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Some are bound to guard Thermopiles
by Thanos Kalamidas
2009-11-17 07:44:32
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A few weeks ago a young reporter from Greece contacted me, asking for an interview for a documentary for the Greek television regarding the events of the Athens Polytechnic in the 70s. The email was kindly written and showing a good professional awareness of how sensitive the issue might be for me. Of course I felt honoured, since the programme she represents is highly respected in Greece. Her email troubled me for nearly a week and to be honest I didn’t know what to say, or better I knew what to say, but not how to explain it.

polytechnic_400From her mail I could tell that she is much younger than me and I knew for a fact that the reporter leading the documentary team was also younger. I felt a bit uncomfortable because I didn’t want to sound patronising; you see for this young woman and her boss, the events of the Athens Polytechnic are part of history. They celebrate it with a school holiday and a national remembrance day, with tens of special reports and programmes made for television, radio and newspapers. Even the morning gossip programmes and the afternoon reality shows nowadays have ten minutes about the events, with gigantic photos of the tank breaking the doors of the Polytechnic school in the background.

And of course all these people of today might shed a tear for the kids that died on that day, but is something very far away from them. The events of the Athens Polytechnic unfortunately didn’t stop on November 17th 1973. For the few of us who were involved they continued for six more years while Greece was trying to find its way to democracy, and during that time many more young people died. Sometimes they were people we knew; people we saw dead on the ground with our own eyes and they never stopped haunting us.

In an article for Ovi Magazine last year, I tried to explain how difficult it is for me to write about those events, and I’m not just referring to the events of 1973 but to the events of ‘76 and ‘79, when a young woman and a very young boy lost their lives while marching in the centre of Athens and hundreds bled from the hits they got from a raving police force.

It is difficult to explain that there was nothing heroic about it, there was fear and there was pain, but above all there was anger for the stolen freedom. It is the same when I talk about the dictatorship, I find it difficult to explain what it means to live under a dictatorship to somebody who hasn’t gone through the same experience – not that I wish this upon anybody. How can I explain how strange it was to live in a situation when the wrong word, even at a family gathering, could lead to questioning, imprisoning, exile, even death? Can you imagine living under a regime where even birthday parties needed police permission, since any gathering with more than five people was considered suspicious? Can you imagine that Sophocles was forbidden at schools because one verse from Antigone’s monologue mentioned polytechnic1_400the word democracy? I’m sure most of you doubt my words here.

So how could I explain all this to a young lady who was looking for heroes, and furthermore how could I explain everything in a documentary that would be broadcast between washing powder and diaper adverts?  Of course I said no, after thanking her for the honour of being asked, and I tried to explain everything I just said here, emphasizing that I have nothing against washing powder and diapers. It’s just that what happened is very private and only the people who actually lived through it can understand it. I hope she understood that her invitation really honoured me, but I couldn’t participate because I unfortunately cannot find the right words to explain.

Over thirty-five years have passed since the Athens’ Polytechnic events, and the triptych-motto of the students’ then, work-education-freedom is still contemporary. It is difficult to accept that young people, imprisoned in a rotten and malfunctioning system, are still fighting for the same things. But it is true, unemployment and recession always hits young people first, and more money is put on defence and security than universities and schools.

Regarding the heroism I’m sure that if needed, there are still hundreds of young people who are prepared to stand up again, and we would stand by their side, for a simple and not heroic reason at all: the poet Kavafis said it very expressively in one of his poems, “some are bound to guard Thermopiles*”

*I suppose a reminder of the 300 Spartans that defended Greece from the millions of Persian invaders is enough to explain the verse.


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