Kristin McMurran
May 30, 1983 12:00 PM

In 1948 Greece was in the last days of a vicious civil war, and battered Communist guerrillas were retreating toward Albania. Enraged by defeat, they butchered peasants, burned houses and, in a notorious episode known as the pedomasoma (“the gathering of children”), took away some 28,000 youngsters to rear them behind the Iron Curtain as revolutionaries. Most would not be released for almost a decade; some would never return. In the tiny sun-baked village of Lia in northern Greece, one peasant woman helped four of her children escape the guerrillas’ forced march. For that crime, she was arrested, tortured for weeks, put on mock trial, and executed on Aug. 28, 1948.

Her name was Eleni Gatzoyiannis, and the chronicle of her hushed life and heroic death might have been lost in the tumult of history had it not been for one of the children she helped to escape, her only son, Nikola. He grew up to become Nicholas Gage, now 43, an award-winning former investigative reporter for the New York Times, who for 35 years has been obsessed with his history, and with a desire for revenge. The story of that obsession is the just-published Eleni (Random House, $15.95), a remarkable 470-page account of one woman’s bravery and of her son’s successful attempt to track down her killer and confront him with his crime. Powerful, passionate and resonant with the great themes of Greek tragedy, Eleni has won huge praise from critics and a near-record $850,000 movie-rights sale (Gage received over 70 movie queries and will co-produce the film).

“Few people go through life knowing that their mother gave up her life to keep them alive,” says Gage. “It has marked everything I have done. It was the reason I became a journalist. Writing about what happened was a way to deal with the pain I felt.” Gage, who also has reported on the Mafia and wars in Iran, Lebanon and Afghanistan, adds, “Three million people were butchered in Cambodia, but if you can show the life of one Cambodian and how he died, you feel it a lot more.” He continues, “I wanted people to know that there is tremendous evil in the world and that there are individuals who stand up to it.”

Eleni Gatzoyiannis was one of them. Like most peasants, she was oblivious to politics, attuned only to superstitions, saints’ days and the rivalries of village life. The power of Gage’s book lies in his painstaking re-creation of that life. Level ground for planting was so precious, for example, that bodies would be dug up after five years so that the graves could be reused. The old bones were stored in the church—but only after a priest filled the skull with wine. This he offered to anyone whom the deceased may have cursed, as a means of absolution.

In 1926, at 19, Eleni married Christos Gatzoyiannis, 35, a villager who had become a produce peddler in America. Her husband returned to the U.S. two years later, leaving behind his wife and their newborn daughter. He sometimes sent exotic gifts, including a feather duster, which Eleni displayed in a vase, and a brass bed, which she used only during her husband’s infrequent visits, preferring a rug on the dirt floor at other times. Her husband’s later trips to Lia produced three more daughters; in 1939 the birth of their fifth child, Nikola—every peasant family wanted a boy—sparked 40 days of rejoicing. Nikola’s aunt later claimed credit for his gender, boasting that she had magically secured it by secretly baking pieces of a male baby’s umbilical cord into a cheese pie and feeding it to Eleni. “I knew I was the center of my mother’s life,” says Gage. “She took me wherever she went.”

Although the family almost starved during the World War II German occupation of Greece, Gage has fond memories of early childhood. “We did everything as a family,” he recalls, “shuck corn, thresh wheat, braid onions. When a lamb was born, we would all go watch in the cellar—where my mother was later tortured. We always knew we were loved. I’ve gone into jungles, mountains, revolutions. I’ve been scared, but I’ve never been insecure.”

Life darkened after World War II. Civil war loomed over Lia, a roadless village of 800. Eleni wrote to her husband in Worcester, Mass. and asked what she should do if Communist guerrillas came. “You have no business going anywhere,” he wrote back.

“They’re Greeks, fellow villagers some of them. Why should they bother my family?” Gage now explains, “My father was naive. He always says, ‘My worst crime was not bringing my family to America.’ ”

The Communists occupied the village in 1948, bringing suspicion and brutal retribution. The men had fled. The guerrillas put the women and children to work baking bread, building fortifications and carrying the wounded. They uprooted Eleni’s family, turning their house into security headquarters where villagers were tortured and sometimes murdered. For Eleni, the time for action came when the guerrillas began rounding up the children for the march to Albania. Desperate to save her family, Eleni contacted other villagers and helped plan an escape. But before the appointed day, she and her daughter Glykeria, 14, were sent by guerrillas to work in the fields; nonetheless, she ordered the other four children to flee. “I never questioned her judgment,” says Gage. “If she made the decision, it must be right.” They made it down a ravine and across a mine field to safety.

When the escape was discovered, guerrillas arrested Eleni and other suspected conspirators and tortured them. Gage learned later from witnesses that his mother was repeatedly beaten and bent backward until her spine threatened to crack. A sadistic guerrilla called “Katis” directed her torture and the mock trial in which she was publicly convicted of treason. A week later she and 12 other villagers—one so crippled by beatings that he had to be strapped to a mule—were taken up a hillside and shot. Their bodies were left in the ravine.

A month later the children were in a refugee camp on the Ionian coast when they learned of their mother’s death. “When my grandfather told us, I couldn’t stand the screaming of my sisters,” Gage recalls. “I ran away to a thicket and threw myself on the ground. When I looked up it was night.” His journey was just beginning.

On March 21, 1949, after a 21-day sea voyage, the Gatzoyiannis children joined their father in America. Their sister Glykeria, who had been conscripted by the guerrillas and sent to the front, escaped and arrived in Worcester 11 months later. At first Gage was awed by a new world with electricity, automobiles and ice cream. “We moved into a six-room house,” he remembers. “I thought six families lived there.” Unable to speak much English, he was relegated to a public school class for retarded children. He mastered the language by reading his way through a second-hand encyclopedia and hanging out at the local movie house. To overcome his shyness, Gage began impersonating his new heroes, Bogart and Cagney. He soon made friends at school and became class president. At 13, he wrote an essay about his experiences in Greece that won a Freedoms Foundation prize.

Gage went on to graduate from Boston University and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where he met his wife, Joan. He joined the New York Times in 1970, wrote three books on organized crime, and in 1977 asked to be transferred to the paper’s Athens bureau. He already had made several trips to Greece to begin writing about his mother, but each attempt was blunted by his inability to cope with the details of her suffering. It was not until he attended a 1969 memorial service for his mother in Lia that Gage collapsed and sobbed for the first time. After that, he found the strength to take up his quest.

In 1980 Gage quit his job to pursue his search full-time. “I wanted to talk to everyone who knew my mother to find out what she was like beyond my memories of her, which were all warm,” Gage explains. “I wanted to show her as a human being with strengths and weaknesses, not as some kind of plastic saint.” He tracked down old friends, interviewed villagers who had betrayed her, and—posing as a disinterested historian chronicling the civil war—ferreted out former guerrillas.

As Gage made his way through the tangled maze of clues, he drew closer and closer to the identity of “Katis,” the only man still living who had been directly involved in his mother’s death. “I had visions of Robert De Niro in Godfather II going to this guy and slicing out his stomach,” Gage admits. Finally Gage confronted his mother’s killer at his comfortable apartment in Konitsa, a town in northwestern Greece. The reporter had a small tape recorder hidden in his sock—and a .32-caliber Walther PPK semiautomatic pistol, smuggled into Greece in a vacuum cleaner, tucked in his belt. But “Katis” (real name: Achilleas Lykas) now was a pathetic old man. He answered questions blandly. Gage told him that 300 villagers had seen him condemn Eleni in public. “Katis” stammered; he ordered Gage to leave. Gage spat in his face. “If he attacked me, I knew I would be able to shoot him without reflecting on the consequences,” Gage writes, “and I desperately wanted to see his blood.”

But “Katis” remained passive, and Gage could not bring himself to shoot. Four months later Gage slipped into “Katis’ ” apartment and found the hated old man alone and sleeping. Again, he could not murder him. “There are times when I get up and I’m ready to get on a plane and kill the son of a bitch,” observes Gage, “but I’m not one of those who can kill. If I had, I would have felt emotionally relieved, but it would have taken away from my mother’s act, which was to save life.”

His encounter over, Gage returned to his 18th-century house near Worcester and completed his book. His writing room there is adorned with relics from his past. A blurred photograph of Eleni hangs above his electric typewriter. Her wedding kerchief is carefully folded on a shelf. A corner is crowded with worn cartons filled with transcribed interviews, military documents, sketchbooks and battle maps.

I’m difficult to live with because I’m very non-American in that I don’t like to talk about my problems,” Gage concedes. “My wife is very patient, intelligent and she has a sense of humor.” “This project was hard on Nick and on the family,” says Joan, 42, who accompanied her husband on some interviews. “Sometimes it was very hard for him to listen to the excruciating stories. He couldn’t play the tapes, and he’d get very angry. He had had two bouts with bleeding ulcers, and I worried they would flare up again.”

The dedicated father of Christos, 11, Eleni, 8, and Marina, 5, Gage remains entwined in family affairs. His father and sisters live near him in an enclave of Greek-Americans. “I couldn’t have married anyone who could not live with an extended family,” he says, “because we cannot live without each other. I told my wife, ‘I love you more than anybody, but don’t ever put me in the position where I have to choose between you and my whole family.’ ” Gage explains: “I have an inner life that is very raw to the touch, and the only ones I can share it with are my sisters—they are a pipeline I need.”

The publication of Eleni and its literary triumph have not silenced Gage’s demons. “I’m not as tormented now,” he observes, “but I haven’t really found peace and I don’t think I ever will. Aeschylus calls it the pain that never sleeps, and it’s true. It won’t sleep until I sleep. There are endings only in movies, not in real life.” Pain, however, is not the only thing that endures. “I learned from my mother,” says Gage, “that happiness comes from human relationships, not from anything else, and the only thing worth dying for is someone you love. She had no education but she had the right values. The older I get, the more I know how right she was.”

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