Τhe pianist of Samos, the 2nd World War and Today in Ikaria
There is a place up there in the mountains where I have this wonderful view to the sea, to Samos and on good days even to the Turkish coast. Sitting there is pure meditation. When I close my eyes I can feel the vibrations of historic events unfolding here. I can feel the speed of the pirate boats passing by in ancient times, I can feel the rhythm and hear the sounds of the battles that took place in this area. The air and the sea bring the stories to me and I like to listen to them. They are manifold, telling me about love, despair, hunger, fear, peace and war. But there is one story I am really interested in, and I try to grasp and put the various fragments together It is my own family story, the story of my grandfather, and it is here in this place that I feel the closest to him and the person he might have been during World War II. I am German and my grandfather fought with the German army during the war on Crete. We are all very aware of what happened there, but I never heard details from him at the family table. My grandfather was in his early twenties when he was forced to work in the army. He was “fresh meat” and was sent to the most dangerous places: Stalingrad …. and finally Crete. He ended up in a British prison camp on Samos and it is only about this time that he used to tell us some stories. My grandfather was a quiet man, not that talkative; he liked to smoke his cigarettes, watching the smoke vaporising into the air. His passion was classical music. He was a dedicated piano player, he liked to disappear in the world of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven …. whether playing the music by himself or listening to it for hours on the radio. Before entering the army he worked in the family supermarket, and at the week-ends he was the piano player at a famous ball-room in his hometown. His slim fingers could run very lightly over the piano keys, giving the well-known pieces of music a special touch.
War changed him … that is what his family said. When he came back, he hardly talked about what had happened to him, what he had done, what he had seen. He became even quieter than before. At family reunions, when stories about the past were exchanged at the table, he would sit there, listening to the others. Sometimes his eyes would gaze into space, as if he were travelling back into the past. Only when after a few drinks would he start talking about his time in the prison camp on Samos. He said the British treated him nicely. One commander liked him and gave him a job cleaning his house. When he learned that my grandfather was a piano player, he organised some afternoon sessions in the “Casino”, where he entertained the British soldiers.
When I am sit up there in the mountains of Ikaria with the view over to Samos, I grow more and more convinced that there are no coincidences in life. I tend to believe that the stories of mankind are linked and that we can escape neither our history nor our destination. I sit there imagining that perhaps my grandfather might have sat somewhere on a rock on Samos, looking towards Ikaria. Perhaps he even set foot on the island that has been calling me for so long. There is a lot of room for imagination, room for good and for bad stories. But I like to sit here, talking to the piano man on Samos. I like to tell him that in the end, good things were built on the ashes of the monsters of the 2nd World War. He knew that I was very interested in our German history, that I studied many details about the Nazi-regime, that I became a dedicated fighter against any return of Nazi thinking and acting. He knew that I had travelled to many places in Greece, where Germans committed the worst acts, as in Kalavrita …. He knew that I had cried on Rhodes with a survivor of the Holocaust … but he did not live long enough for me to bring my stories of Ikaria back to him. The stories of a place I like so much, a place that could become a second home. A place where of course I enter into many discussions about German history, a place where I also face rejection, because some people choose to put me in a box and judge me by my nationality and not by my actions. I would like to tell the piano man on Samos that it is possible to move on, that it is possible to build another story, a story that overcomes hate … and that Ikarians are good teachers in this respect. I would like to tell him that it is exactly in this place, where so much cruelty has happened between our two nations, that I am very proud and happy that I was given the T-shirt of the volunteer fire brigades of Agios Kirikos to become an honorable member of their association. A T-shirt with the Greek flag shining on the sleeve.
So it is this kind of discussion I have with the piano man on Samos while sitting in the mountains of Ikaria. A discussion that recalls my roots, my family and national history, but also a discussion that shows me that it is possible to overcome the past and build a different future … but it needs people and open minds to do so…. and perhaps unique places like Ikaria to make that change.