In the nineteenth century, Syros was a thriving commercial port and one of the richest and most culturally developed Greek islands of the time. Industry and commerce flourished, bringing prosperity to its citizens who, in turn, provided for the intellectual advance of the island, building public and private schools, the majestic Apollon Theatre, which hosted performances of plays with Greek and international casts (it still operates today), and numerous clubs. Some of the first Greek newspapers were also published in Syros at that time.
However, with the coming of the twentieth century, several factors contributed to the island’s decline. The occupation by Italian and then German troops had a devastating impact.
The Italian Army troops disembarked on Syros port in May 1941. In September 1943, the island was placed under the jurisdiction of the Germans. They confiscated all agricultural production and the factories were closed down or confiscated. Syros lacked an ability to replenish its rapidly diminishing supplies and the islanders struggled to survive famine.
During the winter of 1941–2 many people died. The island’s last pre-war census showed about 17,000 people living there. According to a monument erected in 1984 to commemorate the people who died of famine during the occupation, the total number of the victims was 8,000. Some historians now claim that this is an exaggeration and that a more accurate figure is about half that number. In my opinion, even 4,000 people is a huge number of deaths for such a small place.
Survivors of the Second World War have testified that carts were passing through the poorer areas of the capital, Ermoupolis, to collect the dead and take them to mass graves around the cemetery. A telegram to an Athens official stated: “Either send us wheat or coffins.”
“I vow in the memory of the dead children of my generation to tell nothing but the truth of what I have experienced myself during the occupation in Syros.
Children, aged 8-12, wearing nothing but rags, full of lice and fleas, were slowly dying in dark and cold houses where there was no food, no candlelight, no clean clothes as before.
We spent four years isolated in the middle of the Aegean Sea, without meat or fish. We could only taste powder milk whenever it was distributed by the Red Cross Army.
Forty days without taking a bite of bread…eight months without a drop of olive oil in the house… I, a twelve-year-old boy, all skin and bones, red rashes all over caused by vitamin deficiency, itchy and with all the open wounds covered in sulphur.
Once we were given bread made by flour which had been soaked in petrol. We ate a bite and stopped. It tasted like poison. But hunger overwhelmed us and we picked it up again after a while. We took another bite and dropped it again. And then again and again until not even crumbs were left.
One day, some people took the initiative and set up “The House of Children”. The institution was housed at an old orphanage. They collected about 50 kids from the streets and took care of them; washed them, fed them, gave clean clothes and a bed to them to sleep in.
Some ladies of the rich families in Ermoupolis visited us in the mornings and took care of our daily needs. The principal of the institution was an eighteen-year-old woman, an angel in the eyes of the kids. She told us stories every night before bed and her eyes were shining in kindness and devotion.”
It feels sad to read testimonies as such. People had to face and overcome a lot of hardships during the war and some were fortunate enough to survive. It is sadder, though, to know that famine is still a major worldwide problem even in times of Peace.