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Issue #1789      August 9, 2017

Themis Speis

A free man

Every Wednesday morning Themis could be relied upon to turn up at the Communist Party’s office in Sydney to wrap Guardians for the weekly mail-out. A warm, friendly and committed comrade, it meant a lot to him that in his 80s he was able to make a valuable contribution to the Party.

Wednesdays were a social occasion too. When the work was done, Themis produced the red wine and cheese and other comrades the soup, bread and other food. His taste in red wine and choice of cheeses was much appreciated.

Themis sadly passed away on July 12, 2017 at the age of 85. He remained a committed member of the CPA, attending his last meeting of the Beloyiannis branch just two days before his death. The following is an outline of his life story, as told by Themis in an interview with the Guardian.

I was born on the Greek island of Icaria in 1932 and had just commenced school in 1939 when the Second World War broke out. This brought an abrupt end to my formal education as schools were closed and did not re-open until 1945.

(Photo: Anna Pha)

Occupation

First Italy and then German and Bulgarian forces invaded the country. Despite assistance from the British, Greece was conquered and divided into three zones (German, Italian and Bulgarian). In Athens, a repressive puppet regime was established. The people had to fight three occupation armies and they had to fight very hard.

I remember the occupation was very bad. There were soldiers everywhere. They treated you like you were not human beings, more or less like animals.

The islands produced a bit of wheat, oil and some fish. The occupation army took almost all of this, hardly leaving enough for us to survive.

I remember my grandfather, he used to have a little factory manufacturing olive oil and an Italian soldier, he comes in, he wants some olive oil. My grandfather says. “you have to give me something for me to give you oil.”

The soldier held out a hand full of macaroni and said, “I will give you that.” My grandfather said that it was not enough, that there were six of them to feed.

The Italian soldiers took everything they wanted and left the rest for the local population.

Refugees

There was an organisation on my island which was not far from the Turkish coast. They organised and picked up people in a little brown boat and took them to Turkey. From there they went everywhere – to Egypt, to the Congo, Abyssinia [Ethiopia] Africa, Cyprus – like people do now.

That situation lasted about two or three years with people migrating from Icaria.

I remember an incident in January 1944. The Germans invaded Greece with their guns and bombs. They dropped their bombs in Athens and Icaria. They knew exactly where there were working class people, not any other, just the working class.

The Germans left Greece in October 1944. When they left people thought they were going to be free but it didn’t last very long. Freedom was cut short by local right-wing governments. The civil war started in October 1944. That was much harder.

They went into the big cities and arrested all the democrats, any progressive people and sent them into exile in various places. My island was one of the islands that they selected for them to be exiled.

Icaria, at a good time, had a population of 14,000. Around 40,000 political prisoner were exiled there – communists, trade unionists and the people who fought fascism, who fought the occupation.

I remember I lived in a remote house. It was big but never finished. Me and a couple of other boys rented one room. The exiled selected it as their cooking house. They were very nice men. We knew every one of them that came around. We had plenty of food.

They said to us boys: “Listen very carefully, listen we want you to finish school.” One of them said to me, “What I want you to do is read – read everything.” As kids we laughed outside then said, “those communists are right”.

I remember one particular soldier, he was a general, Sariafris. He was one of the most popular generals at that time in Greece. His background was democratic. He went to another island, Makronisos, that they call the Island of Hell. That island was hell. There was no one else living there. They could do anything to him.

On my island, there were people living there, they could always see everything. He survived and after the war he became a member of parliament. They finished up killing him on the footpath. One of the US soldiers killed him with a car. It was done to look like an accident but it wasn’t. That was in 1957, I was in Australia then.

Exiled welcomed

The exiled people were so nice, such popular people. The people on the island helped them, without that help they would probably have found it very hard to survive.

But the people on the island always gave everything, whatever they produced, whatever they had – food, even sometimes meat, when they killed the animals.

I would say that some of these small business people with shops – groceries – supplied them without being paid any money. They knew they would get the money back.

My father was here before the war. He came to Australia when he was 21 years of age and worked here up until 1930 when he returned to Greece. He married and I was born in 1932 and then he left to come back here. My brothers were born in 1933 and 1934.

A free man

I came here in 1950, a 17-year-old boy. I left high school and to be honest when I arrived I was feeling like a free man. I could walk freely on the street.

We lived in Waterloo, in Sydney, and used to walk around the streets in those days, nobody stopped me, no police stopped me.

Because, just months before that, every few yards they’d stop you and ask for your identity card and ask you what you were doing there. “I’m a free man,” I said, “I think this is the country,” and I still do.

Then I started working in a glass factory. It was very easy to find a job in those days. I remember when I went to the glass factory to get a job. In the main door, on the side was an office and in big letters “EMPLOYMENT OFFICE”.

What you had to do was just walk in the door, you said you wanted a job and you got a job. It was good in those times.

I still remember the place in Waterloo – walking down all the streets in Alexandria. There used to be big signs “Workers wanted”.

Trade unionist

Working in the glass factory I met one particular fellow. His name was Ted Andrews, he was a union delegate and a member of the Communist Party.

I remember he had a square tin and he’d come around and ask for money – not everyone, just the ones he knew – and I asked what it was for. He said it was for the Party and I asked what that was.

Then I joined the forces of the union. We did a lot of things to improve condition for the glass workers at Crown Crystal. There was no water. The toilets had no toilet paper, just newspaper, there wasn’t any air conditioning. The union changed all these things day by day.

In 1956, everyone knew that Ted was a communist. He was a good talker and the most popular guy. I think they offered him a job to be a foreman but he refused.

I spent 38 years there. I was happy, it was so good. As I said, the union did all those things. I started as a labourer, then as a driver, a glassmaker, I operated on the machines and then I finished up a fitter-welder. I learnt a trade there. They taught you most of it.

Sometimes I think I’d like to go to work again. I’m too old! (chuckles.)

Communist

I joined the Party around 1978. At that time Greece was up and down. In 1977 one of the Communists came here from Greece. At that time it was the Socialist Party of Australia and Peter Symon was the general secretary. The Greek comrade came and said all communists should belong to the Party. Don’t worry about our problems in Greece.

Your problems are here, this is your home and this is where you work. You have to join the Party here.

When I arrived in Australia I knew no English. I learnt it in the streets, not at school. Reading newspapers helped.

I used to go to a Greek coffee club. The people there were here before the war – they asked me what I was reading. I said the newspaper, and they said, “But you’ve just come here and you read English!” I said, “Yes, I don’t know all of it.”

I remember the time when Gagarin went into space. It was in April 1961. I sat reading about it. Those people, they work in a restaurant in the kitchen and never leave the kitchen except to go to bed.

I was back in Icaria in 1973. I was talking to a man in a street in this particular village where there used to be a place where they cooked for the exiled people. I said I know where it is.

Then he asked me where I came from and I said from this island. He said that’s not possible from the way you talk. So why do you say that?

I’d lost my dialect and told him I came from Australia. I stood there and looked at the place. It was still the same. I looked, sat on a rock. People see us and come along. I ask about the people who were here exiled a long time ago. They said they were all dead.

Next article – Getting Venezuela right

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