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.