Damian Mac Con Uladh

Posts Tagged ‘Greek history’

Remembering the Greek refugees in Aleppo by helping the Syrian refugees in Athens

In Greece on 25 November 2014 at 10:28 am
Greek refugees at Aleppo (Photo: Library of Congress)

Greek refugees at Aleppo (Photo: Library of Congress)

My article in yesterday’s Irish Times on the protest of Syrian refugees on Syntagma Square in Athens generated a mixed response on Facebook, where, among other places, I posted it on the page of the sadly defunct Athens News.

The Syrians, among them dozens of children, including a baby, have completed their sixth night sleeping outdoors. Yesterday, a number of them commenced a hunger strike. They want Greece to allow them continue their journey to other EU countries where many have family or know they will receive protection.

From the comfort of their keyboards, a number of commenters on the Athens News page expressed their view on why Syrians deserve no help from Greece, with common arguments being that Syrians are somehow incompatible with Greece or Europe for religious reasons (an opinion shared by a number of expatriate Greeks) or that Syrians should seek refugee with neighbouring “Arab/Muslim” countries. It seems they are unaware of the facts: the statistics show that the vast majority of Syrian refugees have sought refuge in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

One commenter, possibly from Syria, reminded them, however, that there was time when Greeks sought refugee in Syria by posting a photograph from the Library of Congress photo archive. The undated photo, entitled “Greek refugees at Aleppo”, shows a group of raggedly dressed people, young boys to the fore, lined up, waiting to be fed. In the foreground, a woman, with a can of some sorts at her feet, stands next to a cart on which something is being cooked. Underneath the scanned photo, what’s left of a caption states “12,000 Greeks were fed by the Americans”.

A close-up of the photo (Library of Congress)

Whose ancestors are they? A close-up of the photo (Library of Congress)

According to one account of the forced exchange of population between Greece and Turkey (full book here), as agreed under the 1923 Lausanne treaty, there were 17,000 Greek refugees from Asia Minor in various Syrian cities. So grave was the situation, that in August 1923, the head of the Greek refugees in Aleppo cabled the foreign ministry in Athens, requesting that it prohibit any more Greeks from reaching the city, where “it has become impossible to admit further refugees”.

The situation in general for Greek refugees in the summer of 1923 was described as “tragic and precarious”, which is also the case for the Syrians on Syntagma, as these photos show:

No doubt, just as the Syrian refugees protesting in Syntagma don’t want to be in Greece, the Greek refugees in 1923 did not want to be in Syria. They wanted to reach Greece, a country most of them had never seen but hoped would at least put them out of danger.

Reaching Greece did offer them protection, even though many of the refugees would admit that they were subjected to discrimination by the indigenous population for years after their arrival. People like Katina, one former refugee from Asia Minor, who days before her death at the age of 92 in 2010 recalled how her destitute family was treated when they reached Greece: “They [the neighbours] wouldn’t give us any coal. Yes, there was a lot of racism.”

In 2014, it’s obscene that refugees fleeing a brutal war should be sleeping on the streets of a European capital city. This is Europe’s shame and the Syrians deserve better.


Pain of the Polytechnic still very much felt in Norway

In Greece on 17 November 2014 at 10:18 am
At the gates of the Polytechnic: Liv Kari Engeland during her visit to Athens this summer, her third such trip (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

At the gates of the Polytechnic: Liv Kari Engeland during her visit to Athens this summer, her third such trip (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

Around this day every year, the names of the 24 people who died in the 1973 Polytechnic uprising are read aloud in schools or published in the press. One of those names is that of Norwegian Toril Margrethe Engeland.

Apart from her family and sister in Norway, who still grieve for her four decades after her death, few still remember how she died.

For years, the short biographical paragraph of what was known about Toril, accompanied by a black and white photograph of a dark- and long-haired 22-year-old with a Mona Lisa smile, has remained unchanged. According to this information, she was a tourist who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, shot by a stray bullet while returning from the cinema.

Toril Margrethe Engeland (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

Toril Margrethe Engeland (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

The scant information available was enough for some to argue that she – like the other Polytechnic victims – never existed, except as phantoms in some leftwing conspiracy.

“It’s understandable that people from the junta would say that back then, but that people say it today is very strange,” says Toril’s sister, speaking from her home in Molde, 500km northwest of Oslo.

Liv Kari Engeland was 18 when her parents received the dreadful news that Toril was shot dead on the evening of 16 November 1973 near the Polytechnic.

The Engeland children: Liv on the left and Toril, with her brother Per on her knee, on the right (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

The Engeland children: Liv on the left and Toril, with her brother Per on her knee, on the right (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

Born on 4 March 1951, Toril was the eldest of three children of Per Reidar Engeland, a telephone company engineer, and his wife Helga Margrethe. A son, Per Helge, was the third child, born a decade after Toril. The pecking order ensured the sisters were closer, a connection that developed as they got older.

Liv recalls that she was in awe of her older sister: “She had a strong sense of justice, both in the family and also in the world. She very much people liked meeting people from other countries. She admired Martin Luther King and black people very much, and that’s something I’ve taken from her.”

But her sister emphasises that Toril wasn’t outspoken or involved in student activism. She was rather shy and reserved. She didn’t have many friends during her time at Oslo University, where she was studying art history. She recalls that she was into jazz and the music of Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Joan Baez and Mikis Theodorakis.

Liv last saw her around New Year’s 1973, in Oslo.

One of Toril's paintings (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

One of Toril’s paintings (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

To Greece

Toril had arrived in Greece in May 1973, after visiting Italy. She was due to sit her final university exams in Olso that term. But she was restless.

“The idea was just to go to the north of Italy and see a lot of art by visiting museums. Then I think she met some Americans and went with them to Corfu, where she may have spent Easter, and from there to Athens. But that wasn’t her original plan,” her sister recalls.

Travel wasn’t something new. She’d been to the US for ten weeks with her mother after graduating from high school and later spent a semester at the Sorbonne in Paris learning French.

Toril (right) and boyfriend Mohamed Ahmed Salem (second from right) (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

Toril (right) and boyfriend Mohamed Ahmed Salem (second from right) (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

Once in Athens, she stayed in a youth hostel located on Alexandras Avenue, where she soon started going out with a guy who worked behind the desk, Mohamed Ahmed Salem, who was from Saudi Arabia.

“I think he helped her when she ran out of money,” her sister recalls, particularly after her work as an au-pair with an Athens family – she minded and taught English to a five-year-old girl and her younger brother – ended.

Toril's student ID from her time at the Sorbonne (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

Toril’s student ID from her time at the Sorbonne (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

Toril kept her family informed of where she was; she generally wrote letters home to her parents and Liv while her mother called whenever she had a contact number. As it would happen, the last time she spoke to her mother – who is hale and hearty at 90 – was on the morning she was killed.

“Toril didn’t know if she was coming home, or if she would stay longer, or if she would travel further. She had a little dream of going to Israel, but we didn’t know what she was planning and neither did she,” says Liv.

The shooting

Two days later, when a church minister came to their door, the Engelands learned that their daughter was dead, shot, as they were told, near the Athens Polytechnic at around 11.30pm as she made her way home from a film with “a foreign friend”.

According to her death certificate, cited by Norway’s diplomatic representative in Athens at the time, she died from “wounds to the chest and throat after being hit [from afar] by a high calibre bullet”.

The official line, as reported widely in the press, was that Toril was a “tourist”, in the wrong place at the wrong time, when she was stuck in the chest by a stray or ricochet bullet. Some accounts say she was shot on Plateia Egyptou, which possibly is the origin of “Toril Teklet”, an Egyptian name that features in early police reports and, subsequently, some lists of victims.

But Leonidas Kallivretakis, an historian at the National Research Centre who has worked extensively on the Polytechnic events, doubts that she could have been killed there as it would have been too far to carry her to the steps of the Acropole hotel, where a dentist found her dead.

The historian, whom Liv met in Athens last summer, also doubts that she was returning from watching a film as most cinemas would have been shut on that evening, given the events at the Polytechnic.

“Kallivretakis said there were so many people there that night that she couldn’t have been there accidentally. Maybe they were curious and wanted to see what happened.”

Almost a year later in August 1974, a month after the fall of the junta, they received a letter from a dentist, former Centre Union MP Yiorgos Lazaridis, who explained what had happened to Toril. That fateful evening, when he heard about events in central Athens, the young medic had filled his car with oxygen and supplies and headed for the Polytechnic.

“At 11.30 pm, it was already over for your outstanding Norwegian daughter. She was lying on the steps of the Acropole Palace hotel surrounded by Greek students, her brothers and sisters. I carried your murdered child, together with a seriously wounded Saudi Arabian, to a first aid station, still hunted by the murderers.”

“Tough methods in Athens unrest: Norwegian girl killed on her way from the cinema.” How the Norwegian press reported Toril’s death in 1973

He went on to praise her as a hero for freedom: “As a Greek, I would like to offer you is my thanks. Mixed with the Greek blood that was sacrificed on that night is the blood of your Norwegian daughter. This was the water for the tree of freedom that we enjoy today.”

In any case, Toril, who her sister recalls had a strong sense of justice, would have been sympathetic to what has underway at the Polytechnic.

In a letter she sent to Liv that July, Toril wrote that she had to work on the following Sunday – usually her day off – because the country was “going to vote for Mr P”, a reference to the junta’s orchestrated “referendum” on July 29 to abolish the monarchy and install Papadopoulos as the country’s president.

“It was the way she wrote it. I read between the lines of that sentence. They had no choice. They had to vote for him. The whole setup of an election with just one candidate was something she couldn’t accept. She was for democracy,” Liv remarks.

One person would have known why she was near the Polytechnic was her boyfriend, Mohamed, who took a bullet in the shoulder. After the shooting, he had he contacted Toril’s mother afterwards to say he wanted to visit the family and to say farewell to Toril.

“One day I will come to Molde and I’ll put flowers on a place, I know it very well. I will cry, and I will tell her – sleep well, my Norwegian peasant, as I always called her,” he wrote in a letter.

But Norway’s diplomat in Athens ensured that didn’t happen by denying him a visa, a reason that Toril’s family only learned about recently.

“In an interview last December, he said that because he was a Muslim, he didn’t know how my family would react,” Liv says. “He wanted to protect the family, but he could have asked us because we didn’t see it like that. My family is Christian, but they are open to all people. I don’t think it would have been a problem for us to meet him in that situation. Back then we didn’t know why he couldn’t come to Norway. And I’ve no idea where he is now.”

As Liv recalls, one of the most difficult things was not being able to see her sister laid out when her remains were flown back to Norway. Her father was against it for some reason, possibly as he thought the coffin had been sealed for transport. It was only sometime later, when the family received a bill for returning her body, that they realised she had been embalmed.

“She was probably made to look very nice and it was very hard for me not being able to see her,” Liv says.

Some months later, the Greek foreign ministry refunded the family for the costs they had incurred in returning Toril’s remains, accepting, diplomatically, that the sum – 62,000 drachmas (12,500 Norwegian kroner) – could not compensate for the loss of her life. According to Norwegian foreign ministry documents that Liv saw last week, Athens wanted to express sympathy with the family and hoped that the unfortunate incident would not impact negatively on the relationship between the two countries.

Despite the devastating effect of Toril’s death on them, Liv says her family never really felt angry at those responsible.

“We were never bitter for those who did it. We were just very, very sad and sorrowful at our loss,” she says, adding that her absence was magnified when her first child was born eight years later. “I missed her very much as an aunt for my children and I wished they had got to know her.”

But she is still seen as part of the family, who celebrated what would have been her 50th and 60th birthdays by going out for a meal in a restaurant. Liv adds that she has always marked her birthday or death anniversary by buying roses in her memory.

Back to Greece

Over the summer, Liv made her third trip to Athens. As she says, she felt she had to come to mark the 40th anniversary of Toril’s death. Her first trip was in November 1998, for the 25th anniversary, and she no idea what to expect.

“Before I left, I pictured it would be just myself putting a rose on the steps of the Polytechnic or something. But I was very, very surprised that it was such an event. People kept coming to put flowers on the gates.”

On the 25th anniversary of the uprising in November 1998, Liv, on her first trip to Athens, pinned a photo of her sister on the gates of the Polytechnic. Her visit was covered by a Norwegian magazine (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

On the 25th anniversary of the uprising in November 1998, Liv, on her first trip to Athens, pinned a photo of her sister on the gates of the Polytechnic. Her visit was covered by a Norwegian magazine (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

The second trip in 2006, this time with her mother, was a considerable disappointment. They were invited, but at their own cost, to the annual garden party at the presidential mansion to commemorate the return to democracy, an event now abolished.

“We weren’t taken care of. Everything was in Greek. The president gave a speech. But the only word we could understand in his speech was democracy,” she remembers.

In recent years, the extensive coverage that Greece has received in the world’s press reminds Liv even more of the past.

“I guess Greece has a place in my heart, even though it should be negative,” she said. “I have feelings for Greece.”

Liv Kari Engeland at the Polytechnic memorial, summer 2013 (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

Liv Kari Engeland at the Polytechnic memorial, summer 2013 (Photo: Liv Kari Engeland)

• This article was first published in EnetEnglish.gr on 16 November 2013. A slightly shorter version of this article was published in Greek in Eleftherotypia on 17 November 2013. The news site OkeaNews.fr has kindly translated the article into French, entitled La dou­leur de Polytechnique est encore très forte en Norvège

From Greece to Auschwitz

In Athens News, Greek history on 9 October 2009 at 10:48 pm


Before the outbreak of the Second World War, there were 25 distinct Jewish communities in Greece, by far the largest being in Thessaloniki (with 56,000 Jews), followed by Athens, Kavala and Corfu.

The impact of the Nazi death machine on the Greek Jewish community – which could boast a centuries-long presence in Greece – was devastating, and this dark story is now related in Greeks in Auschwitz-Birkenau, authored by Photini Tomai, director of the historical archives of the ministry of foreign affairs.

Relying on survivors’ written and oral testimony and archival research, the book is excellently illustrated, containing many photographs of Greek victims of the Nazi death camps. In all, 67,000 of Greece’s Jewish citizens, or 86 percent of the community, lost their lives in the Holocaust, most of them at Auschwitz.

Of the 550 Jews of Xanthi, for example, only six survived the Nazi Judeocide.


Only the Jewish community of Zakynthos survived intact, thanks to the bravery of the local bishop, Chrysostomos, and mayor, Loukas Carrer, who refused, at great personal risk, to hand over the names of the island’s Jews to the Germans. Demonstrating the shocking bureaucratic-industrial efficiency with which the grotesquely euphemised Final Solution was organised is the fact that within five months, in 1943, the Nazis succeeded in deporting by rail 48,233 Jews from Thessaloniki to the various Auschwitz camps.

Most never returned – 96 percent of Thessaloniki’s Jews were murdered. On arrival at the notorious Death Gate in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the vast majority, particularly the elderly, children and women, were immediately selected for the gas chambers.

Others were handed over to Josef Mengele, Carl Clauberg and others for the purposes of torturous and barbaric medical experimentation (in cases on behalf of major German pharmaceutical companies such as Bayer) and dismemberment. Graphically described by Greek survivors, both Jewish and Christian, the gruesome experiments were primarily focused on sterilisation techniques.

The able-bodied were usually deployed to work in the crematoria or in the ranks of the Aussenkommando, a hard-labour force that effectively worked people to death. Apart from the Greek Jews, a number of Greek Christians also ended up in Auschwitz, including a number of resistance fighters. Most were women, such as Vasso Stamatiou from Thessaloniki, still alive today, whose recollections figure throughout the book.

There were some brave acts of resistance, for which their participants paid the ultimate price.


Upon their arrival in Auschwitz, in June 1944, some male Jews from Corfu were ordered to work in the crematoria. They refused and were shot on the spot. Some months later, on 7 October 1944, over 60 Greek Jews, led by Josef Barouch (photo), an officer in the Greek Army from Ioannina, participated in an uprising in Birkenau which succeeded in killing several SS men and blowing up crematorium IV, using dynamite supplied by women working in a camp factory.

As Tomai points out, this was the “sole incidence, throughout the operating life of the Nazi concentration camps, of an organised uprising”. The ministry of foreign affairs is to be congratulated for publishing this book – the contents of which deserve a greater place in the historical consciousness of this country – simultaneously in Greek and English. However, proper attention should have been given to the English translation and editing, which leaves much to be desired.

In addition, although it is not mentioned anywhere in the book, the DVD documentary on the Greeks in Auschwitz which accompanies the volume should display the name of the documentary maker – Marios Sousis of the Jewish Museum of Greece.

(This article appeared in the Athens News, 9 October 2009, p 35)