90 years later, the soldiers sing

Ninety years ago, a considerable Greek community was established in the German city of Gorlitz. They were prisoners of war during World War I, at the regional concentration camp. The Greek captives were not abused but were nevertheless kept at the camp until the war ended. This very touching story, unknown to most and developed within the concentration camp’s confines, is now out for all to see and hear. A phonographic committee, commissioned by the Prussian Kingdom, had visited the camp, looking to record imprisoned foreign musicians. They included Greeks of both urban and rural backgrounds, stretching from the country’s northern region of Macedonia to Crete in the south. All were recorded as part of an envisaged Prussian project for a museum housing cultural documentations from other lands. The museum never came to be because of the ensuing political circumstances following the war, but the recordings were saved at an archive in Berlin. Forgotten and abandoned for decades, they were discovered by Constantinos Toubekis, a 32-year-old German-born film director. He put the material into order, studied it, tracked down relatives of the captives and made a documentary based on this extraordinary subject. Titled «The Miracle of Gorlitz,» the documentary, a 45-minute film produced by ERT (Greek State Radio and Television) with support from Fotos Lambrinos (formerly of the broadcaster’s historical documentaries division) will be screened tonight at the Goethe Institute in Athens, at 8 p.m. Toubekis spoke to Kathimerini ahead of the projection. How did you become aware of this amazing chapter in Greek-German ties? An old colleague had heard something. The information pertained to an old archive, know as the Lautarchiv, in Berlin, containing nearly 4,500 records, including 70 very old Greek recordings. I got access to the archive and studied the material – written and audio – over and over again, to come to understand who these people were. The experience of studying the variety and content of the written documents, as well as the unbelievable early recordings, was captivating. I broke into shivers, literally… In a way, my Greek-German experiences were also revived, as I believe that a part of my nature was shaped by the Germans. As you describe it, was this material known to very few? The records had been digitized by the Humboldt University. But nobody had studied the hundreds of pages of written documents. A recording of a rembetika song sung by Apostolos Papadiamantis, a nephew of [the renowned writer] Alexandros Papadiamantis, was presented in Thessaloniki six years ago. So, some experts in Greece were aware. But, to my surprise, nobody dug any deeper. That’s what I did. I was fortunate to meet an academic in Germany who helped me locate the preserved archive. Some people knew certain things, but nobody had a complete picture, neither in Greece nor Germany. One of the most impressive examples is the city of Gorlitz, itself. There’s the German part and the Polish part. The camps with the Greek soldiers were on the Polish side. Today, nobody knows exactly where the concentration camp was located, except for an elderly lady who led me to the old city’s streets. Why did you want to make this story into a documentary? I’d wanted to make a documentary about Greek-German matters for a while. Of course, when I saw the importance of these recordings, I knew I’d found my subject. I took the production risk alone. The decisive moment came when I started to meet the families in Gorlitz. At times, their personal stories are unbelievable. I quickly realized that I had to fight against time, as those able to remember were very old. As one introduced me to another, I began to break barriers between Germany and Greece. I’m very attached to these families. My aim is to offer a narrative of this captivating story, as Germany and Greece are not connected by many pleasant chapters. So, «The Miracle of Gorlitz» is my contribution to finding alternative routes of a common history. Are you familiar with the contribution of Professor August Heisenberg? I consider him to be one of the 10 most significant figures in German-Greek ties during the 20th century. I wanted to free these recordings and have them heard in Greece, on radio, at schools. Who were these Greeks documented? Most were soldiers who couldn’t read or write. Many were islanders, from the Peloponnese, the mainland, as well as other areas that were liberated. There’s a very interesting story about a soldier from Crete, as his appearance was documented in the only photo saved from the recording sessions. Also, I like another one from Arta who sings great «amanedes» (style hailing from Asia Minor). There’s also a singer from Asia Minor, who possibly had a Byzantine education because he chanted superbly. My favorites are the interpreters of PK933 and PK1004, the first and last records recorded. PK1004 is Apostolos Papadiamantis, whom I referred to earlier. The first is Panagiotis Karamertzanis, who – later on, when he returned – became a lawyer and maintained fertile ties with Germany… One of the soldiers who was very well educated was Christos Theofilidis. He was an officer… We have a society of two classes. I found lots of material which shows that even the Germans, who stuck to a stringent hierarchical system, were surprised by the strict social division among Greek soldiers. What kind of songs did they play? Among the 70 records, we have seven music recordings. The rest are recordings of conversations, stories, gossip, and so on. As for the songs, we have «amanedes,» two classical Byzantine songs, a rembetiko tune played with bouzouki, a Cretan lyra, two very interesting dirges from Mani – traditional, very lovely to listen to, clean and uncontrived, totally pure. The digitization process will be completed in two years. I’m expecting about 70 songs, lots of solo instrumentals with mandolin, flute from Arta, and, possibly, baglamas [a bouzouki-like instrument].