January 21, 2017
ATHENS—I can only sardonically ask whether it was worth it. To be executed after unspeakable torture without giving anything away—and for what? Fat, greedy, avaricious, and very rich Davos Man? Or those ignorant, self-indulgent, cowardly little twerps who demand “safe spaces” in universities? Was it worth dying for the crooks of Brussels and the Angela Merkels of this world? Poor, heroic, and stoic Kostas Perrikos, whose statue stands on Gladstone Street in Athens, died a hero, and for what?
Let’s begin with heroes. They are very different from peacocks. They don’t strut, they don’t take selfies, and they’re mostly sotto voce. They don’t create whirlwinds and are a PR huckster’s nightmare. I’ve often wondered what makes a person’s life or his or her individual actions heroic to the point where their legacy stands the test of time. What follows will not explain what makes men and women act heroically, it will just recount history.
I was recently contacted by the Greek writer Constantine Lagos, who is writing the biography of Greek air force officer Kostas Perrikos, whom I mention briefly in my book Nothing to Declare, published some 25 years ago. In short: I was in an Athenian nightclub in the summer of 1965, or around that time, when someone I didn’t know sat down at my table. He was unaware that it was reserved, so I told the maître d’ to point this out. We were both very polite, but when he heard my name he did say something under his breath, so I asked for his name. “Perrikos,” was all he said, and bade me goodbye.
I later asked my father if he knew the name Perrikos, and he almost jumped out of his skin. “Do I know it? I owe him my life.” As it turned out, the details were sketchy because the operation in question was only on a need-to-know basis. According to my dad, Perrikos provided the dynamite and details of ESPO, the “traitors” headquarters that contained the names of Greek youths likely to be turned to the Axis cause, as well as those resisting the occupation. He met Perrikos only once during that meeting. Perrikos entered the headquarters with two other men and a woman, Ioulia Bimba, who apparently planted the stuff while Perrikos drew attention to himself. The explosion killed and wounded close to forty collaborators and six German officers. All records were destroyed.
This was in September 1942, and Perrikos and Ioulia were quickly rounded up. My father’s opinion was that communists gave him away as he was a man of the left but no Stalin stooge. Perrikos never broke under torture and during his trial assumed all responsibility. Sentenced to death, he wrote his son Dimitris a last letter that apparently brought tears to the eyes of the German executioners. He wrote that Dimitris should not hate the Germans because one day they and the Greeks would be allies—some allies—and that he (Kostas) had done his duty as a Greek officer. He was executed the next day in Kaisariani, but was first saluted by all the German officers present. His last words were “I have done my duty as an officer, now you must do yours.”
Ioulia’s fate was far worse. Sent to Dachau, she endured hell for another two years before being beheaded. Kostas Perrikos’ bust was finally raised on Gladstone Street in 1987. His son Dimitris was a brilliant student and was sought after as a chemist by multinationals. Instead, he chose to join the U.N. and was among those who reported on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. He famously used the words that there was no smoking gun to be found. Dimitris Perrikos was the man I had a brief conversation with back in the summer of 1965 in a nightclub.