Korai 4

Editorial by Art Dewey

From The Fourth R
Volume 31, Issue 5
September – October 2018
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On my last free day in Athens, before returning home, my friend Nicos decided that we would not revisit well-known spots for a final coffee and conversation. Rather he led me from the flea market at Monasteraki through a zig-zag path towards Panepistimio (University) Station. Without a word, he gestured that I should follow him through a non-descript doorway that bore the sign Korai 4.

I have known Nicos for some years now. We met by chance as we both were gazing from the balcony of the Bernaki Museum down on the Sunday morning display of the Evzones (Greek Presidential guard) in their pleated uniforms, elongating their right legs forward in a beat slowly measured by the accompanying band. They would make their way to Syntagma (Constitution) Square and, after a rendition of the Greek National Anthem in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, perform the changing of the guards in masterfully drawn-out movements. Meanwhile back on the roof of the Bernaki, Nicos and I fell into a conversation that has continued for many years. Nicos now is retired from his long career as a teacher of Greek in a number of high schools throughout Greece. His last and longest post was in Athens. Nicos was born in Cyprus and is a refugee from that island’s war that left his family home in Turkish hands. He began his life-long exile in the aftermath of that chaotic situation. Later, as a teacher moving from one obscure post to another, his exile was reconfirmed again and again. He knows well what Dante wrote:

You will leave everything you love most dearly;
this is the arrow which is loosed first
from the bow of exile.
You will learn how salt is the taste
of other peoples’ bread, how hard the way
Going up and down other peoples’ stairs.
Par 17.55-60 (C. H. Sisson trans.)

But this has given him a remarkable perspective. Nicos can find things in Athens that even most Athenians miss. And so, Nicos has led me astray again and again among the winding streets revolving around the Acropolis to find nuances hardly ever noticed.

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As I stepped across the threshold of Korai 4, I realized right away that we were not entering an ordinary building. We were moving into a basement area. The walls were a faded pastel, the doorways steel-lined as if on a battleship. Nicos brought me into a room inhabited by two gatekeepers. A man and a woman welcomed us. Nicos explained I was a visiting professor from the States. They offered me information booklets and politely informed us that photographs were forbidden. Then they began to explain where we were going. The basement rooms we were about to enter were originally part of an insurance building. But from April 1941 through October 1944 the Gestapo had occupied the building, using the bottom floors to hold Greeks. Once in these holding cells there were only three fates: release, conveyance to a concentration camp, or execution. Most people would be incarcerated for about two months, although some indications suggest longer confinements. During their imprisonment numerous people used a variety of devices to carve out messages, sketches, pleas, and curses. Once the Germans evacuated Athens, Greek collaborators tried to remove any traces of these graffiti. But in 1991 the insurance company, still in ownership of the building, discovered these messages and restored them as much as possible as a lasting memorial to those who endured this confining space.

The first room we entered held little except for a dreaded black and red swastika flag from that period, along with a variety of remnants from the desks of the occupiers. We then went down the stairs to the confining chambers. We noticed two small bathrooms, along with tiny windows with metal casements over them that prevented any sense of the outside world. The only light would be whatever the electric light would give. And that is how we came upon the graffiti. They were everywhere along the walls. Nicos pointed out that the various ways they were carved indicated the amount of education. We saw the scrawl of a young man with hardly any education next to the perfectly formed script of someone who had had probably graduated from university. Quite numerous were the declarations of innocence. Again and again protests were chiseled. Other graffiti indicated how long they had been incarcerated so far. There were also ingeniously sketched battles, on land and sea. Profiles of young women, as well as some rather coarse erotica, were etched on the walls. As we moved from one chamber to the one that probably housed women, I noticed the detailed portrait of a man whose name carved below Nicos identified as an informer. Those who got out would remember that name, that face, and require justice.

But then I came to a graffito that repeated itself. Mama pou esi, Mama pou esi. These were words that I read without translating. They went directly to my heart, to my gut. Mama, where are you, Mama, where are you? I looked at Nicos. He too was affected. Here some two floors below the busy streets of Athens, where people shopped, read, had an expresso, beneath the hum and din of a cosmopolitan city, I heard a cry that had been calling out for over seven decades. It was a cry so primordial that some have argued that it is the fundamental human fear: that of abandonment. Underneath all the other graffiti this was pulsing. For old and young, for innocent and guilty, all those gathered in these walls felt that icy fear every two-year old experiences. Other silent screams crowded in that room: all those civil rights lawyers in China who have disappeared in the Chinese justice system with no way to communicate to their families and the world; and those children in cages scattered around the United States, harshly ripped from their parents, uncertain of anything but the hole in their hearts.

I looked again at Nicos. He had led me once more over a foreign border to a point of understanding. I saw that we all were in exile, all taken from what we most dearly love, and that our only hope was to continue to cross those noman’s lands again and again and detect in those sorrowing depths the chance to become compassionate, to become human.

Photo of Arthur Dewey

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.

Cover of the September and October 2018 issue of The Fourth R

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