The words ‘heroes’ and ‘martyrs’ are tossed about much too easily, but there are historical events when nearly all participants are worthy of those labels because what they accomplished was universally believed to be impossible, and many of them believed they had signed up for near-certain death: the men of Thermopylae, the men and women of 1821… and the soldiers of ‘OXI’ Day.
Greece shocked the world and inspired its allies by inflicting the first defeat on the Axis powers – Germany, Italy, and Japan – who were believed to be invincible.
Winston Churchill, honored them with some of his most memorable words: “From henceforth, we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.”
Traditionally, monuments are built to honor such men and women – and their graves become sites of pilgrimage for their families and fellow citizens. But for many of them, obtaining remains is impossible, and that is sad. For others, however, remains exist and are accessible – but it is bureaucracy and indifference that are the obstacles, and that is not just a shame, it is shameful.
Such is the case with many ‘OXI’ Day veterans, and while there are initiatives undertaken by private citizens working with officials who do care, and despite many gallons of blood being taken from relatives for DNA identification, many Hellenes alive today will die before having the chance to pay their respects to the bones of their loved ones.
My mother is one of those people.
This is the story of her father, Dimitrios Kylitis of Siphnos, one of thousands of Greek men whose futures were incredibly bright before the storm clouds of World War II threatened and then wiped away their dreams.
A humble farmer from the island of Siphnos, he was a hardworking man of good character. That can be demonstrated from the support and promises he received from notables both on the island and in the capital.
Before World War II, there was little electrification outside Greece’s main cities, but the national power company, DEH, was on the verge of a major expansion and Dimitrios was able to obtain a job with them though the assistance of my mother’s dear Godmother, whose husband, Theodoros Melas, was a distinguished Greek diplomat. He also happened to be a close relative of Greek national hero, Macedonia activist Pavlos Melas.
Armed with that most solid of jobs for his era, Dimitrios married my grandmother Eleftheria with confidence and travelled to the northern front after OXI Day with my one-year old mother in her crib and my grandmother pregnant with my Thio Dimitri. He was 29 years old and the future looked bright both in a more and less conventional senses. Dimitri was one of those remarkable people who can pick up a musical instrument for the first time and immediately begin to make sense of it and music with it. His instrument was the violin, and he made such an impression on this contemporaries that one of Siphnos’ community leaders promised to pay for him to attend a conservatory in Athens when he returned from the war – he did not return from the war.
On November 29, 1940 Dimitrios found himself near the summit of Mount Morava in Albania. Yes, the Greeks had stopped Hitler’s allies cold in Greece, and – mirabile visu (presumably Mussolini’s soldiers knew that Latin phrase) pushed them all the way back to the Greek-Albania border, and beyond.
I imagine my Pappou was among those guarding Greece’s big guns atop the mountain that enabled its armed forces to control the pivotal nearby valleys. Way up there, I assume that he was killed by the Italian air force. Until Hitler’s forces began to take their revenge in the Spring of 1941 the Greek army continued its advance occupying much Albania – and liberating for a fleeting moment the Hellenes of Northern Epiros, whose promises of freedom and unification with Greece were continuously broken by her allies one war after another.
Greek arms continued to march victoriously north, but Dimitrios did not participate, and neither did his earthly remains ever return to the soil of Siphnos.
His son Dimitrios, born about a week after his death, carried his name into the future, but his children joined the ranks of many thousands of war orphans.
My mother still has hopes of finding and honoring the bones of her father, whom she loves and reveres to this day despite having no memories of him.
It is my hope for this article that those of you with similar stories will work with relatives and family friends to pressure Greek officials to streamline the process for identifying the remains that do exist – under Greek and Albanian authority.
And one more thing. They must finally built a proper national monument, either on the border or in Athens, to those Hellenes whose sacrifice of their lives to stop the Axis advance contributed greatly to turning the tide again the forces of fascism, securing freedom not only in Hellas, but throughout Europe and the World.
I cannot imagine a greater debt owed by the authorities to those heroes and the cause of Freedom itself.