The Boot

In September 1943, the Italian military command suddenly collapsed and the German forces came into the island and took over. We heard from secret radio broadcasts that Mussolini had been ousted, and that the new government of Marshall Bandolio had surrendered to the Allies, who had invaded Italy that summer.

The Germans came in, as the Italian command in the island was waiting for orders to surrender. A small force of seven German soldiers, headed by a sergeant, rode into town on a jeep, going directly to the Italian headquarters, camped a kilometer out of town near the cemetery. A battalion of soldiers, the entire Italian force in the island, had gathered there, expecting orders from the generals at Corfu with instructions what to do. The Italians were confused and fearful. Rumors circulated that an invasion of a big German force was imminent. Nervous guards paced back and forth in front of large tents.

The German jeep headed directly to the commandant’s tent. Followed by one of his soldiers, the sergeant went into the tent, and, paying no attention to the Italian guard who attempted tostop him, ordered the commanding officer, a colonel, to surrender. The colonel replied that he could not do so until his orders from the Corfu headquarters were received. The German sergeant shot the colonel dead on the spot; when the colonel’s lieutenant attempted to interfere, he was also shot. The German sergeant went out of the tent and announced to the Italian troops that he had taken over command. The troops fell into confusion, and most of the men fled in panic. The Italian occupation of our island had come to an abrupt and inglorious end.

The news of this episode, which ran through town with lightning speed, gave us a taste of what the German occupation was going to be like. Despite their cruelties, the Italians were considered mild‑tempered tyrants by our people. They had not fought well in Albania. Since that time, the Greeks were not really afraid of them. When they took over the Seven Islands, fully intending to annex them, the fascists attempted to conciliate the inhabitants by offering food rations, and allowing the schools to re‑open. Business went on as usual, and most administrative offices functioned, some run by Greeks. Though the population of the island remained hostile to the Italians, still people had a rather easy time, as far as foreign occupations go. They knew that if you bribed the soldiers‑‑many were just as hungry as we were‑‑the chances were good that you would be granted some freedom or other.

But when the Germans invaded, real fear came with them. The Germans were tough. They had been in the rest of Greece for two years already, and their atrocities were well known: they had destroyed towns, burned villages, executed thousands. Their reprisals were notorious. If a German was killed in the guerrilla war, a village was invaded, thirty people were picked at random and executed.

One of the most fearful things about the Germans was the suddenness of their movements. You never knew what they were going to do next, or where danger was to come from. Contrary to the Italians, the Germans were incommunicative; they never talked to the natives, never engaged in social activities of any kind. The Italians sang in the tavernas and bars in town and played the mandolin and the accordion‑‑the Germans looked frozen, menacing, and inhuman. At night we heard their boots clamping on the pavement, as they patrolled the streets, and fear gripped our hearts. The German occupation of the island‑‑which lasted exactly twelve months‑‑was the hardest to bear. Our spirits were low, hunger became more widespread, our hopes that we might survive the nightmare of the war were dashed. Literally, this was a reign of terror.

In our household all precautions were redoubled. My father, a naturally careful man, issued instructions (he didn’t have to give us orders anymore, because our fear of Germans was so great we obeyed him instantly) that we stay close to the house day or night, that we youngsters (both of us were now growing up) ought to inform him or my mother exactly where we were during all twenty four hours. The Germans had blockaded the harbor, trying to entrap invading guerillas filtering in and out of the island from the mainland. They conducted sudden searches and raids. It was a chaotic, terror‑filled year, which left no time for relaxation or any type of recreational activity.

My father was filled with anxiety. This was the most difficult period of his life. He was a man who liked to calculate everything in advance, measuring out possibilities of events, counting the odds, taking as many precautions as he could against any eventuality. I had never seen him so intense. He came home from the sawmill every half hour or so, inspecting the house, making sure my mother knew where we boys were, and checking with the neighbors in case there was some rumor about unusual movements of the Germans. As the sawmill was located near the harbor, it was easy to notice anything unusual. My father stayed inside and sent one of his assistants out to scout for information, instead of going himself, fearing that the sight of a man might provoke the Germans, who, in his mind, were always looking for someone to pick up.

Taking precautions wasn’t confined to words. Our house had turned into a small fortress under siege, full of secret compartments and hiding places. My father had dug up holes everywhere, in the walls, in the floor, inside the attic, under the staircase, anticipating every place the Germans might look. In his mind there was only one thing: the day of search; he wanted to be ready when it came; he could see it coming; it was only a matter of time.

His fears were not entirely unfounded. Our town had been partly searched several times, but the Germans had never gone through the entire town once. They took sections, rounded up several men, and left. Most of the time these men were released, but some were taken away on the boats. In any case, one could never know what they they were going to do with a prisoner. It was impossible to be certain of anything. So my father kept digging holes, arranging them in such a way that anyone of us‑‑himself and us two boys‑‑could get into them at a moment’s notice.

It didn’t take long for my father’s fears to be realized. One day, about the middle of February of 1944, the harbor was again blockaded, two companies of German troops came off a torpedo boat, and a house‑to‑house search of the entire town was launched. The Germans were looking for guerillas, hiding in town, and they ordered all males to be gathered in the harbor square.

My father heard the order while still at the sawmill and dashed to the house. Fortunately, both of us boys were home. He didn’t even take the time to explain to us what was happening. He only said, “The Germans are coming!” and in an instant everything was in motion. He placed my brother in a hole behind some sacks of flour, which he had been trading lately; these were piled against the wall in such a way that nobody could guess that a human being could hide under the hundred pound sacks without suffocating. But my father was a genius when it came to hiding something; under ten sacks or so, he had placed some bricks, and then a couple of stakes horizontally laid over them, so a vacuum was created. There was no air in the hole, and I wonder how one could survive in there for more than a few minutes. He himself hid under the stairs, behind several cans of olive oil and more sacks with corn or wheat. How he squeezed in there in that small space was hard to imagine. But he always theorized that the most conspicuous place is the least searched. Or, maybe, his concern about hiding us boys more effectively had preoccupied him so much, he had thought of no other place to go.

As for me, I was in a place where no one could have found me with a magnet. It was inone of the back rooms downstairs used as a storage space where my father put all his spare lumber from the sawmill, throwing it there in no particular order. The back wall of this room was almost invisible from the entrance, especially since that room had only one window which was almost always shut, as more lumber was placed against it. There was no lighting of any kind, and if one wanted to see one would have to spend some time removing the lumber to open the window. My father told me to crawl under the pile and squeeze against a hole in the wall, a foot and a half deep, left over from the previous building, on which ours had been built only a few years earlier. That was an old well. My father had left that hole intact, but no one except him knew about this. The hole was just about my height, or a little lower, so I was a pretty accurate fit. I sat down, so I could avoid making even the slightest noise.

My mother did not hide, since the Germans never bothered the women. We all waited, but not for long. The Germans were heard coming. Since I could see almost nothing at all, except for a small opening at the bottom of the lumber pile, which gave a little reflection of light, my hearing was oversensitive. The Germans clumped down the stone‑paved street, with a mechanized, robot‑like precision known to us by now.

They knocked on our door with their rifle butts. My mother, shaking with fear, was saying to them‑‑I could hear her‑‑”They’re gone! They’re gone! That way,” and she was pointing toward the harbor. But the Germans came in. There must have been three of them that came into the house. They looked everywhere, into closets, upstairs under the beds, behind every chink or cranny that could conceal a human being.

The moments were tense, and seemed to last forever. My mother continued to cry to them,”They’re’gone! They’re gone!” but the Germans paid no attention to her whatsoever; neither did they attempt to mistreat her. But they lingered in the house searching; they removed some of the sacks of flour. They saw nothing. They looked under the stairs, touching the cans of oil, just a foot or so from where my father was. They found nothing. Finally, one of them came into the storeroom. From where I was sitting, I could see his boot. It was a large, wide, polished leather boot, obviously belonging to a giant. I held my breath. My heart was pounding, but fortunately only I could hear it. I tried to remain entirely still. The boot took a step. I could still see it. Obviously, the German was trying to peer through the thick pile of lumber, probably sure there was somebody behind it. Then the boot made a turn and left the room. I was safe.

My mother continued to repeat her phrase, “They’re gone!” even after the Germans were out of the door.

I stayed for two or three more minutes where I was. Then I heard my mother say in a low voice that the German soldiers were gone, and that I could come out. When I did that, the one thing that struck me more than anything else was her deathly pale face. She was shaking, stunned with terror, and almost unable to breathe. The fact that the Germans were gone didn’t mean anything to her. The fear took hold of her mind. It would not go away. For my part, neither would the picture of that boot. Up to that time, the war hadn’t really touched me. It was a game played by others somewhere else. But that boot had come as close as a few feet from me. It would have taken the German only a minute to remove some of the lumber and find me. What would have happened it he had?

My father just then emerged from behind several cans of oil. He frantically started digging up my brother from under the sacks of flour. My brother came out, looking dizzy, but alive.

“The bastards,” my father said, “another minute and the boy would have suffocated.”

I helped my father put the flour sacks back in place. “You had the easiest time of all,” he said to me for whatever reason, and I thought that his remark was strangely true.

But only I had seen the boot.