10 September 2021

The Greeks have a word
for it (21) Holocaust

‘The Ballad of Mauthausen’ … the Holocaust cantata by Mikis Theodorakis, who was buried in Chania today

Patrick Comerford

I am in Rethymnon in Crete, and for the past week I have been writing on my blog about words in the English language that are borrowed from Greek.

On this Friday evening (10 September 2021), Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my choice of word is Holocaust.

The word Holocaust comes from the Ancient Greek ὁλόκαυστος (holokaustos), which, in turn, is derived from ὅλος (‘whole’) and καυστός (‘burnt’), used for one of the major forms of sacrifice also known as a burnt offering.

The word Holocaust was later used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible, to refer to the olah (עלה‎), the communal and individual sacrificial burnt offerings in the Temple in Jerusalem. In time, its Latin form, holocaustum, was first used with specific reference to a massacre of Jewish people by the chroniclers Roger of Howden and Richard of Devizes in England in the 1190s.

But the Holocaust of the 20th century was not a sacrifice by the Nazis to God, and the 6 million Jews burned to death and murdered in the death camps were not burnt offerings. The former Regius Professor of History a Cambridge, Sir Richard J Evans, wrote in 1989 that the term Holocaust is unsuitable and should not be used.The Biblical word Shoah (שואה), meaning ‘calamity’ in Hebrew, has become the standard Hebrew term for the 20th-century Holocaust since the early 1940s.

Iakovos Kambanellis, author of ‘Mauthausen’ … is regarded by many as the greatest Greek playwright of the 20th century

All this week, the news in Greece has been dominated by the funeral of the composer Mikis Theodorakis (Μίκης Θεοδωράκης), who was buried today in his family’s home village near Chania. Television channels have been providing minute-by-minuted live coverage of the funeral and showing movies with music he composed, and restaurants here in Rethymnon have been playing his music and compositions constantly.

Theodorakis was the composer of the great Greek cantata of the Holocaust, The Ballad of Mauthausen. The poem was written by the Greek playwright and poet Iakovos Kambanellis and was set to music by Theodorakis in 1965, 20 years after the Holocaust.

The Ballad of Mauthausen (Η Μπαλάντα του Μαουτχάουζεν) is based on the experiences of Iakovos Kambanellis (1922-2011), who wrote four poems that Theodorakis set to music.

Kambanellis was a poet, playwright, screenwriter, lyricist, and novelist, best known as a screenwriter for films, including Stella (1955), directed by Michael Cacoyannis. It was first written the script as a play, Stella With the Red Gloves, based on Carmen, but was never produced on the Greek stage because of its sexual frankness. The film, shot in the streets of Athens, follows a singer (Melina Mercouri) who refuses to marry her lover and begins a passionate affair with a football player. The film made a star of Melina Mercouri and boosted Greek cinema’s international reputation.

Perhaps La Stella, the hotel where I am staying in Platanias, on the eastern fringes of Rethymnon, is named after Stella.

Kambanellis was born on 2 December 1922 in Hora on the island of Naxos. He had to leave school at an early age and to find work after the family moved to Athens. But he continued his studies at an evening technical school. He was arrested in 1942 after attempting to flee Nazi-occupied Greece, and was sent to Mauthausen in Austria, where he spent the rest of World War II.

The ‘Stairs of Death’ in Mauthausen

Unlike Auschwitz, Mauthausen was not an extermination camp, but countless people were murdered and died there in horrific circumstances. There the Nazis forced their victims to work in a stone quarry, hauling large pieces of rock and stone up the ‘Stairs of Death’ along steep and uneven ramps. The Jewish prisoners there included Simon Wiesenthal, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Romanies and Spanish republicans. Between 240,000 and 320,000 people, including Jews, intellectuals, and people classified as ‘political undesirables,’ were murdered in Mauthausen.

Kambanellis owed his survival to the protection of a Philhellenic German prison guard who assigned him to the architectural drafting office, where additions to the camp were designed.

Mauthausen was the last of the concentration camps to be liberated in May 1945. Kambanellis was not a Jew, and he was free to return with the other Greek prisoners to Greece. But knowing there were Greek Jews who dreamed of reaching Palestine, he elected to stay on in the camp until the last Greek Jew left.

Interviewed later in life, he said: ‘I don’t want to make myself into a hero. What could I do? I saw the eyes of the sick, of the weak, of the abandoned; could I have said okay, fine, I’m leaving now? I was their friend.’ He admitted he was deeply envious of them ‘because we all went back to an old world and we were scared of it. We couldn’t, after those three years, go back to the world of the past, of before the war. And they went to a new, virgin, country and started a new world in Palestine.’

On his return to Greece, Kambanellis began writing a newspaper column in Athens before turning to the theatre and film.

A recurring feature of his work is the use of multiple, often unexpected voices. He attributed this to the years he spent in Mauthausen, listening to the voices of nameless sufferers. His success as a writer seemed miraculous to him and perhaps contributed to his unique blend of realism and mysticism.

His most successful play, Our Grand Circus, was staged in 1973 at the height of the colonels’ dictatorship. Weaving history, myth, and the traditional shadow puppet theatre with folk motifs, the play ridicules the heroic view of Greek history favoured by the colonels, rewriting Greek history from a left-wing perspective.

By calling the performances a circus and transforming his bleak view of the regime and of Greek history into a series of amusing vignettes, he escaped the strict censorship of the time. Our Grand Circus broke all box-office records and made Kambanellis a popular symbol of resistance.

He wrote the scripts for about a dozen films and directed two of them. He died in Athens 10 years ago, on 29 March 2011. He is regarded by many as the greatest Greek playwright of the 20th century.

Mauthausen, his only novel, is a memoir recalling his experiences in the concentration camp. It was first published in Athens in 1965 and has been translated into English and German. At the same time, he wrote the Mauthausen Cantata with a setting by his close friend Theodorakis, when his publisher suggested that they publish their works together.

The book and the music were born in an incendiary political and cultural milieu in Greece. Two days after its first performance, all music by Theodorakis was banned from Greek state radio. Within two years, the military had seized power and the colonels silenced Theodorakis and many other voices for seven long years.

Kambanellis was inspired by a photograph of an unknown girl which he found in the camp and which he kept with him.

The memoir begins in the camp and the neighbouring villages in the weeks immediately after their liberation. The horrors the inmates have seen and have suffered are recalled by the author and the woman he falls in love with, a Lithuanian Jew, in merciless detail as the lovers exorcise their demons by revisiting the sites of the atrocities they witnessed. When the inmates are gradually repatriated, many of the Jews wait to find a way to get to Palestine.

The best-known song of all, performed by Maria Farantouri, is the first song, Άσμα Ασμάτων (Asma Asmaton, ‘Song of Songs’), which opens with the words:

Τι ωραία που είν’ η αγάπη μου
με το καθημερνό της φόρεμα
κι ένα χτενάκι στα μαλλιά.
Κανείς δεν ήξερε πως είναι τόσο ωραία.

‘My love, how beautiful she is in her everyday dress.’

This first song recalls the poignant questioning of a man who describes how beautiful his beloved is and asks the other inmates if they have seen her. They tell him they have seen her on a long march, standing on a large square with a number on her arm and a yellow star on her heart. Maria Farantouri hauntingly sings the repeated line: ‘No-one knows how beautiful my beloved was.’

This song maintains the poetic structure of the Biblical Song of Songs, until the chilling line, coming as if in response to ‘have you seen him whom my soul loves,’ echoes with the question: ‘Young girls of Mauthausen, Young girls of Belsen, Have you seen my love?’ and the answer ‘We saw her in the frozen square, A number in her white hand And a yellow star on her heart.’

The second song, O Αντώνης (O Antonis, ‘Adonis’) is also known from the score of the film Z. This song tells the story of a Jew who collapses on the ‘Stairs of Death’ at the base of the quarry and is shot by the guard who then orders the Greek prisoner Antonis to lift a double burden or he too will be shot.

Antonis lifts this second rock and defiantly walks on with it. In this song we also hear the stairs being depicted in the introduction to every couplet.

The third song, Ο Δραπέτης (O Drapetis, The Fugitive), is the story of a prisoner who escapes the camp but cannot find refuge in the hostile surroundings. He is captured again and is shot.

The introduction to this song depicts the landscape of Austria with a Mozart-like melody.

In the last song, Όταν τελειώσει Ο Πόλεμος (Otan Teliossi O Polemos, When the War Ends), the poet addresses one of the girls he sees standing by the fence of the female camp and asks whether they can come together when the war is finally over, kiss at the gate, make love in the quarry and in the gas chamber until the shadow of death is driven away.

The song ends with an epilogue, returning to the first song and ending with the plaintive words that no-one knows how beautiful my beloved was.

The instrumentation includes bouzoukis, spinet, electric guitar, baglamas, flute, bass and percussion, all helping to create a desolate yet beautiful atmosphere.

Greek popular music in the 1960s became known all over the world thanks to the scores by two composers in particular, Manos Hadjidakis and Mikis Theodorakis, for two popular movies, Never on Sunday (Ποτέ την Κυριακή) and Zorba the Greek. Both worked in the laika tradition of Greek popular music influenced by European melodic form. Each had his own muse or angel in a female singer who interpreted his music – for Hadjidakis she was Nana Mouskouri, for Theodorakis she was Maria Farandouri.

The recording of The Ballad of Mauthausen marked the beginning of one of the most fruitful collaborations in Greek music. Theodorakis discovered the singer Maria Farandouri when she was a 16-year-old young singer. He is said to have told her at the time, ‘You will be my high priestess.’ Her unique dramatic voice and style complements his music, and it is so productive a partnership that it has lasted for half a century.

Listening to The Ballad of Mauthausen, it is difficult to grasp that this is the voice of a teenager who has just left school, for she sings with a raw force and energy that reaches into the heart and soul with intensity.

Farandouri and Theodorakis had a life-long musical collaboration, intensified by their shared political activism. This album is both a classic and the high point of that collaboration.

Farandouri’s voice is a marvel of depth and beauty, and the songs are among the best by Theodorakis. The power and majesty of his music combined and the soaring beauty of her voice make The Ballad of Mauthausen a profound testament to the power of human resistance to tyranny and oppression.

The most accessible recording by Maria Farantouri (Μαρία Φαραντούρη) is complemented by a cycle of six songs for Farantouri, named ‘Farantouri’s Cycle’:

5, Κουράστηκα να σε κρατώ (Kourastika na se Krato, ‘I Am Tired of Holding Your Hand’).

6, Ο ίσκιος έπεσε βαρύς (O Iskios Epesse Varis, ‘The Shadow is so heavy’).

7, Πήρα τους δρόμους τ' ουρανού (Tous Thromous T’Ouranou, ‘I Took to the Streets of Heaven’).

8, Στου κόσμου την ανηφοριά (Stou Kosmou Tin Aniforya, ‘The Uphill Road’).

9, Το Εκκρεμές (To Ekremes, ‘The Pendulum’).

10, Τ' όνειρο καπνός (Tóniro Kapnos, ‘Dreams Go up in Smoke’).

The Ballad of Mauthausen is a difficult poem to read and a difficult cantata to listen to, and yet it is compelling.

It is difficult to realise how a poet could be inspired to write about love in the all-encompassing atmosphere of evil and death in a concentration camp.

Yet this is the dream of love, and love is the way a great soul not only survives such terror, but finds meaning and triumphs over it.

A sketch by Simon Wiesenthal in Mauthausen for ‘Café As’ … part of an exhibition in the Jewish Museum, Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Άσμα Ασμάτων

Τι ωραία που είν’ η αγάπη μου
με το καθημερνό της φόρεμα
κι ένα χτενάκι στα μαλλιά.
Κανείς δεν ήξερε πως είναι τόσο ωραία.

Κοπέλες του Άουσβιτς,
του Νταχάου κοπέλες,
μην είδατε την αγάπη μου;

Την είδαμε σε μακρινό ταξίδι,
δεν είχε πια το φόρεμά της
ούτε χτενάκι στα μαλλιά.

Τι ωραία που είν’ η αγάπη μου,
η χαϊδεμένη από τη μάνα της
και τ’ αδελφού της τα φιλιά.
Κανείς δεν ήξερε πως είναι τόσο ωραία.

Κοπέλες του Μαουτχάουζεν,
κοπέλες του Μπέλσεν,
μην είδατε την αγάπη μου;

Την είδαμε στην παγερή πλατεία
μ’ ένα αριθμό στο άσπρο της το χέρι,
με κίτρινο άστρο στην καρδιά.

Τι ωραία που είν’ η αγάπη μου,
η χαϊδεμένη από τη μάνα της
και τ’ αδελφού της τα φιλιά.
Κανείς δεν ήξερε πως είναι τόσο ωραία.

Ο Αντώνης

Εκεί στη σκάλα την πλατιά
στη σκάλα των δακρύων
στο Βίνερ Γκράμπεν το βαθύ
το λατομείο των θρήνων

Εβραίοι κι αντάρτες περπατούν
Εβραίοι κι αντάρτες πέφτουν,
βράχο στη ράχη κουβαλούν
βράχο σταυρό θανάτου.

Εκεί ο Αντώνης τη φωνή
φωνή, φωνή ακούει
ω καμαράντ, ω καμαράντ
βόηθα ν’ ανέβω τη σκάλα.

Μα κει στη σκάλα την πλατιά
και των δακρύων τη σκάλα
τέτοια βοήθεια είναι βρισιά
τέτοια σπλαχνιά είν’ κατάρα.

Ο Εβραίος πέφτει στο σκαλί
και κοκκινίζει η σκάλα
κι εσύ λεβέντη μου έλα εδω
βράχο διπλό κουβάλα.

Παίρνω διπλό, παίρνω τριπλό
μένα με λένε Αντώνη
κι αν είσαι άντρας, έλα εδώ
στο μαρμαρένιο αλώνι.

Ο Δραπέτης

Ο Γιάννος Μπερ απ’ το βοριά
το σύρμα δεν αντέχει.
Κάνει καρδιά, κάνει φτερά,
μες στα χωριά του κάμπου τρέχει.

«Δώσε, κυρά, λίγο ψωμί
και ρούχα για ν’ αλλάξω.
Δρόμο να κάνω έχω μακρύ,
πάν’ από λίμνες να πετάξω.»

Όπου διαβεί κι όπου σταθεί
φόβος και τρόμος πέφτει.
Και μια φωνή, φριχτή φωνή
«κρυφτείτε απ’ τον δραπέτη.»

«Φονιάς δεν είμαι, χριστιανοί,
θεριό για να σας φάω.
Έφυγα από τη φυλακή
στο σπίτι μου να πάω.»

Α, τι θανάσιμη ερημιά
στου Μπέρτολτ Μπρεχτ τη χώρα.
Δίνουν το Γιάννο στους Ες Ες,
για σκότωμα τον πάνε τώρα.

Όταν τελειώσει Ο Πόλεμος

Κορίτσι με τα φοβισμένα μάτια
κορίτσι με τα παγωμένα χέρια,
άμα τελειώσει ο πόλεμος
μη με ξεχάσεις.

Χαρά του κόσμου, έλα στην πύλη
να φιληθούμε μες στο δρόμο
ν’ αγκαλιαστούμε στην πλατεία.

Κορίτσι με τα φοβισμένα μάτια
κορίτσι με τα παγωμένα χέρια,
άμα τελειώσει ο πόλεμος
μη με ξεχάσεις.

Στο λατομείο ν’ αγαπηθούμε
στις κάμαρες των αερίων
στη σκάλα, στα πολυβολεία.

Κορίτσι με τα φοβισμένα μάτια
κορίτσι με τα παγωμένα χέρια,
άμα τελειώσει ο πόλεμος
μη με ξεχάσεις.

Έρωτα μες στο μεσημέρι
σ’ όλα τα μέρη του θανάτου
ώσπου ν’ αφανιστεί η σκιά του.

Κορίτσι με τα φοβισμένα μάτια
κορίτσι με τα παγωμένα χέρια,
άμα τελειώσει ο πόλεμος
μη με ξεχάσεις.

The Song of Songs

How beautiful she is, my love
in her everyday dress
and the little comb on her hair
Nobody ever knew that she is so beautiful

Girls of Auschwitz
Dachau’s girls
have you seen by chance my love?

We saw her leaving on a long voyage
she was no longer wearing her dress
nor a little comb on her hair.

How beautiful she is, my love
the one pampered by her mother
and her brother’s kisses
Nobody ever knew that she is so beautiful

Girls of Auschwitz
Dachau’s girls
have you seen by chance my love?

We saw her in the frigid town square
with a number stamped on her white hand
with a yellow star pinned by her heart

How beautiful she is, my love
the one pampered by her mother
and her brother’s kisses
Nobody ever knew that she is so beautiful


There on the wide staircase
the staircase of tears
in Wiener Graben’s deep stone-
quarry of cries and lamentation

Jews and partisans stroll by
Jews and partisans fall down
a rock they carry on their back
a rock a burden cross of death

There comes Adonis and a voice
a voice, a voice he hears
oh comrade, oh comrade,
help me to climb these stairs

But there on the wide staircase
that staircase of tears
such help is taken as insult
such a compassion is a curse

The Jewish man falls on the step
and red bleeds through the staircase
and you young lad come over here
a double rock you’ll carry

A double rock I’ll take, a triple
my name, they call me Adonis
come and meet me if you are a man
at the marble threshing circle.

The Fugitive

Janos Ber from the North
can’t stand the barbed wire.
He takes heart, takes wing
runs through the villages of the valley.

Ma’am, give me a piece of bread
and clothes to change into –
I have a long way to go
and lakes to fly across.

Wherever he goes or stops
fear and terror strike
and a cry, a terrible cry:
Hide from the fugitive!

Christians, I’m no murderer,
no beast come to eat you.
I left the prison
to go back to my home.

Ah, what deathly loneliness
in this land of Berthold Brecht!
They hand Janos over to the SS
They’re taking him, now, to be killed.

When the War is Over

Girl with the weeping eyes,
Girl with the frozen hands.
Forget me not when the war is over.

Joy of the world. come to the gate
So that we could embrace in the street.
So that we could kiss in the square.

So that we could make love in the quarry.
In the gas chambers,
On the staircase, in the observation post.

Love in the middle of noon
In all the corners of death
’Til its shadow will be no more.

Girl with the weeping eyes,
Girl with the frozen hands.
Forget me not when the war is over.

Simon Wiesenthal was a prisoner in Mauthausen-Gusen … a portrait in the Jewish Museum, Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, this Shabbat, between Rosh Hashanah (last Monday) and Yom Kippur (beginning at sunset on Wednesday evening) is known as Shabbat Shuvah, or the Sabbath of return.

Repentance, is a core concept of the High Holy Days, and the services on this Sabbath, Shabbat Shuvah, have an emphasis on the themes of repentance and forgiveness. Sephardic Jews here in Greece read Hosea 14: 2-10 and Micah 7: 18-20, while Ashkenazi Jews read Hosea 14: 2-10 and Joel 2: 15-27. The selection from Hosea focuses on a universal call for repentance and an assurance that those who return to God will benefit from divine healing and restoration. Hosea focuses on divine forgiveness and how great it is in comparison to human forgiveness.

Shanah Tovah – a good and sweet New Year! – to you and to all yours

Shabbat Shalom

Yesterday: Rhapsody

Tomorrow: Hygiene

1 comment:

David said...

Hello, Patrick
I found your Site when preparing a presentation on Theodorakis for U3A, Sheffield, South Yorkshire on Thursday. Rarely do I Blog and avoid Anti-Social Media like the Plague. But if you want to, mail me: david.stead151@icloud.com Best Wishes! KHAIRETO - CAIRETW [won'r convert to Symbol]- David