Oxi Day and “Freedom or Death.” Lest we forget

By John Kass

 

American media doesn’t care much about Oct. 28 and Oxi Day, literally “The Day of the No.”

But I care about it, because a man I loved was there.

Oxi Day, (pronounced O-hee), is the day that Greece said “No” to the Axis powers and changed the course of World War II at terrible cost. On Oxi Day, I think of that man.

My father.

He wasn’t political. Politicians were talkers and he was not much of a talker. He was a boy in the Greek Army then, from the village of Rizes on Oct. 28, 1940, when Mussolini, backed by Hitler, flexed his muscles to reach across Europe.

My father had dreams. He dreamed of coming to America, of becoming an American citizen and raise his children here. He’d heard the stories about the wondrous freedom of America from my grandparents, who’d lived in Chicago for a time. It was all he cared about.

Years later, he’d tell us he wanted to become an American so that we, his sons, could be Americans, “and no one could ever put their boots on your necks and your bellies.”

The sentence does sound odd, as he translated his thoughts from Greek to English, with those boots on those necks and bellies.

Odd, yes, until you realize he’d seen it.

He’d seen enough fascist boots on necks and bellies, including his own, and then came the Communist boots.  I suppose he understood freedom a bit more clearly than those of us who talk and write about it in abstract terms.

But then there was no way for him to become American. And there was no time abstractions, or speeches or dreaming that immigrant dream of America, America. The world was at war. It was a time for killing and trying to survive.

He didn’t much like school, but he did love nature and the natural world. He loved to hunt in the mountains. He knew how to graft fruit trees together to produce finer fruit, and to trap rabbits and birds in snares and find wild onions in the hills, skills that would save his life and those of his comrades.

As a boy he learned to take baby wild nightingales from their nests, and feed them and keep them alive, and to set them in their separate cages he built by hand on the walled family courtyard in the summers. There was a saying in our family’s part of Arcadia, that the caged nightingale never sings. But in the village of Rizes, in papou’s walled courtyard, his nightingales did sing.

Then came Oxi Day and Mussolini’s ultimatum and there was no time for nightingales. It was a time of killing in the mountains, and of starvation.

In the weeks before Oct. 28, 1940, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had gathered his massive war machine on the Greek border with Albania. Mussolini had heavy armor, artillery and tanks. He had thousands of fighter planes and hundreds of thousands of soldiers, well fed and well equipped.

The Greeks were poor. They had none of that. They were outnumbered by 10 to 1. There was no Greek war machine, and no Greek Air Force, just a handful old WWI fighters from which pilots could toss hand grenades out as bombs, but nothing more.

It was then that Mussolini delivered his ultimatum to Greece:

Capitulate and allow the Italian occupation to proceed, and in exchange he would not destroy the country nor slaughter its people.

All the Greeks had to do was kneel to Mussolini in and they would live.

Other nations had capitulated. And now it was Greece’s turn to kneel. The deadline for the ultimatum was set at October 28, 1940. At about 3 a.m. the Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas gave his answer to the Italian ambassador:

“Oxi.”

No.

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone who knew about Greeks, and about Freedom or Death. But some were surprised. There were more surprises to come.

Mussolini attacked. There were only a few thousand Greek soldiers covering a front of some thirty-seven kilometers in the mountains. The people rushed into the streets when they heard about the Oxi, and the lightly armed Greek forces streamed into the snowy mountain passes.

They had small arms, rifles mostly. They fought with those and with their hands, knives, and shovels. Teeth. The fought as they had against the Turks for their independence.

They drove Mussolini’s army off the snow covered mountains and crushed them.

Even so, they were hungry. The Greek Army starved in the mountains for weeks without food.

By then my father had trapped all the rabbits and dug out all the onions for his squad. They made soup from snow and weeds. Soon there were no weeds. A friend of my father’s spotted wild boar tracks in the snow and took a mule to hunt it down and pack it back to the camp.

The man never returned. The giant boar got the man and the mule. Days later, they found the dead mule and the dead boar, and the dead man frozen in the snow.

They ate the boar and the mule.

Hitler was forced to clean up Mussolini’s mistake. His generals were of single mind. To crush what was in their way.

In Crete, the people killed German paratroopers with farm hand tools and axes as they dropped out of the sky and took their guns and killed more. Women and men did the killing. Hitler had to delay his planned attack against Russia. Instead of beginning in early spring, he had to wait for mid-summer.

That delay was extremely critical, and the Russian winter did the rest.

But before that the Germans took the mountains, then the country. My father’s army trudged back home in the cold mud and snow. The German occupation began with a vengeance.

The Germans took all the food for their war effort. The villagers kept some food hidden on their farms, but all of Athens starved as did the other cities. In Athens, mothers were so hungry they abandoned their children. They were so weak. They’d give up and sit in the street and wait for death.

When the Germans left, the Stalin-backed Communists took over and began rounding up the children. In another village near ours, a cousin, a teacher, was gut shot by the Communists, and left to scream near the well. The villagers were told that anyone who approached him or gave him aid would be executed. It took him a day to die.

Eventually Churchill came with the tanks and my father joined the anti-Communist forces in the King’s Palace to put on his uniform again.

There were atrocities on all sides, and even more brutal than fighting against the Germans and Italians, because it was Civil War, and house to house and Greek on Greek, neighbor on neighbor, cousin against cousin, clan on clan.

I was born just 10 years after the end of the Greek Civil War, and never heard the family speak of it, it was so horrific.

But when it was over, after the dead had stopped screaming, after the survivors stopped sobbing, the Greeks were free.

There will be Oxi Day celebrations in Greece and in Washington.

Not all the award recipients are Greeks. They are of many ethnicities and creeds.

But if the past is any guide, the American media will step over this day and avoid it as they’ve avoided it in the past.

Perhaps they prefer happy Greeks, plate breakers and dancers, and so forth, with wine and stories and bouzouki hospitality with honest, open smiles of philotimo. There is that too. But there is also the dark heart, the mountain heart away from the sunny beaches where the tourists go, the heart that understood more than 100 years before what it would take to free themselves from the Turks. It would take this: “Freedom or Death.”

And either way, I can’t step over it. I won’t step over it.

When my father became a U.S. citizen, the federal judge administering the oath asked him if he would take up arms again, against Greece if America needed him to do so. These weren’t just words that he was asked to say. He’d left his blood there. He lost his friends and family. He lost his nation, saw it trampled and fought to regain it.

He lost his youth, his dreams, his hopes.  These were the most difficult words he could imagine.

But he bit his lips, took a deep breath and told the judge, yes, he’d fight for America, his new country, against the country of his birth, the one he’d spent decades fighting for.

If America needed him, he’d fight.

It took years for my brothers and I to muster the courage to ask him why.

“So you’d be free,” he told us. “So no other country can come here and put their boots on your necks.”

On every Oct. 28, on Oxi Day, I think of my father and those like him.

But I think, too, of those born in America who are just like him, men and women who’ve never heard of Oxi Day, people who know that freedom isn’t about oaths and patriotic songs sung on sunny days at football games.

Nor is it about words typed in a column on a cool afternoon in late October.

Lest we forget.

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(Copyright 2021 John Kass)