WARTIME STORIES CORFU.
By Theresa Nicholas
13th October 1940 The Italians bomb Corfu.
Cristo’s younger brother, Spiros, told me about the bomb falling on their family house in Corfu Old town, which killed this father and the mother. He was about 12, Anna,10 and Marina 16. Dimitri the baby of the family of nine children in all, was about six. The two older sisters were living in Athens with their Aunt. Cristo aged 19/20 was in the Greek Navy.
The family home was the third floor of a four storey house in the Jewish quarter. Spiro was playing in the harbour when the Italian planes flew over the town on a range find run. He ran home.
The mother made the three youngest children Dimitri, Spiro and Anna crawl under the big Victorian sofa in the hall the father had gone down to the basement to see if it was better to take the family down there. The mother had put Marina under a bed, when the bomb fell on the house. After the explosion both Spiro and Dimitri (in their own account of it, described ‘ the silence and the dust’.
Spiro scrabbled about for hours in the rubble. Finally found a small widow. One of the flooring beams had fallen on it , but it was just big enough for the kids to squeeze through. Outside all was chaos, bombs still falling. A little girl was lying badly injured with her intestines hanging out, but still alive. Anna recognised her playmate, picked her up and went off to find help, telling the little boys to stay near the house till she cam back. When she did not come back, and no sign of mother father, the two boys started to walk out of the town towards the piece of farmland the family owned at Perama. Spiro had to carry Dimitri much of the way. The peasants who lived on the land took them in and cared for them. Later on, they were picked up and taken to an orphanage down south of the island, at Moraitika.
The story goes that when the Bank of Greece was hit, good coins and paper money littered the street, but nobody paid attention or picked up a coin.
Meanwhile Marina was s trapped under the bed in the ruins of the house. She was there for 48 hours. And would have died had it not been for a neighbour searching the rubble for his own wife, heard Marina calling and started to pull away the rubble. Others and helped and she was rescued. She had a wound on her leg.
When the older sisters in Athens heard of the devastation in Corfu, Katina undertook the very difficult journey to get back to the island to find out what hand happened to the family. She was about 18 years old. [ the mother had churned out the 9 children one after the other. I not quite sure if Cristo was older or younger than Katina. ] For a young girl to travel across Greece alone in that time was impossible. So she went to the Military Commander of Athens, [ the Germans had not yet invaded Greece] to ask for help to get to Corfu to find out what had happened to her family. He had an office going to Igoumenitza (opposite Corfu) in a jeep and said she could go with him. This is how she met her future husband. He was a Cretan officer in his 30’s. they had to stop for the night at a Doss House, where there were an average of 6 beds to a room. He commandeered the who of one room and made her lock herself in. she described a few minutes later, he knocked on the door, so he could hand her in a chamber pot. I remember her telling me this story and saying ‘ You see what a gentleman he was….’
Back on Corfu she discovered Ann and her aunt sleeping rough in the tunnels of the old Fortress where lots of people took refuge. Marina was in Hospital at Benitzes outside the town. Spiro and Dimitri had been picked up and taken to an orphanage at Messonghi down south of the island, a difficult place to get to in those days. She had an even more difficult journey getting the four children back to Athens – first having to get them onto a caique crossing to the mainland, then up to Jannina – a 12 hour journey through the mountains ( now only 1 ½ hours or less) in a bus filled with wounded soldiers. Then down to Arta and Agrinion and eventually to Athens, days of travelling in appalling condition, and part of the way on mules.
Spiro and Dimitri spent the rest of the wartime occupation years in an Orphanage on the outskirts of Athens. Katina married her Cretan Officer who was posted to Thessalonka, where their first child was born. In 1942 the Germans moved down into Greece. Vardoulakis , her husband was secretly supplying information to the Allies and was important enough for the British to send a submarine secretly to take him off to the middle East when the Germans were out to get him. Katina was arrested with her baby, and taken to the police station for interrogation. She was put in a room unattended for a short while, and managed to escape by climbing out of window. Fearing to be recaptured she gave the baby to a colleague of husband, who undertook to take it down to Athens to her mother -in- law . Katina had to make her way down to Athens by foot, sleeping in Church porches or with people who took her in. In one family, she was surprised to see a photo of her brother, Cristo on the mantelpiece. It turned out that the son of the house was in the Navy with Cristo – and extraordinary co-incidence.
Meanwhile, people were dying in the streets in Athens, from starvation. A lorry would go round at night picking up the bodies. Spiro and Dimitri were in an orphanage of about 50 children. Once down in Athens, Katina would walk the distance between Kipseli on the outskirts of Athens to bring them whatever food she could – just olive oil and bread. On one occasion the two boys desperately hungry had set out to find her. At the same time ,she was walking over to the orphanage. They met midway. As she was pouring olive oil on the bread for them, a shell landed on the hill above where they were and somersaulted down towards them – stopping just 3 meters away without exploding!
As time went on – the Germans now occupying Athens, the woman in charge of the orphanage, desperate for food to give her children went to the German Commander of the nearby camp, challenging him ‘I have 50 children and nothing to give them. They will die if you don’t do something!’ He said , he had only just enough rations to feed is own men. But he did do something. Next day, a huge loaf of bread was delivered to the orphanage. It was cut into 100 pieces so that each child had two pieces each. Spiro said, ’We ate it in tiny pieces to make it last all day.’
One Christmas Eve during this period, the boys were with Katina and Marina with their Aunt in outskirts of Athens, all fields then. Marina was already ill with tuberculosis and would die soon, It was cold and dark, they had no food for Christmas. They huddled up together to keep warm. Suddenly there was a knock at the door. Always afraid of the Germans – who still out to catch Vardoulakis – they dared not open it. The knock came again. Katina went to the window to peep out cautiously, seeing nobody she opened the door a little bit … there on the doorstep was a big basket full of stuff. They dragged it inside to discover it was full of potatoes, onions and a cabbage – things they hadn’t see for a long time. Excited by this they set about preparing supper – when suddenly outside the door they heard someone laugh! They opened the door cautiously again to discover Cristo. He had stolen these things to bring them and played this joke on them by hiding when they opened the door. And so they were able to make a ‘happy’ Christmas. Cristo did not tell me this story. I heard it from Spiro. I asked Spiro when he was born, he said, ’ I don’t know.’ All the papers were destroyed. He knew only the year of his birth as 1928.
It was a long time before the ruins of the houses in Corfu were cleared and the bones of the victims were put in little heaps outside the cemetery with any objects that might identify them. It was in this way Cristo discovered the bones of his parents by recognising his father’s distinctive belt buckle.
When the Italians invaded Corfu , Cristo was in the Greek Navy. But they had no ammunition left, and when being attacked by enemy planes Cristo was so frustrated he said he took is shoe off and threw it at the plane. Then they were ordered to sink their ship so that it would not fall into the enemy’s hands. He described them taking to the lifeboats and having to watch their ship slowly sink . He said it was an unforgettable moment ‘ to see that ship go down.’
After that, they rowed to the shore and every man had to look out for himself. Rather than return to Italian occupied Corfu, he made for Athens where by now the rest of his family were. He must have made the journey mostly on foot, – with only one shoe?
By now the Germans had taken over Athens , he must live by his wits usually stealing petrol and food stuff from the Germans. But, one day, going into the taverna he frequented, he saw a man sitting in the corner who was unmistakably British. He went over to him to warn him, ’The Germs come to this tavern..’ To his surprise the British man was not phased at all, but said, , ’Sit down – have a drink – where do you come from?’ When he said Corfu., the man having sized him up, said, ’ Go back there, keep your eyes and ears open and report back to me – anything you hear or see, even if you don’t think it important enough….’ The man was Major Sankey , one of the British Agents dropped into Greece to organize the Resistance. Cristo said, ’ Okay, but where do I find you?’ The man replied, ’ You will find me…’ Cristo always laughed when telling this story, ’ Him no so stupid as to tell me where I going to find him.’.
He returned to Corfu, and kept his eyes and ears open. And he did find Major Sankey, who was then in hiding with his men up in mountains at Paramythia, on the mainland. To get up there from Corfu meant getting across the water to Igoumenitza, and then setting out to walk up into the mountains, or hitch a lift on a cart or even a German lorry – collecting oranges. He described sitting on a load of oranges, and helping himself to them.
[* I was told by someone else that the Germans collected to oranges in such loads to use the skins to make explosives from the zest. (? ]
He had to pass through several check points but he knew enough German to get by, as his Grandmother, the Countess de Veija – (a Countess in her own right) often spoke German to her grandchildren. And of course he had a very engaging personality. He could always find a way to communicate – as he did later with tourists.
On one occasion he was taken into the police station and they started burning his hands with cigarettes to make him talk, but as he said, ’ I make the party of the Stupid, and eventually they let him go. Knowing they would watching him the moment he got outside, he went straight to the taverna beside the Police Station and stayed there. His policy was never to try and run – so he sat there until he could be pretty sure they had lost interest in him, – as obviously ’a stupid one’.
Eventually he continued his journey. He became adept at making this journey to take information up to Major Sankey. He described being with this group of men when they had no food and Major Sankey was unperturbed as they sat round a fire, he was making jokes. ’How I loved that man!’ Cristo would say. He had great respect and affection for the British he met during that time.
Back in Corfu, Cristo and his cronies were adept at pilfering petrol and supplies from the occupiers, and selling them such things as rotten olive oil and wine. Frequently he had to ‘lie low’ in one of the villages before daring to come back into town. On one occasion he was hiding out with a village family, when a search party arrived. Quickly he had to be hidden, so they popped him – (a skinny young man) into bed with the invalid grandmother, a huge whale of a woman . He tucked himself down behind her bum which she made so much moaning and wailing, the search party gave a quick look into the room and went away.
The Italians used Paxos as an open prison. Nuisances like Cristo were sent there but left to fend for themselves, living off the charity of the community. But they were free. They could not escape easily, as all the boats were commandeered , and to swim the channel between the two island was dangerous because of the dangerously swift current and the fear of sharks. The only way to be repatriated to Corfu was to be seriously ill, or injured. Another Greek who was a secret agent persuaded Cristo to smash his hand with a stone so he would have to be taken to the hospital, and he escaped from there.
Cristo preferred to wait for his own luck to present itself – which it did remarkably one stormy night when three caiques put into Gaios harbour because of the stormy weather. Cristo always hanging out in a tavern on the quay, immediately saw that there were German officers on board with the Greeks as crew. At that time, the Germans were using local caiques to bring provision and weapons down the Adriatic to avoid being attacked by the Allied planes defending the British convoys in the Med.
Cristo immediately went out to Greek them in German, inviting them into the taverna. He quickly told the woman to kill a chicken and get whatever they had on the table, and the ouzo. Plying the Germans with ouzo they soon singing German drinking songs,.. It was a great night. It would appear that these German were unaware that the Italians were using this island as an open prison, because one of the officers asked Cristo what he was doing there. Cristo said he was a commercial traveller, who, like themselves had been caught by the bad weather and unable to get away. ‘Komm mitt uns!’ the officer insisted, and at six o’clock next morning, he cleared off with them. They dropped on the mainland and from there he made his way to Athens again. ‘You see!’ he would say triumphantly when telling this story, ‘I use the Germans to escape from the Italians!’
Driving along the sea road in a storm one night in the ‘sixties, reminded Cristo of a similar night in1943, when a German ship went aground just before Mandouki ( where the shipyard is now). The crew came ashore and camped in tents. Cristo went to investigate the situation and see what opportunities it might offer, a chance to steal or barter or he might hear some useful information to be passed on. So he went along to investigate and found one of the men moaning and groaning with a terrible toothache. Cristo took charge of the situation by taking him to a friend of his who was a dentist. The poor German was so grateful to be rid of his tooth, he was eager to know how to replay Cristo. Cristo immediately asked for a crate or two of Pilsner beer. He knew they would have plenty of that on board. The German eagerly laded him up with 4 crates. Cristo had find a hand cart to carry. It. Of course, he always shared the stuff he managed to acquire by foul means or fair among his friends and their families. Often when we were in company with locals who had experienced the wartime, they would say,’ Oh, I remember when Cristo brought us real macaroni made with egg..’ Some had been only children at the time when food was so scarce that people were dying of starvation.
The story of the hand: Cristo always on the alert for an opportunity would hang about the harbour for the chance to sneak on board some ship to steal anything he could lay hands on. He was not the only one. One day he was at one end of the harbour sizing up the possibilities of getting on board a damaged ship just brought in. Another chap called Pericles was doing the same at the other end of the harbour. Knowing what each was about, they strolled toward each other and pretended to share their expert assessment – both agreed that this new one was not worth trying. But, after dark, Cristo and his accomplice rowed out to the ship, approaching under the bows, there would only be one sentry on duty. Cristo ,wiry as a cat, crawls up the anchor chain and slithers into an open hatch finding himself in a locker area. He is feeling around in the pitch dark when he touches another human hand! Before he can react a voice whisper, ‘Cristo! It’s me – Pericles!’ They join forces to clear whatever then can stealthily into their waiting boats and make their getaway.
In the ‘Sixties, Pericles hawked souvenirs and carpets in the harbour to tourist coming on ferries and cruise ships. Whenever they encountered each other in the harbour, Cristo and Pericles would acknowledge each other simply by the raising of one hand.
The deportation of the Corfu Jews. 1944’
For Centuries there has been a colony of Jews in Corfu, but it wasn’t until 1944 during the last phase of the German occupation that they were rounded up to transported to Athens and then to the German death camps. It was only a matter of time once the Germans were in charge, so that the Jew who owned the Olive Oil factory – Cristo and he had grown up together – asked Cristo to help him get away from the island – not an easy thing to do. Cristo’s plan was to take him up to the north coast which was not so carefully watched. There he hoped to steal a boat, They put the Jew’s luggage, some food and water on a donkey, dressed themselves as villagers, to make the journey by foot to the north of the island. It took them two days, and they had to pass through several check points – that is why his friend had asked him to help. When they came to a checkpoint Cristo told him not to look miserable or frightened, ‘Look cheerful and leave the rest to me….’
Cristo would take the initiative immediately, opening the conversation with the soldier on duty in his German, asking for cigarettes and making a joke. They got through without any difficulty, and managed to find an unattended boat. When it was dark, he put his friend in with his belonging and the Jew then started rowing to Italy!
Having seen his friend off, Cristo had to return through the same checkpoints. Now he was alone. The Germans were not easily fooled took him in for questioning. Where is the other man?
‘How should I know?’ says Cristo assuming innocence. ‘We only make the journey for company. Probably he’s in bed with a woman. You want me to follow him there?’ His coolness and cheek got him through many a tight spot.
He survived to return to Corfu after the war, so we know the end of his story. He stopped the first night at one of the small islands at the top of Corfu. And then set his course rowing for the heel of Italy. The allies had landed in Italy by then, so he had the chance of joining up with them.
It must have been shortly after this incident that the Jewish Colony was indeed rounded up to be sent to the death camps.
According to Cristo, the German in charge of the island ,Hauptman Gumm , was not a bad man. (Cristo had been hauled up in front of him, several times but let off) He had been ordered to round up the Jewish colony but had dragged his feet on it – until a special force of SS were sent to the island to do the job in 24 hours. The Jews were herded like cattle up to the Platiea.
Cristo was making his way through the old town towards the Platiea to see what was happening, when a 12 year old Jewish boy came running down the street toward him. He had managed to break away. Cristo! Cristo! Help me!. Cristo having grown up in the Jewish quarter of Corfu town knew the Jews well. He took the boy to a friends house where they hid him. Then Cristo went on up to the Platiea, where all the Jews were. He described a woman with her baby screaming in her arms. – and a Gauleiter going up tearing the baby from her and dashing it on the ground. Cristo who had been joined by his cronies, said ‘ Remember that man’s face – we’ll get him….’
They did. Cristo with his gift of engaging with anybody, worked on this Gauleiter. The Germans in the last phase of the occupation were short of things like cigarettes, and booze – Cristo offered to bring this man to a tavern where he could get cigarettes and also a woman. The German accepted the rendezvous. In the tavern, he started asking ‘But where is the woman?’ Cristo said – ‘She’s in the room back there – you’ll see .. just put your head round the door……don’t frighten her… ’ When the German did put his head around the door, they quickly pulled it shut and choked him to death. His body went over the sea wall at the edge of the old town.
The old town called Campiello is a warren of narrow alleyways. Cristo said it was their safe haven. Neither the Italians or Germans dared penetrate it – it made them instantly vulnerable.
It must have been before the Corfu Jews were rounded up, that Cristo was taken in a street sweep in Athens (it must have been) by the Germans and was put on the train transporting the Jews to the Death Camps. They were in cattle trucks with one guard on the open doorway. They were packed in like sardines but Cristo managed to work his way round until he was right behind the sentry.
The last stop within Greece was Thessalonica. Greeks knowing what these trains meant, came down to the station with any food they could spare to the victims. So the station was full of people. Just before the train began to move again, the sentry turned to deal with another person, Cristo – knowing it was his last chance, jumped out on to the platform, but instead of trying to run for it, he stayed in the crowd. Just then the train pulled out. After this he would have had to make his way back to Athens and eventually Corfu – mostly by foot.
But one of his childhood friends picked up in the same circumstances, was not so lucky. He spent 2 years in Dachau.
During the last stage of the German occupation German soldiers began to defect. Cristo became one of the contacts for these deserters. Two Germans came to him one day asking for asylum. He was suspicious of them because he noticed the bulge under their jackets which meant they were carrying guns. He took them into a nearby taverna, sat them down, told the tavern-keeper to bring them wine. On the pretext of needing the Loo, he disappeared behind the wooden screen dividing the taverna into two sections. In fact many of these town taverns had doors onto two alleys, back and front. It was a very useful thing when escaping from the occupiers, to dive into one tavern and out by the other door, you could change three alleyways in a matter of seconds, and escape the pursuers. This is what he did, leaving by the other door onto the next alley, he left them. ‘So many times I escape this way…’ When the Germans realised they had been duped, they smashed the taverna. Cristo’s instinct had been right – they were not genuine defectors but out to trick him. But he was an arch trickster with plenty of experience.
The war over, Cristo was in Athens working at the Hassani Airport at least for three months and received excellent references from the British in charge.
“To whom it may concern. This will introduce Christos Vlahopoulos who has been working with us at Hassani Airfield for the past three months. During this time his work has been completely satisfactory and brought no complaint from his superiors or the passengers who he served. I am sure anyone who employees him will find him a willing worker and a valuable asset. “ dated 23rd March 1946. Athens.
But he could never stay away from his island for long – though people were emigrating to find work in America, Australia – even Germany.
Back on Corfu: Cristo had survived the war by living by his wits – and a lot of luck. Now he had to survive the peace by creating jobs for himself. He became an unofficial Ship’s chandler selling to the British ships that now came again to the island. He had picked up enough English by now from the British troops stationed on the island at the end of the war. But having no money to buy the stuff to sell to the ships, he would ask if they had any spare tea of coffee to give him. ’Oh, yest, plenty’ and would be given a couple of pounds of tea and coffee. Tea and coffee were pure gold. Nonexistent in Corfu at that time. He could sell the tea and coffe and get the money to buy the supplies to sell to the ships.
On one occasion, his quick eye noticed a pile of empty bottles in a corner of th galley. ’What will you do with those bottles?’ he asked the Ship’s cook. ’We’ll chuck them overboard when we get out to sea.’ ‘Can I take them away for you?’ ’Yes, take them…’ Again this was pure gold. Empty bottles were at a premium for wine and the olive oil. A bottle would fetch 5 drachs . [Even when I came to the island in 1061, and empty bottle was worth 5 drachs. People brought their own bottles to be filled with wine , ouzo or olive oil.] So he filled his small boat with the bottles and was rich.
A post war encounter. In the old Tavern one evening, Cristo suddenly recognised a man he hadn’t seen from the days of the occupation. He and Cristo greeted each other as brothers. When we had left the company, Cristo said, ‘I save that man’s life. He and I shared a room hiere in the town during the German occupation. The Germans caught him and were taking him to the prison. I was coming up the street, he shoted ot me, ‘ They’ve got me!’ ‘Leave it to me, ‘ I said, – Germans not understanding any Greek. Cristo went into action distracting the Germans by trying to tell them something, enough for the man to break away and run off. They did not recapture him, but they arrested his brother and shot him. The man had been betrayed to the Germans by a woman in ‘Love spite’. After the war, the man returned to the island and shot her.
Another post war encounter was with Sammy, the Jewish boy he had helped during the rounding up of the Jewish population by the Germans. Cristo was in Thymis Ouzerie one morning. A young man – obviously a tourist – kept gazing at him . ‘I thought him one of those stupid ones…’ until suddenly the young man said, ‘Cristo! Don’t you remember me? I’m Sammy – you helped me 1944.…’
After hiding the boy in a friend’s house, they had to get him off the island by stealing a boat to row him across to the mainland. There the boy had to carry on alone. But he survived, and after the war got to Israel and was now an officer in the Israeli Navy. This was his first time revisiting the island of his birth. He was so happy to find Cristo. We took him with every evening and he was very happy.
1963. Driving up to Jannina on the scooter. It was the first time I had been on the mainland. The road mounting in hairpin bends through row upon row of mountains, each one highte and higher. Fantastic views. It was the main road to Athens but there was so little traffic in those days , mostly sheep and goats. Cristo was shouting, ’What happens in these places in the war time you don’t imagine!’ He had spent 18 months in these regions. Oh, what I have to remember! In that a village Vrosina, many die in a battle to stop the Germans crossing the river. I see a woman to kill a German by holding his head under the waer. Everyone fighting – the old men, the old women, the young ones. They fight with knives and sticks. That was the battle of Vrosina.
Isolated memorials stand on the stark hillsides to verify these battles.Return To The Life and Works of Theresa Nicholas