Thursday, 10 December 2009

Making paper hats: Sam Nechama tells his story and beats death for a second time

Thirteen year old Sam entered the library with hesitation, taking special care not to be noticed by those who were already gathered there. He hid behind a pillar, waiting for them to sit around the tables to listen to their guest. Then, his gaze turned to the back of the room. He had noticed a child.

He refrained from shouting:

“Halt! Who is there?”

And then:

“This way, Norman! Cover me! Behind the pillar! Let’s hide in the Tower!”

Then, he took a seat on a library bench, behind the audience.

Despite his thirteen years, he had gone on playing cops and robbers with his little brother, their favourite game, ever since the time they had been hiding in a house in Halandri, in 1943 when Italy surrendered, Germany took over Greece and things got worse.

  It was then that his father came home with false identity cards and told him that from now on he was going to be called Aristotelis Karavokyris (Karavokyris: ship’s captain)

“Aristotelis, a gentile name, so that you won’t be confused when they ask you when your name day is”

This was a strange game indeed: Karavokyris - the one who leads the ship and travels in the open sea - had to be confined in a house at Halandri and then for eight months in a mud house without a toilet in the neighborhood of ROUF (in Athens, Greece),

Sam used to travel with his head buried in a hole of the old couch, his nose pressed against the cold springs, listening to the conversations of the adults about the Jews of Thessaloniki hiding in Athens. Now, the time had come for the Jews of Athens to hide as well.
Or had they better present themselves to the German authorities and get their families registered?
There was no question about it; they had to hide.

And Artemis? The girl that he had met at the Karagiozis (Karagiozis: traditional shadow theater) performance? Her name, a gentile name like his, made him wonder: What was her real name? Hanna? Esther? Rachel?

And now this man down there giving a talk, insisting that being a prisoner at Auschwitz did not make him a better man…

A prisoner? So he did not avoid being arrested by the cops! They got him too!

It was not a game any longer, when at four o’clock in the morning, a torch beam fell on their faces in the court yard of the mud house in the neighborhood of Rouf, and woke them up. It was hot and they had been sleeping outdoors when this had happened. It was not a game, when they took them to the building of Merlin Street (the headquarters of Gestapo). It was not a game when the German officer asked him to pull his pants down.
For what reason?
And then the slap. He was different and now they would know. The mark of the rite of passage, the trace that the circumcision had left on his body, the indelible engagement ring with his race was there, a stark reminder that he could not deny his people. He did not intend to. Sam was a man now. This is how he felt when he answered the SS officer who had questioned him and his mother.

- Where is your father?
- I don’t know.
- Who does he send you money with?
- With a different person each time.
- Where is your brother hiding?
- I do not know.

And then, the whip in the hands of the SS officer wrapping around his feet and little Norman asking:
- Did that hurt Sam?
What would he answer?
Do real men feel pain?

Little Sam had become a real man when he had told his mother:

- Mother, don’t worry, I will do the talking.

“ At that moment, became the man of the house”, he thought.

Are my clothes alright?
Who said I cannot wear a worn jacket?
And my belt?
His belt was an old leather belt which had been given to him by a prisoner at Auschwitz, in exchange for his bread ratio. He had exchanged his food for a belt. He would not wear his pair of trousers fastened with a string…

“This helps me restore my humanity”, he replied to his protector who had told him:
“I will cut off your feet if you will ever exchange your food for anything again! Anything!”

He had done this before. He had exchanged his food for a spoon!

And this man with the lively voice and tired body was speaking just like his protector.

“In order to save yourself you have to stop hoping!”
You have to forget bread, trees, flowers, colours, dogs, their barking. Women…
You have to confine yourself in a cocoon that is called concentration camp and do not hope. Just fight…Just fight… Who said that hope is the last to die?
Hope must die first!

If you want to survive.

Why should I want to live?

Sam needn’t ask himself why he should live. He ought to live for little Norman and for his mother who had been led into the gas chambers as soon as they arrived in Auschvitz.

He cannot erase from his memory the prisoners with the inscrutinable gaze, the Jews of Thessaloniki who welcomed them as they arrived at Auschwitz.

They say that at the end of the tunnel, when you have crossed the border between life and death, you arrive at “The light”, at the land of death and your people are there, to welcome you. Auschwitz was indeed the valley of death, wasn’t it?
And these were his people, welcoming them, without big words, in a hurry, trying to separate young mothers from their kids before it was too late.

- Is there an old aunty to hold this child?
- Is there a granny?
The mothers, numbed, did not understand.
These people did not explain.
Nevertheless, there was a system and organization in the camp. The Germans wanted the vulnerable groups, mothers and children, had to die first.
This is why the Jews of Thessaloniki were trying in a hurry to save as many young women as they could. The plan was simple. They separated them from their children. In that way, they sentenced to death the ones to whom they designated the guarding of the children.

Who can talk about this?
How can one speak about the new executioners – saviors?
How can one refer to the new role that the merciless mechanism of the camp had cast upon its victims…

Primo Levi had said, “I want to survive, in order to tell the story”.

This is exactly what the man with the tired body and the young voice was doing.

In telling his story he keeps his audience, seventeen – year - old - students, captured, all ears to listen to him.
The narrative…The way to beat death…Like Sechrazade of the fairy tale that would escape death every night, by telling her husband a new tale, like the Hassidim Rabbis with their stories and their parables, teaching their people the meaning of life and giving them strength to go on…

If you remember my story, he tells them, I will still be alive…

Sam with the tired body, ios telling his story…

From Merlin street to Haidari camp and from there to Auschwitz on the trains of death.

He recounts his tribulations and those of his co – detainees, without breaking his voice… He describes the new structures that the system has created in order to entangle its victims. The prisoners – gaolers, the protectors, the degenerates that have given up on everything…

The worst torture was the deprivation of their humanity… Of their self respect…The hysterical endeavour of making lists of items and people, the tattooed number identification system on the prisoners’ wrists…

The absurd rules of discipline that confuse you and excaust all the power from you. The daily call in the snow… Nevertheless, in his own words “in our effort to abide by these rules, we escaped fear…”

“What is the meaning of my life? I have been deprived, from an early age, of the right of asking existential questions.”

“I have seen death in such a quality and quantity that you cannot imagine…”

“However, I have kept three good things for myself: Family, friendship and love…”

Where is his lady? Where is his beloved?

She dead… With a leap my lithe girl she went off…


Little Sam steps down slowly from the library bench. He feels that he is holding little Hanna - Artemis’s hand. “My love how beautiful she is…” (From the Song of Songs)

The children gather around Sam while he is studying his family tree…

His ears are filled with happy voices from the Song of Celebration. Hava Nagila. Time for dance he says. I will dance with you.


    • Artemis – Hanna and the Karagiozis show are mentioned in Lili Zografou’s book (in Modern Greek) “Jews once upon a time ” (The text can be found in:
     Mr. Sam Nechama addressed the students of the International Baccalaureate of The Geitonas School in Athens, on Thursday the 26th of November. I feel honoured that I had the opportunity to meet with the eternally young Mr. Sam Nechama and listen to his story with the colleagues and students of the IB. I would like to thank with all my heart, Mrs Elisabeth Wahler – Athanassiadis, the Educator, in every meaning of the word, due to whom all this was made possible.
    The above text is dedicated to “Aristotelis Karavokyris”, the captain of his childhood.
    Poly Hatjimanolaki
    Pictures from the internet :

Sunday, 6 December 2009

“ he hadn’t quite finished his tea…”: hot drinks and trials

Nine years after their last boat trip with Alice, Lewis Carroll – Charles Dodgson – noticed a picture of her in the museum. She did not appear natural to him.

“Very pretty but not particularly natural”, he said.

He preferred to remember her the way she had been in the boat on the Thames, with the freshness of her childhood. It was then that she had posed for his photographic lens.

Let us leave Lewis Carroll in his melancholic thoughts and picture Alice the way Sir John Tenniel had sketched her, creating the illustration model for all the later editions of “Alice”. People say that the other illustrators had a hard time with Lewis Carroll’s obstinacy in counting the lines in the drawings they had made of Alice and comparing them with the ones by Sir Tenniel.

This is the picture of Alice, when she is about to testify in court, looking unfathomable and surprised, but less innocent than her other representations in the book. This is because she jumped up in such a hurry and has tipped over the jury – box – the jurymen and the Lizard onto the heads of the crowd, with the edge of her skirt.

The trial is the trial of the Knave, who is a accused of theft – “he stole the tarts” is the charge – and it is the scene of the last act, a landmark of the journey to Wonderland. We will linger here, because this trial, and the entire novel as well, is non –sense. This is not because the testimony of Alice makes no sense and causes the anger of the judges, that is of the King and the Queen who run after her demanding her decapitation. “Off with her head!” It is because in this trial a characteristic figure of the story reappears as a witness. Remember the Hatter, who shows up in court with a cup of tea in his hands.

Some chapters before that, at the Mad Tea Party, the March Hare, Dormouse, the Hatter and Alice were sitting around a table taking their tea, singing and solving weird riddles.

The Hatter turns up at the trial with his cup of tea, his characteristic hat – “that is not his” – in order to confuse the judges even more. He is upset. In his hands he carries a piece of bread and butter.

The Hatter is confused by this trial that he cannot understand at all since the only thing that he has in mind is his attempt to start drinking his tea a week ago. Instead of biting on the bread, he bites the cup by accident.

“and he hadn’t quite finished his tea when he was sent for…”

The questions and the events are already irrelevant to the case, that is the trial of the Knave. Let us focus our attention on the figure of the Hatter and to the recall - weird repetition – of that tea scene in court.

A weird figure interrupted from taking his tea and, complaining about not being allowed to drink it, who thinks and re- thinks about it, puzzled, quite different from all the other figures of the trial – lizards, guinea pigs, moles, jurymen, witnesses, soldiers and judges, in this coordinated dance of the absurd.

Suddenly, the trial is all about tea and whether you manage or you do not manage to drink it during a trial.

If instead of tea, the hot drink was coffee with milk…

If the hearing was about a coffee that someone had drunk while he was not supposed to…

If the trial had been about a murder committed by the defendant, but the hearing was veered to whether he had sufficiently mourned his mother – because among other things he had dared to drink some coffee the night before her funeral…

We should no longer be talking about the trial of the Knave but about the trial of Mersault in L’Etranger (the Stranger) of Albert Camus.

In l’ Etranger, Mersault he stands for a murder that he has committed for no obvious reason. In fact, the charges change in a bizzarre way and he finds himself defending his meaningless life and lack of feelings. According to the indictment, the discussion about the hot drink that he has already drunk and has enjoyed, i.e. coffee with milk, is of central importance.

On the other hand, if he had not yet drunk the beverage causing its discussion during the trial, but he was about to drink it at the moment of his arrest – very hot coffee which he can barely touch with his lips – and the bread with marmalade that he had for breakfast is eaten by his prosecutors in his own home, than the defendant should be Joseph K. in Kafka’s “The Trial”.

These beverages – tea and coffee – that do not cause drunkenness but enforce the sobriety of the drinker, appear by coincidence (?) in three especially absurd trials, discreetly highlighting the non - comprehensible, non – conceivable, non – sense of the three before – mentioned procedures: Thoughts, philosophical meditations and riddles around the tea table, relief after a painful sleepless night, and bleak omens for the incomprehensible accusations without even having yet drunk a hot coffee.

Is it possible that the sobriety and the limpidity of the hot drink can be completely defeated by the absurdity of a trial that pretends to be striving for the truth, while actually it is attempting to weave a net in which to trap the defendant inside it?

The hot drink that accompanied by country biscuits, the renowned madeleines, leads to a dreamy recreation of reality in search of the Lost Time, has its place also in the uncontrollable course of the dream, i.e. in the nightmarish version of a non reality.

It is the symbolic landmark of the entrance to another dimension of the flow of time and events: dreamy or nightmarish. Meditating over the steaming hot drink, a product of our civilization meant for pleasure and social gathering, away from the realm of necessity is the boundary between two worlds that overturns the balance, making a crossing between the world of ordinary logic and the world of miracles.

This works the other way around as well, since the hot drink and its ritual trigger the exit from the world of dreams into the world of reality:
When Alice escapes persecution in Wonderland, chased by the sound of rattling tea cups, the sound is gradually transformed into tinkling sheep bells.

This is how she gets out of the dream.


Thursday, 26 November 2009

The detective who dies, James Bond and birdwatching

A good number of readers of Ian Fleming’s stories already know that the name of his hero, i.e. the name of the secret agent James Bond came up almost by chance, when in the process of writing his first story, his eye fell accidentally on a book by James Bond, the ornithologist, the one who wrote the “Birds of the West Indies”.

The name appeared to him “masculine” enough and so he chose it for his hero.
From that time on, a number of anecdotal stories have circulated on the confusion of the public about the identity of the “real” James Bond. Apart from the personal charm, the cosmopolitan air and the masculine name, they do not share any other characteristic. Ian Fleming’s hero hasn’t expressed any love for nature and its observation and it is not likely that he ever will. His many adventures have not brought about any significant changes to his personality. He does not become more mature from his experiences.

He stays eternally young and virile. He is a great lover, exhausting of course the life span of the actors that impersonate him. As soon as the traces of getting on become evident on their looks, they give way to the next James Bond, who is constantly reborn from his ashes.

Contrary to the “undead” James Bond, the hero of Colin Dexter, one of my favourite (British) authors of crime fiction is detective Morse, who, in the course of the successive stories, grows old, gets sick – he is affected by diabetes at the age of sixty – and before retirement, he dies as we read in the final Inspector Morse novel, “The Remorseful day”.

Morse, apart from his personal charm that also makes him a great lover, has nothing else in common with Ian Fleming’s hero. He does not exercise, he is a compulsive whiskey drinker, he is an excellent cryptic crossword solver – as his spiritual father, Colin Dexter who named him after his rival in crosswords, Sir Jeremy Morse.
Chief Inspector Morse is educated, highly cultured, and does not tolerate spelling mistakes in a letter not even in an informal note! Apart from these passions, he has also a soft spot for the music of Richard Wagner. What has this aesthete Detective, the creation of a Cambridge literature graduate that has quit teaching due to his loss of a hearing, to do with Fleming’s secret agent?

Nothing at all, we would say. On the contrary, his traits make up the picture of the extreme opposite of the secret agent.

Nevertheless, there is something more, and this is what caused the previous bizarre associations and comparisons. It is the strange relation of Inspector Detective Morse with birdwatching and ornithology.
The origin of his name comes definitely from Sir Jeremy Morse, the famous cryptic crossword solver, that had been the Chancellor of Bristol university before becoming the chairman of Lloyd Bank. (This excludes Samuel Morse, the American of the 18th century, who invented Morse code!) Although Inspector Detective Morse’s “biographers” do not make any allusion to her, there is also one other famous ornithologist, sharing the name Morse: Margaret Morse (1883 – 1974), renowned for her work on the observation of the Song sparrow.

Is this a coincidence, or a conscious choice of the author that decided to proceed to an overdetermination, i.e. to name the Inspector after the crossword solver and the ornithologist as well. For this character, who is not a mere caricature and is subjected to changes and development, nothing can be ruled out.

On the other hand, the case of a coincidence cannot be is not excluded, if we take into account the pterophobia (pteron: feather) of Chief Inspector Morse, in other words his refusal to travel by plane. The Chief Inspector will have nothing to do with flying, high or low, something that is representative of the world of birds. Perhaps by mentioning feathers and flying, even to negate them, the author manages to relate them with the hero even more. This could be a hint to something else, to a deeper connection between them.

There is a scene in the first chapter of the final Inspector Morse novel, where the status quo of all the previous books is subverted. This scene depicts the swan song of Morse, when he contemplates from his window the flowers of his garden. We witness there, the radical changes in his character.

The flowers first:

The relation of Morse – a man of erudition – with flowers is ambiguous. It is determined by his “cultivated” character and embraces the knowledge of their names, as well as their position and their importance in the works of the great poets. This, together with their mythological symbolism, make “the violets that are easily fanned”, or the “globed peonies”, or the meadows with daffodils familiar to him But the relation ends here! Do not ask him to recognize real flowers in a garden. His flowers are the flowers of literature.

Morse in his maturity, becomes aware of this deficit in the contact with the real world and decides to fill in the gap. This will be done by attempting not to observe the world of flowers but the world of birds.

Thus, at a mature age, he decides to engage in the observation of the world of birds. He even thinks that if he could be reborn, he would prefer to be an ornithologist.
For him “life would be poorer if birds would cease to sing”. This is what the man who used to enjoy listening to Wagner, wholeheartedly admits. He makes a subscription to “Birdwatching” and borrows RSPB Birdwatcher’s Guide from Summertown Library. He buys the necessary equipment, binoculars and seeds in order to attract the birds in his yard. It goes without saying that this enlightenment and love for nature will not be able to get Chief Inspector Morse out of his house.

This is how the last novel with a living Chief Inspector Morse starts, in his new capacity as a birdwatcher, giving new meaning to his name and unexpected turns to the plot. The mention of the song of the birds is a tribute to the song sparrow and the renowned – although unknown to the general public - American ornithologist Margaret Morse, who was born in Amherst – Massachussets, where Emily Dickinson, confined to her gardens, had lived. Margaret Morse contributed in a unique way to the study of bird and child behaviour since she managed to extend her results from the observation of birds to the study of language acquisition of children.

If Colin Dexter, the writer, was not so much a man of letters, we would be absolutely certain that Morse’s naming is mere coincidence. We now think that it might rather be a literary construction, set up by the author of the book. Or is it not?

Nevertheless, we can trace some clues in this case that are leading us beyond a witticism expressed just to parallel – even in retrospect – Morse’s naming with that of James Bond’s. As if detectives and secret agents were meant, to be named after famous ornithologists!

What are these clues:

In the first chapter, we witness a representation, a correspondence of the small gardens of Oxford with the gardens of Amherst made in a masterly manner. This is done by mentioning the famous verses of Oscar Wilde, “a little tent of blue/that prisoners call sky” from “The ballad of the Reading Gaol” in relation with the small gardens of Oxford, as seen by a person confined in his house.

The confinement and the gardens of Oxford is an allusion to the confined poet in the gardens, but this poet is Emily Dickinson of Amherst and from there, the ground is prepared for the Amherst lady of the birds, ie Margaret Morse.
From his garden of Oxford, the confined Inspector Detective – poet, realizes as he advances towards the end of his life that from now on, he will not only read but he will observe. In a way, he never used evidence for his detective work. He heard people’s stories and was drew conclusions – without direct participation - by exhausting the power of his mind, making random connections and analyzing what the witnesses testified and the narratives of his assistants as well.
With this new need for a change, expressing his need for a second chance, to live as an ornithologist – a bird watcher – the mortal Morse recovers a new, a deeper relation with his name and with the core of his existence.

I came across a reference to a book about Detective Morse, just before uploading the English version of this post. I have not yet read the book but I am sure that it must be very revealing, since … it is about Detective Morse.
Nevertheless, I am writing about it right now, because of the name of its author. The title of the book is “The World of Inspector Morse: London, MacMillan, 1998” and the author is: Christopher Bird!!!


Images :,%20with%20actor%20John%20Thaw,%20who%20played%20Inspector%20Morse.jpg

Posted by Poly Hatjimanolaki, Athens, Greece

Friday, 13 November 2009

The dead princess in the medieval castle of Limassol

The story of Theseus and Ariadne is a double story of deception. She betrayed both her father and her brother because she has been blinded by her love for the Athenian ephebe. On the other hand, although on escaping the labyrinth he took her with him in his ship on the way back from Crete, he has irresponsibly abandoned her on the island of Naxos. There she met Dionysos, the one that had always loved her and was competing for her from the beginning. In another version of the story, Theseus abandoned Ariadne in Cyprus, although she was pregnant and carrying his child. She was left to the care of the women of Amathous, a city located on the southern coast of the island, twenty five kilometers to the east of contemporary Limassol. Ariadne waited for Theseus, she waited and waited in vain for him to come back. Tradition says that the women of Amathous, to comfort her, told her that her beloved was expected to come at any moment. They said that he had sent her a letter with a sailor whose boat got shipwrecked and thus the letter was lost in the waves…

Ariadne waited until the time came to give birth to her child. Unfortunately she died during labour. For her death people say that “the arrows of Artemis found her”. Artemis’s arrows, according to Homer, bring a sudden death to women in labour.
The sad story of this Ariadne ends here. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Amathous, did not want to forget the princess from Knossos, cast by her fate on their island. They began to honour her with a strange ritual that was, nevertheless, not so unusual for the morals of antiquity. This ritual made Plato of classical Athens uncomfortable and for this reason he had forbidden it in his “Republic”.
In an Ideal City, according to Plato, men are not allowed to imitate women in labour. This is a ritual that some societies in Australia and Africa may still practice. It is called “couvade”, male – labour, where a man imitates the labour pains. This is what the inhabitants of Amathous decided to do, to remember Ariadne – Afrodite by, the Princess that had honoured them by going into labour and dying in their city. This is mentioned by Plutarch in his Theseus and this is how the information has reached our era.

The pregnant woman, a sacrosanct person in greek tradition, still figures in the poems of Oria castle. Oria (Orea: beautiful in Greek) castle is a labyrinthine castle – city, taken by treachery, according to the study of the Greek anthropologist Panagis Lekatsas. During the siege of an inexpugnable fortress the traitor appears: A pregnant woman asking for shelter, a young man in disguise.
The inhabitants of the besieged city – castle yield to his/her plea and open the castle gate. This is their destruction. We should not forget that the Troyan horse, the symbol of treachery that contributed to the capture of Troy, was in a way pregnant with the Achaeans, since they were hidden in his belly.

I was in Limassol last year. I did not see the traces that the order of myth might have left in ancient Amathous.
The story of Ariadne’s death and the strange gesture of the inhabitants of Amathous was constantly in my mind. I have carried this story with me for many years, ever since I was engaged in a study of labyrinths and the strange dance – map of the labyrinth, the crane dance. The crane dance, taught by Dedalus to Theseus companions on the island of Delos, shows the way out, if you are in the labyrinth. It is a map – choreography.

Ariadne’s death is dark, but always present. I cannot forget her.

The visit to the Medieval castle of Limassol, reminded me unexpectedly of the Cretan Princess. Among the burial stones of the knights and monks exhibited in the museum, there is one dedicated to a woman. She must have been of noble descent, since she was buried in the castle yard. One cannot discern very well the engravings on the stone, but there is a framed drawing next to it to help the visitor that has not a “trained” eye to see the baby that she carries in her belly clearly. The dead princess is pregnant and she deserves a burial stone. Like the women in Kerameikos cemetery in Athens that had died in labour. Like Ariadne.
Posted by Poly Hatjimanolaki, Athens, Greece