“Daddyʼs War: Greek American Stories”: Co-witnessing and Sympathetic Listening
New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Daddyʼs War: Greek American Stories, A Paramemoir, a new book from the University of Nebraska Press, covers many subjects, says author Irene Kacandes, but at its heart, it is a reconstruction of what happened to her paternal family in Greece during the Second World War and Occupation,
Of equal concern to Professor Kacandes as her familyʼs experiences is how those experiences were recorded both in the memories of the generation that lived through them and in the generation that came after.
But perhaps what is most important about Daddyʼs War: Greek American Stories, A Paramemoir says Professor Kacandes, is that it shows how the traumatic experiences of her fatherʼs generation somehow became incorporated into the memory of his children.
As a matter of fact, Kacandesʼs dedication of the book “To children of all times and places, trapped in somebody elseʼs war,” reveals the depth of that intention.
Professor Kacandes spoke with the GreekNews about the story behind the book, beginning with the chronological development of her feelings about her paternal familyʼs mysterious past, that is, the feelings that spurred her to take on the writing of Daddyʼs War, a valuable addition to the global archive.
IK: I feel like I have always known that ʽbad thingsʼ happened to my father, his mother and his siblings during the war. When I was very young, this knowledge frightened me. As a young adult it made me angry: I felt like I was saddled with problems that shouldnʼt really have been made mine. As a middle-aged adult, I finally decided I had to find out more about what had actually happened to my family.
GN: Where does that history begin?
IK: My paternal grandparents had married in Greece in 1928 and then settled in the Newark, New Jersey area. Five children were born fairly rapidly; one died in infancy. In 1937 my grandmother left for Greece with the four surviving children. My grandfather stayed here. All kinds of reasons were given for why she left: that my grandmother missed her family and wanted to visit; that they could live a better life for less cost in Greece while my grandfather saved money to buy a house; even that my father, the oldest child, was having trouble in school and that the change of environment would help him. In any case, they didnʼt manage to get out of Greece before the War and were essentially then “trapped” there.
GN: “Trapped” in a war zone. What must that have been like?
Because my father was the eldest, even though still a child himself, it fell to him and my grandmother to provide for the others. As your readers will know well, life was very difficult and dangerous in wartime Greece. My family, like others, was faced with near starvation, living under capricious and sometimes vicious occupying forces and trying to sort out various partisan groups working against the Occupation and often against each other. I had heard stories that my father had run messages for the Underground, that he had been arrested. Even that he had been misidentified as a Jew and deported.
GN: How would he have been misidentified as a Jew?
IK: Well, as a male child born in a U.S. hospital, my father was circumcised, unlike Christian boys his age born in Greece. The story handed down to me was that the fact of his circumcision was noticed and then used as evidence that he must be Jewish. This story, unlike the others, was one that I only heard about as an adult. In many ways, trying to prove or disprove it was the most direct spur to doing the research that led to the writing of this book.
GN: How did you research the book?
IK: Perhaps it makes sense to mention here that much of my academic training had been in German studies and specifically in the Nazi period and the Holocaust. I knew a lot about the Second World War in general and how the Holocaust unfolded in northern and Eastern Europe, even some about what happened to the large Jewish population of Thessaloniki, but I didnʼt know much beyond the basic outlines of how the war unfolded in Greece. I educated myself by reading history books and talking to experts in that history.
GN: Did you also interview family members?
IK: Yes, I interviewed many family members, including my father, my mother, my five siblings, several aunts, first cousins of my father, most of whom never left Greece, and my first cousins. I realized I had gathered many precious stories and felt I had to create a context in which others could understand those narratives. I experimented and came up with the form that the book now takes.
GN: How would you describe the form of the book?
IK: Well, I decided to call it a “paramemoir”—thatʼs a term I coined myself—to indicate that it resembles a memoir in that it contains some personal narrating, but as in the prefix “para,” it also goes beyond, substitutes for, extends memoir writing as we know it.
GN: How is the book structured?
IK: The bookʼs opening tells the story of how I came to learn more about my familyʼs past. A large second section presents the stories I gathered, grouped by topic and juxtaposing how one member of the family told the story to how someone else talked about the same event. By doing so, I feel I may have created the first “family memory scan.” But just like in medical scans, one needs a certain expertise to “read” the scan. So, drawing on my training as a professional student of storytelling, memory, and trauma, I also explain to readers some of the more interesting things those stories reveal.
GN: How do you carry that out?
IK: Some stories are clearly influenced by the interlocutor, that is to say, by who is listening to them when the narratives are being told—by the listenersʼ gender, for instance, or by their age at the time, even by their birth order. Others seem quite shaped by how old the speaker was at the time the events recounted unfolded. My stories illustrate in numerous ways the workings of memory.
GN: Can you give one example of how memory works?
IK: For example, sometimes we learn something new after an event has occurred and we make that new knowledge part of our life story—as if we actually lived through it ourselves. My father is sure he saw German parachutists from Thebes as part of the assault on Athens in 1941. Iʼve checked with many historical experts and there is no record of parachutists in Thebes or Athens. But my father may well have seen an attack on the Corinth canal which did include parachutists, and he, like so many others, certainly heard about the huge air assault on Crete. I surmise that having heard of one of those others German missions, he combined it with his own memory of having seen the Germans move through Thebes on their way to taking Athens–something that would have terribly frightened his family; that fear could have facilitated the incorporation of that other memory he insists he has of seeing parachutists.
Perhaps most importantly, I show how the traumatic experiences of my fatherʼs generation somehow became incorporated into the memory of his children. My colleague and friend Marianne Hirsch has developed a term to describe this phenomenon: “postmemory,” something that is like the memory processes weʼre familiar with in that it is very personal and yet not directly based on personal experience and also like history, except that there is a very personal connection. So, you see, I take some terms and concepts about which there are quite a few theories, and I try to read my family stories through them in language that lay people can follow.
GN: So, you tell about yourself, you share family stories, and you explain them for a general public.
IK: Actually, thereʼs one more critical part of the book: I also try to communicate with my father in a very particular manner. This last part of the book involves what I, borrowing from psychotherapy, would call “co-witnessing.” I wrote this part in the form of a letter to him. And in it, I try to share with him what I have now pieced together about his own experiences, many of which he had forgotten or perhaps repressed and some of which, he really could not have known—like what I found out about why my grandmother went to Greece at the time and in the fashion that she did.
GN: Why did she go?
IK: Well, I canʼt tell you everything here! I have to leave something for your readers to find out.
GN: How did your father react to the book?
IK: My father seems truly happy that the book exists. He called me when he received his copy, and I will treasure to my dying day that phone call. Unfortunately, because of his dementia, I donʼt think he is able to register too much of the actual content. Still, it makes me happy that he is glad about its existence. I mean for Daddyʼs War to speak to all kinds of other readers, too. Itʼs shocking how many people in the world have themselves been exposed to combat situations or are the children or relatives of those who have. Daddyʼs War is dedicated to them in the hope that they will find some passages in my book that inspire them to gather and work through their own family stories.
Vangelis Calotychos, Program in Hellenic Studies, Department of Classics at Columbia University, where Ms. Kacandes presented Daddyʼs war on April 1, told the GreekNews that “it was an honor for our Program in Hellenic Studies at Columbia to invite Irene Kacandes, a celebrated and well-established scholar of German and comparative literature at Dartmouth, to present her new book.”
Calotychos noted that he knew Kacandes as a fellow graduate at Harvard twenty or so years ago. “At that time she was interested in stories told in the second person—a rare phenomenon for the most part, and I recall her analysis of a story by Papadiamantis”.
More broadly, he said, she studied issues of orality, audience, and address in fiction and over time looked into the ethics and politics that went with such techniques.”
He said that it is no surprise then, that, years later, her first book was titled Talk Fiction and that, in time, she collaborated with eminent scholars in the field of Holocaust studies, with its concern for the issues of witnessing and recording past events associated with acts of deep trauma, and eliciting them back into the memory.
Calotychos explained that Daddyʼs War, fed off her interest in co-witnessing and the position of the sympathetic listener who enables the witness to tell the story of the trauma. “Kacandes applies this to a personal story, one that focuses on her relationship with her father, his experiences in Greece in those arduous years between 1937 and 1945, and the effects these had within Ireneʼs own family much later, in the United States, where he returned and raised a family post-1945.”
“In some ways,” he said, “Kacandes applies years of scholarship to a very private and painful domain to make sense of her fatherʼs reticence to divulge those experiences, to see how these eventually began to manifest themselves, and how, much later, he shared some of these and allowed the author to understand better her father and their relationship.”