As Sunday advanced I began to experience the first vague awareness that blog day would soon arrive and that perhaps it would be wise to give the matter some thought. Some readers found last week’s effort just a tad cryptic, as I fully expected; I had my reasons, but I recognize that nonplussing one’s readers on a consistent basis might be poor policy. So I determined that I would pursue a definite subject, if only such a thing would come to mind. It didn’t exactly come to mind; it walked in the door.Sofia Papaioannou
We just enjoyed a rather whirlwind visit from our daughter Katy, freshly returned from professional business in London and Paris. Accompanying her was her great friend and colleague—who has become a friend of ours as well—Sofia Papaioanou. Ms. Papaioanou is a well-known television personality in Greece who has hosted a number of highly rated programs. Katy is among other things a professional historian of modern Greece who came to her love of its people and culture as Lord Byron had in the days of Ali Pasha, by spiritual immersion. Sofia Papaioanou and Katherine Fleming are the joint directors of a very ambitious oral history project in progress under the sponsorship of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The project, named Istorima, is sending historical reporters into every corner of the Greek countryside. Their mission is to seek out and to record the memories of elderly citizens whose experience in many instances goes back to World War II and the Greek Time of Troubles that followed it. The project serves other ends as well, such as offering employment to a large number of young people challenged by Greece’s recent economic difficulties and the dislocations of the pandemic; but in its substance it may be the largest national oral history project ever undertaken.
Sofia had a little oral history of her own to report. She had recently returned from the Veneto in northern Italy where she was undertaking a historical mission that, in addition to being fascinating, practically begged to be a blog topic. It involves an episode in the second World War. Though no expert in the history of that conflict, I do consider myself pretty knowledgeable about it. And since I had never heard of the Wreck of the Oria, it is possible you haven’t either. It was the largest known single-ship maritime disaster in the long history—and I do mean long--of Mediterranean navigation. It was also a German war crime for a time more or less successfully hushed up.
When the European war began, Fascist Italy under Mussolini was allied with Hitler under the so-called “Pact of Steel”, but the Italian army was technically a “royal” one owing formal allegiance to King Victor Emmanuel III. Large Italian forces battled the British in the deserts of North Africa. The king had been strangely subservient to Mussolini, but with the (for Italy) disastrous Anglo-American assaults on Sicily and the Italian peninsula in 1943, the King removed Mussolini from power and supplanted him with a new prime minister, Badoglio. (Mussolini was famously rescued from detention in a daring German commando raid ordered personally by Hitler.) Italy officially but equivocally remained allied with the Nazis, but the Badoglio government obviously didn’t have their heart in it and secretly pursued the hope of a separate peace. Most of the German top brass held a very low view of the Italian “fighting man”, whom they often openly classed somewhere between a coward and a traitor. Large numbers of Italian soldiers scattered throughout the web of German occupation were now openly regarded as nuisances if not enemies. This was the background for many disasters, one of which originated on the island of Rhodes.
Italy had come into open conflict with Greece in 1940. On Rhodes, later held by the Germans, there was a significant presence of “royal” Italian army units. With the reversal of Hitler’s fortunes in Italy, the Germans now treated this “allied” army of more than 4,000 as prisoners of war and crammed them onto an old British commercial ship, now named the Oria and the property of Scandinavian shippers, and sent them off in the direction of Piraeus, the port of Athens, on the Greek mainland a couple of hundred miles away, to be held in internment camps. On February 12, 1944, the ship crashed against rocks near the tiny island of Patroklos, about sixty miles southeast from Athens, and very near the southernmost tip of the mainland. The ship was inadequate and the crew possibly incompetent. There were virtually no safety measures in place, and practically no safety equipment. More than 4,000 men drowned, almost all of them Italian soldiers of low rank, many of them peasants from the Veneto. This was a year after the German catastrophe at Stalingrad. The Nazi officer corps had to know they were losing, and their deportment in enraged defeat was not more gentle than it had been in arrogant victory. They behaved in the words of the secular law with “depraved indifference to human life.” The families of the Italian victims in most instances knew only that a loved one had disappeared, God knew where to. Yet so spectacular a disaster could not be hidden, as hundreds of bloated corpses washed up onto the sand beaches, rocky coves, and rough shingle of the Athenian peninsula. The local Greeks had their own immediate German problem to deal with. There was still a whole year before the Germans would be definitively defeated; but for the Greeks the end of one war was the beginning of another. Yet the Greeks of that area never forgot. They were not allowed to forget. For years the detritus from the Oria and the humble artefacts abandoned by its doomed human cargo washed ashore in heavy weather.
Imagine being a child in the bleak winter of 1944 and finding dozens of the dead, hideously mangled or bloated, washed up on the rocks and docks of your fishing hamlet. Such reports were among the indelible youthful memories recalled after seventy-five years by wizened old men and toothless women and reported to the istorima historians. Some of this fascinating testimony is already available on the English language version of the istorima site (https://www.istorima.org/en/videos/119/canteens-at-the-bottom-of-the-sea-the-mediterraneans-biggest-shipwreck/).
Ms. Papaioanou saw here rich historical material practically crying out for expansion in podcasts and television programs. And in her mind, and the minds of some of her fellow historians, an idea was dawning that even now these seemingly forgotten dead might be remembered and honored.
Particularly numerous among the shallowly submerged artefacts were the Italians’ cheap, pot-like messkits. They were common finds, and on the bottoms of several of them the names and villages of their wretched owners had been incised into the soft metal. So now, two generations later Greek local historians (and humanitarians) took the lovely initiative, guided by the inscribed mess kits, of trying to seek out any possible identifiable living relatives or posterity of some of the peasant conscripts drowned seventy-nine years before. In southern Europe that was not merely another time but a different age. Sofia Papaioanou had but recently been on such a mission, and she gave a moving and heart-warming account of its reception. The first problem the historians faced was the incredulity of contemporary Italians concerning the bona fides of the enterprise. The youngest of the actual contemporaries of the drowned men had to be closer to a hundred than to eighty years old; yet there were some. And though the oral memory of the “disappeared” had never faded from their villages, the whole enterprise—“oral historians,” television cameras, King Victor Emmanuel-- seemed to many of them incredible. The historians were able to “return” three incised canteens. They set up a meeting in the ancient little town of Cerea, between Padua and Verona. It was in the heart of the agricultural landscape from which so many of the soldiers garrisoned on Rhodes Sofia had come. Sofia expected to be meeting with two or three graybeards. The photographs she showed us instead captured a sizeable room filled with an intergenerational crowd, many of them in best bib-and-tucker: the posterity and friends and relatives of the drowned men, the victims of an ancient myth. Perhaps a few of them were their actual direct posterity. They treated the event with the somber dignity it so richly deserved, but also with a certain joyfulness. The return of a battered tin pot may not be “restorative justice” as we usually think of it, but in the circumstances it was certainly a generous and inspirational act of fellow feeling and, indeed, of Christian charity, that both in its performance and its reception lets shine a shaft of light upon the darkness of the horrors of war.