ALEXIS PENNY’S BLOG

A. T. Casdagli with Alexis Penny in Crete on 1 June 1991 for the 50th anniversary of his capture there on 1 June 1941

 

By Chance In A Car Park

In a car park by the Fort of Chania, a town on the northern coast of Crete, covered in dust from a dawn start, we were saying the very last words of the last take of last shot on the last day of filming for Capture in Crete when, suddenly, a man appeared between our two filmmakers, James Morton and Elias Staris, videoing us on his mobile phone. 

 It turned out to be the journalist, Giannis Aggelakis, who, looking for somewhere to park had, by chance, come across us.

 That night, he interviewed me for the Cretan newspaper, Agonas Tis Kritis. His article is the first time Casdagli’s story has been told in Greek. The headline says ‘Fuck Hitler! - the story of the English Major of Greek origin, who fought in the Battle of Crete and resisted with the Nazis with a needle.’  You don’t have to speak Greek to enjoy it as the photos are great too so do click on this link: 

http://agonaskritis.gr/?p=202660 

Needling The Nazis



I wrote this article for Fine Cell Work's Prisoners Newsletter. On reading it, Jenni Parker, their Volunteer and Programmes Manager, wrote 'A huge thank you for such an inspiring piece. It's always great to have such interesting stories to share with the prisoners we work with.' For more about this wonderful charity, please see my blog From A Prisoner's Daughter below.



Posthumous Pals


The Mark Coleman Embroidery

   A T Casdagli had a knack for friendship, and, as Prouder Than Ever relates, friendship was critical to his surviving four years as a Prisoner of War in Germany. My father’s friends were old and young, from every part of his life, in many parts of the world. Even I was one of them, for he would often sign his letters to me ‘Y.O.P.’ which stood for ‘Your Old Pal’.

   Although he died almost twenty years ago, it seems Casdagli hasn’t lost this gift, for people who’ve never met him like him and want, in their turn, to do something for him. Of these, one is Mark Coleman of SDS Heritage.

   At the terrific A T Casdagli POW exhibition in Harrow School’s Old Speech Room Gallery, it was suggested by Peter Hunter, who, amongst other important duties, is the Chair of the Treasures Committee there, that my father’s schoolboy diaries and albums, characteristically meticulous and fascinating, should be digitalised. He gave me the details of SDS Heritage (http://www.sds-heritage.co.uk/ ) and I subsequently gave the works to Mark and his colleagues. When I received the works digitally, I was astounded. I could read details and information that previously been impossible to make out. Two years later, and Mark and SDS Heritage have now digitalised all the Casdagli archives I possess, thus preserving them for posterity.

   Something Dad did for his family and friends - as you can see from the About Casdagli page of this website - was to make embroideries especially for them. So I’ve given Mark this embroidery, sewn in cross-stitch by Casdagli at the age of 80, to thank him as I believe the immaculate digitalisation of Casdagli's works on paper, from his 1920 Schoolboy Diary to his War Log of 1940-1945, is just, were he living now, what my father would delightedly commission himself.

 

Blue Tattooed Numbers

 

My father never talked about the war, at least not to me he didn’t. Although he left me everything when he died, a hundred pounds in Premium Bonds and all his worldly possessions, I didn’t read his prisoner of war diary (now published as Prouder Than Ever so you can read it too) until one bitter winter night in early 2012. I cried and I was shocked. I didn’t know he’d suffered so much or been so brave. He’d never said a word.

   Although my father never talked about the war – and neither did my mother, a spy with the Special Operations Executive –  the war was always with us.

 

 

 

We had a reverence for food. None of us ever left a scrap on our plates. In fact, Dad and I licked ours.

 

       

   He always slept with this photograph of the ovens of Dachau on his bedside table. Dachau was a concentration camp in Germany where 32,000 people were murdered and the ovens were where their bodies were cremated. By the photo would be a book. The only books he ever read were books about the war. Most of them had photographs.
   When, aged four, I was entered into a fancy dress competition by my parents, I went as a Red Cross nurse. I didn’t win anything and it didn’t matter at all.

 


  In 1954, when I was almost six, we went to Yugoslavia, as it was then, for a holiday. We went to the seaside and stayed in a hotel with barbed wire round the garden. The beach was guarded by two soliders with rifles and it was hot and bleak with few umbrellas against the heat.

   One day, on the beach, my father saw a woman to our left, sitting not far from us with a man. They were both good-looking. My father turned to my mother and said excitedly,
   ‘Look at the numbers on her arm!’
   We looked. On her inner arm, tattooed in blue ink, were about seven or eight numbers, I think. They meant she had been in a concentration camp where they’d been tattooed on her arm as prisoner ID. My father sprang to his feet, his eyes shining, and wrapped a towel round his waist over his ‘bum bags’, as he called his swimming trunks.

   ‘I must go over,’ he said. After a few minutes, when he and the couple had shaken hands warmly, he beckoned us over to meet Magda and Paul. And that’s when I fell in love for the first time. As soon as I laid my eyes on Paul. We all spent the rest of the holiday together. I spent the rest of my holiday in the warm sand at Paul’s feet. He was very respectful of the way I felt about him and when the dreadful last day of the holiday came, the day we had to say goodbye, he gave my parents a topaz to be made into a ring for me one day in the future when I grew up. And when I was old enough, they gave it to me.

   It wasn’t until my fiftieth birthday, I gave it to the jeweller Jeremy Hoye in Brighton and he made it into this handsome ring for me. 

 

 

 

I don’t always wear it – it’s chunky and so are my hands – but when I hold it, as I hold it now, I see the hot bare beach with its several umbrellas, the soldiers in the background, the blue tattooed numbers on Magda’s arm and I can see how brightly my father’s eyes were shining and how humbly he approached her.

Those Awful and Aweful Little Tattoos

 

This guest blog is by my friend, Penny Martin, writing in December, 2015 and is a companion piece to my earlier blog Blue Tattooed Numbers below:

‘When I was younger, it was still common in France to see the tattooed number on the wrists of those who had been sent to concentration camps and were among the comparatively few who had survived.  Back in the late 1960’s, when we were living in Melbourne, in Oz, I was queueing in a post office, on a beautiful summer’s day and noticed this, very familiar, tattoo on the wrist of the chap in front of me. This was a very chilling reminder to me of both the War and how even down there in Australia, far, far away from Europe, just what happened not all that many years before.

   The first time I saw one was in Paris, towards the end of the 1950’s, when I was staying with some of my French cousins. One evening, a cousin of these cousins came to dinner and I must have been staring at the strange tattoo on one of his wrists. It was then explained to me how it had been acquired.

   Given I was born into a Jewish family, I'm always aware I would not be here now, had ‘we’ not won WW2. In fact, my husband’s paternal grandparents died in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, my father-in-law and his brother managing to get out of Germany in the nick of time then going to Australia. My father-in-law still had his final year in Medicine to do: somehow, he managed to learn Italian and then finish his studies in Turin.


  

Penny with Isabelle, the great-great-grandchild of those who died in Theresienstadt.

From a Prisoner’s Daughter

 

Esther Freud, the novelist, who I’d never met before but whose books I’d read, gave me the card for Fine Cell Work’s Christmas Fair. When she explained, ‘It’s a sale of wonderful embroideries and sewing made by prisoners,’ I was astonished. Prisoners embroidering!  Just like Dad! I felt overwhelmed and tried to steady myself. As soon as I could, I went on the Fine Cell Work website and was completely enthralled. I immediately changed all my plans for the day of the Fair so I could go. My father, Maj A T Casdagli, was a prisoner of war in Germany. Whilst in prison, he suffered enormously from hunger and cold, but the worst enemy, as any prisoner knows, was boredom. One freezing day in December 1941, he was given a bit of canvas and, with wool from a fellow prisoner’s pullover, started his first embroidery. When it was finished, it cheered everyone up as in the narrow border round the edge, he’d embroidered, in Morse code, ‘FUCK HITLER’ three and a half times! At great personal risk, he pinned this work up on the walls of the all the prisons he was in, but, fortunately for him, the Germans never noticed!

 

The Fuck Hitler Embroidery

 

The work on show in the Christmas Fair was awesome. I loved the beauty, exquisite quality, skill, ingenuity and wit of it and am all admiration for Fine Cell Work itself. I took a couple of my small father’s prison embroideries with me and was deeply moved when I saw them in the hands of two former prisoners who were present and still embroider. When one said, ‘Nice work, very neat,’ I felt so proud for Dad. People are imprisoned for many different reasons, some just and some unjust, but in relation to time, all prisoners are the same. I think this embroidery Dad made of a verse of a poem written by Oscar Wilde, when a prisoner, just about sums it up. Thank heavens for the brilliant Fine Cell Work and for its long-devoted supporter, Esther Freud.

 

Casdagli’s embroidery of a verse from The Ballad of Reading Gaol

 

Among The True Elect

I don’t think my father, A T Casdagli, ever met Patrick Leigh Fermor, famous for his abduction of the German General Kreipe on Crete on the night of 26 April 1944. But it is impossible that Paddy who lived in Tara, the now legendary villa on Gezira Island in Cairo, during the war, did not know the name Casdagli. The magnificent Villa Casdagli, sadly torched by rioters on 1 February 2013, was a well-known Cairo landmark, and the Casdagli family, who lived there, were extremely wealthy and influential. I can’t be sure, and, in the absence of documented material either one way or another, it is, perhaps, permissible to speculate it’s highly likely that they did meet – and if they did not, then they should have done! Surely, they could have encountered each other at Shepheard’s Hotel or the Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo or brushed shoulders in Athens at the GB – the Grande Bretagne Hotel – or, perhaps, even better, sat down together in a simple kafeneon in a village square somewhere in their beloved Crete. It’s in Crete I most easily picture them. I see them handsome, fit and bloody-minded, bent over a jug of wine and a few olives, comparing notes delightedly and lapsing, perhaps almost inevitably, from their native English into their fluent, beautifully learnt Greek. However, I did met Patrick Leigh Fermor and the circumstances that lead to that meeting are, I think, extraordinary enough to warrant telling.

   In September 1964, aged 16, I was travelling with my mother on a boat from Venice to Piraeus. I was to spend almost a year in Athens on my own before going to the Central School of Speech and Drama to train as an actress. Our boat stopped for half a day in Corfu. Although it was lashing with rain, my mother and I disembarked to explore the town. We didn’t get very far. A storm broke and we rushed into the nearest place to shelter, a cavernous, darkly lit, antiquated café, which didn’t feel Greek at all. It overlooked a large patch of ground, turning in the downpour to chocolate-coloured mud. Apart from a stocky man sitting pensively at the top of a table facing the door, who didn’t look Greek at all, we were quite alone. I noticed the man, while we warmed up, occasionally look at us. This wasn’t unusual. My mother, Wendy, a Captain in the Special Operations Executive in Cairo during the war, was still very beautiful with glorious red hair.

   Suddenly, the door swung open and in ran two men, muffled like gangsters against the weather. They greeted the man at the table, who now ordered lot of drinks, and sat down and all three chatted loudly. Due to the deluge outside, we couldn’t quite hear their conversation, but it was definitely in English. Then a brandy arrived at our table for my mother and an invitation to join them. One of the men looked just like the actor, Albert Finney, whom I really admired and who, like Dad, was born in Salford. We went over and soon learnt our host was Lawrence Durrell, the patch of mud a cricket pitch, the café Italian, and the man who looked like Albert Finney was Albert Finney and the third man was the film director, Karel Reisz. When Durrell discovered I was going to live in Athens for some months on my own, he told me I had to meet an artist called Maro Stathatos, neé Vatimbella. He scribbled her address and her telephone number on a cigarette packet and assured me - and my mother- that she’d make sure I’d meet ‘all the right people’ and that I'd adore her. He was right on both counts and, in spite of the great age difference, Maro and I became firm friends.

   I left Athens in the summer and, although we corresponded, didn’t see Maro again until, in 1987, she travelled to London to stay with her son, John Stathatos, the poet and photographer. She was now in a wheelchair and, I believe, about to be diagnosed with some kind of dementia. John decided to throw a party in her honour. Only her most cherished English friends were invited, probably a dozen of us, and among them would be Paddy, who happened to be in London. The party was in the top room of John’s house in North London, under the eaves of the roof. I don’t know how John managed to get Maro and wheelchair up there but there she was, exquisitely dressed and radiant, her eyes sparkling. In his poem about Maro, A Portrait of Theodora, Durrell perfectly describes her look:

 ‘I recall her by a freckle of gold

In the pupil of one eye, an odd

Strawberry gold...’

   Before long Paddy arrived. He was everything that is said about him, charming, debonair and a wonderful raconteur. Maro and he were thrilled to see each other again. Together they set the party to a different rhythm, of other times full of a  wildness and gaiety that only sheer intelligence and a shared past can bring about. It was delightful to see them sparring, reminiscing and teasing each other. Then Maro said,

   ‘Paddy, do tell us the story of the General, and how you kidnapped him! It’s a marvellous story and you tell it so well.’

   Paddy looked rather embarrassed.

   ‘Oh, Maro, it was so long ago and everyone knows what happened anyway.’

   ‘No,’ said Maro quite firmly, ‘you must tell it.’

   Something in her voice made him look up and, in that split second, something flashed between them. Maro was definitely demanding of Paddy not to refuse her in front of her guests. I also believe, in this moment, these friends for so many decades both realised this was the last time they’d ever meet, which was correct. Maro died two years later. But there was something else that does not go easily into words. Durrell’s poem about Maro ends,

‘Now only my experience recognizes her

Too late, among the other great survivors

Of the city’s rage, and places her among

The champions of love – among the true elect!’

   If Maro was ‘among the true elect’ then, of course, Paddy was too. She was reminding him of that and inviting him to do something special with her and for her, something we would all remember, something to kick death down the stairs, something that without her asking it of him, he could not or would not be willing to do. There was a pause. Paddy looked down into his glass. I held my breath. I thought he was going to refuse her. Then he said, ‘Well...’ and he was off.

   He gave the story a hell of a spin. Maro shed her years and looked just like she looks in the photograph below. She sat in her wheelchair as if it was a joke and belonged to someone else. She kept feeding Paddy with questions, prompting, cajoling him to go faster, to go back to collect a detail, to go slower so we guests could visualise the scene for ourselves. She was our Queen and Paddy was her gallant and we the guests knew, with adamantine certainty, that we were witnessing – no – that we were part of an extraordinary evening. And when Paddy finished speaking, we guests, as if one, got up to leave. We paid our respects to dear Maro and thanked Paddy again his wonderful re-telling of that powerful, historic affair and left. It was, as you see, quite unforgettable.

   Something else gives that evening, in recollection, a special and even more poignant resonance. Only after my mother’s death in 1999 did I learn from several of her closest friends that she and Paddy had had an ffair in Cairo, before she met my father. And an affair is just what it was, apparently - just one of those things - but no less delicious for that! I don’t know if my father ever knew but I wish I had and had been able to tell Paddy I was Wendy’s daughter. O, the slender threads that bind us! 


Maro, Paddy and Eve Willis, Alexandria,1941,courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

 adapted from my article in The Philhellene, January 2016

 

Poppy Day, 2015

 


Casdagli by Haig

Known as Poppy or Remembrance or Day, Armistice Day was first commemorated at the end of the First World War in 1919, as a memorial day for Armed forces who died in the line of duty. In 1954, in the United States of America, it became called Veterans Day and is an official public holiday. Every year, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour, two minutes of silence are observed and wreaths are laid at war monuments.

 The British Legion, which sells poppies on this day to raise money for war-injured Allied Forces, veterans and their families, was founded by Earl Haig in 1921. Haig had been in command at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, where 600,000 of his men lost their lives. Dad was imprisoned with his son, Dawyck, in Oflag XII-B, Hadamar, Germany, in 1944. There, Dawyck painted this portrait of him. It's reproduced in Prouder Than Ever with an extraordinary story about it, now also told in more detail in the Kudos magazine on page 88:  

https://issuu.com/kudoskent/docs/kudos_issue_19

 

I picked this poppy in May in the village of Sphakia, Crete, where over 6000 Allied Forces were captured on 1 June 1941, my father among them, to remember him and all those who have fought, suffered and died in conflict. 
 

ΌΧΙ! NO! Day!

 

Όχι means ‘no’ in Greek. On 28 October 1940, Fascist Italy sent an ultimatum to Greece, demanding Greece allow Axis forces to occupy ‘strategic areas’ of its territory or face war. Metaxas said ‘No!’ and Greece entered the Second World War. Όχι Day is still celebrated every year in Greece to commemorate that brave refusal.



Όχι Day, 2014

Prouder Than Ever was published on Όχι Day, 2014 - albeit it only just – see my blog below Making The Impossible Happen! Here’s the waistcoat I made for the first anniversary of Prouder Than Ever which I wore to our Όχι Day party here in London.


Χρονιά πολλά για το ΌΧΙ!

Long live OXI Day!

 



War Child

 

 

 

I first met Mrs Mary Agrafiotou at the Launch of Prouder Than Ever at St Sophia’s Cathedral in London on 23 October 2014. During the evening, she handed me a transcript of an interview she gave to the BBC for their oral history project of the Second World War. It included her account of going to the dreaded Pavlos Melas Barracks in Thessaloniki, as a child in 1942.

    On 11 June 1941, many hundreds of prisoners caught in Crete on their way to  Germany arrived in cattle trucks at Thessaloniki station in pouring rain. Amongst them was A. T. Casdagli, my father. It was from this station one year later in 1942 that almost the entire Jewish population of the city, over 50,000 people, were taken straight to the concentration camp of Auschwitz in the one of areas of Poland annexed by Nazi Germany. Only 1800 of those came back.

   From the station, the prisoners were marched just over three miles to the Pavlos Melas Barracks, a huge transit camp, which was also a death and torture camp where over 1750 ‘undesirables’ were executed between 1941-1944. Casdagli describes the conditions at Pavlos Melas Barracks as being ‘past all belief’.

   Greek civilians were also held here. Mary, who was twelve, took food to one of them almost daily. He was a client of her father, who was a lawyer. Amongst the prisoners there, she saw girls and boys, teenagers. Mary told me the story about these young people when we met on the anniversary of the Launch, again at St Sophia’s. These are her words,

    ‘They must have belonged to the Resistance and they were singing though they knew they were either going to be taken outside the camp to be killed or taken to Germany as labourers, but they were still singing. One day, when I handed the bag with the food and the name of the prisoner to the German guard, I was told the previous morning, with one hundred and seven other men, he was taken outside the camp and killed. His only crime was that being the head of the village committee, he had refused to give up the names of those involved in the Greek Resistance to the Germans. I was in tears on the way home trying to think of what words to tell my parents of his murder. That song the young people were singing keeps in my mind all the time...’

     Then Mary sang the song for me and I recorded it. When it has been edited, it will be posted on the website for everyone to hear who would like to, with the words in both Greek and in English. It was a memorable afternoon for us both, hard and joyful in equal measure. At one point, Mary said to me,

          ‘I’m a war child.’

          I agreed. And a very brave one too.