The Part That Is Great

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Katherine Clark, an American author who has lived for many years on the Cycladic island of Paros, pays tribute to her fellow Parians in THE PART THAT IS GREAT–-GREEK ISLANDS IN BONDAGE 1941-1943, (A TRUE TALE OF GRIT, WIT, PASSION AND PRIDE).

Paros and its much smaller, adjoining island of Antiparos were occupied by Italian military forces in the summer of 1941. The Italian garrison was tiny; its commanders didn’t think there was anything to fear from the few thousand fishermen and farmers who eked out a subsistence life there. But, as Clark states in her incisive and well-told book, “the people of Paros, on the surface cooperative and even friendly with the Italians, remained at heart determined to oust them by aiding the allies. With their own army defeated, and isolated on their island, they had no opportunity for large-scale, crippling acts of resistance. Still, they felt they could make a difference. Anyone could see that their island was strategically situated: halfway between Piraeus and Crete, that stronghold of Greek rebellion. Parians were home on the sea. They had their own fleet of some twenty caiques and the men to sail them, men who knew every shoal and sandbar, every islet and inlet, within two hundred kilometres of Paros. If they couldn’t fight themselves, couldn’t they get the men who could to where they were needed? Indeed they could!”

A resistance cell was formed, led by the patriarchs of the island’s two leading clans and a remarkable man named Ioanni Mihailou Grammatikaki, better known as Hari. Hari had served in the Greek army when it battled the invading Italians in 1940. He and his fellow Cretans in the Fifth Army Division helped repel the Italians, only to be overwhelmed when the German army stepped in and used its superior numbers and mechanized might to subdue the Greeks. Hari was taken prisoner but escaped from an Axis prison camp and took refuge on Paros.

He and his friends hatched a plan to rescue some of the thousands of Cretan soldiers who were trapped on the Greek mainland, hiding in the mountains to avoid capture by the Nazis. The plan involved sending caiques to the mainland and, with the help of local resistance members, picking up the Cretans and bringing them back home.

The risk was great, as Clark explains. “Germany and Italy had all of Greece. Enemy craft and planes patrolled the coasts. If they got caught doing anything but fishing, they would be imprisoned and beaten, possibly shot. Worse, their caiques, their livelihood would be seized and sunk, their families reduced to poverty.”

Greek patriotism and philotimo (personal honor, pride, human dignity) trumped fear. “Freedom or death,” became the resistance’s rallying cry. The plan was set in motion and hundreds of Cretans (and dozens of British guerillas) were rescued. The caiques’ first stop was the small, secluded harbor of Ayios Yiorgos (on Antiparos), where the captains could refuel and the men, many of whom were wounded or ill, could rest up in safety.

“And there was the detail of the taftotitas, their identification papers. If an Axis sea patrol caught the men without proper papers, they would clap them into prison along with the ship’s captain. Could the resistance provide so many taftotitas?”

That was just the start of an operation which ultimately saved nearly three thousand Cretans and British, a record in the chronicles of WW II escapes. It was an operation that kept expanding and improving; within a year Ayios Yiorgos became the Cycladic rendezvous for British submarines. They would slip into the harbor, pick up key personnel and deliver them to Alexandria, headquarters for the Royal Navy and the Greek government in exile.

Everyone knew about the submarine base except for the occupying Italians, Clark writes. “The base was an open secret throughout the summer of 1941, yet not one man, woman or child of the 5,600 people on the two islands gave it away. At least five hundred islanders–-merchants, mule drivers, butchers, bakers, monks, nuns, errand boys, caique captains, sailors, farmers, artisans and all of their wives and children–-came to be involved in the base operation to a greater or lesser extent, either directly or through relatives or friends who knew all about it. Despite the terror of being caught and imprisoned or worse, and despite their own sufferings and deprivations under the occupation, the worst of which was hunger, everyone, really everyone, was passionately enthusiastic and proud as princes of ‘their’ secret base. They believed in the importance of its role in the Allied victory that they prayed for day and night. Every Parian and every Antipariot did all they could to make it work.”

At the heart of the operation (which ultimately was undermined by a foolish and incompetent British naval officer) was the Zorba-like Hari Grammatikaki, “A Cretan sea wolf and strategic genius, a wild man and breaker of hearts, a Greek’s Greek and a patriot to the bone. Few of his generation are alive today, and few of the next know the story of his life. Those who do, know it only in part. Yet it is no exaggeration to hear in his tale echoes of Odysseus and Jason, Achilles and Ajax. For it is a Greek story, and the Cretan sea wolf was heroic in a Greek way. At the same time, as with the ancient Greek epics, his story–-and the islanders’-–speaks to us all, for this Cretan and these islanders chose to follow ‘that part of themselves which is great,’ the part that lives within us all and will rise when summoned, if we only dare.”