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This Week in History: May 15th to 21st

May 16th: 

On this day in 1948, CBS news correspondent George Polk’s body was found floating in Salonika Bay near Athens. Polk was an American journalist who was murdered during the Greek Civil War, which he was covering. The conflict was between the ultraconservative Greek government’s army, which was backed by the United States, and the communist rebels. Polk was found dead – shot at point blank range, blindfolded, bound with twine by the hands and feet, pockets still full of money and personal effects – and to this day, there is great controversy about who killed him (some say it was the CIA or secret agents from Great Britain, others say it was Greek communist guerillas, and yet others say it was Greek Royalists). A few months following Polk’s death, the Polk Award was established in his honor which continues to be presented by the Polk Awards Center of Long Island University which focuses on the “intrepid, bold, and influential work of reporters – placing a premium on investigative work that is original, resourceful, and thought-provoking.” 

May 17th: 

On this day in 1902, Greek archaeologist Valerios Stais, along with his mathematician cousin Spiridon Stais, discovered the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient mechanical analog computer, also called an astronomical calculator. The Antikythera mechanism was found in 45 meters of water in an ancient shipwreck off Point Glyphadia on the Greek island of Antikythera (located between Kythera and Crete). The wreck was found by a group of Greek sponge divers, who retrieved numerous artifacts, including bronze and marble statues, jewellery, coins, and the mechanism. All of the artifacts were transferred to the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens, where Valerios was the Director, for storage and analysis. Initially no one knew what the chunk of rusted metal was until Spyridon identified the gears in the mechanism. We now know that the clock-sized device contained an elaborate collection of about 30 interlocking, spinning gears that controlled dials designed to calculate astronomical positions and eclipses. By turning the hand crank of the mechanism, the gears spun, causing the hands of the dials to move, allowing the user to accurately predict eclipses and the passage of celestial bodies through the sky. According to Jo Marchant of the Smithsonian, “nothing as sophisticated [as the Antikythera mechanism], or even close, appears again for more than a thousand years.”

May 20th: 

On this day in 1941, the Battle of Crete began. The Battle was one of the most significant, if subsequently underreported battles of World War II. This last battle for the defense of Greece against the Nazis was critical in leading to the ultimate defeat of Hitler. This battle also emphasized the sacrifice, through selfless bravery, that the people of Crete were willing to pay to defend their freedom. Distinguished military historian Anthony Beevor described Cretan defiance: “Boys, old men, and also women displayed a breathtaking bravery in defense of their island.” Many historians believe the Battle of Crete, along with the earlier campaign against Greece and Yugoslavia, contributed to a 4-6 week delay of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. This delay was to prove fatal in not achieving German objectives before the winter set in and thus significantly contributed to Hitler’s ultimate defeat. 

Also on this day in 1938, Marinella, one of the most popular Greek singers and actresses was born. Her career has spanned over six decades (since 1957). Since the beginning of her career, she has released 66 solo albums and has been featured on albums by other musicians. Born Kyriaki Papadopoulou in the city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece, her parents were refugees from Constantinople. She is the fourth and last child of a large family, which despite its poverty, was rich in love and in artistic vein. Her early career was marked by her collaboration with singer Stelios Kazantzidis – whom she later married. Together they managed to become the greatest duet of Greece, unsurpassed even today. The couple divorced in September 1966 – an event that can be attributed to the beginning of her solo career. Her popularity rose in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, with a string of successful albums and live shows. She developed a new standard for shows in Greek nightclubs, introducing costumes, dancing, and special lighting effects.

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