We lost Sue’s great uncle last Thursday. He was 99 years old. Our family owes him a great personal debt of gratitude because it was he who repeatedly insisted that his son, who was stationed in NYC at the time, find his deceased uncle’s family in the US, and make contact. With no help at all from us, Nikos was successful, and that led directly to our living in Greece half the year. More importantly, it reunited Susan and Andrew with a part of their family previously thought to be as lost to us as the European relations of most American families tracing their roots to a forebear from the Old World.
It’s not possible to summarize a life in a blog post but ever since I first met Theo (uncle) Dimitri, I’ve marveled at the changes he saw during his life. He was born in the deep Mani during WWI, in which Greece’s great historic enemy lost their empire. As a child, his parents (his father was an Orthodox priest) relocated the family to Piraeus, the port of Athens. As a pre-teen, he witnessed the sudden doubling or trebling of the population of Athens when 1.3 million christians were forced out of Turkey by a “population exchange” treaty imposed by the League of Nations to stop the genocides in formerly Ottoman territory. (The treaty also required about 355,000 muslims to return to what had become Turkey.) Theo Dimitri entered the Athens police force, and served as a policeman during the years of the Nazi occupation, when at least 40,000 Athenians died of starvation. He and his wife raised five children, all of whom have survived him. His wife died decades ago.
He was a fine head of the family, love guiding him in all things. He was also a fine singer and he sang when he was happy, as at virtually every family gathering we attended. During his homily, the priest at the funeral service said that whenever he heard that Theo Dimitri was back in the Mani, he would call to ask him to chant during Mass. I made a video of Theo Dimitri singing what I call The Mani Song — simply a love-song to his homeland. He was very proud of his Mani roots, and, beginning in the 50s, every summer he took his young family on a ferry (there was no road) to a then-abandoned seaside village in the deep Mani, not far from where he was born, from where he first went to school, and from where he rests today. The ferry voyage took about 24 hours back then, having made stops at seemingly every bay and cove between Piraeus and Messinia. The family and all their supplies for the stay had to rowed ashore in the ship’s boats. Theo Dimitri began by renting a house from an absentee landlord but eventually he bought the place for the family. In doing so, it became the first re-inhabited house in the village. Today all of the houses in the village are re-inhabited, at least in the summer.
Theo Dimitri loved to tell stories and he told us about walking across Mani at night with his father, about the unforgettable aroma of the fruit from one small area on the slopes above Porto Kayio, and about how he kept perishable food in Mani’s August heat without refrigeration or ice. Perhaps my favorite is the last I heard while he lived, relayed through his son. When a person dies in Athens, the next of kin turn his identity card in to the police to obtain a death certificate. The first line on the back of the Greek identity card, until it joined the EU, was religion. The German looting of the countryside for food to feed their troops led to mass starvation in Athens, and identity cards were being turned in faster than they could be registered. So Theo Dimitri and some of his colleagues would pocket the occasional identity card and give it to a Jew trying to hide from the Nazis. The recipient would have to open the lamination and move the photo from the old card to the new one but then he would have a very proper-looking identity card for a person of the Orthodox faith. When Nikos told us this story he said it was the first time he’d heard it.
Go with God, Theo Dimitri. We miss you already.