In the past week there was no escaping the Nazis for me. Whether deep in the pages of John Boyne’s latest thought-provoking novel All the Broken Places. Or travel through the Cretan mountains and discover war memorials or signs pointing to one ‘martyr’s village’ after another, dating back to the time of the German occupation of the island. In one way or another, I’ve been preoccupied with thoughts of World War II.
Is that good or bad? My usual answer would be “good” because such atrocities should never be forgotten. Look them in the face, I always say; That’s history.
When I first visited the small Cretan town of Paleochora in the summer of 1983, there was an elderly local who seemed to be greatly admired by the townspeople. It was impossible to ignore the man in question because he was there every evening, strolling through the city and greeting people with his robes flowing.
With his brown robes, long gray beard and religious medals on display, the priest was easily identifiable, the man in charge of leading the service at the tiny but beautiful Greek Orthodox church at the top of town. Of course he was respected – even revered. No surprise.
Apart from the fact that it wasn’t just his priestly virtues that made him so dear to the hearts of the people of Paleochora. Rather, it was his war record, for as a young priest this holy man had been at the forefront of the local resistance movement in that part of the island. In a place where the locals had thwarted the Germans at every turn and suffered massive and appalling retribution as a result, that made him a local hero. He has been buried in the town’s cemetery for many years, but his story still lives on.
So also a striking building opposite the pension where I always live. When I visited in 1983, the building was practically derelict and a kind of eyesore on the outskirts of town. Nobody would touch it, so the story goes, because it had been the Nazi headquarters in this corner of Crete during the war. Who knew what horrors had been planned—or even committed—within its walls?
Eventually, however, it was acquired by the city council, beautifully restored and now used as a workplace by a number of civil servants. For me, however, it has always been shaped by its Nazi past.
Until last Sunday. Around noon, as I sat reading on my balcony, I heard car horns followed by clapping and laughter. I looked over at the building and a bride just came out. Dressed in an elegant cream dress and with flowers in her hair, she was the picture of happiness, holding her husband’s hand and surrounded by friends and family.
In all the years I have been here I hated this old Nazi building. Now I have a different perspective; Now I see a place of celebration.
Maybe you don’t always have to look the historical brutality in the face. Maybe sometimes it’s enough just to look over your shoulder. Don’t forget, acknowledge. And then look ahead and move on.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/a-wedding-changed-my-view-of-nazi-stain-on-beautiful-greek-island-of-crete-42025227.html A wedding changed my view of the Nazi stain on the beautiful Greek island of Crete