She still writes with a pencil and uses her eraser to erase her mistakes. She sleeps and wakes up with history on her mind. At home they lovingly call her “president, and little parrot.” Her mind races at lightning speed and her knowledge pummels our ignorance. In front of her you feel incompetent and uneducated and all you want after an interview with her is to grab the first form of literature you find in front of you and read it, even if it’s just the Farmer’s Almanac.
She is Helene Ahrweiler, who was very willing to give an interview to the National Herald. She actually asked the first question: “Remind me, what is the name of your editor/publisher?” “Antonis Diamataris,” was the reply. “DiamaNtaris?” she asked again. “No, Ms. Ahrweiler – Diamataris (no ‘N’).” “Tell him I send him my regards and also tell him to continue the newspaper in Greek. The mother tongue is the basis of our nation – the personality and the life of every human being. When I come to America and hear that I ‘have’ to speak English – no matter how good my English is – sometimes I won’t even open my mouth to utter a word.”
With roots from Asia Minor, Ahrweiler was born in 1926 and grew up in the refugee neighborhood of Byron in Athens. She managed – with a lot of patience, stubbornness, and luck – to become one of the six most important personalities in France.
A prominent personality and Byzantinist, some of Ahrweiler’s previous titles include: Honorary President of the International Committee of Byzantine Studies, President of the European Cultural Centre of Delphi in Greece, President of the Ethics Committee of the National Centre of Scientific Research in France, Deputy Principal between 1970-1973 and then Principal of the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne between 1976-1981 (she became the first woman to hold this post in the 700-year history of the Sorbonne), Chancellor of the Universities of Paris, and President of the Centre Georges Pompidou.
Her knowledge, memories, humor, and her fascinating life with some of the most important people in the world are like the stars of the sky – countless – but unfortunately for us, this space is too small to fit it all. The interview remained a simple, everyday conversation that you have with the person living next door, when you finally rack up the courage to ask them how they are doing for the first time.
She spoke of her success, which she said she owes to her teachers, but also about the fact that she lived through a war, the German Occupation of Greece, the Resistance, the hunger and the division in the nation, but also about her dreams, which she pursued by foot on land, and with her eyes in the sky.
She lived through the German occupation as a teenager and her slogan was always that it is better to die standing up than kneeling. She took part in the Resistance, and told us, without boasting, that she fought – but also saying that they at least tried.
“Whoever does not try to go any further or does not attempt to break any barriers does not stay in the same place – they actually regress. Resurrection is not only a religious word. Everyone has the personal duty of resurrection.”
This tiny, gritty sixth child of a refugee family rallied the children of her town – before she was even old enough to go to school – and spoke to them about Venizelos, holding a newspaper upside down. In 1943, when she was 17 and smoking like a chimney, she would come home to shower before going to the protests – that way, if they ever found her dead, she would at least be clean.
Her desire to become a civil engineer was never fulfilled, because she had no money to pay for tutoring. Instead, she ended up studying literature – a topic that she did not need a tutor for.
Growing up, Ahrweiler was taught that women were not the weaker sex and that it was not necessarily a ‘privilege’ to be born a man – a very progressive view for that era in Greece. She learned from a very young age that life can be a struggle and nothing is ever given to you. With these principles she managed to responsibly serve the people and its history for the past 92 years, without hesitation and despite any obstacles that stood in her way.
Since 1953 she has lived in France. Even though her lifetime partner was French and despite the fact that she raised little French children, she speaks Greek as though she never left Greece – even for one day. “That is why I say that the greatest duty of every Greek, wherever he or she may be, is to remember that loss of a language marks the collapse of its people’s history. As for the shrinking of our language – we, ourselves, are responsible for allowing the invasion of foreign conditions – which, if it continues, will create a hybrid Greek language.”
“And we are not only responsible for the demise of our Greek language – but also for the discord, the self-adoration, the know-it-all-ness, the materialism, and our fear of or lack of accountability.”
Ahrweiler once said something that stirred up many reactions: that we moved from ‘tsarouchia’ (the traditional Greek shoes that are still worn by the Greek Presidential Guards, the Evzones) to Tod’s. “From the refugee tents we moved on to ‘take out a loan,’ to ‘buy a car,’ and while you’re at it, ‘buy a second, and a third.’”
She said, “Greeks have ceased to have their priorities in the right place. At one time, these priorities were national ones – they have subsequently been replaced or transformed into personal ones. The real crisis is a cultural one – not an economic one. This will take generations to change and to correct. The economic crisis can [be overcome on a day by day basis]. Our country, religion, and families need to place more emphasis on education and to cease telling the children to pursue only success, instead of happiness.”
When I asked her if she believed in God, she responded, “I do not believe in God, but I am afraid of him. I did not come up with that on my own – those are the words of Gabriel García Márquez.”
“It’s quite alright, Ms. Ahrweiler – let someone else say something as well,” we responded. She thought about those words for a moment, and laughing, said, “that’s right!”
One thing is certain regarding such an inexhaustible source of life and endurance: that God will never recreate this unique and unrepeatable person. There is no recipe for creating a woman of such genius, courage, rebelliousness, multifaceted knowledge, humor, and beauty. Just like Spix’s Macaw, now extinct in the wild, people like Ms. Ahrweiler are a rapidly disappearing endangered species.