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Guest Viewpoints

OXI DAY Celebration in Saint Paul Minnesota

December 25, 2021
By Athanasios Contolatis

An Italian soldier mistakenly almost shot a little boy 81 years ago. I was not one of the 350,000 Greeks killed and or died from starvation during WWII. As a survivor, I am going to tell you of what I experienced on October 28, 1940, being three-and-a-half years-old, and under what conditions we endured occupation. My village, Variani in Fokida, moved from the valley in the 1600s, and rebuilt on the western slope of Mount Parnassos 2,700 feet high, avoiding Turkish oppression. Until the 1970’s, the village didn’t have electricity, no media for communication, no roads, but only paths (‘strates’) for people and animals. Important information was transmitted by an announcer shouting loudly from a rocky hill overlooking the village or by the bell of the church ringing with a tone analogous to the cause. For church services, deaths, or funerals, the sound of the bell was slow and soft. But for war, fire, or flood the bell rang hard and loud, calling people to action.

It was October 28, 1940, early in the morning, when I heard the bell ringing loudly. I ran to the ‘balkoni’ (similar to a deck) with my family, hearing and seeing people screaming and running towards the church built at the east side of the village square, where people usually gathered. When the bell stopped the announcer clearly and loudly was reading the message of ‘OXI’/NO to an ultimatum by Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini to allow Italian forces to occupy Greece or otherwise face War: “We don’t surrender but we are going to fight. All men up to 40 years old who have served in the army are to be dressed with their uniform and come to the ‘platia’ – village square – for more instructions.”

All day the bell was ringing and the announcer loudly was announcing messages of War.

During the enemy occupation, there was starvation all over Greece, particularly in the big cities where the longest lines were for bread and the constant processions to the cemeteries to mass-bury the thousands of starved dead.

In my village, nobody died from starvation. There were greens in the fields and fruits on the trees. Relatives, friends, and neighbors helped one another. I remember the day when my parents told us this was the last of our bread at supper. When we sat down to eat mostly watery bean soup, my father sliced small pieces of bread and gave two slices to everyone. I ate one slice and I hid the other slice under my shirt. My father saw me and asked me, “why did you hide the bread?” I told him, “I will keep it to eat tomorrow – I don’t want to die.”

My village being in the strategic mountain pass of Gravia, between the mountains Parnassos and Giona, many battles took place between the Greek resistance (‘antartes’) and Germans or Italians.

People had to evacuate the village to avoid execution by the enemy for revenge, having to climb higher up the mountain and hide in caves. One morning I woke up and I found myself in the arms of my mother in the cave. During one of these evacuations (1941-1944), I lost my mother and I ran back home to hide. The Italians were frantically searching house to house for resistance fighters. I hid myself in the outhouse near our garden. I was crying, fearful, and in a panic, I saw through an opening between the wood boards an Italian soldier walking into the garden and searching for Greek fighters. I tried to hide better by lying on the floor. The soldier saw my movements and aimed his gun at me. Fortunately, he didn’t shoot, but I remember what he said before he lowered his gun: “Picolo” – meaning little kid in Italian.

The ‘OXI’ declared to the Italians aggressors in 1940 will be repeated again by the Prime Minister of Greece – ‘OXI’ to Turkish President Erdogan’s aggressions and hostility against Greece and his threats to Christianity after converting Aghia Sophia, the Cathedral of Orthodox Christianity, into a mosque for Islamic prayers. We are thankful to American Philhellenes in our government for their help supporting Greece and the Hellenic-American Institutions AHEPA, AHI, HALC, CHIA, CHCHI and others which effectively communicate with Congress, the State Department, and other policy-making centers on issues involving U.S. relations with Greece and Cyprus as well as U.S. interests in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. These Institutions need our support and the Greek diaspora must help. Be at least a member of any of these institutions and be proud of preserving Hellenism and Christianity.

 

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