Belogiannis and the Greek Village

Belogiannis and the Greek Village

The first policeman turned to his colleague. He wore a worried expression.

“We’ve really lost this, haven’t we Gianni?”

Giannis in his shabby policeman’s uniform looked round at the crowds spilling over the pavements, crowding round the Prime Minister of Greece, pushing at him, manhandling him, jostling him along the street.

“Yes…” he squinted. “I think we probably have…”

Giannis took off his peaked police hat and rubbed at his sweat-streaked forehead with the heel of his hand and looked up morosely to the skies.

Greece’s Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, had come here to my small adopted home town of Amaliada down in the west of Peloponnese to open a museum for local-born Nikos Belogiannis. The police force of the town had never had to deal with an event of such a magnitude in the sleepy streets before. Tsipras was lurched and shouldered further along down the road, past the faded pink building of Belogiannis’ old home.

*

Nikos Belogiannis is a hero of the Greek Left. He was a great figure in the Greek communist resistance to the Nazi occupation in the country during the Second World War, fighting bravely up in the northern lands of Greece. By 1944 the Germans were in retreat, Belogiannis and the communists had been instrumental in liberating Greece, and it looked now as if the country could even become a communist governed country… However, American and British imperialistic machinations soon put an end to this idea. And put Greece on the road to civil war.

The Greek Army, backed by the Americans, desperate to keep a foothold in the Balkans and on the Mediterranean, fought pitched battles with Greek Communist Army, fighting with them viciously and destructively throughout the land for five long years. The country, already ravaged by the years of starvation and hardship of the Nazi rule was brought to its knees. The communists were ultimately defeated and Belogiannis arrested. The trial was a farce. A show trial which Belogiannis knew would always end in his execution.

“We love Greece and its people,” he said from the stand. “We love them more than our accusers. This was why we struggle – so that our country will see better days, without hunger, without war.”

On March 30th 1952, Belogiannis was taken from his cell to Goudi Park. On a scrap of wooded land, under the glare of the truck’s headlights, he was shot dead. He was executed quickly, in the middle of the night, to prevent unrest stirring up in Athens. Nevertheless, condemnation rang out around the world. Politicians, prominent figures, celebrities from Satre to Charlie Chaplin condemned the brutal actions. Pablo Picasso was so moved at the unjust nature of Belogiannis’ fate he drew his famous portrait – The Man with the Carnation. The legend of Belogiannis would last through the years.

In the 1960s Greece was living under its harsh military dictatorship – Georgios Papadopoulos, who had actually sat on Belogiannis’ joke jury.  In April 1967 the Rolling Stone played at Panathinaikos’ stadium. Mick Jagger, flouncing in usual fashion on the stage threw flowers out into the crowd. The dictatorship police thinking the flowers carnations and thinking of Belogiannis and thinking it a gesture of leftist solidarity, stormed the crowd. Rioting and a smashing of the stadium and hundreds of arrests followed. Greece and its clashing politics – always a storm ready to blow.

*

Giristroula and I were sat in a silver people carrier with three old ladies and a Hungarian MP. The car swerved up onto the pavement in front of Budapest’s huge People’s Park and another gang of old Hungarian ladies, and one solitary, happy-looking, old man joined us in the packed car. They were all speaking Greek. It was the 30th of March.

Driving the car was Laokratis, a Hungarian MP who sat in the Greek parliament, representing the over 4,000 Greek descendent living in Hungary today. The old timers in the car were some of these Greek descendants. All of them were brought to Hungary during the Greek Civil War. Some of them as orphans, some with their families. Though one of the old ladies told me that as children they were all initially taken away from their parents.

“We were put up in the old aristocrats’ deserted homes to begin with,” the white-haired, sturdy old woman said as we bounced along the wide roads leading out of Budapest. “It was very exciting. The big homes that were taken from their owners by the Communists, we had them all to ourselves!”

But it was in these dilapidated grand old houses, she explained, that they were given strict psychological testing. Only months later were they finally allowed to join the other Greek refugees in the village we were now heading towards.

South of Budapest, passing over the beginning of the Great Hungarian Plains, the land was flat and bare and stark on all sides of the car. After just 40 minutes though, we pulled off the main road, bumped over a railtrack, and there standing proudly were two town signs in different languages on a post just a few meters before a heavy-set Greek Orthodox Church: ‘Μπελογιάννης’ – ‘Beloiannisz’. Built in the early 1950s, this village was created from nothing to house those who had had to flee from their home country of Greece due to the reprisals at the end of the Civil War. Communists who had fought with the beaten EAM army experienced vicious reprisals in their country. These violently dispossessed Greek communists families were welcomed in by countries behind the new Iron Curtain recently drawn across Europe. But only in Hungary was a complete Greek village built solely for the Greeks who had been made to leave their homelands.

We drove into Beloiannisz village. When the village was completed it was originally named Görögfalva – simply meaning ‘Greek Village’ in Hungarian – but soon it was renamed after the great hero of the communist side in the civil war, the man who had only recently been brutally executed in Goudi park. We were visiting this place specially on this day as it was the anniversary of Belogiannis’ death. Giristroula’s mother, as MP for Amaliada, had been invited to the village, but Giristroula’s mother was at this very moment lying desperately ill on the top floor of Athens’s Evangelismos hospital. She had begged her daughter to attend this occasion in her place. Giristroula hadn’t wanted to leave her mother’s bedside, but her mother had made it clear just how important it was to have someone from the family to represent her here. It was not just a political duty, it was something more deep in the blood than that. Giristroula’s grandfather had fought alongside Belogiannis up in the mountains of Epirus. It was a family honour to be here. And so here we were. Climbing out of the silver People Carrier into a chilly Hungarian late afternoon. The main square of the village had a sign up – Amaliada Square.

They were setting up speakers on the bright patterned tiles. Playing Greek music, getting ready for a presentation. I was stood next to another old lady. She was looking down the arrow straight road – Odos Athena the street sign said in Greek,  Athén u it said below in Hungarian. The lady looked upset.

“Are you ok? I asked her. Then realised I should try “Ola kala?

She took my hand. “I helped build this village…” she said.

She explained, in Greek to Giristroula, that when younger she had been taken from her family as a teenager in Epirus, in northern Greece in 1948. She was one of the Greeks here who, after they were given this small plot of land by the Hungarians, built the houses, the town hall, the school, the bakery. She came back every year on the day of Belogiannis death. Every year it upset her.

Giristroula and I took a walk down the roads to see the village. The dusty straight road led – in both directions – pretty much nowhere. Other unerringly straight roads crossed over, in dull parallel lines: they also led out into just cold bare countryside. Some kids cycled past: the first few talking Hungarian, the kids behind talking to each other in Greek. The village hadn’t really been built in Greek style. The houses were flat and one storey and actually rather Hungarian-looking. And it couldn’t really be called a beautiful place. We walked along the broken down fences: junk heaped in the yards, broken down Eastern European cars rotting next to grim houses, livid dogs on chains barked and bared teeth at us and sang a horrible tune into the air as we passed. Having exhausted all options in the village, we came back to the main square. The old lady was still there.

“It is a very nice village, no?” she said “This village has money,” she puffed-out proudly. “Other villages in Hungary are very poor. Oh, you would be very disappointed if you saw them…”

The crowds were starting to gather in the square now. Many of the Greek descendants of the village – over half of the 1,000 or so who lived here still called themselves Greeks – plus other Greeks from all over Hungary. They milled in front of the town hall. Giristroula and I went and had a look inside. It was cold as a freezer. All along the walls were framed black and white photos of the village being built. Greeks set down here, a thousand miles away from their homes, with shirts off, rudimentary tools in hand, laying bricks, digging trenches. All of them seemed to have a look on their faces of apprehension – of a loss – but also of a fierce determination.

Upstairs we went through a door and found a room bursting full of racks and racks of Greek traditional costumes: elaborate karagounas dresses – all hanging down, as colourful as a queen on a playing card. Fustanella men’s skirts. Embroidered jackets. Greek tasselled caps on shelves. Fezzes. It was a vivid, bizarre sight. We left the town hall and stepped back onto the square and walked straight into an old, tall, Hungarian peasant. A long holey coat, straw beard streaked with tobacco stains, mad hair under a Russian hat with ear flaps. He stared at us with wild eyes.

Szia,” I said – hello – one of only the few words of Hungarian I’d picked up since we’d been there.

Ya sas,” he said back, in a perfect Greek accent.

The presentation on this day of Beloginnis’ death was about to begin. Speeches were being made of his heroism, the struggle of the Communist fighters in Greece, the burdens they had suffered building this town, the pain of being banished so far from their homelands. Garlands were placed at the memorial for Nikos Belogiannis.

“And we have two people from Belogiannis’ town of Amaliada here today,” the mayor of Beloiannisz said into the microphone. “They should come and speak to us…”

Unexpectedly Giristroula and I were pushed to the front. Giristroula apologised for her mother’s absence. She talked of the museum in Nikos Belogiannis’ old house and how Beloiannisz village and Amaliada are sister towns and that Amaliada will always be there to help them if ever they can. The crowd looked touched. As if moved at the connection between the two nations, linked by this one man. Then they all looked towards me. It was clear they expected me to say something. There was a long drawn-out pause as the villagers of Beloiannisz stared. Children poked heads round parents’ legs. A huge waiting silence. A few small coughs from the back. I couldn’t think of what to say. I looked across the crowd gathered on the square dedicated to the town back in Greece I’d adopted as mine. I stepped forward.

Zito O Belogiannis!” I boomed into the mic.

There was another long howl of silence. A crow cackled somewhere on the cold roofs. And then someone at the front of the crowd slowly started clapping. Then another joined in. A few more. The clapping slowly got louder and louder.

Zito O Belogiannis!” the crowd shouted.

Everyone cheered.

Zito!

The mayor told me I was the first Englishman to have come to the village. He introduced me to some of the old timers, men who had been here since the village’s conception.

“You would have loved this town,” said one. “There were four kafeneia on this square. Four! Ah we had such good parea. Dancing, music. Such good kefi,” he shook his head in happy memory. “Now we just have the one kafeneo in the town,” said another man. “Now that we have more Hungarians here…well…you know. Hungarians are a bit more psyhroi than us Greeks. A bit more closed…”

The Greeks of Beloiannisz were allowed to travel. Unlike the Hungarians in the other towns or villages, or in Budapest, the Greeks were granted more freedoms. They were also sent money from back home. It seemed what the old lady told me was true, this village was richer than other Hungarian villages, and the Greeks here still are. I saw that Laokratis, the MP for these displaced Greeks and Greek descendants, who amazingly had his seat in the Greek parliament in Athens, had brought some clothes with him in the car down here. I had thought perhaps they were for the Greeks, but no – he brought them for the Hungarians who had moved in to the village.

One thing the Greeks weren’t allowed though was to practice their religion. However, once Communism fell in the early 90s the Greeks of Beloiannisz found themselves finally free to embrace a religion that many had forgotten, some hadn’t even known. They constructed an Orthodox church here in 1995. Traditional Byzantine tower, cruciform shaped, iron gates with the two-headed eagles looking east and west. Laokratis and a few of the village elders told us there was to be a service in the church, celebrating the recently passed March 25th – Greece’s great day of independence from the Turkish empire. We were told we really must go to this too.

The church inside, with its newly painted icons on the walls and the ceiling of the sanctuary was a little tacky. The Orthodox priests had been bussed in from Budapest, and didn’t speak Greek – only ancient Greek for the liturgy. I was no expert myself in matters of Orthodox procedure, but I could see the village folk really didn’t know much more than me. They mouthed the words, seemed unsure when to cross themselves and when to stand or sit. But they were utterly earnest in their participation in these fairly recently initiated practices, perhaps even a little over-keen. But they just didn’t have that natural, unthinking movements, the religious muscle-memory of those back in Greece. It had all been learned from scratch, and it seemed an effort.

Outside the church was an extraordinarily Hungarian looking man. Tall, upright, flaptop haircut, sad eyes and a huge dropping Magyar moustache. He had been waiting a little stiffly outside the church for the service to end. He was the local MP for this area. Unlike Laokratis, this man represented all the citizens in this area, not just the Greeks, and sat in the Hungarian parliament not the Greek. There was an election coming up in Hungary and he had made an appearance here today to curry favour with the Greek community. He came with us back to a building next to the town hall, on one of the sides of Amaliada Square. This was the Greek Cultural Centre. Inside it was impressive, with a stage and a good-looking hall set up with rows and rows of seats. The children of the village were going to put on a performance here to celebrate March 25th. I took a seat and nodded to the old man next to me. He told me his name was Zisis, and he was originally from Kastoria in northern Greece. He was the old mayor of this town and was one of the very first to come and build the village as a young man.

The hall was decorated with portraits of Greek heroes. Kolokotronis and Bouboulina. Heroes who had driven the Turks out of Greece two centuries ago. The lights went down, we all stood and the national anthems were sung. First we got the Hungarian one, it was mumbled through without much effort. Then the Greek anthem struck up – everyone stood upright and sang hard and loud with gusto. Fists clenched, chest flung forward. The curtains opened and the village school teacher was surrounded by her youngest children. All dressed in Greek karagouna costumes. These five or six-year old kids were word perfect, telling us the story of the Greek fight for independence. They were followed by students performing dance after dance. All brilliantly dressed, all the moves carried off expertly. The girls dancing syrtaki and kalamatiano. The older boys, red sashes round their shoulders, billowing white shirts, leaping head-high in the air, brushing the imaginary dust contemptuously off their pom-pomed shoes as they fell, landing lightly on the stage. Jumping onto their friends and hanging suspended with their legs wrapped round the other’s waists.

All these Greek dances, all these Greek stories. Could these kids – three generations, at least, away from Greece – really understand what it all meant? They had obviously been raised on a steady diet of Greek culture, that much was obvious, and the amount of practice they must put in for these dances… but could it really mean anything to them?

Zisis leaned in close to me and told me something.

“Most of them up there are Hungarians you know…”

I was amazed by this. I had understood that the Greek decedents here would want to follow their culture, keep a link to their history, but the Hungarians who moved into this village later as well? They seemed keener, more intense on celebrating March 25th then many of those back in Greece. It was quite astonishing.

As the dances and songs continued, I made my way outside for a breather. Rain splattered the square. The light from the cultural centre door threw itself over the wet black paving stones. I noted that the only people outside now in the dark, milling around in the rain, a few of them drinking dripping cans of beer, looking enviously and listening to the music coming from the well-lit, warm building, were Hungarians. In the hallway I talked to one of the teachers at the local school. She told me originally Greek was taught in the school. All lessons in Greek, and in the afternoon the students learnt Hungarian privately. As the dynamics of the village started to change and more Hungarians came to live here, it reversed and lessons were conducted in Hungarian and Greek was taught in private lessons in the afternoons.

“Now, thanks to him” the school teacher said, nodding over at Laokratis “The school teaches both Greek and Hungarian. Equally.”

Why would the Hungarians want that, I asked. I was genuinely curious as to why they would learn a whole new language in their own country.

“We tell them ‘If you learn the language and if you can learn the culture… this is all you need. You will become a Greek… And they love it! They love the idea of becoming Greeks.”

I talked to Laokratis after the performance, as we walked over to a reception and a great Greek feast that had been laid out in another building off the square.

“Most people I talk to in Hungary realise I’m not quite a Hungarian,” he said to me. “After all this time, nearly my whole life here. When I’ve spoken to them for a while people will look at me, a little confused, and say ‘…and so where are you from?’ I tell them ‘Eh… it’s a very long story…”

One old man and his wife were sat at the dinner. The way people talked to him, gathered round him, fetched them both food and drinks, it seemed clear this man was somebody very respected in this village. I went over to talk to him, and I found out he was the very last survivor in the village of those who had actually fought in the Greek civil war. Both him and his wife were quite the sweetest pair you could ever meet. Somewhere in their late 80s or early 90s, seemingly still hopelessly in love with each other. They sat and chatted to me – me an outsider with my miserable, slow, Greek. They looked at me with patient, kind faces as I stumbled. And when I had got my words right and asked them about the war back in Greece, of course they didn’t really want to talk about this at all.

“Ah, our eyes have seen such things…” said the old woman. She held my hand tight and kissed it as if to say, that’s enough. No more.

*

In the 80s Greece experienced great changes in their society. The socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou came into power and the country altered radically and for ever. One of the changes was that those who had fought for the Communists in the civil war were finally pardoned and were allowed to come back into Greece. It was then that the Beloiannisz village really changed. Hundreds of Greeks left the village, their empty houses taken by the Hungarians. As we headed back towards Budapest in the fast dark that had settled down over the Plains, one of the old women being ferried back to the captial told me that actually, for many of them, it wasn’t the dream return to their home country they’d always thought of.

“Hungary was not so bad in Communist times you know,” she said. “We could buy food, we had a good education, good health. But Greece… Greece was different in the 80s. Greece was in love with money then. Many of those who left Beloiannisz found it very hard to cope in Greece. Many came back. Disillusioned, disappointed. Beloiannisz was a good place to have lived…”

The old woman looked out of the car window. She breathed out and smiled sadly to herself in the reflection. Budapest started to emerge around us. The lights and the buildings lay in shattered forms all along the wet pavements.

*

Back in Amaliada, down in Greece, Giannis the policeman had given up.

He sat on the kerb watching the mob shout and push at the prime minister of the country. Giannis’ officers’ cap lying on the pavement next to him. He lit a cigarette in his mouth and watched, defeated, smiling ruefully to himself, as the people cried out to Tsipras. One man lifting a thin-looking goat high in the air above the heads for Greece’s premiere to inspect. Some in the crowd wanted photos, others wanted to curse and swear as loudly as they could at Tsipras. Two old men sat on an outside table refused to acknowledge the commotion at all, or allow it to ruin their midday ouzos, resolutely not moving as the hordes surged round them, plopping olives in their mouths without a care.

Few here really seemed to know much about Nikos Belogiannis and his place in history. And fewer still knew of Beloiannisz village back in Hungary. But the people of Beloiannisz think of them. And they think of Greece. For them it stays, like a dream that they can almost hold.