From Persia’s arrogant Darius to Italy’s egomaniacal Mussolini and Germany’s hateful Hitler, Greece has always fought for freedom. To name all the Greek heroes responsible for those victories through the ages to the present time would take up a lot of paper and more words than allowed. Among the heroes have been many women heroines as well.
But, to commemorate March 25, Greek Independence Day as it should be remembered in 2023, I’ve chosen to commemorate someone who didn’t shoot a gun or spied on the enemy, yet fought hard against enemies that dared attack a defenseless population. Singer, Sophia Vembo sang songs of encouragement that inspired patriotism and became synonymous with the epic victories against the fascist troops in 1940-1941.
Born in Gallipoli in Asia Minor in 1910, her real name was Effie Bembou. Her family fled their home during the catastrophe of Asia Minor and went from Tsaritsa to Thesaloniki. Her father became a tobacco worker and she quit high school to help her family survive. She bought a guitar, learned to play it, and went to live with her brother. On the train, she played and sang. The passengers were very pleased, especially, Constantine Tsibas, who owned the night club, Astoria. He asked her to sing there and she was an immediate success.
In 1933 Sophia Vembo made her debut in Athens’s Kentrikon Theater, where she sang a song, ‘Beautiful Gypsy’ that thrilled the audience. She continued singing there as part of the Athenian Revue, ‘Parrot’, a popular show at that time. She starred in the classic movie, ‘Stella’ Then, the movie, ‘Stournara 288’ about a famous singer forgotten by fans, becoming a piano teacher. Times changed, dark clouds gathered as Greece found herself being threatened by the neighboring country, Italy. It was 1940 when Benito Mussolini threatened Greece with invasion, ordering immediate surrender or face dire defeat.
That’s when she began singing patriotic songs, one of which was, both humiliating as well as humorous towards Mussolini, ‘Duce, Duce,’ who, hearing it grew angry and put a price on her head. That threat only raised Sophia’s patriotism even stronger as she enthusiastically sang a song that became legendary. ‘Paidia, Tis Ellados Paidia’ (Children, Greece’s Children) written by Mimi Traiforos, who later became her husband, and did much to raise the country’s morale and was being sung by everyone, achieving popularity that made it the favorite for a very long time. In fact, it is remembered to this day as the country’s most famous lasting, patriotic song when radio stations play it, commemorating those horrific times.
Having donated 2,000 gold pounds of her own money for the Hellenic Navy as support towards the war effort contributed to her becoming a folk heroine and she was aptly known as the ‘Voice of Victory’.
Mussolini received a humiliating defeat fighting the determined, less fortified Greek soldiers in Albanian territory. Seized with disgust and disappointment with Mussolini’s ineptness, the Nazis invaded and occupied Greece in April 1941. Sophia went to the Middle East where she continued performing for the people and the soldiers in exile. After the war, she returned to Athens and acquired her own theater, in Metaxourgeio district, making a few appearances from the 1950s to 1970s when she stopped performing.
As a fitting reward from a thankful country she was given the rank of Major in the Greek Army and remained in Greece’s collective memory as the ‘Voice of Victory’. Her unique way of bringing expression, patriotism, and pride with her voice and with the songs chosen to be aired was incalculable, something Greek audiences applauded with enthusiasm. Then, she agreed to sign a contract with Columbia Records, a company with which she worked with until the end of her life.
In the 1970s, when Greece was under military occupation during the junta’s seizure and democracy was once again, limited, she witnessed from her Athenian apartment balcony, a few young, unarmed, protesting students who were attacked and wounded by the armed military junta soldiers. Quickly, she ordered her servants to bring them up to her apartment where she helped heal their wounds, housed, fed, and protected them. Military police banged on her door, threatening to arrest her. She adamantly refused. Once again, she had come to her country’s aid as a staunch lover of the democratic ideals created in ancient Greece. She died of a stroke March 11, 1978. She died – but Vembo is not forgotten.