Greek village remembers Nazi massacre amidst reparations row
Greece is seeking reparations from Germany for Nazi atrocities as country's debt crisis continues
Distomo's orphans are mostly in their 70s or 80s now. But the children they once were and their startled sense of loss are not far beneath the lines on the faces that have deepened with time and anguished memories that still cling.
Argyris Sfountouris sits on a park bench in Athens, easily casting his mind back into the shadows of the Nazi occupation of Greece even though he was just four when members of Hitler's Waffen SS arrived in the village of Distomo on June 10th, 1944.
"We were with my father and my sisters in the house after Germans had ordered, about 12 o'clock in the morning, that we should wait in our houses," he says. "The Germans were going house to house hunting for partisans and weapons."
His family lived opposite the town school and when the Germans executed 12 Greek men there, Argyris heard it.
"I saw the first light and then the terrible noise [of the machine guns]. Then we understood – or my father understood first of all – that they were starting to kill people and we heard strong steps in the yard."
Argyris's father told the children to hide while he went to investigate. They never saw him again. When they went to look for him, a German soldier spotted them on the street and motioned them back inside.
"Another one would have probably killed us," Argyris says of the soldier. "That would not be an exception. There [were] a lot of children dead."
His mother was killed trying to reach the village, slaughtered along with more than 200 other men, women and children: some bayoneted, some hanged and the village priest beheaded.
'A complex debt'
Villages like Distomo have long campaigned for war reparations from Germany, and their efforts have been given a boost by the new government of Alexis Tsipras, elected in January.
He's set up a war reparations committee and has raised the issue with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel during meetings held against the backdrop of the Eurozone debt crisis.
"Since everyone is opening accounts and they are counting what we owe them, we should see what is owed to us," says Maria Kanellopoulou, a member of Parliament from Tsipras's Syriza party and a member of the war reparations committee.
"It's a complex debt," she says, "It has a moral side and a material side."
The Greek government says Germany owes $389 billion for looting and atrocities committed by the Nazis in the 1940s. That includes $14.3 billion for a forced loan that essentially made the Greeks pay for their own occupation by Germany.
Germany says it has already paid its historical obligations to Greece in previous treaties and agreements.
And critics accuse the Tsipras government of looking for inappropriate bargaining chips in negotiations over Greek debt relief in which Germany is playing a lead role.
"I think the way we're trying to use our history to obtain some debt forgiveness…it's very problematic. Morally and politically," says Aristides Hatzis, a professor at the University of Athens.
'I kept thinking she was coming back'
Argyris wound up in an orphanage in Athens with 1, 000 other children from other parts of Greece. After a few years there, he was sent to Switzerland and another institution.
The bones of his parents and the other victims, of what was one of the worst atrocities of the Second World War by the Nazis in Greece, are kept in an ossuary above the village of Distomo.
A small museum houses images of every one of the victims including a famous photo that appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in November 1944. It shows a sorrow-filled woman draped in black.
Another of Distomo's orphans, John Sfountouris (no relation to Argyris), grizzled with age, sings a song about the women of Distomo who wear black, too young to wear mourning.
His voice is startling and clear, all the deep grief of the village seeming to well up within it.
He was ten at the time of the massacre. His mother, Frances, 42, was killed by machine-gun fire on the outskirts of Distomo.
"I kept thinking she was coming back" he says, adding that he'll never forget the night after the killings, hiding in the mountains with his sister and hundreds of others.
"Everybody was afraid […]. Everyone was screaming, looking for mother, looking for sister, looking for husband. Looking for wife."
John says he'd like to see Germany offer Greece a little more understanding in their present circumstances. "They (sic) supposed to realize and give us help. Give us a hand."
Distomo's Canadian connection
On June 10th, the residents of Distomo will commemorate the 71st anniversary of the massacre. Those who lived through it say they don't tire of telling the story, however painful, because it's important that the memory live on.
Nitsa Nikolaou-Sfountouri survived as a young girl by jumping out a window when the SS soldiers arrived at her house. They killed her parents and two sisters aged 3 and 6.
Nitsa also found herself in an orphanage. She says one of the few things that kept her going were the letters and care packages she received from a Canadian school teacher named Agnes Torrance and her students in Delaware, Ont., who had "adopted" her.
Clothing, school supplies, food packages would all arrive in the mail.
"It wasn't just the material help. The joy they gave me was more valuable. And the interest they showed in me that no one in my own country showed. That's how it was," she says sitting in her small apartment in the village.
Nitsa Nikolaou-Sfountouri would like to reconnect with her Canadian pen pals. If you recognize any of the girls in the photo below or knew Agnes Torrance of Delaware, Ont., please contact email@example.com.
Nitsa says the letters continued right up until the day she was married. She has them still in a cardboard box. A friend who spoke English would read them to her when she was younger.
All these years later she's lost touch with the people who helped buoy her spirits at such a dark time. She says she'd like nothing more than to find them somehow again, pulling out a picture of some of the students with their names written on the black and white photo.
Debt crisis prodding old wounds
The German occupation of Greece was extraordinarily brutal. Some 300,000 people starved to death, 40,000 were executed and more than 1 million people made homeless.
The stories of Distomo's suffering, and that of other towns and villages that suffered the same fate, are etched into the psyche of the country. And the animosity that has grown between Greece and Germany over the debt crisis has indeed prodded old wounds.
But the survivors say their demands transcend politics.
Argyris, very sickly in the years after he lost his parents and some 30 other members of his family, was never adopted.
Today he is an active campaigner on the war reparations issue, an act of remembrance he says he has carried with him since he was a child.
"In the fount of my soul … most of all … how can I say … I thought that my survival was not a present but a duty for me so that I can speak about that later."