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Faces of Courage, Maria


Maria stood with her classmates at the edge of the crowd. People were coming from all directions to Constitution Square in the center of Athens. Maria looked around; there were men in suits and men in overalls, women with children, old people and young people standing together. They had come to protest against the Germans.

In 1942 the German army occupied Athens. The people of Athens were starving. The Germans took most of the food supplies from the villages leaving very little for the people of Athens. The Nazi flag waved from the top of the Acropolis, a constant reminder of the hateful Nazi occupation.

Built on a flat topped pedestal of rock, the Acropolis was home to the Parthenon, the marble columns of the beautiful temple were rose colored in the afternoon sunlight and ghostly white at night. Nearby was the small perfect temple dedicated to Wingless Victory, so that victory would never fly away from Athens. The grandeur of the ancient city was shrouded by the German occupation and people were starving.

“We are faced with starvation and slavery and we must fight with all our hearts and our strength, for life and for freedom, so that our people might have bread.” A tall man in overalls announced through a bullhorn. Before he finished speaking, a group of German soldiers came with rifles and chased the crowd away.

Maria saw a man being beaten by a German soldier as she ran with the other girls. Breathless and angry, the girls made their way back to the gymnasio, the junior high school.

“We girls should be able to do something to help our own people,” Maria told her classmates when they were back in the school. The boys are out fighting and the girls are prisoners in their own homes.”

Maria was the only girl in her family. Her two older brothers were in the resistance. Stefanos and Manolis volunteered for the Andartes, they were Greek resistance fighters. When they were in the Greek army, they fought the Italians in Albania. The Greek army was successful in keeping the Italian army from crossing the border into Greece. The people of Greece celebrated their victory with public parades and parties in the streets. But their victory was short lived. Afraid that the Greeks would defeat the Italian army, the powerful German army invaded Greece. Maria’s brothers joined the resistance as soon as they returned home.

The people of Greece were proud of the Andartes, they did everything they could to help them. Nowhere else in Europe did people support their resistance fighters as they did in Greece. Boys in the high school joined student resistance groups in Athens, but there wee no groups that accepted girls. .

Maria was only fifteen years old, but she knew that there were two things she really wanted to do. She wanted to study at the university and she wanted to be part of the resistance. Her quick smile and twinkling brown eyes did not disguise her determination.

“If only there was a girls’ group, I would join in a minute.” Maria remarked to her friends. “Nobody pays attention to girls in Greece.”

Most of the girls in Greece did not go to the senior high school, they left school when they finished the junior high school. Girls from poor families often left before they completed their studies at the junior high school. Maria’s father was a lawyer and was able to afford the tuition for the gymnasio, the high school, but he did not encourage Maria to be serious about her studies.

“You are a scholar yourself. You know about ancient Greece but you won’t talk to me about it. You know I love to read the old Greek myths, but I can’t talk to about them. You just won’t take me seriously.

“You are too serious for a young girl. You fill your pretty head with things that shouldn’t concern you,” he told her.

“Papa, you know that Athens is named after a woman, the goddess, Athena” she reminded him. “She is the symbol of wisdom and intelligence. She could hurl a thunderbolt and protect warriors.”

“Don’t forget that Athena looked to her father Zeus for his wisdom.” Her father said smiling. The tall handsome man with a thick black mustache, was getting impatient. “Don’t forget that Athena carried out her father’s wishes, ” he said.

“She did many things on her own too. She invented the flute and the plow, weaving and other things.”

“Women always make themselves heard. I do not stop you from going to the gymnasio, but I refuse to treat you like a boy,” her father said sternly.

Tossing her long black hair Maria said, “If I pass the examination for senior high school and do well in my studies, will you let me go to the university?”

Her father turned away from her and said under his breath, “The country is in turmoil. Your brothers are living in a forest. Let us have peace and let them come home safely. Now go and help your mother,” he said dismissing her.

“Papa, you didn’t answer my question,” Maria pleaded. “You know I am going to take the examination for the senior high school.” she said, hoping he would not stop her from going to the senior high school.

Maria was one of four girls who took the exam for the Lykea, the senior high school. When her teacher told her she got high marks and was accepted to the Lykea, she could not wait to tell her father. “If only Papa will be happy for me, “she thought as she tried to avoid the German soldiers standing on the street.

The neighborhood where Maria lived was a quiet area. Lovely old houses covered with bougainvillea lined the street. As soon as she opened the door, she could smell the sweet spicy aroma of her mother’s cooking. She put her books down and rushed into the kitchen.

“I’ve been admitted to the Lykea,” she told them. Her mother and grandmother were busy were slicing the tomatoes and onions her grandmother brought to the house. She lived next door to a shopkeeper who managed to bring food to his family and neighbors.”

“If I do well, I’ll be able to go to the university,” she added. Her mother said quietly, “Oh Maria, I’m happy for you. ” Her grandmother jumped up, wiped her hands on her apron and went to hug Maria.
“Poulaka mou, my little bird. I am so proud of you. You’ll be the first girl in our family to go to the Lykea. You have given us something to celebrate tonight.”

“Do you think Papa will let me go to senior high school?

“Of course he will,” her grandmother said.

Papa doesn’t think it is I important for girls to go to school.”

“Your father won’t stop you. He won’t dare,” her grandmother said laughing.

“I still have a little influence on your father,” her mother winked at her and put the dolmathes, the grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat on a tray.

“I could smell the dolmathes as soon as I opened the door. Where did you get all this food? It’s been so l long since we ate dolmathes. Just looking at them makes me hungry. ”

“I just hope they’ll taste like real dolmathes. I had so little meat. Your grandmother brought me the tomatoes, onions and fresh cheese.”

“We are lucky. My friends at school often have nothing but potatoes and bread to eat.” Maria said.

“If only your brothers could be home with us. I just hope they are safe, ” her mother said sadly.

“Maria has given us something to celebrate,” her grandmother reminded her.

“Let’s be happy tonight.”

Maria’s father arrived with her uncle and everyone sat down at the long dining room table. Maria’s mother brought the green salad with fresh cheese, a plate of baked macaroni and the dolmathes to the table.

“We are going to eat a good meal tonight, ” her father said. ” It looks like we are having a celebration.”

“We are celebrating. Maria has been accepted into the Lykea,” her grandmother said proudly.

Maria’s father looked at his daughter. “You are growing up so fast. I am proud that you did so well in school, but I pray that you do not forget you are a young woman who will someday be a loving wife and mother.”

Maria felt her cheeks get hot and knew she was blushing. “Will you let me go to the Lykea, Papa? ” she asked.

“Of course I’ll let you go as long as you don’t take your studies too seriously. Her grandmother winked at her. After dinner, the men went into the parlor and the women cleaned the table, washed and dried the dishes and pots.

Her father and uncle had gone to a protest rally that afternoon to protest against the Nazi plan to send Greek men and boys to work in the factories of Germany. Maria could hear them talking.

“Every day the Nazis think of something else to make us suffer.” Her uncle spoke about the arrests of men in the factory where he worked. Hundreds of workers came to the protest rally.

“If they let women join the resistance, the war would be over faster,” Maria whispered to her grandmother.

“Our Greek traditions are not easy to change. ” Her grandmother told her that when she was growing up, her neighbors made fun of her father for letting her go to school. Maria’s grandmother had been a nurse and was forced to stop working when she married her grandfather.

“In ancient Greece there were women warriors. We don’t even know our own traditions. It’s wrong to keep girls like prisoners in their own homes.” Maria said as she dried the dishes and put them away in the cupboard.

“It’s not just going to school that’s important. I want to do something to help my country.” Maria told her grandmother about the talk at school to form a girls’ group at the high school.

A few weeks later, her teacher announced that a group of the “Free Young Women”, the Eleftheri Nea (EN) was being organized at the school. . Maria went to the first meeting with her friends.

“Girls, Greece needs you,” the teacher explained that the EN was organizing soup kitchens for children in the poorer districts of Athens. Because she was not yet sixteen, Maria had to have a permission form signed by her father.

“It’s not going to be easy to get my father’s permission,” Maria told her friend Diana, one of her best friends. A few months older than Maria, Diana had already signed up for the group.

With the permission form neatly folded in her school bag, Maria thought about how she was going to persuade her father to let her join the EN. She waited until after dinner before telling her father about the group.

After dinner Maria found her father sitting in the parlor. “Papa I have something very important to tell you, ” she said.

Her father put down the book her was reading and sighed.

“What can be so important?” he asked.

“I need your permission to join a girls’ club,” she explained. “We’ll be doing good work. We’re going to organize a soup kitchen and feed hungry children. Most of the girls in the school have signed up already.” Maria gave him the permission form.

“Please let me join. You know yourself how many people are dying from hunger.”

Her father looked at Maria and shook his head. “This looks like a resistance club. It is dangerous for a young girl to join a group like this.”

“It is not dangerous. We are not going to have weapons. We are going to feed hungry children,” Maria insisted. “I have to do something. My brothers are risking their lives. It is not right that you won’t let me do anything. ”

“You are my little girl. I have to protect you. You should not be out of school or the house on your own.. To go anywhere else girls should be accompanied by their fathers or brothers.”

“But Papa, you said you were proud of me for being a good student. Now let me make you proud by doing good things.” Maria said and gave her father a pen.

“You can be so stubborn,” her father shrugged..” I’ll sign on one condition. You must promise that you will be very careful.”

“We are not carrying weapons. We going to organize a soup kitchen and feed poor children.” Her father sighed. “You won’t let me have any peace until I sign, ” he said and signed the permission form.

With the signed permission form, Maria was accepted into the EN. She went to a training session with Diana. The teacher explained how the soup kitchens were to be organized.

“Everyone in the community wants to help. Local storekeepers are giving us some food and we will take it to the school and prepare it in the school kitchen. The girls learned to make cereal and soup.

The next week, Maria and two other girls went to set up a soup kitchen in the school in the poorest district in Athens.

Close to the downtown area of Athens, the school was in a poor neighborhood hidden behind the beautiful Old University complex and the National Museum. Maria and the other girls set off for the school. Walking past the Central Market, Maria could not help but notice how empty the shops were.

“Our families cannot buy the food they want, but here people have no food at all,” Maria said noticing the squalor of the district. The houses were crowded together on the narrow, crooked streets. Windows were broken and garbage littered the streets. The old school building looked broken down too.

Several of the teachers in the school greeted them and showed them where to set up the soup kitchen. A small kitchen was hidden in the back of the school building. It had an old stove where the girls could prepare the food. Maria and the other girls set up a dining room in the school gymnasium. They found some old tables and chairs in the basement and carried them into the gymnasium. They cooked cereal in a big pot and sliced the bread.

Twenty children crowded into the room. As soon as they were seated the girls served them each a bowl of cereal and a slice of bread.

“These children are so hungry. They can’t eat fast enough,”
Maria whispered to another girl as they watched the children empty their bowls and gobble up the bread. Every day more children came to the soup kitchen.

Housewives from the neighborhood came to help and brought what little food they had. Storekeepers supplied them with potatoes and onions and the girls collected greens and mixed them with corn meal to make pancakes for the children.

“Everyone wants to help,” Maria told her mother happily. Her mother gave her flour and chick peas to bring to the school. The soup kitchen was a big success.

Not all the soup kitchens had enough food. In one school where a school official distributed the food, there was so little food that the children left hungry. A group of children broke into the storage area and found chick peas. The girls from the EN cooked them and the school official accused them of telling the children to steal. But the official began to provide more food.

More sand more girls joined the EN, they were girls who worked in factories or just stayed at home as well as students in the high schools. During the summer the EN merged with a larger group called the Enaia Panelladhiki Organosi Neon (EPON), the United Panhellenic Organization of Youth. . Maria continued to work in the soup kitchen and tutored girls who did not know how to read or write.

In the Fall, Maria began her studies at the senior high school. She was now a member of the student group of the EPON. They helped in the soup kitchens, organized protest rallies and wrote slogans on the streets. Diana was a member of the same student group.
Maria and Diana helped to organize protest rallies and recruit other
girls for the soup kitchens. She went to other neighborhoods in Athens and made announcements on streetcorners.

On a sunny afternoon, after she had finished speaking, a group of girls surrounded her. They volunteered to help in the soup kitchens.

Some of the girls in the EPON brought weapons to resistance camps in the hills close to Athens. They stuffed the weapons in their school bags and hiked up the mountainside. Others wrote chalked slogans on the streets.

Four girls went together to write the slogans. Two girls did the writing and the other two stood guard. If they saw a German soldier, the girls standing guard hummed a tune. It was a signal to stop and hide. They knew the people who lived in the neighborhood would not give them away.

Going to protest rallies and recruiting other girls to help in the soup kitchens kept Maria busy. She often had to stay up late at night to complete her school work.

A street battle took place in Kaissarani, a suburb of Athens and many members of the EPON were arrested and sent to the jail. At an EPON meeting the girls were told that a few prisoners understood German and were getting important information. “We’ll bring food to the prisoners and if any of them have something to tell us, we’ll learn more about what the Germans are panning.

Maria volunteered to bring food to the prison. The first time she went to the jail, she was tense and frightened. She had never been to a prison before. She tried to stay calm as she approached the old brick building with its iron gate. She carried a large bag filled with food parcels. And reported to the guard . The guard looked inside the bag and motioned her to come inside.

The air in the old building was musty and Maria found it hard to breathe. She went to the section of the jail where the boys who were members of EPON were and handed out the parcels of food. One fellow whispered to her, “Tell my brother to hide, the Gestapo are planning to raid the factory, where he works.” Maria nodded and moved to the next cell.

Maria delivered food to the jail every week; sometimes she went with another girl. The prisoners often had important messages and she reported them to the leaders of the group as quickly as she could.

Between her school work and work for the EPON, Maria had little time to spend for her family. Her father often asked her about her activities.

“Being in the EPON has given me wings. Now I understand what justice really means. I feel like a real woman now, not just a little girl. ”

“Please be careful. Germans kill girls as easily as boys, ” her father warned her, but he did not stop her.

Maria began to feel closer to her father. His attitude was changing and he showed her more respect. When she was made a leader of the EPON group, her father told her that she was making him very proud.

Without carrying weapons or making a big fuss, the girls in the resistance were on the front lines. They took wounded people to the hospitals, operated soup kitchens, led protest marches and brought food to the fighters. They were developing their own resources and making their own plans. Maria worked hard for the resistance to the very end of the war.

After the war, Maria graduated from the Lykea. With her father’s encouragement, she went to the university and wrote about her experiences in the resistance. She knew that her experience as a resistance fighter liberated her as a young woman.

Harrington, Lyn, Greece & The Greeks, Thomas Nelson, New York, 1962
Hart, Janet, New Voices in the Nation: Women and the Greek Resistacne, 1941-1964. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1996