A ‘paramemoir’ on surviving in occupied Greece

Irene Kacandes calls her book, «Daddy’s War: Greek American Stories,» a «paramemoir.» Her narrative is many things at once: autobiography, testimony, history and an essay on memory and the meaning of mental trauma. It resembles a mosaic of collective and individual memories The starting point is the experiences of the writer’s father in occupied Greece during World War II and the civil unrest that ensued. Born in the USA to Greek parents, he never told his own children what he lived through in Greece. His daughter eventually undertook to find out, and her book is the result. The book contains a lot of material that is «a record of personal experience,» Kacandes said in a telephone interview. «I invented the term paramemoir because I wanted to show the reader this is not a conventional story. You could see it as a substitute for the experiences that my father never manages to tell.» But, she explained, it goes beyond testimony to include «essays on the nature of personal narrative, memory and trauma, as well as historical references to occupied Greece.» Her intention, explained Kacandes, was to undermine linear narrative. Each family story is made up of fragments. «It reflects the multiple experiences of the family members, and usually they are not clear and cohesive. They are often chaotic, sometimes incomprehensible; often all that remains is fragmentary memories.» The strangest chapter, she said, is the one written as a letter to her father. «That’s where I wanted to distill all his story and lay emphasis on the feelings that accompany such experiences.» Kacandes related her father’s life in brief. «He was born in 1929 in the USA to Greek parents, migrants. My grandmother brought her children to Greece in 1937 to get to know their relatives and the country, but as war loomed, they realized they couldn’t get back to America. My father felt trapped in a nightmare. He also thought their father had deserted them. He believed this until his father died in 1970; he sobbed when he found letters his father had written to the American government and other officials about his wife and children who were trapped in wartime Greece. As the oldest child and a boy, my father had to help his mother feed the rest.» Although the family lived near Itea, in an area that produces olive oil, they had no land or olive trees, so «my father had to do all kinds of jobs. He worked on the roads the Italians built between Itea and Amfissa; he went to Athens where he sold cigarettes; at some point he got involved with the resistance (passing on messages and arms); and for a while he was a deck hand on a caique. Whenever he could he sent food home to Itea.» In December 1944, fighting broke out in Athens, with the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) opposing the British Army and Greek government forces. Kacandes’s father, who was working in a police canteen at the time, found himself literally in the line of fire. Her father was arrested several times during the war, but the worst was when the Germans arrested him and assumed he was a Jew, because, like all American boys in those days, he had been circumcised at birth. When someone informed the Germans that the boy they had arrested was circumcised, «they were going to send him to a concentration camp, but the mistake was discovered eventually and his true identity revealed. That experience traumatized him. He never spoke about it to me or my siblings. Nor did he speak about something the Italians did to him. I still don’t know what that was. He said something about it to some friends, people outside the family. That silence of his really disturbed us. We knew something terrible had happened to him before we were born but we didn’t know what it was.» As Kacandes explained, her book is about what fellow writer Eva Hoffman calls the post-generation, those who try to find out what happened to the wartime generation. «I feel close to writers like Hoffman, Lisa Appignanesi, Helen Epstein, Helen Fremont, Art Spiegelmann, all the children of Holocaust survivors. Of course my father didn’t end up in a death camp, and we are not Jews, but there are similarities with his experiences. «One common element is that parents who suffered a lot in their youth believe that by not telling their children about those experiences they are protecting them. But that strategy boomerangs in the end, because the children feel encircled by threatening silence. Some issues become taboo. The funny thing is that my father was moved when he saw a film with Nestoras Matsas, ‘That Child Died Tomorrow.’ When I asked why, he said: ‘I too sold cigarettes to survive.’» Maintaining strong ties with two cultures Irene Kacandes teaches German and comparative literature at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. Apart from «Daddy’s War» (2009), she has written «Talk Fiction: Literature and the Talk Explosion» (2008), both published by the University of Nebraska Press. When «Daddy’s Talk» was first published, she was approached by many Greek Americans who had spent the war in occupied Greece and were in danger because they too had been circumcised. «I was also approached by American history teachers who thanked me because they had learned something about Greece during World War II,» which had been one of her objectives. Above all, the publication of her second book helped her become aware of her dual identity. «Ever since I can remember, I’d say I was Greek. It was only when I went to Greece for the first time when I was 16 that I realized that in fact I was very American. I was embarrassed to see how bad my Greek was. And of course the country was unknown to me. I decided to learn the language, the history, literature and culture.» Kacandes was lucky, she said, to study Greek literature with George Savides, when the Seferis Chair was founded at Harvard. «I also studied Greek at Aristotle University on a Fulbright scholarship. Now I teach the language whenever I can.» Writing the book brought her closer to both her cultures. «I also teach German, my husband is a French-speaking Swiss; I feel European and American.»