The Voices of Victims
A digital archive established at Freie Universität Berlin preserves the memory of the horrors of the German occupation of Greece during World War II.
Jul 24, 2018
Efstathios Chaitidis was eight years old when, on April 23, 1944, German soldiers attacked his home village of Pyrgoi, Greece, and gunned people down on the street. The soldiers drove his mother, grandmother, and four siblings along with other village residents into barns and then set the structures aflame.
Everyone died in the fires. The only survivors were Efstathios and his father, who fled to the mountains. The father had wanted to bring other family members along. But the grandmother refused to let them go, begging the father to flee on his own. The villagers had heard that the Germans were approaching, but she was convinced women and children would be safe, and that only the men would be in danger.
Rosina Asher-Pardo, then ten years old, spent 18 months hiding with her parents and sister in a single room in the heart of the Greek city of Thessaloniki. The Jewish family survived the German occupation there. Before World War II, Thessaloniki was home to the largest Jewish community in Greece, about 50,000 people. Almost all of them were deported. Only about 70 Jews returned to the city after the war, Asher-Pardo recalls. Of her own family, 60 relatives were deported. Not one survived.
Argyris Sfountouris was barely four years old when his father was gunned down in front of the family home in Distomo by soldiers of the 4th SS Polizei Panzergrenadier Division, on June 10, 1944. His mother was robbed and murdered by German soldiers outside the village that same day. The occupying soldiers killed 34 members of his family.
The massacre was the soldiers’ savage revenge for an attack by partisans based in the nearby mountains, which had killed three Germans. Sfountouris held an older sister’s hand as they fled their house, which had been set on fire. He and his three sisters survived because one of the Germans used small stones to signal that the children should wait and not leave the adjacent courtyard through the gate facing the street. When the soldiers moved on, the children ran to their grandparents, who lived on the outskirts of the village.
Millions of Greeks suffered under the German occupation, which lasted from 1941 to 1944, and countless people experienced horror and atrocity. Chaitidis, Asher-Pardo, and Sfountouris are three of them. In detailed discussions, they reported what was done to them, their families, and their neighbors during World War II.
Their reports are part of the digital archive entitled “Memories of the Occupation in Greece.” It was developed as a joint project between Freie Universität Berlin and National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Historians conducted 91 video-recorded interviews between 2016 and 2018. All of the conversations were transcribed and translated into German and prepared by scholars. Historical references and explanations of the content were added. The result is a collection of 200 hours of memories spoken by contemporary witnesses from Greece.
The plans for the project were first drawn up eight years ago, when Hagen Fleischer, academic project manager in Greece and a professor of history at National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, came to Freie Universität for a visit at the Center for Digital Systems (CeDiS).
He did research in the Visual History Archive created by the U.S.-based USC Shoah Foundation, which preserves the memories of Holocaust survivors and witnesses. The digital archive was initiated by director Steven Spielberg, who had spoken with many survivors when filming Schindler’s List. In 2005, Freie Universität became the first university outside the United States to hold a license to access the entire archive. The university has access to use the archive for research and teaching activities.
“We were gripped by the idea of creating a digital site of memory for Greek contemporary witnesses as well,” says Nicolas Apostolopoulos, a project manager at CeDiS and an adjunct professor at the Department of Education and Psychology, who was the initiator on the German side.
The German Federal Foreign Office began supporting the project after Joachim Gauck, the President of Germany at the time, visited Greece in 2014. In Lingiades, where German Wehrmacht soldiers had massacred dozens in October 1943 – he apologized for what he called “the second moral debt”: forgetting. After the visit, the Federal Foreign Office established the German-Greek Future Fund, which aims to explore the history of the German occupation of Greece. The German Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future and the Greek Stavros Niarchos Foundation are also providing financial support for the project.
“This is the first time ever that a private Greek foundation has cooperated with a German foundation and a ministry here,” says Apostolopoulos. Still, many possible Greek contemporary witnesses had initial misgivings about participating. In the end, the team persuaded even celebrities to be interviewed. They included Manolis Glezos, a resistance fighter during the German occupation and later a member of the European Parliament, and former Greek President Karolos Papoulias, who had also fought in the Greek resistance.
The archive documents the memories of survivors of massacres and concentration camps, internees and deportees, political prisoners, Jews, figures from the Greek resistance, forced laborers, and people who tell about everyday life under the German occupation in the towns and cities of Greece between 1941 and 1944. During the three years of the occupation, 100,000 people died of hunger and malnutrition. About 50,000 men, women, and children were killed in retaliatory attacks by German occupying troops, and 60,000 Greek Jews were deported to camps.
“These terrible facts are little known in Germany, even among the present-day Greek community,” Apostolopoulos explains. Greece has also received little attention to date in the international research on World War II, he adds. He hopes the archive will help write history “from the bottom up.” “The project was a race against time,” explains Apostolopoulos, who was born in Greece and has lived in Berlin since the late 1960s. “It’s about people and their lives. Their voices should be heard.”
Chaitidis and his father survived the massacre in Pyrgoi. He was orphaned three years later, in 1947. During the Greek Civil War, a popular tribunal of the Democratic Army of Greece sentenced his father to death by firing squad even though he was a Communist. For a long time, Chaitidis carried his father’s wishes with him: that he should pursue higher education. Seeing no opportunities to do so in Greece or another European country, he moved to Germany in 1959.
He never spoke there about what he had experienced as a child. He only shared his story with a single family, with whom he has remained friends to this day. “I had to tell them who I was,” says Chaitidis, who is now 82. The family did not know that German soldiers had occupied Greece, and they were horrified at their acts there. “I was relieved. Now I could lead my life in Germany,” Chaitidis explains.
He studied dentistry in Munich and went into practice there. In 1967, he became politically active in opposition to the Greek military dictatorship, which would continue to rule until 1974. In response, the junta revoked his passport, and he lost Greek citizenship. He applied for political asylum in Germany. Twenty-eight years later, in 1992, he and his family moved to Thessaloniki.
Rosina Asher-Pardo and her family, hidden in Thessaloniki, escaped deportation and even survived the bombardment of the city. Encouraged by her father, she kept a diary during that time. She studied law in the early 1950s and later worked as a lawyer.
A visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., in 1996 made a deep impression on Asher-Pardo. She wrote a book about her childhood memories. It was published in 1998. Her oldest son read it in one sitting. When he had finished, he asked why she had kept all of it a secret. She had never spoken to her three children about her experiences. In the years that followed, Asher-Pardo, now 84, visited Greek school classes to talk about her past, and parts of her childhood diary have been incorporated into the third-grade curriculum.
Argyris Sfountouris and his three sisters survived the Distomo massacre. The orphaned children stayed with their grandparents at first. Sfountouris did not want to eat anything for years. “Everyone was worried that I would die,” he says, looking back.
The Red Cross selected the then eight-year-old Sfountouris to be taken to the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen, Switzerland, in 1949, probably due to his life-threatening eating disorder. The village offered a refuge for traumatized victims of the war from nine countries around Europe. He lived with other children from Greece. They did not talk to each other about the past. Only once, when he was ten or eleven, they told each other fairy tales one evening, Sfountouris recalls, and each of them wove something of what they had experienced into their tales, “like a kind of secret code.”
After graduating from school, Sfountouris went on to study mathematics and physics, eventually earning a doctorate. He worked as a teacher in Zurich and later as a development worker in Somalia, Nepal, and Indonesia. He also wrote essays and poems and translated the works of important Greek writers into German.
Sfountouris spent many years working to have the massacre in Distomo classified as a war crime. In 1996 the German embassy in Athens was still calling it a “measure within the scope of the waging of war.” “The fact that lies were told about Distomo,” says Sfountouris, now 78, “was something I couldn’t live with.”
The project team from the Center for Digital Systems (CeDiS) developed a digital research environment for the contemporary witness interviews. The interviews were indexed with keywords, tables of contents, and a register and supplemented with brief biographies, interview records, and explanatory texts. Within the archive, there are various tools available for use, including a complex search function for the videos.
Plans call for preparing parts of the archives for classroom instruction and additional educational institutions, something that has already been done for other CeDiS projects, such as the interview archive entitled “Forced Labor 1939–1945.” This cooperative project between Freie Universität, the German Historical Museum, and Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future was awarded the Berlin Digital Humanities Prize for 2018.