DAY FIVE: JOHN NIKIFOROS
We look upon Despina Kartakis and her personal tragedy as a metaphor for the Nazi atrocities in Crete. However, in the course of filming Crete and her people, we remained sensitive to reality: hers is one story among thousands. Not all, but many of these survivors still remain in the small mountain hamlets which in many ways define the cultural and human history of Crete.
On such man is John Nikiforos, whom we met on our final day. Well known in the communities around his hometown of Kalivos, a stone’s throw from Livadia, Crete’s largest village, Nikiforos was thirteen years old when Adolf Hitler launched his campaign against Greece, and subsequently Crete, in what wound up being the war’s major turning point. Such fierce resistance did the Cretans put up that Hitler was forced to delay his invasion of the Soviet Union, an eventuality that likely cost him the entire campaign. Over seven thousand Nazis became casualties of the Cretan resistance, and as a result, the retaliation by the German forces was catastrophic. John Nikiforos felt the worst of it—surviving by strength, luck and love.
In September of 1943, the then sixteen-year-old Nikiforos was tasked with feeding the resistance fighters secreted in the cliffs and valleys of the Idi mountains; a task he performed by shuttling mule-loads of provisions daily to the hideouts. One morning, by unfortunate happenstance, he encountered a Nazi patrol which had already rounded up a dozen freedom fighters from Livadia, and when interrogated about his food supplies, he claimed that he was going to feed the shepherds who generally remained with their flocks in the wild. Whether by intuition or manifest disregard for the Cretan people, the Nazis didn’t buy it and forced the teenager to join the captives. They marched miles back into the deep ravines of the Idi range, to a spot known locally as the Pig’s Hole—a favorite feeding spot for the wild swine of the prefecture. A suitably demonic name it wound up being, as the Nazis gathered the group and opened fire upon them. Nikiforos’ bullet tore through the back of his neck and exited his mouth, but by some caprice of fate or intervention from Heaven, he was not killed—afterward, inexplicably, when the SS troopers delivered a coup de grace to the temples of the fallen, he was ignored. Still, unable to walk, he spent the day in the blistering Cretan heat waiting to die. It was that evening, when his father (having heard rumors of the massacre) traveled to Pig’s Hole to find his son fading but alive, and returned him to Kalivos where he made a slow, but complete recovery.
A historical side note to compound the horror: the following day, the relatives of the other victims made the same trip to Pig’s Hole to retrieve their dead, bringing the village priest to bless the spot. Expecting the move, the SS men were waiting, and machine-gunned the group. A rustic, moving memorial now stands by the church built above Pig’s Hole listing the names of the thirty-two innocents who were killed September 4th and 5th, 1943.
We departed Crete that evening, filled with sentiment: through the resilience shown by the likes of Despina and John, the single-minded ambition of Bill Damas, the resourceful productivity of Eugene Damas, the homespun
sensibility of Eleni Damas (who continues to look at life with the simple passion we believe she would have had she never left the island), we felt that we have, in some small fashion, come to know what makes these people such a prodigious, remarkable race.