DAY THREE: DESPINA KARTAKIS
Despina Kartakis has lived alone since the passing of her husband sixteen years ago, but in many ways, she’s lived alone—in her memories—since May 21, 1941. On that day, in the wake of the initial wave of Nazi paratroopers invading the island, Cretan sharpshooters, armed only with outdated rifles, took desperate potshots at passing Stukas. Recognizing the foolhardy danger of alerting the invaders to armed resistance, Despina’s father Manuel demanded that the shooters—which included the village priest—stop. Unfortunately, it was too late, and Nazi bombers arrived to destroy the snipers, forcing Despina and her brother and father to seek shelter in a natural cave behind the church of Panagia.
Soon afterward, her young life was altered irreversibly. A bomb detonated within feet of the cave where she was hiding with her father and younger brother. The boy was killed instantly, her father desperately wounded, and Despina herself took a blast of shrapnel that destroyed her lower jaw and tore through her shoulder. Confused and in pain, she crawled through the bomb crater and out into open ground, where Nazi sharpshooters on the mountain side began to fire at her. She took a bullet in the leg before losing consciousness beneath the shelter of a rock. Ultimately, she was found and believed dead, and buried in a gratefully shallow grave. Her dog Azor discovered her alive and alerted relatives, who to get her into a Chania hospital, then under Nazi control, but the occupying forces considered her beyond saving and offered no medical attention beyond an injection to painlessly end her life. Her father, recovering from his own wounds, declined, but as the story goes, the doctor pushed him aside and administered the needle. Convinced for a second time that she was dead, her parents had the bells of Panagia (one of the titles of Mary, the mother of Jesus) ring to alert the neighborhood that she had passed away. And yet, touched again by the grace of God, she recovered from the injection, and ultimately was allowed back in the hospital.
In days to come, she was forced, from the balcony of her hospital room, to witness the execution of many individuals from her town: Nazi retaliation for brave Cretans defending their homeland.
She was five years old at the time.
Now, in 2007, sixty-six years after the atrocity which disfigured her face beyond any permanent fix, Despina Karakis is an amazingly well-adjusted and maternal gem of a human being, and it was with pride and delight that we met her in Chania, in a rented room in which she has stayed since this year’s anniversary of her injury on May 21—a pilgrimage that she tries to make every year.
With Despina, we made a reverential and, for all of us, an extremely emotional trip to the Panagia church, where we encountered first Despina’s childhood friend Nifodora, whose family helped sustain the Kartakis family through the slow recovery of Manuel (ultimately, he would succumb to his injuries), and the meeting was warm and ineffably touching. From there, we walked through the weed-choked lot which fell away from the rear of the church, descending through stones and tangled roots to the site both of the cave where she’d sought shelter, and the exact spot where she’d been buried alive. The explosive emotion the story—whose complete details Despina had never before revealed, to anyone—brought out in all of us can certainly be measured in tears, nightmares, and most entirely compassion to this remarkable survivor, a woman without malice even for the men who attempted, without success, to destroy her.
Afterward, a trip to the cemetery where her brother Yanni and her parents, Manuel and Maria Tapinakis were buried drew further sympathy among those of us honored to accompany her.
More of Despina’s gentle nature was revealed later in the day when Executive Producer Keith Famie was struck down with sun poisoning, a result of the 110 degree day. Without concern for her own emotional experience, she proved a worthy nurse, fetching ice, wet rags and sage advice as old as Crete to alleviate the problem.
Later in the day we were pleased to trek to Nio Horio nestled among the cliffs above Chania to visit Eleni’s parents, Emmanuel and Magdalini Karagiannakis. Both retired after a career in Detroit, working at Henry Ford Hospital, they elected to return to their native Crete to see out their years. Still spry and youthful (Eleni herself was a scant fifteen years old when she wed Bill), they showed us their garden, chickens, prize fig tree and myriad flowers which enliven their hillside home with a million-dollar ocean view.