BY DIMITRA KOUZI
I pass by Distomo almost once a month, on my way to Galaxidi (Delphi Municipality), a seaside village where my great-grandfather was born. Since today the destination is more important than the journey, I had never been to Distomo, although it is only a 2km digression from the main road. Known as one of the "martyred towns,"(1) the village, ravaged in the late phase of the Second World War, should have prompted my interest, since I am a German-school and -university graduate, and often work with German people. On 10 June 1944, German troops savagely massacred 223 civilians – mostly older men, women, children and infants – as reprisals for partisan attacks that cost the Waffen-SS unit 20 dead and 36 wounded(2) during the first week after their deployment in the area(3).
I first visited Distomo to conduct an interview for the ARTE-produced documentary Greeks and Germans – A Difficult relationship.(4)
The interview concerned an exchange involving two school clubs – one at the German School of Athens, run by the teacher Regina Wiesinger, and one at the Distomo Lyceum, run by the teacher Vasso Karanassou. Pupils of both schools learn extensively about this incident at the first grade of Lyceum (age 15). And this is where the interesting part begins: In both schools, they are introduced to it from the “Greek” point of view. The exchange is meant to encourage the children from both nations to meet and learn about the past of their countries. Could this contribute to reconciliation? What does reconciliation mean? Who must reconcile today, how and why? Germany is today central to Europe economically and politically; yet, when one brings up the name of the country in Greece, reactions are often biased or stereotypical (5). Media handling of the financial crisis did nothing to improve this relationship. (6)
THEY HAVE MORE IN COMMON THAN NOT
These pupils are expected to work on a common project over the course of six months, including three meetings of the two groups: one weekend in Athens, one at Distomo and a trip to Berlin. This year, the children will work on topics related to adolescence, inspired by the documentary film All This Panic by Janet Gage (79ʹ, USA, 2016) (7).
I can infer from discussions with them that the massacre looms heavily over the Distomo children, as justice is yet to be served; there has been no taking of responsibility, no acknowledgement. No families are spared: They all count victims among their members. As years go by, they worry: “Witnesses will die, and the story will fade.” The annual commemoration events help both forgetting and remembering. “I talk with my grandmother about it more during that time of the year, not in our daily life,” a second grade of Lyceum pupil said during my visit to the small school (40 pupils only).
They were born at Distomo, and this determines everything for them: “It’s not just a matter of war; this was a terrible crime, a massacre [...] Which is why we feel it our duty to communicate it.” Panagiotis, third grade of Lyceum pupil points out.
On the other hand, German-School pupils express their concern: “Is it right for us to visit [Distomo]? How could I meet [these people]? How could I face them?" Children with a double nationality (one parent Greek and one German) wonder: “Who am I? As Greek, I feel mournful; as German I feel guilty.” At the German School, I met with five pupils of the third grade of Lyceum who have already participated in the project; they are well-informed, concerned, at times intense and at times relaxed. Was there value in that interaction? “Yes, it helped us discover the country and experience history first-hand; it makes a world of difference,” according to Isabella: “Stereotypes are dispelled by personal contact. Up until yesterday they were only numbers; today they are people we’ve met.” After 70 years of historical analysis, do the Germans acknowledge any responsibility, and if so, how? It’s one of the questions posed in skepticism.
On 28 October 2018, I went back to Distomo. Catie Manolopoulou, a writer from Distomo who lost members of her family in the massacre, was invited to talk to the Lyceum pupils. “Post-war years were even harder... Nothing can replace a lost loved one. Yet, the issue of war reparations is not my focus; other people strive towards that goal. However, I expect good intentions on the part of the Germans – for instance, they might offer to establish a university at Distomo. For youth from all over the world to attend.”
This opens a channel of communication based on personal contact and interaction. The dialogue is ongoing. A German-School pupil Leandros, continues, “Distomo pupils who participated in the project and went on the trip realized that it's normal people that live in Germany, too. A certain reserve towards all things German is still evident; yet, these children are better informed than other Greeks are. There is hope to get over the horrors of war and let go of the past. Yet, the road ahead is still long."
(1) The Greek interior ministry compiled a list of "martyred towns" after the end of the war. To be included, a town or village had to either be entirely destroyed as a result of arson or shelling, have lost 10% of its population in mass executions, or fulfil a combination of these criteria. Seventy-two towns from this list suffered reprisals by the German army, most of them witnessing mass executions. “Massacre memories: German car sales and the EZ Crisis in Greece,” Vasiliki Fouka (Stanford University), Joachim Voth (Zurich University), https://voxeu.org/article/massacre-memories-german-car-sales-and-ez-crisis-greece. Retrieved on 23 October 2013.
(2) Χανδρινός, Ιάσονας, "Η σφαγή στο Δίστομο και στο Καλάμι (1944)" [Chandrinos, Iason, The Massacre at Distomo and Kalami (1944)], 2012, Encyclopedia of the Hellenic World: Boeotia (in Greek), Foundation of the Hellenic World.
(3) "Σφαγή, φωτιά, βιασμός, ληστεία. Όλη η τετραλογία της κτηνωδίας, προς δόξαν της φυλής των Αρείων" [Massacre, Fire, Rape, Robbery – The tetralogy of savagery, for the glory of the Arian race], newspaper Ελευθερία, 10-6-1945.
(4) I am co-author of the film, with Ingo Helm; the film traces the history and human relations of the two nations from King Otto’s reign until now; to be released 2/2019.
(5) Unfortunately, stereotypes about Greece abound in Germany, too.
(6) "Die Berichterstattung deutscher Medien in der griechischen Schuldenkrise", Studie, Prof. Dr Kim Otto & Andreas Köhler, M.A., Professur für Wirtschaftsjournalismus, Universität Würzburg
(7) Premiered and nominated for best feature-length documentary at Tribeca Film Festival, New York; nominated for a Grierson Award, London Film Festival. The two school clubs will watch the film at its Greek premiere at KinderDocs Festival in February 2019.
First published at Vision Network (in German).