A glimpse of a true story soon to come to light from a woman whose courage led her to hide two families from not one, but two fascist regimes, during World War II.
“They’re coming! Quick! Go make sure everyone is back in the attic and tell them to be silent!” the neighbour warned Eirini. “They’ll be here any minute! Hurry!!”
Eirini ran back to the house and saw that everyone had come downstairs from the attic to stretch their legs. She couldn’t blame them. After all, the attic was a very small space only having a metre and a half of headroom. It was very dark; no windows to let in any sunshine. Eirini knew the 14 Italian soldiers must be very cramped. Still though, that was the only place she could fit them all. The only place big enough left to hide them. She didn’t blame them for coming downstairs to stretch their legs. She would have been cramped also.
Hurriedly, she got everybody back upstairs into the attic and warned them not to make a single sound or they would all be shot dead on the spot.
The Nazi soldiers patrolling their neighbourhood barged into homes unannounced. Many families who hid Greek Jews or Italians hiding from Mussolini had already been killed. The Nazis spared no one and neither did Mussolini’s army.
“When was this nightmare going to end?” Eirini cried, under her breath. There was no time to think, feel or process anything. Their comfortable life as they knew it disappeared overnight, replaced by terror and fear. Panic had become the new norm as were the atrocities of war that was just plain surreal.
Climbing back down the stairs from the attic, Eirini closed the hatch.
“George! Quick, come and help me push the bookcase close to the wall. It will help hide the entrance into the attic.” Eirini looked into her darling husband’s eyes for reassurance but all she saw was fear. It’s a miracle all those soldiers were even able to fit in the attic at all. They were cramped for sure but at least, still alive….for now.
Prayer, it seems had become the one constant these days. All she could do was pray for all of them not to get caught. It had been 3 weeks since she met the soldier in the market. He tapped her shoulder and Eirini got so scared she dropped her basket filled with vegetables which spewed all over the ground. He begged her to hide him and his team of soldiers. They had escaped the compound where they were all being held to be sent back to Italy. Many Italian soldiers tried to escape. Some were successful and many were shot not having gone very far at all.
“Please! Please! You must help us! If Mussolini finds us, he will kill us all!” he pleaded. “Me too!” she thought to herself but what else could I do? “I can fit you all in the attic but you must promise you will not make one sound! Ela, ela! Come on, quickly! We must hurry!”
Eirini guided the soldiers through backstreet alleys to avoid getting caught by the Nazi soldiers patrolling the streets. Poverty had swept over Athens practically overnight and food had become scarce! How was she ever going to find enough food to feed her family and 4 children let alone the 14 Italians soldiers in the attic not to mention the 3 Greek Jews in the tiny closet in the basement? She felt her heart palpitating and quickly took a few deep breaths. The only thing she could do, was pray. God was her saviour and her strength.
“God will help me find a way; he always does.” She prayed silently. “Please God, keep us safe and get us through this war alive”
Thumping reverberated through her body. The soldiers were outside the front door banging. The sound seemed so loud and all-encompassing. Eirini’s breath caught in her throat as her eyes opened wide in fear.
“Are you hiding anyone?” the Nazi soldier shouted. “Open the door and show me your papers at once! Eirini opened the front door and let them in. Three soldiers rushed in almost knocking her over.
As she turned to walk back inside, she felt the point of a rifle nudging her back. Eirini, spun around with shock in her eyes at the thoughts that must race in their mind as they bullied everyone in their path. She looked the Nazi straight in the eyes with as much courage as she could muster. He was not going to scare me, she thought to herself. At the very least, she was not going to show him how much he intimidated her.
Miltiades, her youngest of 4 sons, peeked from around the corner and was afraid for his mama. His father caught his eye and with one glare and the raise of an eyebrow, sent him back to bed. He ran back to his room and trembled under the blanket with his 3 older brothers. He held back his tears to not alert the Nazi soldiers. “Be strong tsourapo!” his brother said encouragingly. It made him smile when he thought of the nicknames each of his brothers had for one another. The four brothers held hands and prayed that everything would be ok.
One of the soldiers heard a creaking sound. He turned quickly on his heel and asked “I’m going to ask you one more time! Are you hiding anyone?” his voice deep, loud and menacing. He started walking around the house opening and slamming closet doors and cupboards.
“NO! Of course not!! That was my son wanting to make sure we were ok; he went back to bed! For heaven’s sake, why would we hide anyone?! To get killed?! Please leave!” Eirini snapped back.
As the Nazis turned on their heel to leave, one of them noticed Eirini’s small collection of perfume essences her brother in law from France had given her. He swept them up with one hand and started to walk out. Eirini lunged at him and managed to grab 1 of the 4 perfume bottles back. “Those are mine!” She exclaimed and gave him a scowl of a look as she slammed the front door behind him. She calmly walked to the living room and sat down. She was trembling. George was looking at her in disbelief with the way she handled the situation. What if he had just shot them right then and there? He thought to himself… over a bottle of perfume!
“What were you thinking?” he turned to Eirini and asked her questioningly “It’s mine and he didn’t ask!” she replied. “And if he had asked, would you have given it to him?” he continued. Eirini replied with a brisk “NO!” and got up to get ready for bed.
Eirini had a lot of spunk and attitude. George was always worried her smart mouth would get them into trouble! Another day went by and Eirini thought to herself, we survived. Sending prayers of gratitude to God, she exhaled slowly and with a heavy heart lied down to sleep hoping tomorrow would be calmer.
Sitting at the kitchen table, she smoothed her simple black skirt as she often did and crossed her legs. She took another sip of her coffee from her favourite English rose tea cup as she came back to reality and realized she was recounting this story to her grand-daughter who was staring at her with incredulous eyes wide open. Eirini smiled and held her grand-daughter’s face in her hands. This would be one of many stories she would recount to her in the hopes that one day they would be retold.