Monday, November 26, 2007


Tovarishch Stalin, among others, was fond of quoting himself, and it is with his license that I reproduce the concluding paragraph of recent Diatribe “Macedonia (Again),” written in anticipation of the Macedonian Rally:
“So what is to be done? Shall we take to the streets and wave Greek flags? Shall we deftly, in the lead up to the election seek out photo opportunities with politicians to convince our peers that our word carries weight or influence? Shall we hope to delude parties into believing that if they do not promise to resolve the ontological issue in our favour, we will vote them out or not vote them into office, even though they know full well after the decades of our co-habitation that our political consciousness is seldom if ever swayed by our ethnic consciousness? Whatever we decide to do, one thing is certain: we would do well to view the resolution of our own ontological dispute from within the context of the wider ontological crisis that regulates the place of racial groups within society. At least that way, whatever the outcome, we will at least not suffer the come down of disabused delusion.”
On 18 November 2007, we did take to the streets, in droves. We did so with flags and placards proclaiming the Greekness of Macedonia and of ourselves, in traditional costume, in ancient costume, headed by a remarkably large banner that proclaimed: “Macedonia: Greek and Proud.” By the time the head of this motley procession of proud Greek arrived before the steps of Parliament House, its tail was still at the Exhibition Gardens; a long, pulsating and exuberant blue and white python of Hellenism, sliding along the silent and largely deserted expanse of Exhibition Street, sending the few solitary Chinese pedestrians scurrying into sidestreets. Easily, there more considerably more constituent parts to this python than the 15,000 quoted in the press. Drums were banged sonorously and the exhilarated crowd marched in step, intoning “Ellas, Ellas, Makedonia” while simultaneously attempting to squirm their way to the head of the procession. One disturbed woman, in her demented quest to make it to the front, actually attacked a girl wearing national costume with a placard. Yet despite this incident, which took place in the bowels of the python, the march was laid-back, joyous even and when you stepped back and looked at the faces of the marchers, fixed to the front, their eyes gleaming, proudly waving grandchildren and flags aloft, exhilarating.
The sun bore down upon us, making the blues of our flags even brighter, its white, blinding. I noticed a young man dressed as a Phrygian, complete with upturned Phrygian cap - the ancient symbol of emancipated slavery, adopted by the French Revolution and used today as a national symbol by France and various South American Bolivarian republics. I also noticed that the people leading the procession, dressed in their costumes, playing traditional songs on instruments aeons old were young. Indeed, there seemed to be two “types” of march-goers. There were the old folk, tired, their faces pitted with the creases and folds of decades of anguish and toil, their eyes aflame with desire. And then there were the youth, so many of them, more than can ever be seen at any Greek community event, not tagging along, not being coerced to attend by the parents (most of whom were conspicuously absent), but taking an active, role, a leading role in the proceedings. Prior to the rally, some 80,000 emails, sms and telephone calls were made, notably by the members of the Hellas Fan Club, who turned up in force. Thousands of Greek youth heeded their call. One of them, a young girl resplendent in a t-shirt bearing a Star of Vergina, that owing to her cleavage, was setting definitely low on the horizon, enthusiastically exclaimed that: “there has never been anything like this to get the youth together. I mean, as a community, we are pretty dead.” If the Hellas Fan Club and associated youth are anything to go by, our community python may be shedding its skin, but its life is definitely not over. A group of youths committed to their own conception of Hellenism, though derided at various times by sections of the mainstream and our community, proved on that day, that when push came to shove, they had the passion and the drive to assume a community project and bring about its success. The harmonious manner in which the Hellas Fan Club worked with the Rally Organising Committee in order to achieve this outcome harbours fortuitous haruspices for the future. The absence of the comfortable bourgeois 40-50 demographic was therefore lost in the youthful exuberance.
As the procession turned into Bourke Street and we arrived at the still relatively deserted steps of Parliament House, I turned back and looked at the surging mass of Hellenism before me. “So we can still pull it off,” I murmured to myself. For really, that was what this Rally was about, as much as it was about Macedonia. Apart from my concerns as to the effectiveness of a protest in a modern era of evolved political culture, shared in the large part by the sage advice of John Pandazopoulos in his article in NKEE last week, one of the major arguments against the Rally was that a small turn out would be unfavourably compared to the mass rallies of the nineties, which achieved a participation of hundreds of thousands. Last week’s rally was therefore a litmus test for the community, a gauge of its vitality. A community that had something to prove, not so much to others, but itself, turned out in force, in yet another attempt to convince itself that it was still alive. It definitely succeeded in doing so.
When I stood before the podium to address tens of thousands of Hellenes on behalf of the Organising Committee, I felt humbled and ashamed, simply because I had doubted their resolve, their commitment and their fervour, because I had arrogantly chosen to believe in their indifference. I was glad to have been proved wrong. Lowering the microphone towards me, I said:
“My fellow Macedonians. Here we are, at the steps of the bastion of democracy, before a very Hellenic in concept institution and in architecture building, as Macedonians.
Truly that is what we are. For in the ancient Greek dialect of Macedonia, the word Macedonian, Makednos, signified that person who stood lean and tall.
This is what we are doing here today as Macedonians, standing tall, standing firm, committing ourselves to the concepts of pluralism, tolerance and multiculturalism that make this country and this state, so great.
Let us not forget that the first institutor of multiculturalism was that great Hellene, the King of Macedonia and half the world, Alexander the Great. A man who spread Hellenism as far as India.
We stand here today, as descendants of Philip, the King of Macedonia, who united his Greek compatriots in a struggle against totalitarianism and for liberty and freedom.
And we also stand here today, as descendants of the great Macedonian philosopher Aristotle the author of the great work Politics, in which he describes all the political institutions of his time, which are the precursors of this Parliamentary institution. Aristotle taught us and the rest of the world to weigh our words carefully, to speak responsibly, with the force of truth and stand up for what is right.
We are here because every fibre of our being is as Macedonian as it is Australian, because as the great Macedonian Saint of the Orthodox Church, Gregory Palamas stated, it is only through contemplation that we are granted a glimpse of the eternal truth.
Our eternal truth is that of our existence. We are Greeks, the Greeks of Macedonia, THE Macedonians and have always been so, since the dawn of civilization itself.
Now there are those who in this tolerant country, this haven of peace and social cohesion, this harbour of humanity, who would deny us our right to call ourselves by our name, who would deprive us of our right to our own identity.
And they would do so based on incorrect, misguided or deliberately usurped so-called information and cultural capital.
To these people we say:
We say
NO one can usurp our identity.
NO one can abrogate our right to call ourselves by our name.
No one can deny that we, the members of the united Greek-Australian community, are Macedonians.
Not many people know this but our Australian links with Macedonian Hellenism are venerable ones. Australian citizens fought in the Greek Army for the liberation of Macedonia from the Ottomans.
Australian soldiers also fought to protect the Greek province of Macedonia during the First World War. Tens of Australian nurses set up their makeshift clinics and hospitals in Macedonia, tending the Greek and Australian wounded.
Today, the monument honouring fallen Australian soldiers in the capital of Macedonia, Thessaloniki, is a place of pilgrimage and reverence for all Greek-Australians.
Given this special relationship between Australia and Greece, we applaud the respectful and considered stance of the Government and the Opposition as to the issue of the naming of the Former Yugoslav Republic.
We applaud the fact that our government encourages dialogue and supports a solution that both sides will find acceptable.
We thank our government and the opposition for their balanced stance, which promotes tolerance, cohesion and solidarity in a troubled world.
Yet today, as we stand here in front of this Hellenic façade, designed for a Hellenic purpose, that of free speech, liberty and democracy for all, we the Macedonian community of Australia, as one united Greek-Australian voice say:
That the only solution is one that recognises the unique Greek provenance of the term Macedonia.
That Macedonia, as a geographical entity, is not an acceptable name for a state that does not partake of the 4000 year old rich cultural history of Macedon and instead would usurp our own.
From the government and the opposition, we would seek more than just assurances about their stance as to the name. We seek understanding and knowledge of what it is that makes the word Macedonia so dear, so important to us, so intrinsic to our own Hellenic identity.
For to do so is to descend to the core of what it is to be a Greek and by us being here today, reveling and rejoicing in our Macedonian identity, we have never been more Australian than now. Our diggers have taught us that.
Finally, to those who would assume our identity, and you know who I am talking about - the people who use our Kings’ Names on their airports, who have attempted to use our landmarks on their currency and who publish maps in which they occupy half of Greece, to those who would make light of it or disregard it as unimportant, we say only that which we hold sacrosanct and holy, we say only this: That you will not take our name in vain. And you know why? Because we are Macedonian, we are Greek and we are goddamn proud.”
Talk about slogan overkill.
As I listened to Member for Melbourne Lindsay Tanner reassure us of Labor’s policy, in excellent Greek, I was astounded at how the political culture of this country can Melbourne-weather-like, shift so as to have mainstream politicians address us in our own language, the climactic equivalent of a multicultural anti-cyclone. This in itself was a significant and historic event.
As the last of the marchers lung their flags over their shoulders and set off down Bourke Street into mundane reality, my euphoria vanished. Truly, as part of a balanced diet of activism, a rally has its place. But if it is the only diet on the menu, ones internal community organisms become clogged and vital organs atrophy. The sophisticated approach postulated by John Pandazopoulos seems to be the only way in which rallies such as the one that took place last week can have any lasting effect other than to assuage our own existentialistic angst. Still, there is something mighty grand about seeing so many flags, so many faces massed together and that is why we crave it, again and again and again….
In closing, a snippet of a review of the rally from a FYROMIAN, posted on the Maknews website: “Considering that there are apparently 150,000 people who identify as Greeks in Melbourne, I would say their shocking turnout at the rally serves to prove what we've been trying to tell Australian politicians for a while now - that even though the Greeks might outnumber us, the Macedonian name issue is much more important to mainstream Australian “Macedonians” (sic) than it is to mainstream Australian Greeks. Therefore, Australian “Macedonians” (sic) are much more likely to change their voting preferences in large numbers because of the Macedonian name issue than Australian Greeks are.”
Food for thought…..

First published in NKEE on 26 November 2007

Monday, November 19, 2007


There have been three seminal Oriental moments for me while visiting the metropolis of Western Democracy. The first was listening with fascination to the mystical mantras of Manolis Rasoulis’ syncretistic melody: «Πότε Βούδας, πότε Κούδας, πότε Ιησούς και Ιούδας,» Then there was my visit to the Satyananda ashram in Paeania, as incongruous and anachronistic as an air bubble on the lustrous surface of a Japanese lacquered table or a dog defecating on the last invisible stone of a Zen garden. Viewing the good housewives of Paeania, clad in voluminous versions of a leotard in various stages of threatening to turn into a burkha, stretch and strain to assume the asana of a lotus, simultaneously lending unsettling connotations to the mantra: “the jewel is in the lotus,” while their younger and infinitely more nubile counterparts effortlessly contorted themselves in emulation of the Swan, the Warrior and the Shooting Bow, (the Shooting Bow is particularly fascinating for the viewer), and chatted about charkas, proving their credentials as partakers of a global culture, was an enlightening and yet disconcerting experience. As Swami Sivamurti of Mount Hymettus states: “Everything happens for one’s good; nothing is negative,” and Satyananda Yoga truly is a remedy for constipation. Then, walking through the streets of Ioannina, one day, the bastion of all that is good, foustanella-clad and fez-wearing Hellenic, I came across an institute of Chinese studies and my internal clockwork mechanisms ground to the cog-shattering, historic conclusion that the aeon-old East-West dialectic commenced by the Trojan War had finally been resolved.
Yet to consider the Greek embracing of Oriental culture as a modern phenomenon symptomatic of xenomania is to decontextualise the topos of the Greek identity, founded in reaction to the East and whose culture has historically acted in bi-valvular fashion as a conduit of Eastern culture to the West and to a lesser extent, as a window of ‘Western’ culture upon the East. This can no moreso be seen than in the unlikely and yet tantalizing ancient relationship between Greek culture and Buddhism.
We can safely term the cultural syncretism between Hellenistic culture and Buddhism, which developed between the 4th and 5th century BC in the area now covered by Afghanistan and Pakistan as Greco-Buddhism. This was a cultural consequence of a long chain of interactions begun by the Greek forays into India from the time of Alexander, carried further by the establishment of Indo-Greek rule in the area for several centuries, and extended during flourishing of the Hellenized empire of the Aryan Kushans. Greco-Buddhism influenced the artistic and the conceptual development of Mahayana Buddhism, before Buddhism was adopted in Central and Northeastern Asia, from the 1st century CE, ultimately spreading to the Far East.
When Alexander conquered the Bactrian and Gandharan regions, these areas may already have been under Buddhist influence. According to a legend preserved in Pali, the language of the Theravada canon, two merchant brothers from Bactria, named Tapassu and Bhallika, visited the Buddha and became his disciples. They then returned to Bactria and built temples to the Buddha. Thus in 326 BC when, Alexander invaded India, King Ambhi, ruler of Taxila, surrendered his city, a notable center of Buddhism.
Several philosophers, such as Pyrrho, Anaxarchus and Onesicritus, are said to have been selected by Alexander to accompany him in his eastern campaigns. During the 18 months they were in India, they were able to interact with Indian religious men, generally described as Gymnosophists (“naked philosophers”). Pyrrho returned to Greece and became the first Skeptic and the founder of the school named Pyrrhonism. The Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius explained that Pyrrho's equanimity and detachment from the world were acquired in India.Few of his sayings are directly known, but they are clearly reminiscent of eastern, possibly Buddhist, thought: "Nothing really exists, but human life is governed by convention. Nothing is in itself more this than that.”
Another of these philosophers, Onesicritus, a Cynic, is said by Strabo to have learnt in India the following Buddhist-sounding precepts: “That nothing that happens to a man is bad or good, opinions being merely dreams,” and “That the best philosophy is that which liberates the mind from both pleasure and grief.” These contacts initiated the first direct interactions between Greek culture and Indian religions, which were to continue and expand for several more centuries.
Around 322 BC, the Indian emperor Chandragupta, (Gupta by the way is the root of the Greek word Gyftos, another tantalising link with Indian culture) reconquered some of Alexander’s Indian territory. However, contacts were kept with his Greek neighbours in the Seleucid Empire. Seleucid king Seleucus I came to a marital agreement as part of a peace treaty, and several Greeks, such as the historian Megasthenes and Deimakos resided at the Indian court. According to Strabo, Megasthenes sent detailed reports on Indian religions, which were circulated and quoted throughout the Classical world for centuries:
“Megasthenes makes a different division of the philosophers, saying that they are of two
kinds, one of which he calls the Brachmanes, and the other the Sarmanes.”

Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka converted to the Buddhist faith and became a great proselytizer in the line of the traditional Pali canon of Theravada Buddhism, insisting on non-violence to humans and animals and general precepts regulating the life of lay people. According to the Edicts of Ashoka, set in stone, some of them written in Greek, he sent Buddhist emissaries to the Greek lands in Asia and as far as the Mediterranean. The edicts name each of the rulers of the Hellenic world at the time:
“The conquest by Dharma has been won here, on the borders, and even six hundred yojanas away, where the Greek king Antiochos (Antiyoga) rules, and beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy (Turamaya), Antigonos (Antikini), Magas (Maka) and Alexander (Alikasu[n]dara) rule..”
Ashoka also claims he converted to Buddhism Greek populations within his realm:
“Here in the king’s domain among the Greeks…everywhere people are following Beloved-of-the-Gods' instructions in Dharma.”
Finally, some of the emissaries of Ashoka, such as the famed Dharmaraksita, are described in Pali sources as leading Greek ("Yona") Buddhist monks, active in Buddhist proselytism.
Eventually, the Greco-Bactrians, who maintained a strong Hellenistic culture in Afghanistan, expanded into India, where they established the Indo-Greek kingdom in 180 BC, under which Buddhism was able to flourish and it has been suggested that their invasion of India was intended to protect the Buddhist faith from the religious persecutions of a new Indian dynasty. Thus, it appears that as a result of the Indian contacts, Buddhism had already pervaded the Greek civilization of Bactria. According to Ptolemy, numerous Greek cities were founded by the Greco-Bactrians in northern Pakistan. A large Greek city built by Demetrius and rebuilt by Menander has been excavated at the archaeological site of Sirkap near Taxila, where Buddhist stupas were standing side-by-side with Hindu and Greek temples, indicating religious tolerance and syncretism.
Some of the coins of the Greco-Indian kings, such as those Menander I fascinatingly incorporate the Buddhist symbol of the eight-spoked wheel, a variant of which is now proudly displayed on the modern Indian flag, associated with the Greek symbols of victory, either the palm of victory, or the victory wreath handed over by the goddess Nike. According to the Milinda Panha, an ancient Buddhist text, at the end of his reign, Menander I became a Buddhist arhat (a spirutual practitioner who had achived nirvana), a fact also echoed by Plutarch, who explains that his relics were shared and enshrined. The ubiquitous symbol of the elephant in Indo-Greek coinage may also have been associated with Buddhism, as suggested by the parallel between coins of Antialcidas and Menander II, where the elephant in the coins of Antialcidas holds the same relationship to Zeus and Nike as the Buddhist wheel on the coins of Menander II. When the Zoroastrian Indo-Parthians invaded northern India in the 1st century, they adopted a large part of the symbolism of Indo-Greek coinage, but refrained from ever using the elephant, suggesting that its meaning was not merely geographical but also religious.
Finally, after the reign of Menander I, several Indo-Greek rulers, notably Amyntas, Nicias, Peukolaos, Hermaeus and Hippostratos, depicted themselves or their Greek deities forming with the right hand a benediction gesture identical to the Buddhist vitarka mudra (thumb and index joined together, with other fingers extended), which in Buddhism signifies the transmission of Buddha’s teaching.
Evidence of direct religious interaction between Greek and Buddhist thought during this period include the aforementioned Milinda Panha, a Buddhist discourse in the platonic style, held between king Menander and the Buddhist monk Nagasena.
Further, the Mahavamsa records that during Menander's reign, a Greek (“Yona”) Buddhist head monk named Mahadharmaraksita (ie “Great Teacher of the Dharma”) led 30,000 Buddhist monks from “the Greek city of Alexandria” (possibly Alexandria of the Caucasus, 150km north of modern day Kabul in Afghanistan), to Sri Lanka for the dedication of a stupa, indicating that Buddhism flourished in Menander's territory and that Greeks took a very active part in it. Several Buddhist dedications by Greeks in India are recorded, such as that of the Greek meridarch (civil governor of a province) named Theodorus, describing in Kharoshthi how he enshrined relics of the Buddha. The inscriptions were found on a vase inside a stupa, dated to the reign of Menander or one his successors in the 1st century:
“Theudorena meridarkhena pratithavida ime sarira sakamunisa bhagavato bahu-jana-stitiye.” (The meridarch Theodorus has enshrined relics of Lord Shakyamuni, (Buddha) for the welfare of the mass of the people.)
This inscription represents one of the first known mention of the Buddha as a deity, using the Indian bhakti word Bhagavati (“All-embracing personal deity”), suggesting the emergence of Mahayana doctrines in Buddhism.
Buddhist manuscripts in cursive Greek have been found in Afghanistan, praising various Buddhas and including mentions of the Mahayana Lokesvara-raja Buddha (Λωγοασφαροραζόβοδδο),dated later than the 2nd century. Some elements of the Mahayana movement may have begun around the 1st century in northwestern India, at the time and place of these interactions. According to most scholars, the main sutras of Mahayana were written after 100 ΒC, when sectarian conflicts arose among Nikaya Buddhist sects regarding the humanity or super-humanity of the Buddha and questions of metaphysical essentialism, on which Greek thought may have had some influence: Mahayana Buddhism thus may have been a Greek-influenced and Greek-carried form of Buddhism that passed north and east along the Silk Road.Of particular note are the numerous and remarkable works of Greco-Buddhist art displaying the intermixing of Greek and Buddhist influences, around such creation centers as Gandhara. The subject matter of Gandharan art was definitely Buddhist, while most motifs were of Western Asiatic or Hellenistic origin. Sadly, the destructive mania of the Taliban blighted the most extensive collection of such art, in the Kabul museum.

To be continued.....


First published in NKEE on 19 November 2007

Monday, November 12, 2007


Every time I go to Athens, I always find myself making my way down to Plateia Mitropoleos for three reasons. The first is to visit the grave of Ethnomartyr Patriarch Gregory the Fifth, who is entombed in Athens Cathedral. The second is to visit St Eleftherios, just outsdie te Cathedral - a remarkable Byzantine church that is the smallest cathedral in the world and incorporates ancient scupltures and reliefs within its architecture - a delightful and intriguing collage of anachronisms as could ever be found. The third reason, is to view the imposing bronze statue of Archbishop Damaskinos just outside the Cathedral. Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou, born Dimitrios Papandreou in Dorvitsa, Greece in 1890 truly was a remarkeable man and a controversial figure in modern Greek history. Apart from his ecclesiatical duties, he was also the regent of Greece between the retreat of the German occupation force in 1944 and the return of King George to Greece in 1946. Gaining the respect of Winston Churchill after having previously been dismissed by him as a “petty Byzantine ruler,” his rule marked the dawn of the reconstruction of Greece after German occupation during and the unrest spanning the beginning of Greek Civil War.
Ordained a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church in 1917, in 1922, he was made bishop of Corinth. He then spent the early 1930s as an ambassador of the Ecumenical Patriarch in the America, where he labored to help organize the Greek Orthodox Church there.
In 1938 he was elected archbishop of Athens taking the name Damaskinos. However, in Greece, where the dividing line between church and state is seldom visible, Dictator Ioannis Metaxas objected to Damaskinos and forced the cancellation of his election, and the appointment of Metropolitan Chrisanthos to the post. After the 1941 German invasion of Greece and the fall of the Greek government, the Metropolitans who had elected Damaskinos seized the opportunity to eject Chrisanthos from the throne (with German agreement, as the latter had refused to be present at the oath-taking ceremony of the Quisling Prime Minister Giorgos Tsolakoglou, and Damaskinos was reinstalled.
During the Holocaust, Archbishop Damaskinos and Athens police chief Angelos Evert not only expended their utmost efforts to provide succour to a beleagured Greek people that had to content with famine and persecution, but also saved thousands of Greek Jews.
Although an estimated 87% of the nation's Jewish population - 60,000 to 70,000 Greek Jews perished during the Holocaust, 10,000 survived, largely due to the Greek people's refusal to cooperate with German plans for deportations and the intervention of Archbishop Damaskinos.
With the arrival of the Axis occupation, deportations from cities like the northern port of Thessaloniki which enjoyed a large historic Jewish poulation proceeded at a rapid pace. Many Jews fleeing persecution in the north found a safe haven in Athens.
On September 20, 1943, Dieter Wisliceny - a deputy of Adolph Eichmann, the administrator of the Nazi Final Solution - arrived in Athens. Wisliceny ordered Chief Rabbi Elias Barzilai to appear before him, to provide accurate figures about the Jewish population in Athens and to create a Judenrat or ghetto. Made up of Jews who were coerced into joining, a Judenrat made compliant Jews "responsible" for keeping law and order in a Jewish community, and used them as a liaison between the German authorities and the Jewish population.
Wisliceny ordered Barzilai to provide the names and address of all members of Athens' Jewish community, the names of all foreign Jews living in the area, the names of Italian Jews in Athens, and the names of those who had assisted Jews who had escaped to Palestine. He also commanded Barzilai to compile a list of individuals willing to serve on a new council, of which Barzilai was to be president, that would create a Jewish police force to carry out Nazi demands; and unveiled plans to create identity cards for all of Athens' Jewish population.
Shaken by his encounter with the Nazi commander, the Rabbi contacted Archbishop Damaskinos and told him about the meeting.
Since Damaskinos knew what had taken place in the north, he suggested that the entire Jewish community should take flight, because it couldn't be protected.
Rabbi Barzilai asked the Germans for more time to compose the requested lists, and then, after meeting with other leaders of the Jewish community, he destroyed the community records and advised the Jewish people to flee. A few days later, the Rabbi himself left the capital and joined the resistance.
The Church of Greece, under Archbishop Damaskinos' leadership, condemned Hitler's plans for the country and instructed priests to announce its position in their sermons.
Jew had participated freely with other Greeks in all walks of life for 2,300 years, co-existing in harmony with their Orthodox countrymen, contributing good work in numerous fields. Jews had lived in Athens since the time of Alexander the Great, in the mid-fourth century, many having sought sanctuary in Greece after having been expelled from Spain in 1492. Tragically, during the Holocaust, the Greek Jewish population was almost completely destroyed.
As they prepared to implement the deportation and mass murder of their Final Solution, the Nazis compiled intelligence reports about the Jewish population of Athens. They chose important Jewish holidays for their monstrous acts, beginning with an order on the eve of Yom Kippur, signed by the German military commander in Athens, S.S. General Jurgen Stroop, which organized the city's Jewish community under Nazi supervision.
Despite the Jewish population in Athens increasing since the outbreak of the war and this putting strain on efforts to assist them, Archbishop Damaskinos' and the Rabbi's work had transformed the city in a safe refuge. Since many of the newly arrived Jews had no fixed place of residence, German intelligence about the Jewish population was often wrong.
Under the order issued by Stroop, Jews were commanded to appear at community offices within five days to declare their residences and register their names. Despite the threat of dire consequences for failing to appear, only 200 showed up.
In a similar instance, the German authorities announced that they were planning to bring a special flour to Athens for Passover, so the Jewish population could prepare matzoh bread, provided they were willing to reveal themselves and register with the authorities. Although the false act of kindness tempted some, many more Jews registered because they were afraid the Nazis would enact reprisals on their Christian neighbours, who had been shielding them from the persecution.
When the Germans started rounding up Jews, over 600 Greek Orthodox priests were arrested and deported because of their actions in helping Jews, under orders of Archbishop Damaskinos and many Jews were saved by the Greek police, the clergy and the resistance. Archbishop Damaskinos and Evert faced the threat of death for their efforts, and would surely been killed if the extent of their assistance had become known to the Germans.
There were several means of escape. Many left by boat from Oropos in Attica, where they were frequently force to pay enormous fees for a three week journey to Turkey. Some young men without families escaped to partisan camps in the mountains. False baptismal certificate and new identity papers from the Greek Orthodox Church could also help a desperate fleeing Jew.
Archbishop Damaskinos oversaw the creation of several thousand such certificates, and Athens police chief Evert provided more than 27,000 false identify papers to desperate Jews seeking protection from the Nazis.
The Archbishop also ordered monasteries and convents in Athens to shelter Jews, and urged his priests to ask their congregations to hide the Jews in their homes. As a result, more than 250 Jewish children were hidden by Orthodox clergy alone.
When all official appeals to stop the deportations failed, Archbishop Damaskinos spearheaded a direct appeal to the Germans, in the form of a letter composed by the famous Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos and signed by prominent Greek citizens, in a bold attempt to appeal to the hearts and minds of the occupying authorities, in defense of the Jews who were being persecuted.
The letter incited the rage of the Nazi general Stroop, who threatened the Archbishop with death by a firing squad. Damaskinos' response was: “In our tradition, Greek religious leaders are not shot, they are hanged. Please respect our traditions!” The simple courage of the religious leader's reply caught the Nazi commander off guard, and his life was spared.
The appeal of the Archbishop and his fellow Greeks is unique; there is no similar document of protest of the Nazis during World War II that has come to light in any other European country. It reads, in part:
"The Greek Orthodox Church and the Academic World of Greek People Protest against the Persecution... The Greek people were... deeply grieved to learn that the German Occupation Authorities have already started to put into effect a program of gradual deportation of the Greek Jewish community... and that the first groups of deportees are already on their way to Poland..."
"According to the terms of the armistice, all Greek citizens, without distinction of race or religion, were to be treated equally by the Occupation Authorities. The Greek Jews have proven themselves... valuable contributors to the economic growth of the country [and] law-abiding citizens who fully understand their duties as Greeks. They have made sacrifices for the Greek country, and were always on the front lines of the struggle of the Greek nation to defend its inalienable historical rights..."
"In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity: they are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion... Our holy religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: 'There is neither Jew nor Greek' and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences. Our common fate both in days of glory and in periods of national misfortune forged inseparable bonds between all Greek citizens, without exemption, irrespective of race..."
"Today we are... deeply concerned with the fate of 60,000 of our fellow citizens who are Jews... we have lived together in both slavery and freedom, and we have come to appreciate their feelings, their brotherly attitude, their economic activity, and most important, their indefectible patriotism..."
During World War II, Greece lost 580,000 of its pre-war population of 6.5 million, and an additional 100,000 Greeks were wounded in the fighting. Ordinary Greeks put themselves in mortal danger, protesting against the occupation authorities. In the case of Athens' Jewish population, assimilation and a strong resistance movement helped at least some Jewish Greeks to survive the Nazi onslaught.
Five thousand Jews remain in Athens, helping to rebuild Jewish life in post-war Greece. The Greek government sees Jewish heritage as part of the country's national heritage, and has refurbished the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens. An honoured site among the nation's many historic treasures, the oldest synagogue site in Greece is a ruin from the Fifth Century B.C., located in Athens' ancient marketplace, the agora at the foot of the Acropolis.
After the war, Archbishop Damaskinos served as regent of Greece until King Georgios II returned from exile. When fighting broke out between pro-royalist Greek soldiers and communist partisans in 1945, the Archbishop was appointed Prime Minister. He called for peace and order in the country. He relinquished his leadership position when the king was formally recalled in 1946.
Archbishop Damaskinos died in Athens on May 20, 1949. As an exemplary proponent of ethnic pluralism and tolerance, his is a memory worth respecting.


First published in NKEE on 12 November 2007

Monday, November 05, 2007


Winston Churchill, the indomitable British War-Time leader, once made a famous speech where he stated, in the context of the home defence during the battle of Britain that “never in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few,” echoing Cornelius Nepos’ evaluation of the Battle of Marathon, where he said: "Than this battle there has hitherto been none more glorious; for never did so small a band overthrow so numerous a host.” This disparity in numbers and the achievement of victory at all costs, which is so encapsulated by Pheidipiddes the runner’s message to the Athenians «νενικήκαμεν» before dropping off dead, having invented both die hard couriers and the Marathon, exemplifies the indomitability of the Greek spirit. Winston Churchill expressed this most eloquently when, commenting on the ferocity of the Greek resistance during World War II, he observed: “Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.”
The extent of the Greek resistance and the fact that the Greek people had the courage to stand up to the Balkan bully of Italian Fascism should not surprise us. From time immemorial, Greeks, a fiercely territorial people, felt compelled to direct the word OXI to would-be liberators, rulers and conquerors, again and again, simply because they could not and cannot tolerate anyone else occupying their backyard.
One of the first and most famous instances of Hellenic nay saying took place when Darius and after him Xerxes, the shahs of the largest Empire the world had ever known, sent their emissaries to the Greek city states, seeking submission in the form of earth and water. Some of these states did submit. However, the Athenians responded at that time by throwing the emissaries into pit, and the Spartans by throwing others into a well, with a suggestion to dig it out for themselves, among other things. When asked by Xerxes whether the Spartans would surrender, Demaratus, his Greek adviser gave a rather long-winded rendition of OXI, saying: “First then, no matter what, the Spartans will never accept your terms. This would reduce Greece to slavery. They are sure to join battle with you even if all the rest of the Greeks surrendered to you. As for Spartan numbers, do not ask how many or few they are, hoping for them to surrender. For if a thousand of them should take the field, they will meet you in battle, and so will any other number, whether it is less than this, or more.”
Leonidas’ immortal phrase «Μολών Λαβέ» or come and get it, when requested to surrender to the Persians, is about as artful and conceive an OXI as one could ever conceive. When Xerxes attempted to bribe him by offering him the kingship of Greece, he scornfully declined, stating: “If you knew what is good in life, you would abstain from wishing for foreign things. For me it is better to die for Greece than to be monarch over my compatriots.”
Such negative attitudes towards others appropriating our pastures were further made manifest in such uneven and yet ultimately successful battles as that of Marathon, Salamis, Plataea and most famously tragic Battle of Thermopylae, where the Spartans “defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth.” Eventually, our love of freedom was so intense that it cause the freedom loving Alexander the Great to destroy and level Thebes, (except for the house of Pindar), invade Syria and Egypt and destroy the Persian Empire. This freedom loving example inspired other peoples who lovingly and enthusiastically embraced the Greek stewardship of their land to espouse similar attitudes towards their Hellenic overlords, who transported the illuminating qualities of their flourescent civilisation to the barbarous, balacked-out East. Thus, the revolt of the Maccabbees in Judaea after the Greeks’ desecration of the Temple of Jerusalem and the Parthian princes, must be seen purely Hellenic expressions of the Greek ontological need not to be dominated by anyone else.
Byzantine OXI’s were generally as long-winded as those of Demaratus, but nonetheless more equivocal and comparative. Faced with the spectre/prospect of a Western domination that was intolerant of the eastern Greek traditions and culture, Loukas Notaras, the John Wayne-like «Μέγας Δουξ» or Big Duke of the Empire, famously remarked in the 1450’s: “I would rather see a Muslim turban in the midst of the City (ie. Constantinople) than the Latin mitre.” His wish came true and tragically, he was eventually murdered by the Mehmet the Conqueror for refusing to surrender his sons to his perverted lust.
The last emperor of Byzantium Constantine Dragases Palaeologos’ OXI, as sent to the same Sultan Mehmet, is just as long-winded but infinitely more noble and romantic: “Handing over the city is not up to me, or to any of its inhabitants, because we are all going to die by common decision, by our own free will, and we will not hesitate to lay down our lives… Being that you have chosen war and neither with oaths nor with sweet words can I dissuade you, do what you please; as for me, I take refuge in God and if it be His will to deliver this city unto you, who can stand in the way?... I, from this moment on, have closed the gates of the city and will protect its inhabitants by whatever means possible; you may exercise your oppressive power, but there will come a day when the Good Judge will pass just sentence on us both, on me and on you.” That hapless Emperor was killed in battle and Constantinople given over to the bloodbath of the traditional three days of merciless plundering.
If the popular legends are to be believed, the Greek people became particularly adept at saying OXI during the years of the Ottoman occupation, being afforded with ample opportunities to express their disagreement or negation at the abrogation of their liberties. In its most extreme form, such negation transcended its vocal execution, to be expressed physically, or through dance. The Souliot women for example, famously made their refusal to become Muslim and be sexually abused by a company of Turco-albanian soldiers by dancing their way off the cliff at Zalongo, all the while singing: «Στη στεριά δε ζει το ψάρι, ουδ' ανθός στην αμμουδιά και οι Σουλιώτισσες δεν ζούνε δίχως την ελευθεριά.» By incorporating elements of the natural world and subverting their habitats in the lyrics of their protest song, the Souliotisses were merely highlighting how their oppressors’ demand for willful submission was so extraordinary as to upset the natural order of things.
Moving from the chorological to the culinary facets of Hellenic negativity, the case of Athanasios Diakos is particularly instructive. If we consider as admissible, the evidence of a demotic folk song of the time, Omer Vryoni, the Albanian military commander, having captured this deacon of the Orthodox Church, offered him a chance of survival, if he would deny his faith and espouse Islam. Athanasios Diakos response was resolute and decidedly lacking in subtlety: «Πάτε κι εσείς και η πίστη σας, μουρτάτες να χαθείτε. Εγώ γραικός γεννήθηκα, γραικός θελ’ αποθάνω.» This statement is informative because it highlights how it was the change of religion that Diakos felt would compromise his ethnic identity. His further comment, after learning of his imminent execution, is eerily reminiscent of Demaratus in Herodotus’ Histories: “If you kill me, this will only mean the death of a single Greek. Long live Odysseus [Androutsos] and Captain Nikitas, who will burn all of Turkey and your entire State.” As a result of his recalcitrance, Athanasios Diakos was, as we say in Greek, skewered, or as David Brewer elucidates: “The sickening reality of the impalement was that the victim was spreadeagled face down, and held in place by ropes attached to each leg while a man with a heavy mallet drove a long sharpened pole in his anus.”
Given this tradition, it comes as a slight disapointment to note that dictator Ioannis Metaxas did not actually say “OXI” to the ultimatum, which was presented to Metaxas by the Italian ambassador in Greece, Emanuele Grazzi on 28 October 1940, at dawn (04:00 AM), after a party in the German embassy in Athens, demanded that Greece allow Axis forces to enter Greek territory and occupy certain unspecified “strategic locations” or otherwise face war. Instead, the genteel Metaxas is held by most scholars to have exclaimed in perfectly accented French: “Alors, c'est la guerre” (Then it is war).
The ensuing “Epic of 1940” as it is referred to in Greece, constitutes one of that country’s finest hours of nay-saying. The Greek victory over the initial Italian offensive of October 1940 was the first Allied land victory of the Second World War, and helped raise morale in occupied Europe. Some historians argue that it may have influenced the course of the entire war by forcing Germany to postpone the invasion of the Soviet Union in order to assist Italy against Greece. This led to a delayed attack and subjected the German forces to the conditions of the harsh Russian winter, leading to their defeat at the Battle of Moscow.
The fact that a poorly equipped and trained group of peasant conscripts could turn back and defeat the technologically and logistically superior Italian War machine is no miracle. It simply is the manifestation of one of the most important elements that comprise the Greek psyche - both fascinating and frustrating in their own right: the propensity to cling steadfast to the idea of Greece and Hellenism and to defend it to the last. Why? Simply because the Greek people’s collective identity is inextricably linked to their homeland to an extent that it transcends the collective and becomes personal. Accordingly, given that all Greeks partake of Hellenism and are bearers of it, any compromise on any Hellenic issue is seen as a personal compromise and an impugning of the Greek’s individual hypostasis and thus, very existence. This indivduality of the collective identity would explain why the Greek Kings were known as kings of “the Hellenes” rather than kings “of Greece,” and should be well regarded by those politicians and scholars who would impugn the relevance and immediacy of so-called ‘ethnika themata’ to the Greek people. The recent debate in Greece about whether OXI Day should be commemorated. (given that in Greece, such commemorations have an intensely militaristic character that cobncentrates more on the display of a happy medium of mechanised artillery and nubile teenage girls in increasingly short skirts) is thus a milestone in the evolution of the Greek conception of ethnic idenity.
Invariably, if anything casts a shadow over the marvelllous achievement of OXI Day and our propensity to say OXI and fight till the last is that when all is said and done, and our stand is bravely made, we tend to turn on each other. The Persian War was followed by the Peloponnesian War. The destruction of the Persian Empire was followed by the internecine warfare of the Hellenistic kingdoms. The reconquest of Constantinople from the Latins was followed by interminable civil wars between Byzantine successor states. The liberation of Greece after the 1821 revolution was followed by a civil war in which great heores of that Revolution were killed or incarcerated. And of course, OXI Day is overshadowed by the horrific Greek Civil War of 1944-1949, whose effects, in the manner the first generation and a portion of the second generation identify with each other along political lines and are completely intolerant of dissenting viewpoints, plague us and our community to the present day. Today, though, Diatribe pays homage to those who selflessly sacrificed themsleves for Greece in 1940, braving the freezing and appalling conditions of the Albanian mountains, in the name of freedom. To them, this tribute, by Yiannis Ritsos: «Λοιπόν παιδιά μου συλλογιέμαι τώρα μια λέξη να ταιριάζει στο μπόι της λευτεριάς.»


First published in NKEE on 5 November 2007