eleni arranged for her children’s escape, she was imprisoned, tortured, and executed in cold blood.
Her son Nicola, who later took the American name of Nicholas Gage, joined his father in Massachusetts at the age of 9, after having lived his entire life in wartime Greece. He became a top New York Times investigative reporter, sharpening his skills with one goal in mind: to return to Greece and uncover the details of, and avenge, his mother’s death.
Once I got into this book, I could hardly put it down. I was caught up, along with the poor villagers of Lia, in the communist insurgency, as the guerrillas occupied their village and made their lives a living hell. Whenever I have read books about war told from the civilian side, I have always been appalled by the behaviors that human beings are capable of toward one another. All in the name of “ideals.” The paranoia that exists under these kinds of situations, from everything I’ve read, is insidious and unbelievable. Neighbors use any small grudge or jealousy to turn on their neighbors, to save their own skin or simply to get revenge on people for their own petty insecurities or perceived slights.
Here is a quote from the book describing the setting for this story: “In the decade of war from 1939 to 1949, one out of every ten Greeks was killed — 450,000 during World War II and 150,000 during the civil war. Of the survivors, nearly 100,000 had been exiled behind the Iron Curtain, some by choice, many by force. Families were rent apart, not to be reunited for many years, often forever. The children taken in the pedomasoma from the Mourgana villages were went to Rumania, while their parents found themselves in Hungary or Poland; the girls conscripted as andartinas (girl soldiers) wound up in Russia or Czechoslovakia.”
This story of wartime Greece is personalized in the character of Nicola’s mother, Eleni.
In the end, Nicola spent years tracking down his mother’s killers, finally coming face-to-face with the only living person who was most culpable, a man called Katis. He wanted to kill the man, especially as he was cold, arrogant and indifferent and continued to deny his culpability for Eleni’s death, despite the overwhelming evidence Gage had collected against him. In the end, Gage couldn’t do it because of “the understanding of my mother that I had gained in my examination of her life.” He realized that Eleni “did not spend the last of her strength cursing her tormenters,” but “she found the courage to face death because she had done her duty to those she loved.” He realized he would have had to uproot the love in himself and sink to the level of Katis, void of all humanity or compassion. He knew by killing Katis, he would abandon his own children, something Eleni would have never done.
In 1985, Eleni was made into a feature film starring John Malkovich as Gage. In 1987, Eleni was cited by Ronald Reagan as an inspiration for his summit meetings to end the arms race with the Soviet Union.
I haven’t seen the movie yet, but will try to see it when I return to the USA this August. This was a great book that gave me a great history lesson on Greece told from a personal point of view. Astounding book!