Dramatic events disturbed the bucolic life of Griazdani, my birthplace in Northern Epirus, on a sunny October day of 1940. The village elders advised all inhabitants to stay indoors, except for a committee of volunteers that would assemble in the town square and pretend life was normal. There was nothing normal about it.
Hordes of Albanian and Italian fascists were marching through the village heading for deployment on a battle front that stretched from the Mourgana Mountains to the town of Konispoli. Dark clouds of war against Greece were gathering and fear marked the lives of Northern Epirotans.
Though adults made valiant efforts to keep children free of fear, fear was walking in front of my house, dressed in the national colors of Albanian warriors, leading Mussolini’s army to the Greek borders. I could not fathom then the significance of Gheghs marching against Greece. A lifelong study on Balkan affairs would eventually clarify matters: the smartly dressed Albanians were elements of the infamous Tomori Division, a military outfit that had asked the Italian High Command for the honor to cross the Greek borders first.
On the night of October 27, a ferocious battle commenced in the Mourgana-Filiates front that became my introduction to war at age five. The tenacious resistance by the Greek forces against the Albano-Italian invasion, kept us awake at night and hopeful for the day of our freedom. There were nights when small groups of men, my father included, would cross over the Spara ridge into Tsamanda to provide information to Greek commanders about troop movements of the invaders; and there were other nights when we had to abandon our homes and hide in the forest to escape the pillage by Chams and Albanian irregulars who had formed special units, with the sole purpose of pillaging and terrorizing the Greek minority. Irregular units were part and parcel of the Tirana government’s designs for a Greater Albania. Documents captured by Greek forces in Korytsa (i.e. Document No. 122, 29 June 1939) reveal the purpose of these units: they were designed to operate outside the parameters of the laws of war, carry out intimidation forays against the Northern Epirotans, cause depopulation of Greek villages, and ultimately change the demography of Epirus.
The Chams were a central component in Mussolini’s grandiose Balkan schemes as well. In anticipation of the Italian invasion, and in close coordination with the Tirana government of Shefqet Verlaci, they had formed a brigade of their own that operated as a Trojan horse behind Greek lines. Commander of the Brigade was Tahir Demi from Filiates with his cousin Petrit as his deputy. This same unit would play havoc with the lives of Epirotans when it later offered its services to Nazi General Huber Lanz.
In early December the Italo-Albanian forces collapsed, the Chams drifted back into civilian life and tucked away their guns for another day of collaboration. The Greek army poured into my village and a tall officer, Major Karalis, made the upper floor of our home his battalion headquarters. His stentorian voice never left me: “Nicola, bring firewood upstairs,” he would intone. It turns out, he knew about my father’s service as a draftee in the Greek army in 1914-16 and a friendship was established between the two men. Though stern and professional, he would always take time to run his hand over my hair and thank me for the firewood.
When I ended up in Ioannina as a refugee to escape Enver Hoxha’s gulag, I wrote a short story for a class assignment titled My First Greek Hero. The philology professor of Zosimea Gymnasium, Grigorios Tzomakas, thought the essay was worthwhile to be shared with the class and instructed me to read it. But I am not good for such occasions. I broke down in sobs after the first sentence and could not read a story about a hero who was killed in action and did not keep his promise to my father and come back for Easter. Another student read my essay to the class and a few more students cried.
For over 50 years I have kept his name etched in my memory and often thought of tracing his relatives. But I did not know where to start and knew nothing more than his last name and rank. Those who would address him would call him ‘Kyrie Tagmatarcha’ and he would address my father as ‘Barba Thanasi’.
Fifty nine years later, I accidentally discovered the Major’s name and picture and memories of a heroic age came alive. While on a visit to Greece in 1999 to give a lecture on the New World Order and the Balkans at the invitation of the Mayor of Papagos, Admiral Vasilios Xydis, a booklet listing fallen Greek officers in World War II (and a silver plaque) was presented to me by the host. And there it was: the full name and a faded picture of my hero. What an irony! It was the time when the United States and its NATO allies were bombarding the Serbs ostensibly to defend Albanian victims in Kosovo. Part of the lecture reflected a deep disappointment for the West’s lack of gratitude for the sacrifices of the Greek and Serbian nations in World War II. At the same time modern philistines were bombarding the Serbs in defense of the offspring of Kosovar Nazi collaborators.
My hero had the same first name as my father, Athanasios. He hailed from the village of Nikita, Halkidiki, and was commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 12th Infantry Regiment, the unit that liberated my village and became a legend. A cousin of mine, Dimitrios Stavrou, had composed a song about him with terribly prophetic title…And if by Chance I Fall in Battle. (Parenthetically, Dimitrios and my great uncle and namesake, Nikolaos Stavrou, were burned alive by Albanian Chams during a joint Nazi-Ball Kombetar on Easter week 1944).
Official records show that Major Karalis died on December 19, 1940 in the village of Borshi (outside Himara) during an assault by the Italian Air Force and was posthumously promoted to Lt. Colonel for bravery. I do not know whether that is accurate or not. My father had asked every soldier returning from the front about his friend and was told by several of them that he was killed by an Albanian sniper in the village of Nivitsa; and that was part of my 1953 essay. However, it makes no difference which version of his heroic death is correct. Major Karalis was a hero. I do not know whether a statue or monument honors his memory anywhere. I only know that my family cherishes the honor of having being his host, albeit so briefly, and never forgot Major Athanasios Karalis, son of Dimitrios, born in 1896, who died defending Greek ideals.
Nikolaos A. Stavrou immigrated to the United States in 1956 and became a U.S. citizen in 1962. An emeritus professor of international affairs and political theory at Howard University, where he had taught for over 35 years, Dr. Stavrou was also the editor, since 1990, of the academic journal Mediterranean Quarterly, which he helped found in 1989. The journal focused on the economics, history, and politics of the Mediterranean region and Dr. Stavrou wrote widely about Greek and Albanian issues, among others. He passed away in 2011 at the age of 76. Originally published in The National Herald, October 29, 2004.