HIMSELF THE GREEK
By C. M. WOODHOUSE
Both their Greeks were terrible; Barba Niko's English was fluent by comparison. Or rather his American was fluent ; for he was one of the Brooklidhes, one of those who had achieved the ambition of every village boy by emigrating to the U.S.A. ; not perhaps to Brooklyn, whence they take their name, but to Manchester, New Hampshire, or Augusta, Maine, or Frederick, Maryland. Barba Niko was never quite clear about his American period, where he had been to, or when he had gone, or why he had come back. Sometimes it seemed that he had come back to fight the Turks ; at other times just to take his wife and family back to the U.S.A. But the reason why he failed to get back to the U.S.A. was always the same ; he was caught by the war just as he was winding up his affairs or packing his bags. He must have been winding and packing steadily since 1927, so it seemed. But he did not mind, since the German occupation had given him a new mission in life.
We were his mission—twelve of us, the first parachutists in Greece. He found us on the open hillside, six thousand feet up, one wet morning in October, 1942, very near the end of our endurance. He staggered up and down the mountain for .days oat end, bringing us food and mules, saving our precious explosives, muttering to himself that there was God, after all, " and be it no worse! " He hid us in a cave above the snow-line, on his own estate, so he told us, which was famous for the richness and quality and texture of its water. Barba Niko was a connoisseur of water. People came from great distances, he said, to sample his water, so great was its fame ; he was not surprised that we should have
come from the deserts of North Africa for the purpose. He was glad we had come, too, for in the mountains every stranger is by definition a guest. We asked him why he took such trouble about us, and his answer was unanswerable. " I heard that God had sent us Englishmen from heaven," he explained ; " so I knew it was my duty to go and help them."
You could tell from the surprised simplicity of his tone that
these were no self-conscious heroics. Such artifices lie beyond the range of an uneducated peasant ; and Barba Niko was uneducated, though I have heard him quote Homer (consciously) and Sophocles (unconsciously), and recount endless anecdotes that had their origin indifferently in Herodotus and the Arabian Nights and his own imagination. Whatever he said or did was relieved of all preten- tiousness by his own innate simplicity. He made everything simple: not easy, that is, but simple. His world, and our life within it, was hard and precarious and exciting ; but all its problems were tangible and clear, even when there was no solution to them. Under Barba Niko's charge there might be days when we were near to hunger and fear, but none when we were near to doubt.
His attitude to life was concrete and biblical, like his language. He did not belong to twentieth-century Europe, because neither Europe nor the twentieth-century has yet reached the mountains of his birth ; Palestine. in the first century would be a nearer com- parison, to judge by the background of the Gospels.
So Barba Niko brought no culture or convention with him to enrich our life together. But he brought wisdom -and courage and hospitality ; and above all he brought pride. He knew that his people were not winning the war alone, but they had given everything to it, and given at once and freely, before many other
people had begun to think of giving, and had gone on giving until there was no more to give. He knew, too, that ours was a bigger country than his, but that did not mean Englishmen were bigger men than Greeks. Thus it was a personal blow to him when his compatriots let down the standard he set himself ; it was as though all Greece suffered symbolically in himself. When the mayor of a village refused his request to send food to us in our cave, for fear of what the Germans would do to him if they found out, we under- stood his fear, but Barba Niko resented it. "I made him some theory," he told us. "I taught him that it is not play and laugh, our business ; it is serious business, and we are serious men! " But still the mayor hesitated, and Barba Niko's -final words were as final as words can be. " You he said: "You fear for your life! You're not alive now—you're crawling about on the surface of the earth without object or purpose! "
Yet Barba Niko himself did not really know why our mission was so important. Unlike the global strategists chattering over their coffee-cups in Athens, he had no clear idea what the railway- line through his mountains had to do with Rommel and the Afrika Korps the other side of the Mediterranean. Unlike most of the other inhabitants of the mountains, he had no wish to know either, or even to guess. While rumours flew echoing up and down every valley, changing like the weather between each valley and the next, and conjectures grew to certainty weeks even before they became true, Barba Niko only clung placidly to his conviction that the Englishmen's business must be important because they were Englishmen. He would tempt our discretion no further than to throw an occasional sly glance at the explosives, and grin and exclaim "Bam-boom! " with an appropriate gesture. This lack of curiosity was unusual and touching, when almost everyone we met was busy telling us what we were going to do, and the rest what a mistake it was not to be doing something quite different.
His discretion saved us from many embarrassments. Everyone within ten miles, it seemed, except the Germans, knew more or less where we were, but Barba Niko managed to keep most of the unwanted visitors away. Luckily the water on his estate turned out to be less popular than he imagined, though not less good ; it was no more than a thin, clear trickle which had to be channelled down a plane-leaf before it could be gathered for drinking at all. Every drop of water in the mountains is well-nigh perfect, and though any peasant would rather climb a precipice to drink at the source than risk contamination at more than a foot below it, there was still no reason for anyone to come as far out of his way as this ; for the water of Greece is plentiful as well as good, being the only luxury (apart from gossip) that is accessible to poor and very poor alike.
We had nearly two months of Barba Niko before we were trans- ferred from his kindly monopoly into the competitive grasp of the guerrillas. Though our life was still contented and exhilarating with the latter—most of it, anyway—the early spirit had departed when Barba Niko, having fulfilled his mission, resigned his charge and shuffled off home. " I have sat on the nest forty days," he explained, " and now my chickens are hatched out and they need me no longer." He was a little drunk when he said this, because we had just attacked and destroyed the Gorgopotamos_ bridge and life held no higher triumphs to offer, but although his voice was unsteady, the thought was as clear as ever. My last memory of him for a long time was the sight of a gently swaying grin spreading from the dirty, ragged grey moustache up to the dirty, ragged grey cloth cap as he lifted his glass to us in a farewell toast. There was a tear of farewell in his eyes which would certainly have been there anyway, even without the alcohol to help it.
But that was not the end of our association. He grew tired of sitting at home with his arms folded, so he told us ; so he joined
the guerrillas of Flas, because they happened to be the nearest he
could find. He was with them when he heard that he had been awarded a British medal, and the victory of the Gorgopotamos was
celebrated all over again when the riband arrived for him to pin, slightly crooked, to his threadbare tunic. Then he went on follow- ing his leaders faithfully against' the Italians and then against the Germans and then against the Security Battalions of the collaborating Government, and finally he followed them in the march on Athens at the end of 1944. He never knew what they were marching on Athens for until he got there and met one of us again, and learned that he was supposed to be fighting against the wicked British, the monarcho-fascist agents of Churchill, the men he had been willing to sacrifice his life for two years before. Then he gave up his rifle in bewilderment and disgust, but left the medal-riband pinned to his tunic as a consolation, and went back to his village to forget and be forgotten.
But he was not forgotten. The medal itself, of which the riband was only a token, had never been formally presented to him, and
he was summoned to the British Embassy in Athens one summer
day in order that it might be done. There was a fine audience in gay uniforms and pretty frocks to watch when the little figure in the same shabby tunic and unpressable trousers, wiping the dirty grey moustache with the •hand that held the dirty grey cap, shuffled awkwardly forward to be received by His Majesty's Ambassador.
The audience smiled tolerantly at his blushes and clapped politely and went off to lunch and forgot: all except one, a very important policeman, a Javert who never forgot. He recognised the man against whom he had held a warrant for who knows what?—who knows how many years before ? So Barba Niko was arrested shortly after he left the Embassy, and locked up in prison with the col- laborators and the Communists ; and there is no doubt that the policeman was right, for Barba Niko was not a saint by the standards of untempted respectability. I should be very surprised if he had not erred in his time ; he certainly committed a few misdemeanours to keep us alive. The policeman was right ; but it was an occasion when it might have been better to be wrong. Perhaps if Barba Niko had never made the mistake of joining Elas, the policeman might have been more willing to make the mistake of letting him go free with his medal. But that is speculation.
Barba Niko was freed again a few days later. He shrugged his shoulders and shuffled away again to his mountains with the medal in his pocket and a vague uncertainty but no bitterness in his heart. It was not altogether hard to get him freed, but the fact that he needed to be freed seems to me symbolic of something that was beginning to go wrong with the country that gave Europe its first notion of freedom. The whole story of Barba Niko is symbolic ; his character, his language, his manner, his appearance, his pride, his authentic simplicity—all stand for something beyond himself ; everything he did and everything that was done to him were in a sense archetypal. And his story is not yet ended.
There is a purpose in writing all this. I have sometimes been asked, by people who expected me to know something about Greece, what the ordinary Greek was like ; and sometimes I have been asked in the same way what the average Greek of the resistance was like. These have both been difficult questions to answer, because the average and the ordinary are harder to define than the outstanding and the noticeable. In any group or community you do not notice the mass, the indeterminate, the inarticulate man in the street or in the fields or on the hillside ; you notice instead, for instance, the Athenian spiv or the Communist agitator, and they become the types of the ordinary Greek. But now the answer to both questions is perfectly simple and obvious, and the same for both ; it is Barba Niko. Not that every individual Greek, or every Greek of the resistance, was indistinguishable from Barba Niko—far from it ; but everything that mattered about them could be found expressed in him. And if that applies to the mass of ordinary Greeks and to the rank and file of the Greek resistance, it is worth remembering that it also applies to the ordinary Greeks, not the leaders but the plain rank and file, who are now involved in the new civil war—on both sides