A grieving mother weeps over the slain body of Tasos Tousis, on the corner of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street 75 years ago ... the photograph from Thessaloniki moved Yannis Ritsos to write his poem ‘Epitaphios’
Thessaloniki is a city of sculptures, from the proud statue of Alexander the Great near the White Tower at the east end of the city to the moving monument on Elephtheria Square near the western end of Nikis Avenue, recalling the deportation of Thessaloniki’s Jews to the death camps in 1943.
On my final day in Thessaloniki, I visited some more Byzantine churches and monasteries, visited the Rotunda (the Church of Aghios Georgios), which had been built as the mausoleum of Gelarius, peered into the archaeological dig and walked around the remains of the Palace of Galerius on Navarinou Square, and climbed the White Tower at the eastern end of the promenade, now the symbol of Thessaloniki and the Museum of the History of Thessaloniki.
Protesting strikers marching through Mitropoleos Street in central Thessaloniki on Friday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
As I walked back up trough Aristotelous Square, hundreds of striking workers were marching with banners along Mitropoleos Street, chanting slogans and blowing whistles. These protests are part of daily life in Greece today, as the government spending cuts bite deep and more and more public service workers lose their jobs.
But Thessaloniki has always been a city of protests, and there was one last monument I wanted to see before catching a flight later yesterday [Friday]. At the corner of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street, a busy junction just a few blocks from my hotel, by the Thessaloniki Workers’ Centre erected a monument in 1997 to remember the murder of Tasos Tousis in 1936.
That murder, and the mother’s grief it caused, instantly became the inspiration for one of the most moving poems in modern Greek literature – Epitaphios by Yiannis Ritsos.
The corner of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street is a busy junction ... even the Hamza Bey Mosque has been sealed off by corrugated hoarding as work on the new Metro line continues (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Sadly, I failed to find this monument yesterday [Friday, 14 October 2011]. Most of the junction has been dug up and fenced off as tunnelling and construction work continues for a new Metro line. Even the Hamza Bey Mosque on this corner – also known as Alkazar and dating from 1468 – has been surrounded by corrugated hoarding and blocked off from the public.
Hopefully, when the Metro line is finished and the new station at this junction is opened, this monument will be returned to remember that fatal incident three quarters of a century ago.
On 9 May 1936, thousands of workers, students, shopkeepers and tobacco farmers took to the streets of Thessaloniki. In the clashes with police that followed, 10 to 20 people lay dead on the streets and a further 300 were wounded.
The protests were sparked after the Greek general election that year resulted in a deadlock between the conservatives led by Panagis Tsaldaris, and the liberals led by Themistoklis Sofoulis. The Communist Party, with 15 seats and the support of the Agrarian Party, supported Sofoulis. But King George II, distrusting both liberals and communists, appointed Kostantinos Demertzis as the caretaker prime minister. But when Demertz died unexpectedly, instead of turning to Sofoulis the king appointed the Minister of War, General Ioannis Metaxas, who moved immediately against the trade union movement.
On 29 April, the Panhellenic Tobacco Workers’ Federation called a general strike, demanding the lowest daily wages be raised to 120 drachmas. Thessaloniki had a long history of trade union activism, and 12,000 tobacco workers took to the streets that day. Soon the protests spread to Volos, Serres, Drama and Kavala, and on 2 May, workers in many other Greek cities joined the strike.
The General Directorate of Northern Greece – now the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace – was the target of the protesters march in May 1936 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
The strikes and protests reached a peak on 5 May, when paper mill workers, weavers, rubber workers, and cobblers in Thessaloniki joined the strike. On 8 May, 7,000 tobacco workers began marching on the General Directorate of Northern Greece (now the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace) on the hill at the top of Venizelou Street.
Mounted police and foot patrols began beating and shooting at the marchers. As news of the clashes spread through the city, many more people rushed to the support of strikers, who entrenched themselves behind hasty barricades. The authorities panicked and called in the army. After 3½ hours of clashes, the strikers and their supporters were forced to retreat. But that same night a host of other unions joined the cause.
By Saturday 9 May, the strike had become a general strike. Students, the owners of small businesses and shopkeepers joined the factory workers, so that about 25,000 people were on the streets. From dawn, the city was turned into a war zone with hand-to-hand skirmishes.
That morning, Tasos Tousis, who worked as a driver, was shot dead at the junction of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street. He was the first death in the protests. In the chilling moments that followed, a photographer captured the moment when the young man’s mother came across her son’s dead body on the street and fell to her knees.
An angry crowd gathered and placed his body on a makeshift bier made from a door. They began marching on up to the General Directorate. By now, the officials and civil servants had vacated the building, but it was defended by a large, well-armed police force. Church bells rang out as more and more people joined the crowd. Some of the police began shooting at random into the crowd, with more casualties. But the crowd refused to not scatter. Even a declaration of martial law had little effect.
Later that afternoon, the demonstrators regrouped at 5 p.m. at the street corner where Tousis was murdered, and trade unionists held the streets throughout the night.
The Army Corps C mustered all available resources near the city the next morning and swamped Thessaloniki, arresting anyone they thought looked remotely suspicious. But, despite martial law, the funerals of the victims went ahead. After the burials, there were more processions from the cemetery, near the present campus of the Aristotelian University campus, to the Vardaris district, a march of several kilometres.
Metaxas used the disturbances in Thessaloniki to stir fears of a communist revolt, and he abolished parliament on 4 August 1936. As Greece entered World War II, it was still ruled by the military dictatorship. The dragon’s teeth he had sown continued to grow in the bitter civil war that followed World War II and, in the 1960s and 1970s, under the colonels’ junta.
The corner of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street ... a busy junction today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Meanwhile, the left-wing daily newspaper Ritzospastis published a front-page photograph of the grieving mother dressed in black and weeping as she knelt over the body of her slain son, Tasos Tousis, on the corner of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street. Moved by this Pieta-like image, Yannis Ritsos, then aged 27, locked himself in his attic room and set to work immediately. In two days and two nights of intense creativity, he produced his greatest poem, Epitaphios.
“Epitaphios” is the name for the cloth that dresses the funeral bier of Christ in the Good Friday processions in Greek Orthodox churches.
In writing his poem, Ritsos was deeply influenced by the Good Friday liturgy, as well as the funeral speeches of Thucydides and Lysias. The Epitaphios Trinos is the lament chanted in Greek Orthodox churches on the evening of Good Friday. But Ritsos’s poem moves at the end from Crucifixion to Resurrection, and culminates in an abiding hope that grave injustices can be conquered.
At first, the bereft mother, like Mary with her crucified Son, grieves inconsolably. She extols her son’s virtues and recalls his gifts. She cannot understand why he died; nor can she understand his political convictions. But she gradually changes and begins to apply his local struggle to the universal struggle for social justice.
Her grief is sustained as she recalls how her son pointed to the beauties of nature and creation. She challenges the values of a society that claims to be Christian while killing those struggling for justice.
But darkness turns to light as the realisation unfolds that her son lives on in the lives of his comrades as they continue his struggle. At the end, her vision is of a future in which all shall be united in love. And in a stirring finale, she vows to take up her son’s struggle and to join his comrades in arms.
The Epitaphios in a church in central Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
The first edition of this poem was published on 12 May 1936, with a dedication to the workers of Thessaloniki. A second edition, with a print-run of 10,000, outsold the works of Kostis Palamas, the father-figure of modern Greek patriotic poetry. Later, Ritsos was to become one of the most prolific poets of his time in Greece, with over 100 volumes of poems, dramatic works, essays, fiction and translations to his name, and he was nominated on 10 occasions for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Metaxas dictatorship moved quickly to ban Epitaphios and publicly burned the last 250 copies available in Athens in front of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. Epitaphios was not seen in print again until the 1950s, and in the years that followed Ritsos was held for four years in concentration camps and forced into internal exile.
The final definitive text of Epitaphios was published in 1956, and runs to 324 verses, divided into 20 parts or cantos, each with 16 verses in eight couplets, except for the last two, which run to 18 verses in nine couplets.
Robert Frost once said a true poem memorises itself, and so it could be said a true lyric sings itself and harks after a melody. Epitaphios is lyrical and Ritsos achieved that lyricism by grafting his earlier elegiac mode and his political fervour onto the rootstock of Greek folksong, the demotikó traghoúdi. He employed 15-syllable lines and rhymed couplets, reaching back into the popular and mythical past of a people continually invaded, cheated and plundered.
In 1958, he sent Epitaphios to the composer Mikis Theodorakis, who was then living in exile in Paris. Theodorakis, best known to many for his score for Zorba the Greek, set parts of the epic poem to music, employing the quintessential instrument of poor, urban Greeks, the bouzouki of rembetika, using rhythms drawn from the folk songs and folk music of different parts of Greece. At the time, the bouzouki was out of fashion among middle class Greeks, who associated it with brothels and hashish dens.
Ritsos was apprehensive when he heard that Epitaphios – with its sacred allegories drawing on the deeply religious emotions surrounding the Greek Orthodox ceremonies of Good Friday, including ta Aghia ton Aghion (“The Holy of Holies”) – was going to enter the music halls and the nightclubs of Greece. “I thought it would be sacrilege,” he said. “I was wrong.”
The setting by Theodorakis was soon recorded by other great performing artists of the day, and the poem quickly acquired a political career of its own, becoming the anthem of the Greek left.
Aristotelous Square in Thessaloniki ... in 1963, central Thessaloniki again became the focus of events that brought new life to the epic poem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
In 1963 – once again in May and once again in Thessaloniki – the young left-wing deputy Grigorios Lambrakis lay dying in hospital after a murderous assault that provided the dramatic story for the Costas Garvas movie, Z. Hundreds kept vigil in the streets and they were joined by Ritsos and Theodorakis as they sang Epitaphios in their martyr’s honour, vowing to ensure his struggle would live on.
After his funeral in Athens, the dirge was sung and sung again by the crowds in the streets, and graffiti began appearing on the walls: “Lambrakis Lives.” The events surrounding the assassination of Lambrakis and the subsequent efforts at a cover-up inspired the author Vassilis Vassilikos to write his thriller Z – pronounced in Greek the letter “Z” means: “He lives.”
When the colonels seized power in Greece in 1967, Ritsos was arrested yet again and sent into internal exile on the island of Samos. The poetry of Ritsos and the music of Theodorakis were banned, but Epitaphios was soon being presented at readings and concerts throughout Europe as a rallying poem and anthem of opposition to the junta. The political force of Epitaphios had acquired a new dimension directly from its lyricism and the new setting by Theodorakis.
The director Costas Garvas turned the book by Vassilos Vassilikos into a movie – although filming in Greece was impossible under the colonels and he had to make the movie in French in Algeria. Nut the colonels’ junta began to collapse with the student occupation of the Athens Polytechnic on 17 November 1973, and democracy was restored in Greece the following year.
Epitaphios still moves me every time I hear it. It is still a stirring musical and poetical reminder that death does not conquer all, that those who struggle against injustices and those who become the victims of violence and oppression do not necessarily die in vain, that death does not have the last word.
The story of the murdered young tobacco worker in Thessaloniki, and the story of the events recalled in Z are reminders that the demand for justice does not die when its advocates are beaten, silenced, murdered or die. Before I left Thessaloniki, I headed back up into the hills above the city yesterday, into the Old Town (Ano Poli), past the monasteries of Ossios David, Vlatadon and Aghios Pavlos, which appears to cling to the rocks as it hangs over a precipice, with pine forests behind.
And at Aghios Pavlos, I thought of the Epistle reading for tomorrow in the Revised Common Lectionary (I Thessalonians 1: 1-10), and how the Apostle Paul, in his opening greeting to the Church in Thessaloniki, tells the people of this city about the centrality of the Resurrection in Christian faith.
The strikes and protests in Greece continue to disrupt daily life. A flash protest by air traffic controllers in Athens delayed my connecting flight in Budapest by hours, so that I only got home in the early hours of this morning. But when the work on the new Metro line is completed, and when I am next in Thessaloniki, I hope to lay flowers at the reinstated monument to the memory of Tasos Tousis, on the corner of Egnatia Street and Venizelou Street, and to remember those who struggle for workers’ rights, human dignity and democracy in Greece.