Saturday, September 7, 2013

Good Morning, Gytheio. Time to Wake Up.

Writer nearby the Entrance to Hades

Once upon a time in a far, far, far away land there lived a fair Queen.

Sorry, Mykonos, this isn’t about you.  I’m focusing on the Peloponnese, Greece’s southernmost mainland peninsula about the size of the American state of Massachusetts; though I guess these days it’s technically an island after the four-mile long (by only seventy-feet wide) Corinth canal severed it from the rest of Greece in 1893.

Think picture perfect harbor, nestled up against the Aegean’s Laconian Gulf halfway along the eastern coast of the middle prong of the trident-shape southern tip of the Peloponnese (make it easy, look at the map).  I’m talking about Gytheio, largest town in the southernmost Peloponnese region of the Mani and municipal seat of East Mani.

Twenty-five-hundred years ago this spot served as the port for nearby ancient Sparta, and during Roman times it thrived as an export center for such valuable commodities as the deep purple dye so revered by royalty that it gave rise to the phrase, “born to the purple.” 

But in the early Third Century BCE, Gytheio’s reign as a port center ended in a massive earthquake.  It remained abandoned, serving as but a small village, until refugees from Greece’s 1821 War of Independence escaping to the Mani brought with them the renewed growth that ultimately returned Gytheio to glory in the 1960s with its new port.

To the the ancient Spartans—and Greek classicists—this area wasn’t known as Gytheio but as Cranae, the name of a tiny, arrow-shaped island two hundred yards from shore at the southern end of Gytheio’s modern harbor.  From Cranae, ancient Sparta launched its ships (a bit of a hint for those who haven’t already guessed the soon to arrive punch-line).   

Today, Cranae connects to Gytheio by a narrow, two-hundred yard-long concrete causeway, is approximately five-hundred yards-long, east-to-west, by one hundred yards wide at its broadest point, and is made up primarily of dirt, rocks, and pine trees.

Aside from a couple of fishing shacks (and I do mean shacks), and a taverna and restaurant close by the island end of the causeway, only three structures remain standing on Cranae:  A lighthouse at its eastern edge, Saint Petros (Peter) Church on its western end looking across the sea back at the harbor town (a very popular site for weddings), and roughly equidistant between the two, a four-story stone tower built in 1829 later expanded to house the Historical and Cultural Museum of Mani (currently closed because of the financial crisis). [Cranae photos by Panos Kazanells]

Cranae Lighthouse
Mani Museum
St. Petros Church

So, where’s the Queen fit into all of this, you ask?  I’ll let Homer tell you.

NO, NOT HOMER SIMPSON, Everett.  The other teller of tales.   The Iliad names Cranae as the spot where Queen Helen of Sparta and her abductor, Paris of Troy, spent their first night fleeing Helen’s husband King Menelaus of Sparta, in the process giving Homer the story line for the world’s best known epic tale of romance, action, and intrigue, catchy phrases for advertising execs such as “The face that launched a thousand ships,” “Trojan horse,” etcetera, and Peter O’Toole the chance to make a movie with Angelina Jolie’s (not yet?) husband.


But there’s another story to Gytheio.  World War II took a great toll on this region.  In 1942 merciless bombing devastated the area—skeletons of bombed out buildings can still be found along some hillsides—and its villages were among the first wiped out by the Nazis in reprisals for partisan attacks on German soldiers.   Along the roadside between Gytheio and modern Sparti are monuments erected to the memory of those murdered Greeks

As one villager told me, “A lot of family trees lost entire limbs to the Nazis.  They did almost as much harm to us as the Turks, but in a hell of a lot less time.”

So, I have a question:  With so much suffering endured by their ancestors at the hands of the Nazis, why is there looming above Gytheio’s central harborfront square a banner proclaiming that location as The Mani’s headquarters for Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn), the neo-Nazi political party in Greece’s parliament openly praising the architects of Nazi methods that once brought so much suffering and death to so many of their countrymen and to Gytheio in particular?

I’m not going to suggest an answer. That’s too easy to address with a nod, a shake or a shrug.  No, I’d rather you think about an answer.  And to help get you started, here’s a story reported in the US by National Public Radio on September 4, 2013 on the impact the rise of Golden Dawn is having on the tiny population of Greek Jews that remains after 87% of their 67,000 population saw extermination by the first round of Nazis to take a shot at destroying Greece. 

It portends a future no thinking or remembering Greek could want.  For it is guaranteed to end in tears. 

Xronia Pola and L’Shana Tova.



  1. I've never been a Simpson's follower, but thanks for thinking of me, Jeff. :-)

    Great column. I especially like the (intentional or not) bookends of "Writer nearby the Entrance to Hades" at the beginning, and the mention of Golden Dawn at the end. Truly frightening, but 'we' ARE doomed to repeat history, it seems...

    1. Thanks, Everett, but let's hope not...I mean the part about doomed.

  2. I love the column, but not the article. These kinds of things still bring tears to my eyes. Your Greece is so beautiful. How to stop the ugliness? We need to smile and love together-that's all we have,isn't it? L'Shana Tova to you and yours.

    1. Thanks, Lil. By far the overwhelming number of Greeks who know what Golden Dawn truly stands for are vehemently against them. The trouble is many only know this wolf in its sheep's clothing...passing out free food, walking old people through bad neighborhoods, blaming "foreigners" for all their ills. They need to be exposed for what they really are...but those who should be doing just that aren't.

  3. We aren't doomed to repeat history. If we are doomed by anything it is human nature's desire to find someone else on which we can pin the blame for our own shortcomings, failures. Germany lost WW I and blamed Jewish bankers rather than their inept military. The United States is embroiled in two wars because George W. Bush wanted a war. Barack Obama gets blamed for everything from those wars, to the economy, to the rain that fell somewhere on Tuesday because he is black. The economy tanked because the banks sold the hopeful on a hopeless mission but they aren't punished and they are making even more money. Golden Dawn may be like the Nazis but those who remember the occupation are few. Young people, educated, see their futures destroyed before they even start because those in control of those futures are only interested in protecting themselves. In the United States, there is no longer a guarantee of upward mobility. In the US, children always believed that they had the possibility of doing better than their parents. Now so many are moving back to their childhood homes because they can't afford two bedroom apartments that rent for $2200.00 a month. And, so, instead of blaming the rich who control the government, they blame immigrants because the right bombards them with the lies that these people are the cause of their dissatisfaction. My generation, our generation, may have to blame ourselves for thinking it was always going to be easy.


    1. I'm reminded of an adage, Beth, that I shall now badly misquote:

      "All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good to do nothing."

      Not sure into which category I fall, but it brings to mind some advice I like to follow in such circumstances: "Not on my watch."

  4. The right wing is very manipulative and is blaming immigrants and probably Jews, for the terrible economic, job loss, cuts in public services. So, sure blame other people who can be singled out, instead of looking at the real economic roots of the crisis.

    They do that here, too, with the Tea Party's racism, anti-immigrantism, sexism and homophobia, and still-existing anti-Semitism.
    And who's behind that as funders, the right-wing Koch brothers, billionaires, whose father was a leader in the racist, anti-Semitic John Birch Society.

    I know there are progressive forces in Greece who are working to combat this xenophogbia, as I've read about some, including right here.

    In Germany, there were millions of progressive people, but the Nazis were able to gain power by all of their propaganda, manipulation, lies, blaming certain groups for the economic crisis, using the media, whipping up super-patriosism, etc., then wiping out civil liberties and jailing any opponents.

    It's going to take a really big, unified, strong anti-right-wing movement to set back the neo-Nazis in Greece.

    I remember years ago in France when the ultra-right National Front was acting out its vile program, that one million people marched in Paris, people of all classes, nationalities, backgrounds marched together and it set back the rightists' worst behavior.

    Now, of course, during the economic crisis, they're at it again and they're attacking immigrants, rather than Jews, but the anti-Semitism is still there.

    It takes people coming together in unity and strength to set back the racists.

  5. Kathy D, the political philosophy of "Do, but deny, and do but deny again," is not new. It's been successfully pursued for eons by those who share one common trait: They know that by adhering to a nationalistic facade and giving their their adherents the "red meat" rhetoric they want to hear, the vast majority will believe what they say and not their true agenda. Power, not truth, is all that matters. Id., See note to Beth, above.

  6. Yes. The ultra-right knows how to prey on people's poverty and vulnerabilities and hides its real agenda. But in Greece, Golden Dawn isn't hiding their agenda, are they? They're attacking immigrants, including store keepers, business owners, scapegoating people. I've read that here as well as in the media, including the NY Times.

    I'm not sure who you mean who know who they are should be exposing them but aren't. Aren't immigrant rights and human rights' groups and other progressive organizations exposing Golden Dawn for who they are?

    It is discouraging if that isn't happening, but I had the impression they have been exposed. Do you mean their neo-fascist aims aren't brought up?

    1. "Aren't immigrant rights and human rights' groups and other progressive organizations exposing Golden Dawn for who they are?"


      Exposing doesn't in and of itself achieve. It takes those with real authority to act. The individual you're talking about was stripped of his parliamentary immunity but as far as I know nothing further on that score. Other charges against him for a previous alleged assault on a university professor were dismissed for lack of evidence.

      By the way, the woman he assaulted is reviled by many and he received 6000 Facebook likes within a day after the assault! Golden Dawn has very astute propagandists and with so many police supporting them, are acting with impunity...thinking the government too weak to seriously challenge them.

  7. Okay, I was holding it together until I read about the 94-year-old retired dentist who is the only still living Greek Jew former Resistance fighter. Now I'm tearing up.

    So, what's happening? Aren't people speaking out? Those I mentioned above?

    I know about the Golden Dawn people in Parliament, one who actually physically assaulted two women Parliamentarians.

    1. The actual episode occurred during a television debate where he responded to her referring to his upcoming assault trial by throwing water and slapping....he then escaped "police" custody...

  8. My reading of it was that the Golden Dawn guy actutally assaulted two women parliamentarians.

    I agree. It is outrageous that the government is allowing these guys to get away with violence in all forms, that they're not arrested, tried, convicted and jailed.

    The guy in Parliament should not have been allowed to remain in that body after the assaults.

    I remember reading in U.S. history, during the scourge of slavery when a pro-slavery senator beat up an abolitionist senator on the U.S. Senate floor.

    The government should take sction, true.

    And then I read about goings-on over here, which haven't risen to physical assaults, but where Supreme Court justices roll their eyes and shake their heads and make comments when 80-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsberg is rendering a decision. Or when Congress members yell out while the president is speaking, etc.

    And, when Tea Partiers yelled epithets and spat at members of the Congressional Black Caucus and yelled at a gay, Jewish Congressperson -- or brought guns to Town Hall meetings. And it goes on.