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In a single room at the Church Nursing Home of Stylida, in central Greece, 90-year-old Vasso Stamatiou keeps a sketch in a file of photographs from her youth. It is not clear when exactly she drew it but it depicts a distant and extremely painful memory: human bodies jumbled together, stiff with rigor mortis. Even though she was not a member of the Greek Jewish community, seven decades ago she was among them as a prisoner at Auschwitz concentration camp.
“When we arrived at the camp we saw the crematoria. The girls and I thought that at least we'd eat well here – it had bakeries, it had bread – because we were very hungry in Yugoslavia where we were held prisoner before,” says Stamatiou.
“In the meantime we saw these creatures that weren't like human creatures at all. They looked like skeletons, their hair shorn short, wearing scarves on their heads and striped clothes. We thought that maybe we had been brought here to take care of these sick creatures. We were ignorant. We couldn't imagine that we were going to end up the same way.”
Since then she has carried the number 82224 imprinted on her left arm; her number at the Nazi death camp.
North of Stylida, in the town of Volos, 93-year-old Nikos Samouris has a similar tattoo on the same arm from the same time. He lost four fingers, when German soldiers shot at his retreating figure in 1945 as he escaped from them in Upper Austria. He spent two months hiding in the forest, tending his wound as best he could, until he was discovered by Russian troops. His injured fingers had to be amputated. “I wonder how I even survived,” he says.
Samouris was also among the Greek non-Jews who were taken to the Nazi camps, though the total number of such prisoners remains unknown. They were mainly Greeks who were in the military or had been accused of resistance or leftist-communist beliefs. There were, however, cases of people who fit none of these descriptions yet shared the same fate because they had been pointed out by some member of the security battalions or another to the occupation forces as being a “subversive element.”
Kathimerini visited Stylida and Volos to meet with the two survivors and hear their story of imprisonment and torture, but also of the difficult homecoming they experienced.
Even today there are facets in their stories, difficulties and obstacles they encountered at their new start in a Greece divided by civil war, that they have not discussed before in any depth. The two survivors did not just need to come to grips with the traumatic experiences of the concentration camps, which for years they tried to push aside so they could focus on rebuilding their lives. Despite what they had been through – like so many other Nazi prisoners – when they returned to Greece they were shunned by many.
On March 28, 1944, the Gestapo turned up at the home of freshman law student Vasso Stamatiou on Tsimiski Street in Thessaloniki. Three days before her arrest, the young woman had been part of an attempted protest during celebrations of Greece's independence day. “Any expression of freedom was forbidden by the Nazis. As soon as we stepped out into the street, the Germans started shooting in the air to frighten us and disburse us; and this is what happened. I was among the first ones there. Did I attract their attention? Was I betrayed? I don't know,” she says.
She was initially taken to the Pavlos Melas camp outside Thessaloniki. She wrote letters to her parents, trying to reassure them.
Three days later she was taken to a prison in Yugoslavia along with another 22 Greek girls and women, and from there to Auschwitz. She had never heard of the place, nor did anyone tell her what to expect. Her tribulations were about to begin.
“They cut our hair and they'd torture the ones with pretty hair the most,” says Stamatiou, showing us an old photograph of herself. She had blonde wavy hair and they made her suffer for it.
“They'd grab our head, slap it around; you thought you'd get the scissors in your eye. Then they told us to get undressed. We were frightened in front of all those men. ‘Take it off,’ they shouted and hit us. This torture, this humiliation, went on all day. This was the Germans' system. To strip you of your humanity and pride in just 24 hours.”
Stamatiou was at Auschwitz for three months before being transferred to another camp.
“You couldn't survive any longer in there. The work, beating and disease made you inhuman,” she says. Her legs were covered in sores from malnourishment. At night she'd hide the half-slice of bread they were given in her headboard so she'd have something to eat in the morning, but it was often stolen by the other prisoners.
It wasn't long before she figured out what the crematoria were for. “There were so many people, they didn't have time to take them all,” she says.
A few months after Stamatiou's arrest, Nikos Samouris was sent on the road to the death camps. He was arrested in Volos as a collaborator of the British and the Greek People's Liberation Army (ELAS). He says that he supplied resistance troops hiding in the mountains of Pilion with guns, food and medicine.
When he refused to turn in his comrades, he was taken to the Lanzendorf camp near Vienna, where he was recruited into forced labor, digging trenches for the retreating German forces. He and other prisoners were often ordered to collect Allied shells that hadn't detonated.
"Many died back then," he says. "After an explosion occured we prepared the body bags."
He tried to escape once with a group of fellow prisoners. One of them pretended to be dead. The others asked the guards to be allowed to hold a procession and bury him outside the camp. As soon as they started their march, the gunfire of guards sent the group running, the “dead” man along with them.
“Do you know what my punishment was? They put me in isolation, in a thing they had dug into a wall, where you couldn't even breathe. But I lasted 12 hours in there,” Samouris remembers.
Samouris met the woman who was to become his wife, Russian prisoner Antonia Sofiyenko, at that camp. They met for the first time in the kitchens, where the female inmates would serve the rations.
“What can I say boys? Love? In those circumstances? She liked me; she fell in love with me. It was all in our eyes, you see.”
Their paths separated in late April when the guards woke up the men and ordered them to start walking to an unknown destination. The marching Allied forces were fast approaching the camp and along the way the German guards shot anyone who wasn't keeping up.
Samouris took advantage of the darkness and ran away from the group to escape. A bullet shattered his left palm. His testimony on the events of that night was confirmed by the Greek armed forces when he applied for a pension.
He was taken to hospital by Russian troops to receive treatment for his injury and it was there that he saw Sofiyenko again – she had also survived. At that moment, they decided they would never be separated again. They asked a Catholic priest in a bombed out church to marry them – or at least to allow them to sign a marriage certificate – so that Samouris could bring her back to Greece as his wife.
They later had a daughter, Rita, and shared their adventures with students at a school in Magnesia.
Antonia died in 2010, yet her presence is still evident in every corner of the 93-year-old's home. Framed photographs of her are everywhere: in the entrance hall, the dining room, the living room.
Such testimonies as those of these two non-Jewish Greeks are not easy to find, yet for the past three years, writer Annita Panaretou has been seeking them out for a book on the subject. Her research has been much like a treasure hunt through the shelves of old bookshops, tracking down the biographies of some survivors who published a limited number of copies to be distributed only to family and friends. She eventually managed to locate 40 accounts, some of which are more than 250 pages long.
Many prisoners took years to open up about their ordeal, either because people didn't believe them or because they faced accusations rather than respect and compassion.
“The reception most of the freed prisoners met with when they returned to Greece ranged from cold and suspicious to downright hostile. The reason most of these people were sent to the camps was their resistance activities or their leftist – which for the occupation forces and their collaborators meant communist, regardless of true leanings – beliefs,” says Panaretou.
Many ex-prisoners dreamed of a hero's welcome, but their homecoming was a desolate affair. In most cases they were greeted by staid bureaucracy. Arriving at Greece's northern border, the newly-wed Mrs Samouris pretended – for the first and last time in her life – that she wasn't Russian so that she would be allowed entry with her husband as their marriage certificate was questioned by the authorities.
“I came back to Greece in September 1945 wearing a pair of ragged trousers. I couldn't find work anywhere because I was accused of being a ‘dirty communist.’ I was persecuted my entire life,” says Stamatiou. “If you admitted to having been caught by the Germans, you were considered a communist. It was a shame to talk. Many wouldn't even believe me and they'd turn their head away. They didn't want to hear it, which is why there was this silence on the issue at the time.”
Stamatiou ended up leaving for Italy so she could rebuild her life. She studied wardrobe and set design in Milan and when she returned she got a job at the Greek National Opera.
Samouris faced similar challenges. He worked as a barber in Volos despite his handicap. He designed a special glove for his maimed hand to which he could attach the comb and used his right hand to work the scissors. The fact that he had brough back a Russian wife made people even more suspicious of him.
The couple were forced to move to the Soviet Union and try their luck with relatives there after their home was flattened in a big earthquake in 1955.
When they returned to Greece in the early 1960s, however, they were in for more tribulations, especially Samouris. He was hounded by police, who questioned him on several occasions and demanded that he abandon the Communist Party – even though he had never been a member.
"I was so desperate. I tried to kill myself twice, but I didn't do it because of my family," he says.
“They dragged me in one day – I'll say it even though it's sad – and beat me. They had me in a holding cell, hitting me. I held on with one hand but kept falling down.”
There was a time when the two survivors were hesitant to talk about the past but today they want to share their stories so younger generations can learn about what happened. Samouris never refuses to speak when invited to schools. He's a lucid speaker and very affable. He also still has three loyal customers who come to his home to have their hair cut.
At the Church Nursing Home in Stylida, a two-story building with arches and a view of the Maliakos Bay, Stamatiou has been trying to get her story down on paper for the past three years.
She wants to recount the odyssey of the survivors after their release. She has already written a book about Auschwitz titled “Warum?” (“Why” in German), which was sold out two decades ago.
“I lived in hell but was not aware of the extent of it,” she says in her book, in the hopes that her testimony will “contribute to the fight for the total eradication of fascism, which, unfortunately, still looms.”