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Sofia Zografou treasures her father's final words on a brittle and yellowing piece of paper – 11 lines, written in pencil. “From the Front on 10/2/41, My dear wife...” says the 84-year-old as she starts to read the missive, pausing on every one of its 60 words as though trying to make it last. The family received regular correspondence of this kind from the battlefield, but this was the last.
Her father was killed just three days after writing this letter, on February 13, 1941. The circumstances are not clear, though fellow soldiers said that he was mortally injured by a shell that exploded right beside him. Nikolaos Zografos's death was not instantaneous, witnesses said. The Hellenic Army's Historical Records Department places the soldier as having died on the battlefield a few kilometers northwest of the eastern Albanian town of Pogradec. To this day, however, his family doesn't know whether or where he was buried.
“No matter how many years go by, you never forget a parent, and especially one like him,” says Zografou.
“I wish I could find out whether anything exists of him, even his bones.”
The task of locating and identifying soldiers who fell in the 1940-1941 Greco-Italian War is long overdue in Greece and for people like Zografou it is an unpaid debt that burdens not just herself, but also other members of the family who know her father only through stories and photographs.
In late January, a joint Greek-Albanian committee launched excavations at the Klisura Pass in Albania and found the remains of two Greek soldiers on the very first day. The search is ongoing and the discoveries are mounting. No official figures have been released yet, but it is estimated that the number of missing Greek soldiers is close to 8,000.
Agathoklis Panagoulias is an economist who has dedicated two decades of his life to researching the casualties of the Albanian front and has a document from the Italian authorities suggesting that hundreds lie in the Klisura Pass area, which the Greeks managed to capture from the Italians in a major battle in mid-January 1941. “When the war ended, the Italians collected the bodies of the Greeks and buried them in the valley,” he says.
Zografou has been motivated by these findings and has given Greek authorities a sample of her DNA in the hope that one day they will make a match with her father's remains. The first samples of genetic material from victims' relatives were collected in 2015 by the Molecular Biology Center of the 401 General Military Hospital of Athens, but the launch of the search operation in January has prompted dozens of relatives to come forward.
“We have an obligation to these men, even now, because their blood flows in our veins,” says 59-year-old Eleni Athanasiadou, Zografou's daughter.
She never met her grandfather but has heard all sorts of stories about him which never fail to move her. As the cases of families who lost people in the 1974 invasion of Cyprus have shown, loss is a feeling that can be passed down from generation to generation.
“Everyone regards October 28 [1940, when Greece rejected an Italian ultimatum and entered World War II] as a holiday, but in our household it's an emotionally charged day,” she says. “It's not that we're in mourning – that would be an exaggeration – but there is something that seems to burn deep inside us.”
The location reported as being where her grandfather died is a long way from the area where the current search effort is taking place, but there is no information concerning where he may have been moved or buried.
“They were buried next to each other, head to toe, like a zipper, in a string of makeshift graves,” says Michalis Polymiadis, a man who went in search of his great-uncle's remains at the same location in 2011, where, like Zografos, he had served in the 22nd Infantry Regiment.
However, Polymiadis later learned that the remains of the dead in that area had been disinterred several years earlier and were probably kept in unmarked church ossuaries.
Nikolaos Zografos was born on the eastern Aegean island of Lesvos in 1911. The father of two was known for his artistic skills and painted icons for several churches on his native island.
Sofia was his youngest daughter and was 6 years old when her father was shipped off to war. She remembers watching the trucks picking up the island's young men, people crying and her own farewell to her father at the port of Mytilene.
“I ran to him and hugged his boot. ‘Why are you leaving? Will we ever see you again?’”
Later, with her mother, sister and other fellow villagers, they stood at the top of a hill in Kleio and watched the ships sail away with her father and the other men of the 22nd Infantry Regiment. “They were full of boys. All the youngsters went.”
Then came the letters. Only two survive: The first – which was written on the army's official correspondence form, which had a message on the front warning the soldier from making any mention of the locale from which he was writing in case the letter fell into enemy hands – and the last, written on a simple sheet of paper.
In his letters, Zografos never divulged details concerning the campaign but tried to comfort his wife and assure her he was well. “Don't worry,” he wrote in his final letter, three days before his death.
A few days after receiving this one, the family got another letter in the post from a fellow infantryman telling them that Zografos had been killed. His wife didn't believe the news: “How can he be dead? He just wrote to me,” Sofia remembers her mother saying.
War Bulletin Number 110 that Kathimerini had published a day after his death, on February 14, 1941, referred to Greek victories but not the casualties of battle, saying that the enemy was pushed back and 400 prisoners of war were taken. It also said that an enemy fighter plane was downed and all Greek aircraft returned safely to base.
Sofia also had trouble digesting the news. “At that time, my sister and I were getting red coats made for us by the seamstress. When the news of our father's death came, they dyed them black. That's when we cried: when we understood that our daddy wasn't coming back,” she says.
The next few years were difficult and Sofia remembers other children making fun of her for not having a father. At school parades on national holidays, moreover, she was placed in a special category with other children who had lost their fathers.
To this day, she remembers the figure of another veteran of the Albanian front in the village who had lost his left leg from the knee down. “We'd see him walking along on his crutches and my mother would say, ‘I wish my husband had come back, whatever his condition.’”