My paternal grandmother, Vassiliki Chrysikou Sveronis died 75 years ago on the 18th of August, 1944. She died well before it was her time. She was 44 years old and 7 months pregnant with her 12th child when she was violently murdered. This was just as World War II was ending and the Greek Civil War was starting. She got caught up in left/right wing hate acts. I know the details of the politics of the time. But I don’t want to focus on them. The focus here is remembering my grandmother.
I was 16 when I found out how she had died. I had nightmares for weeks.
My grandmother’s body has never been found. She was never given a funeral. She has no resting place that is known to her family.
Details of her town square lynching slowly reached different members of her family. I piece together the bits that my aunts and uncles have told me to the pieces that my dad knew. The events are so complex. There are many twists and turns, gasps and shock that would be incredulous even in a family saga. I will only write of a few.
A month ago, my older sister visited my dad’s oldest sister. She is 97 years old. She still gets distraught when she speaks of her “Manoula’s” death. My sister had to change the subject to calm my distraught aunt. My sister told me a new detail a few weeks ago that shocked and horrified me even more. It is worse that you can imagine. I have flinched at least once a day at the thought of her torture.
25 years and a month after my paternal grandmother was killed, I was born and named after her. I have 3 other cousins who were also named for her.
On the 50th anniversary of my grandmother’s murder, I travelled to the monastery where my grandmother had been the cleaner and from where she had left to walk home, a trek of over 31 kilometres through mountains. It was her last walk. My father had given me money to hold a memorial service for my grandmother at the monastery. Two of my aunts and several of my cousins attended. I then travelled to my Dad’s village up in the Agrafa mountains.
I was unable to go to Greece for the 75th anniversary, as I had always planned for this date. So instead, I will commemorate her in writing.
I am unable to find any evidence of my grandmother in any institutional or archived records that I have searched. We have no material reminders of her. She was so poor that there were no clothes, no jewels, not even one photograph of her. But my grandmother lives on in her offspring. Her 8 children who survived to adulthood (2 who passed away – my uncle in 1980 and my dad in 1994), 28 grandchildren (two deceased), 48 great-grandchildren and numerous great-great-grandchildren. My grandmother’s DNA lives in teachers, accountants, nurses, researchers, corporates, readers, dancers, photographers, engineers, football fans and so many other wonderful hard-working progeny living in both Greece and Australia.
In his unpublished memoirs, my dad wrote that he was driven to survive his cancer by his need to keep alive the stories his mother told him. He said that it was his mother that taught him how to lose himself in prayer, and his love for religion. He loved his mother so much, that when his parents would argue over who should cook – my grandmother feeling ashamed to be the only woman in the village with a husband who regularly cooked – my father sided with his mum, much to his father’s despair. My dad described his mother as a tall woman, with dark hair and dark eyes, she had skin tags her neck. She had high cheekbones, a distinctive look that all her daughters have, and many of her grand-daughters and great-granddaughters.Those glorious cheekbones! I may carry her name, I may have some skin tags, but I do not have those coveted cheekbones! In a village where the women where known by the feminine version of their husband’s name, my grandmother was the only woman to be called by her own name. I imagine that only a strong and fierce woman could stand up to a tradition that turned women into a man’s possession once she married, never to hear her name again. Only my grandmother kept her identity.
My father and his father tried to get take the man who committed my grandmother’s murder to court. My father told me that the judge at the preliminary hearing stated that she was not a war crime but that she was a victim of war. The man was not tried. The evidence my father had was that my dad had gone in search of his mother. He was 16. He approached the home of a distant relative to ask if they knew where she was. Instead of replying, the man and his wife took to my dad with a fence paling. As they were beating my dad up, villagers ran up to him, dragged dad away and he heard someone shout “You killed his mother, we will not let you kill him too”. My father then passed out from the pain. This was his only proof.
Years later, my father discovered that the man and his wife had also migrated to Australia. They also lived in our suburb. When I found out that my dad would unfortunately occasionally see this man, I asked him how he coped. Dad shrugged. “We lost the court case. So I had to decide. Do I lead my life with hate. Or do I memorialise my mum with love.” I remember him pausing.
“I chose love.”
I do too.