Despina Kartakis, March 25, 2007
Infamously, they’ve been called ‘collateral damage’. They’ve been justified as an inevitable in any conflict, as though the impact of civilian casualties is justifiable so long as they are dutifully recorded as wartime statistics or remembered with memorial shrines and occasional reunions.
But when we’re confronted with the actual flesh and blood of survivors, when we’re encouraged to touch and examine the physical scars of survivors and hear the hideous memories, the nightmares of war can no longer be pigeonholed into CNN briefs and sterile moments of silence.
In such moments, war is revealed in its fullest and most indefensible horror.
Such was the case in our interview with Despina Kartakis, who has carried with her the deformities, physical and emotional, of her childhood experience in Galatas, Crete since May 21, 1941.
At that time, having already conquered mainland Greece, the Germans launched a massive airborne invasion of Crete. Spearheaded by Nazi paratroopers, the fierce resistance among the remaining Allied forces on Crete, chiefly British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek troops along with the Cretans, led to a short-term decimation of the invading army. Over four thousand Nazis were counted as casualties during the first day of fighting. Unfortunately, the tide turned as the week progressed, and by June 1, 1941, the Germans had full control of the island and the Allied troops had been evacuated.
By then, Despina Kartakis’ young life had already been altered irreversibly. During the intitial wave of invasion, 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 discovered her alive. Relatives managed 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.
She was five years old at the time.
Obviously, the concept of adults using a preschooler as target practise goes so far beyond the rational view of ‘collateral damage’ as to render the term irrevocably abhorrant to the human species. Despina’s survival is likewise beyond miraculous; it speaks to a strength of will and character that is as apparent throughout her experiences of endless reconstructive surgeries (including corneal transplants a dozen years ago—she remained virtually blind prior to that, a consquence of the concussive force of the bomb) as it is in her today.
She’s now seventy years old, and lives alone, self-sufficient in virtually all aspects of her life. First sponsored for medical treatment in Detroit in 1960, she married a persistent visitor to her hospital bed (a former Chania bus driver who had seen her in Crete) and had two children, both successful and still living in the Detroit area. She proudly shows us photographs of her grandchildren, pointing out that the spunk and resilience that has seen her through the worst that life can offer, shows up in them.
Despina returns yearly to Crete, where she participates in a memorial—celebration is not the correct word—to the sacrifice of the Cretan people that which ultimately led to victory. Her most significant victories, of course, are more personal. It’s the intention of Visionalist Productions to accompany her on this year’s homecoming, the sixty-fifth anniversary of her injuries. She believes that after sixty-five years of public silence, it’s time that she tell her story in the hope that world will not forget once her generation has all passed on.
Her scars are admittedly tough to look at, though they are quickly forgotten in the warm wash of personality and human generosity that suffuses her. When confronted so graphically with the consequences of human evil, it’s tempting to resort to the hackneyed cliché,” If only some good could come of this…”
Despina Kartakis is, in fact, the embodiment of that good.