Wheat Songs: A Greek-American Journey

Wheat Songs: A Greek-American Journey

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Perry Giuseppe Rizopoulos
with William A. Meis

Cherry Orchard Books
ISBN: 9781618117717 (hardcover), 9781618117724 (paper)
Pages: 134 pp.
Publication Date: October 2018

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Wheat Songs is a memoir of two interconnected Greek-American journeys—an actual physical journey for the grandfather, Pericles Rizopoulos, and a philosophical quest by the author, Perry Giuseppe Rizopoulos. When the grandfather, Pericles Rizopoulos, a proud old man, tells his fascinating, tragic and true stories of the Nazi occupation of Greece during World War II and the following Greek Civil War, to his twenty-something grandson, Perry Giuseppe Rizopoulos, Perry’s philosophical reflections on his grandfather’s stories along with his own memories of growing up in his extended Greek/Italian/American family in the Bronx combine to create an enduring story about the strength created by a tightly-knit family and the powerful values passed down from generation to generation.

 

Chapter 1: Difficult Choices

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved on stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” —Pericles, Greek Statesman, Orator and General of Athens during the Golden Age

Pericles Rizopoulos should have died a long time ago, along with his brother, Panayiotis, in the rose limestone mountains of Northern Greece overlooking the blue crystal waters of Lake Orestiada. They faced death from the poisonous fangs of an angry horned viper while the brothers hid beneath the graceful branches of a weeping willow tree. When the viper aggressively stretched itself out and gazed intently at the brothers, they had no choice but to remain completely immobile for as long as possible while the twitching snake decided which brother to strike first. Or, if they ran, there were Nazi soldiers on the other side of the willow’s protective branches. The Nazi snakes or the horned viper? A very difficult choice.

But a choice was made because there we sat in his dining room in the Bronx, New York, seventy years after my grandfather’s first brush with death with only a few months remaining before his last. As I looked across the table at Pericles, my grandfather’s eyes were bright, his hands were scarred but his spirit was strong. Before he was my grandfather, he was a father, a husband, a fighter, a survivor, a Greek, and a young boy facing a vicious and powerful chaos that would have paralyzed most grown men.

Hard choices have been the fate of Greeks during the last 500 years. In earlier times, we were the glorious dawn of Western Civilization—the philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the science of Euclid and Archimedes, the medicine of Hippocrates, the theater of Euripides & Sophocles, the poetry of Sappho, Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, Herodotus’ history and the architecture of the Parthenon. And then, in 330, when the Roman emperor Constantine moved his capitol to Greek Byzantium from Latin Rome, there were the glories of the Byzantine Empire, of Κωνσταντινούπολις, Constantinople, now Istanbul, the magnificent Greek city on the Bosporus that controlled the rich trade between Asia and Europe. The Byzantine Empire was the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in Europe, as well as the cultural and religious heart of Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Then, in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Turks, and all that had been Greek was overwhelmed by the Ottoman Empire. Since then, we Greeks have been facing obstacles at times created by Turks, Italians, Germans, French, British and even Americans. We have always fought back. We have always fought for the freedom and democracy that were the founding ideals of ancient Greece.

But we have also, just as we did in the ancient Peloponnesian Wars when Sparta and Athens became bitter rivals, fought with each other. Unfortunately, we are still fighting with each other. Hard choices. These hard choices however, have often made us into very resilient people. Just as in Albert Camus’ portrayal of Sisyphus whose face pressed so close to stone became like stone, so too have Greeks gained strength from their difficulties. Pericles Rizopoulos was παππούς μου, my pappou, my grandfather and he was one of these strong people.

Looking back, I recall that the most important meeting I had with him was when I was just eleven years old. It was a hot, sticky, New York summer morning when I stopped by to visit with him on my way home from my cousin’s house. I had only just walked in the door when my grandfather told me that I should sit at the dining room of the dimly lit first floor of their home in the Bronx, New York. His and Mollie’s house. Mollie was η γιαγιά μου, my yiayia, my grandmother.

My pappou was an old man even then, but on that day he was expectant, vigorous and excited. He sat down next to me and showed me a red covered, bound, unlined book that he handled with such respect, such reverence, that even before he told me what the book was, I intuitively understood that this was a very important document. He sat down and stared at me. “Perrymou,” he said, “this book is the key to my life…and to your life. It is a story about φιλότιμο (philotimo).”

We sat on the couch where the sun came through the blinds, reflected light onto the book and illuminated pappou’s gold crucifix that hung from his neck. The house was unbearably warm. Using their air conditioning was always viewed as a sign of weakness and a waste of money, so we both sat in our undershirts and tirelessly went through every page of the book. As he carefully folded back the pages and translated the handwritten Greek, I was totally captivated by his stories of war, adventure and survival, and he was unrelenting in his telling. We spent the whole day together, without a break, just the two of us. He never stopped speaking, and I never stopped listening.

Ten years after our first conversation, in September 2013, when I was 21 years old, I was sitting in a classroom on my first day of graduate school at Columbia University’s Teachers College. The class was called “Family as Educator,” and my professor, Dr. Hope Jensen Leichter, Director of the Elbenwood Center for the Study of Family as Educator, waited for class to begin and walked up to each and every student, shook each student’s hand and asked how we were doing. After these brief conversations, she walked to the front of the room and asked the class to share a story that showed how our grandparents educated us. I sat in the middle of the room and listened attentively to each student when I suddenly found myself reflecting on that remarkable day I spent with my grandfather. It was my turn to speak and Dr. Leichter looked at me with an expectant smile as I shared the bits of the story that I could remember. I felt the importance of that experience growing with each example I provided.

At that time, pappou could still go outside and work in his yard, cook and walk around freely. Yet, I sensed that he was getting weaker. At family gatherings he was quieter, less responsive.

But the others in my family preferred not to focus on pappou’s warning signs. My father refused to say or do anything but encourage pappou while convincing himself that his father was going to make a 180 degree turn and be completely healthy again. Yiayia Mollie, my grandmother, was also becoming somewhat forgetful and absent-minded. Then there was my mother. She noticed, but also did not want to exacerbate the obvious. I did not want to look away from what my pappou was saying and what he was doing. When I told our story to my class, I faced the reality.

That’s when it occurred to me that I should go to see pappou and find that notebook. I decided my grandfather and I would read through his brother’s journal, and he would tell me their stories while he was still able to do so. We’d be together…again, like we were on that distant summer morning.

A few days later, when I was in the Bronx, I stopped by my pappou’s house unannounced, which was typical for me. I found a parking spot only half a block away from his house, a miracle in itself because finding parking in the Bronx can be a very difficult task. I threw my bag over my shoulder and walked toward his side door, through the small white gate that stands at the height of my hip. I walked over to the side window of the first floor. I knocked and the white shade shook from the vibrations of my knocking. I yelled, “It’s me.”

My yiayia, as she always did, greeted me warmly. She yelled to pappou, “Perry, your grandson is here.” Then back to me, “He’ll be right there, honey.” I walked back through the gate to the front of the house. I waited a moment and the garage door slowly began to rise. I quickly ducked my head under the door, mostly because I am perpetually impatient, and there he was.

Pappou was wearing a white v-neck undershirt tucked into khakis, and pandofles, or sandals, and black socks. His hair was brushed back and his eyes were bright and alert. He hugged me and put one hand in the space where my jaw meets my neck and gave me a slight smack as a gesture of endearment.

I immediately prepared for the first of the three questions he always asked. “How are you, Perrymou?” With his hand still on my jaw, I said “I’m good, how’s it going?” He smiled and said “Good, come see yiayia.”

As I walked in, I was confronted with the second question, “How goes the school?” I turned back for a moment, “It’s good…I have to ask you something.” He responded “Ok, Perrymou.”

I saw yiayia and she raised her arms into the air, zeibekiko, Greek dancing style, to express that she was happy to see me. We embraced. Then as we broke our hug, pappou asked the third and final question as I was sitting down at the dining room table. “How goes the girl?” he asked with a smile.

“Still looking,” I replied. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Endaxi,” or “ok.”

After yiayia asked if I was hungry, and then looked annoyed but still hospitable when I said no, I asked about the book. Pappou immediately understood what I was referring to although we hadn’t spoken about it in a decade. It took him 15 minutes of rummaging through the closet next to his desk before he found it.

“Perry,” he asked me, “why do you want me to find this book?”

I told him I was going to use it for my graduate school thesis.

“Graduate school thesis!” he appeared somewhat nervous. “You will make sure it’s safe?”

“Of course, pappou.”

Then he gave me a sly smile. “But Perry, you don’t read Greek.”

“I guess I’ll find someone to translate it,” I said.

“Ah, Ναι, yes, you will need someone to translate my brother’s words.”

“Exactly, pappou.”

“And where will you find someone, Perry?” Again he gave me a wry smile, as he looked me in the eye. “How will someone know what my brother and I were thinking?”

I smiled and nodded in agreement with his argument.

“Well” he said as if the idea had just occurred to him, “I could translate.” I smiled back at him and only took a few seconds to realize that this would be our project, together. He put his hand on my shoulder and then stuck it out towards me. We shook hands.

With a grin, I said “Ok, let’s go.”

And so we agreed I would meet with him every week, and he would tell me all over again, the stories of the killing, of the blood, of the planting, of the children, of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, of brothers killing brothers, of the harvest, of treachery, of bravery and salvation. I walked to my car after this first conversation fully aware that I made him a promise that was not to be broken.

This is an excerpt.


Perry Giuseppe Rizopoulos currently teaches philosophy courses at the College of Mt. Saint Vincent, Manhattan College, and St. John's University. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies at Columbia University's Teachers College.


Praise

Wheat Songs grew out of the rediscovery of an old diary by a member of the youngest generation in a family. The diary records the struggle and stamina of two brothers—the author’s grandfather and great-uncle—escaping from the Nazis in Greece during the WWII era. In Wheat Songs, the author skillfully interweaves materials from the diary and later conversations with his grandfather about these experiences. The author’s ability to listen is an example of the devotion that enables members of one generation to comprehend the stories of another. This work represents a major contribution to the Elbenwood Center for the Study of Family as Educator’s scholarship on family memories and intergenerational understanding.
— Hope Jensen Leichter, Elbenwood Professor and Director of the Elbenwood Center for the Study of the Family as Educator, Teachers College, Columbia University
In his passionate quest for philosophical meaning, Perry Rizopoulos reminds the reader that family stories of the past make us who we are. From the small village of Lagka in Greece, the reader is transported through the narrative of the author’s courageous Greek grandfather who was caught in the dark shadows of fascism in Greece and later the unfortunate Greek Civil War. This book offers a profound parallel narrative that exposes the rich and layered immigrant stories of the author’s Greek and Italian grandfathers. This book is crucial as it relates an unknown story of Greek victims under fascism and their challenges during World War II and the Civil War.
— Mehnaz M. Afridi, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Manhattan College, Director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center