ATHENS – The more thoughtful Greek-American visitors to Greece know that the smiles of their friends and relatives are gifts hard fought for, because while the Grecian sea and sky is perpetually blue and the fare on the table delicious, Greek history is also filled with dark clouds and leaves unseen wounds.
The first question during the interview with Efthimios Maheras and his wife Irini is naturally, “what can we offer you – juice, coffee, sweets?”
Next, of course, it was time to honor family and roots.
Efthimios and his wife Irini are both from the island of Leros in the Dodecanese. They have a daughter, Calliope, and four grandchildren: Themis, Irini, Maria, and Aristocles, who stopped by that morning for a visit. They have numerous relatives in the United States, including Nick Phillips, a Greek-American community leader in Detroit.
“I was born January 4, 1933 on the island of Leros, where my parents lived,” intoned Efthimios. “My father was a refugee from Asia Minor, near Ephesos.”
Like most of their generation, he made a solemn pause to honor the collective before continuing with his own history.
“First grade was in an Italian elementary school. Italy controlled the Dodecanese. I began school when I was six years old and I was not happy, because we were not taught Greek. I did not like living under Italian rule. We went to a secret school to learn Greek. We went to the teacher’s house at night.”
The culture war turned into a shooting war in 1940. “I will never forget the first night of the war. The British bombarded Italian sites on Leros because Italy was an ally of Germany.”
His father gathered the family and rushed them off to sanctuary. “It was a mountainside cave… near our house which was in Keramato. We left because we were afraid they would bomb our house.”
As the war turned against the Axis powers, Italy abandoned Germany and sided with the Allies. That angered the Germans, who then attacked the Italian forces – but the Greeks were in no less danger, precision bombing then being a matter of science fiction.
“The Germans bombed Leros 54 days in a row,” he said.
Leros was important to the war effort because of the artillery batteries that were established on its many mountaintops and which commanded the surrounding Aegean. Inevitably, the Germans defeated the Italians and took control of the island – then they began to round up the Greeks.
Efthimios remembers a man approaching him and a group of friends. Smiling and speaking Greek, he said “we are Americans and have come to save you.”
It was a lie. He was a German officer.
The soldiers collected them into groups of six, and began marching them off, forcing them to carry their machine guns. The Nazis did not see it coming, but fate smiled on the Greeks. The Germans marched in the front of the line, but they walked straight into an Italian minefield and were killed!
Efthimios also witnessed the attack and destruction of the Greek naval ship Vassilisa Olga. “I was at my father’s general store and I called out to him ‘father come and see this.’” German stukas swooped down and bombed the ship, sinking it.
“I left Leros in 1950 but I remember the day the Italians left, the re-unification of Leros and all the Dodecanese islands with Greece in 1947.”
It was a big day. “It was the first time we saw Greek officials. A great celebration, with music and dancing and a feast,” he said.
Irini pointed out the Italians had treated the Greeks fairly well, notwithstanding the cultural and linguistic pressure. They invested in the island, with the substantial soft drink factories helping to boost the population to 34,000.
But to make a living after the war and civil war, Efthimios had to leave his green, hilly, beloved Leros with its glorious beaches and brilliant white houses. After graduating high school, he moved first to Athens and then to the Peloponnese, finding a job with an Italian company thanks to his ability to speak Italian and his skills, which were in demand: he worked as an auto mechanic.
Efthimios learned the craft he loved in Leros. Trucks and cars were his livelihood and his delight. “Trella, trella,” Irini said. “He’s crazy about cars from a child. He didn’t like school, and he told his father ‘I’m going to become a mechanic.’”
You can say that his love of cars fueled his country’s growing infatuation as well – the companies he worked for built many of Greece’s important roads.
BAD SURPRISE, GOOD SURPRISE
Like all Greeks of his generation, life had its ups and downs, its pains and its joys.
In 1970, Efthimios bought his dream car – a Cortina 1100 by Ford of Britain which was the best-selling car the UK in the 1970s.
“We had it for several beautiful years,” he said, enjoying trips with his family all over Greece, “and one morning we woke up, and it was gone!”
He reported it stolen to the police and they searched everywhere from Athens to Albania, but after a year went by, they lost hope, buying a Ford Escort. “And we paid for it in cardiologist bills; he was so upset,” Irini said.
“Then one morning I got a call from a colleague who told me, ‘I found your car.’ I asked him ‘is that possible’ and he said, ‘yes, I saw it abandoned on a certain street in in Korydalo.”
After the delightful conversation concluded, it was time for Efthimios, beaming with pride, to show off the Cortina. There it was, right down the well-kept working class block – almost 30 years old, gleaming white and radiant with the tender loving care lavished by Efthimios.
The car is clearly not of recent vintage, but the lines were clean and elegant. It would not be fair to call it dated, because it is a classic. It’s difficult to pinpoint its age, like a famous model or movie star who had aged most gracefully. “She is a model,” Irini said, with a warm tone in her voice that expressed appreciation for a home, not a mere vehicle. It was their moving home as they travelled and enjoyed Mother Ellas through the years - or even another member of the family. “Yes,” Efthimios agreed when asked, “he is like a son to me.”