Memories from 1940’s Aegina
About Argyris Fortunas and his books
Text by Souzana Raphael
Three very interesting books written by a former resident of Aegina, Argyris Fortunas (1925-20?), had come out some years ago. All three are based on the author’s vivid memories of the dark years of the German Occupation of Greece during WWII, which began during his last school year in Athens, after which he spent eight months in 1942 as an interpreter between local Greeks and the German occupiers in Aegina.
The first two of Argyris Fortunas’ books were published by ΚΗΠΟΣ της Αίγινας (Garden of Aegina) a small publishing company owned by the local Lychnari bookstore. These first two books are entitled Οι Αναμνήσεις Μου Αίγινα 1941-1944 (My Memories, Aegina 1941-1944). The first of these will be out in English translation by resident Aeginitissa Lousia O’Brien in June 2012. The “launching” of the English version will take place at a local hotel, so look for announcements around then.
The author, born in 1925, was 16 years old in 1941 and living in Athens, where he was completing his final year at the German School of Athens. His mother and his two sisters (the sisters having graduated earlier from the same school), had moved to the family’s second home in Aegina to wait out the dark years of a war that all believed would pass quickly. Argyris’ father, who died in 1939, was a hydraulic engineer who had studied in Germany, and whose later Athens-based firm had many business dealings with Germans. He wanted his children to learn the German language, and thus hired a German live-in tutor. Thus the children learned to communicate with ease in German from an early age. Following public Greek elementary school (which was compulsory), the two sisters, and then Argyris, enrolled in the German School of Athens, which was a six-year gymasio, a combination of what is now called gymnasio and lykeio (middle school and high school).
Both Greek and German students attended the German School of Athens, which closed during the first year of the war, when Greeks routed the Italians in the icy winter battles fought in the Pindos mountains. It reopened when the Germans occupied Greece the following year, and though Argyris was ashamed to continue attending a German school under such circumstances (especially when still filled with pride at the courage and tenacity shown by the Greeks the previous winter), his mother insisted that he finish his last year (a year actually two years condensed into one due to the previous closure). Writing about his experiences during that year more than six decades later, the author recounts quarrels and fist fights between Greek boys and German youths wearing Hitler Youth uniforms to school, as well as the disappearance of a teacher who was sent back to Germany, and was “obliged” by the Gestapo (as the author put it), to commit suicide, because he had demonstrated opposition to the Nazi regime. All that year, the young Argyris Fourtounas attended nine hours of classes daily at the German school with a near-empty stomach, always hungry.
In Aegina, after he graduated from the school, he joined his mother and sisters in Aegina. Both he and one of his sisters were asked, by representatives of the Greek community of the island, to serve as interpreters between that community and the German occupiers. The author recalls the extreme caution required of his sister, who served at the main German garrison headquarters in Aegina City (the present Hotel Brown), in her efforts to help local people without being detected by the German officers, and how much her knowledge of the German language (and of the German character) helped her in this capacity. Argyris served at the German navy fort in Tourlos, in the heavily wooded northeastern corner of the island, where he dealt daily mostly with German reservists who were old enough to have come of age without the extreme brainwashing and hardening visited upon younger Germans during the years preceding the war. The fact that they were reservists also made them less severe in character than more permanent military men.
Κάποτε στην Αίγινα (Sometime in Aegina), published in 2011 by Ocelet Press, is a novel based on a true and totally compelling story, the language simple and direct, evoking with great clarity both events and the emotions of the protagonists. It has all the elements of classical tragedy, set during the horrific years of WWII – a modern tragedy containing the classic formula of terror and pity, and the resultant catharsis. It is the true story of love between a young Greek woman and a young German, who, with the onset of the war, becomes a Wermacht officer. The characters are drawn with poignant intensity, their anguish in the complex, impenetrable tangle of their respective destinies palpable and stirring.
The author does not simplify anything, and the comments made by him in his epilogue reveal a depth of compassion which this reader found deeply moving. The fact that many of the events portrayed in this book occurred in Aegina, brings an immediacy to the story for those of us who live here – we who pass the chapel of Agi Anargyri along the island’s north coast – we who have walked along the road that leads eastward from Vagia to Tourlos, (in 1942 a German navy base, in 2012, a Greek one), we who walk by the Hotel Brown in Aegina city, (in 1932 a sponge-processing factory, in 1942 the Nazi garrison headquarters on Aegina, in later years a popular hotel for visitors to the island). This true tale of love and war cannot fail to move even strangers to Aegina, or even to Greece, since it falls within the literary tradition of works of universal appeal, universal truths. “I’m not a writer,” its author announced at least twice during our interview. A very modest man, writing literature of the highest order in his late 80s. May his books be read by many.
Notes from the interview in February 2012 with Argyris Fortunas
When his father bought land in Aegina in 1925, he planted many pistachio trees, after having a friend in Athens, an agriculturalist, test samples of Aegina soil to determine its suitability for this crop. Finding the results positive, he brought a nursery to the island with thousands of young trees, which were planted on various plots of land purchased afterward by the elder Fortunas.
The first “kalorifer” (central heating system) in Aegina was installed in the house built the same year that Argyris was born (1925), and where he now lives permanently, after many year in Athens, where he managed three companies, his specialty thermal plastics pipes. His father, that is to say, was responsible for bringing the “kalorifer” to Aegina.
Argyris Fortunas has collected many photographs for his next book (also about the German Occupation in Aegina), and has done a lot of related research. Historians and others have come to him after reading his first books, sharing with him materials in their possession. Some of his photos: the German plane headed towards Crete that fell on Mt. Oros; a photo of the pilot killed. The Italian mine-sweeper sunk while clearing mines at Perdika. The German submarine headed towards Africa sunk by English mines at Tourlos.
In his writing he tries to keep the thread of the story and not to interrupt it with descriptions, etc. “I’m not a writer,” he repeats. But he always wrote, though mostly articles for periodicals related to his work (in both German and Greek). He finished Kapote stin Aegina in 20 days, writing steadily to occupy his mind while his wife was dying. He goes to sleep around 1:00 and gets up at 5:00 or 6:00; has always slept only about five hours a night.
The main German officer at Tourlos named Hoffman, Fortunas describes as a good man who gave children bread and held holiday parties for them. In his first book of Memories, the author mentions the lack of any account of this man by other Greeks, a lack which he attributes to possible fear of being considered sympathetic to the hated occupiers.
He was a reservist in the Greek Civil War (1946-49) and an officer, this simultaneously with his university studies. He would leave his post in Olymbos (Olympus) for just a few hours to go take exams in Athens.
Argyis Fortunas plays piano – Benny Goodman and other American jazz.
He had never heard of Zorz Sarri (see article) even though she is about the same age and wrote a book about the German Occupation as she lived it in Athens during her teens (like him, painting anti-fascist slogans on walls). I wrote down the title of that book for him (‘Όταν ο Ηλιος/ When the Sun…). He may even have met her among the youths who roamed the streets of Athens late at night with their buckets and paint brushes!