A wilful remembering

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.



18 thoughts on “A wilful remembering

    • It is a really horrible story. I also realised after I posted that the title was so similar to your name. A while back, Merrian W wrote to me and said that in her family upon migrating had “a wilful forgetting”. This phrase just tumbled around in my mind. I kept considering it against my own dad’s discussions. My father spoke at length about his life, but only a sparse few times about the events immediately before and after his mother’s death. It wasn’t until I reread his memoir this year that I realised that it wasn’t a forgetting at all but a difficulty in talking about what had happened. He actively had a wilful remembering and keeping her alive. I thought I would give him a hand and keep her alive that little bit more 🙂

  1. ::hug::

    I am so sorry that this terrible act of violence is part of your family’s history.

    Your father inherited his mother’s strength, and passed it on to you.

    • I am astounded at his largesse. It goes well beyond what I have written about here. Maybe one day I will feel comfortable enough to discuss it further. I think all of my grandmother’s grandchildren have this incredible strength about us due to the stories we have been told. I can’t claim to be the only one with it 🙂

    • This is a very powerful remembering of both your grandmother and your father. Your grandmother’s descendants live with grace and love in her light and dignity

  2. Memory eternal to your grandmother. Your father was a true Christian, of the spirit, not just the baptismal water, for living his life the way he did. You’re blessed to have his example for you and your children.

    • Thank you, Kay and I agree. Having his example to not seek retribution at an injustice, but instead just move forward in a positive and helpful spirit gives me strength.

  3. I don’t really have words to respond to this, but I want you to know that it moved me deeply. Human beings can be so terrible to each other, but we can also, sometimes, bring grace out of evil.

    • Thank you. It gives me calm that my dad, his father and his siblings all had grace in their actions. And I don’t doubt that they would say it wasn’t their grace but the Grace of God that helped them (they are all deeply faithful).

  4. I am so deeply touched by the strength of your father’s love for his mother and for his entire family to not be bitter about it but to hold her memory in the light and pass on his love for her to you all. You have written beautifully about her here, and I am astounded how much of her story you know. Your family truly seems to be a keeper of stories.

    • Thank you. Unfortunately, the family knows the details of this event. To my knowledge, though we occasionally speak about what happened, no one has written it all down. I had asked my dad, who wrote constantly, if he was going to write these detail too. His answer was that not every story needs to be told. I really grapple with his response.

        • I am undecided on this. We have two major unthinkable traumas in my family. My grandmother on dad’s side, and my mum’s sister. I have always hesitated to tell the full details to my kids. My sister has not hesitated so I end up telling my sons because I don’t want them finding out from cousin hearsay. They are always quiet and philosophical about it. But I wonder at what stage do you stop telling the details. Who needs to keep carrying those details? Is each retelling recommitting violence against the family? But here’s the thing: my grandmother’s murderer died such a shameful death that his own children refused to go and claim his body. Instead, one of my cousins did it and organised a respectful funeral for him (I did say that this is the making of a family saga – there are reasons why it was appropriate for my cousin to have done this). I remember my dad saying it was the perfect way to honour our grandmother. So I tell my sons the full story. With the happy ending of treating people with honour even if we don’t feel they deserve it.

  5. Thanks for sharing this tragic story, or the little you know of it. So many atrocious things happened In Greece at that time. Have you read Victoria Hislop’s recently published Those who are loved, a book about that period? It isn’t perfect but a good read. I find the YA novels and autobiographical writing of Alki Zei on this time very powerful.

  6. Thank you for sharing this tragic story about your family and for continuing to keep her memory alive.

    Have you read Victoria Hislop’s recent book Those who are loved which covers this period? It isn’t perfect but a good read.

    • Thank you for your kind words. I have only read one Victoria Hislop book but it frustrated me and her tone just didn’t resonate with me. I will try to read Alki Zei. I think I have one of her books at home, otherwise I will find it in the library.

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