Profile: Demetrios Psaltakis Escape from WWII Greece
By Catherine Tsounis
“For the sake of historical truth I must verify that only the Greeks, of all the adversaries who confronted us, fought with bold courage and highest disregard of death..” (From speech he delivered to Reichstag on 4 May 1941). October 28th is the day Modern Greece saved Democracy. The hardship took a toll on the civilian population, with 300,000 casualties. James (Demetrios) Psaltakis of the Panchiaki Korais Society, Inc. told us about his WWII experience in occupied Chios at the exceptional Centennial on the occasion of its 100th Anniversary, 1912-2012.
“I was a child in occupied Chios, during WWII,” he said. “There was no food. There was ‘Pina’ (starvation) in Chios. People were dying in the street. My Mother was alone, raising us on the island. My Father immigrated in 1938 to the United States. In those years, the men would work in America. Money was sent to their families behind in Greece to have a better way of life. We could not communicate from 1939 to 1942 with my Father. We were stranded in WWII Greece.”
“My Mother knew we had to escape from Chios,” he said. “She knew if we go to Egypt, we would be saved. Her brother was in Egypt. We never got to Egypt. We went instead to Tseme, Turkey.” Tseme, modern day Cesme, is about seven miles away from Chios.
Mr. Psaltakis explained “from Tseme we went to Cyprus. We stayed in Cyprus from 1942-1945. My Father managed to send us money to live in Cyprus. In 1946, we immigrated to America to join our Father.” Alex Koutsoubis of Panchiaki Korais Society, Inc. has a similar story. His parents escaped from Chios, went to Tseme, Turkey and then immigrated to Cyprus during WWII. Mr. Koutsoubis was born in 1945 Cyprus.
Mr. Psaltakis continued this human interest story to us by saying “in 1951, I went to Germany, because I was drafted in the United States Army. I went to Greece three times. On the third time, I married my wife, Stella. Ours is a love match in heaven. We were married on August 15th in Chios. Recently we returned to Chios and renewed on wedding vows.”
Mr. Psaltakis, amd Mr. Koutsoubis survived and Immigrated to America. According to Wikipedia, Chios “during World War II,…(Chios) was occupied by Nazi Germany (1941–44), resulting in deprivation for the inhabitants. The larger part of the Jewish population had left earlier in the century, but as in all Nazi-occupied territories, the Jewish community was hunted down for arrest and trans-shipping to concentration camps for extermination. In 1943, the local government (of Chios) warned the Jewish population of the island that the Gestapo had orders to arrest them all and take them to Germany. Some families heeded the warning and were smuggled off the island. The remainder were taken by the Gestapo and nothing more is known of their fate; they are assumed to have perished in one of the Nazi extermination camps.” For more information, visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chios. This page was last modified on 13 October 2012.
Another source, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_(Greece) describes the “Great Famine” as “a period of mass starvation during the Axis occupation of Greece, World War II (1941–1944). The local population suffered greatly during this period, while the Axis Powers initiated a policy of large scale plunder. Moreover, requisitions together with the Allied blockade of Greece, the ruined state of the country’s infrastructure and the emergence of a powerful and well-connected black market, resulted in the Great Famine, with the mortality rate reaching a peak during the winter of 1941–1942. The great suffering and the pressure of the Greek Diaspora eventually forced the British to partially lift the blockade, and from the summer of 1942, the International Red Cross was able to distribute supplies in sufficient quantities; however, the situation remained grim until the end of the occupation.”
The article continues saying “In general, the Axis powers viewed conquered nations as sources of raw materials, food and labor. As a matter of policy, subjugated nations were to provide material support to Germany and Italy. According to this principle, already from the outset of the occupation, German and Italian troops initiated a policy of wide-scale plunder of everything of value. Moreover, pillage, torture, executions, and civilian massacres throughout Greece were also part of the Axis agenda during the years of occupation….
The nutritional situation became critical in the summer of 1941 and in the fall turned into a full-blown famine. Especially in the first winter of occupation (1941–1942) food shortage was acute and famine struck especially in the urban centers of the country. Food shortage reached a climax and a famine was unavoidable. During that winter the mortality rate reached a peak,while according to British historian, Mark Mazower, this was the worst famine the Greeks experienced from ancient times. Bodies of dead persons were secretly abandoned in cemeteries or at the streets. In other cases bodies were found days after the death had taken place. The sight of emaciated dead bodies was commonplace in the streets of Athens…
As of 2011, the idea that a German chancellor will impose strict austerity measures on Greece as part of the financial debt crisis that the country faces, cannot be tolerated by a large number of Greeks. In fact, many Greek citizens still believe that Germany owes Greece reparations for acts committed during World War II, including those that led to the Great Famine and the massacres committed by German troops, activities that caused hundreds of thousands of Greek citizens to lose their lives.” Citations include: Laird Archer, Balkan Journal (W.W.Norton: New York, 1944), p. 196-199; Johannes, Bähr (2005). Das Europa des “Dritten Reichs” : Recht, Wirtschaft, Besatzung; Hionidou, Violetta (2011). “What do starving people eat? The case of Greece through oral history”. Continuity and Change. Continuity and Change 26 (01): 113–134 and other sources.
A person, who wishes to remain anonymous, related this experience in WWII Athens. Their gardener in a suburb of Athens died during the Famine, leaving three children. His widow did not have money to bury him. His/her Mother and a neighbor asked the Cemetery keeper to dig a grave and they would wheel the body for burial. Payment was a small bottle of olive oil. The two women wheeled the deceased in a garden cart. The cemetery keeper opened the gates and showed them a freshly dug grave. He took the blanket off and threw the dead body in the grave. The Keeper said, “Where he (the dead gardener) is going cannot be worse than where he came from.” Every Greek family has oral history.
The WWII Greek experience is best described by Aeschylus’ quote that “BECAUSE ONLY WE (THE GREEKS), CONTRARY TO THE BARBARIANS, NEVER COUNT THE ENEMY IN BATTLE.”
Photo 1 – Mt. Psaltakis with wife Stella (center) and Maria Barsamian.
Photo 2- James (Demetriod) Psaltakis.
Photo 3 – Alex Koutsoubis.