God Moments in Greece Part 2

While cruising the Greek Islands on our recent holiday, we also visited Crete. This island is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, and the site of the best deepwater harbour in the Mediterranean. Crete has had a long history of many different occupations - including Minoan, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman - but these days forms a significant part of the nation of Greece, though still having its own dialect, music and culture. Although Crete is mentioned in the New Testament, my particular interest in, and awareness of, the island stems from a family I have known for nearly forty years, and from an awe-inspiring love story documented by Patricia Grace in 2009.

In the midsixties, Ned Nathan and his Greek wife Katina ran a Wellington restaurant, and then a fish and chip shop in Porirua, where I went to school. Manos and Evan were the younger two of their three sons, and very popular at Mana College, where teenage girls like me found their dark eyes and dusky skin extremely handsome. One of us, Alison F, married Manos, a few years after I left the area with my family. I met her again at Playcentre in Dargaville, and over the years joined the dots of some of their family history; I have come  to appreciate how Ned, a Northland Maori, served in the Maori Battalion on Crete, spent over a year at large on the German-occupied island, and married a local girl, who returned to New Zealand with him after the War. I reread the story of Ned and Katina on the cruise ship and was looking forward to seeing the island, even though much of its story is tragic.

Souda Bay where we docked was the scene of the famous Battle of Crete during World War Two, in May 1941. Earlier that year Allied soldiers, including Pakeha and Maori New Zealanders, were part of the force trying to prevent the German invasion of Greece. They could not hold back the enemy, and after an orderly retreat some were evacuated safely to Egypt, but about 42,000 ended up on Crete. The Allied command, in a "mixture of stupidity, incompetence and inertia" decided that these troops would defend the island against the Germans. History shows that they failed.

The Battle for Crete began at Souda Bay on the 20 May 1941 with the biggest airborne attack the world had ever seen, with German paratroops and soldiers in gliders landing on the island in their thousands. They met fierce resistance from both locals and the British Commonwealth force, but eventually, after a 12 day battle, the Allied troops were outnumbered and outgunned. Military historians say the battle was the most dramatic in NZ Army history. The Germans sustained almost 7,000 casualties, but captured the vital airfields, and thousands of Allied troops retreated over the White Mountains hoping to be evacuated from the south coast.

Commonwealth Cemetery, Souda, Crete

Souda, near the capital Chania,  is a dreary, dirty and noisy place  but I had hoped to visit the Commonwealth  War Cemetery,  in a  secluded olive grove round the shore a few km. Many of the graves are to unknown soldiers, because remains were moved and identities were lost. Like all cemeteries maintained by the War Graves Commission, it is beautifully kept. In the end due to family priorities, I had to leave without seeing it in person, but a fellow Kiwi and former soldier I met on the ship kindly shared his photos with me, which made me feel I had visited, even if vicariously.  Some of the graves belong to members of the Maori Battalion.

Ned Nathan of Maropiu in Te Tai Tokerau was one of the 619 Maori soldiers who took part in the Battle for Crete; 244 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Ned himself was so badly wounded in the face and hip that cousins in the Battalion reported him dead, but in fact he narrowly missed being finished off by bombers, and then evaded capture for over a year by hiding in caves and villages in the mountains. The residents of the various communities who helped him were taking a huge risk by harbouring escaped soldiers. German firing squads executed more than a thousand civilians, who were randomly gathered in reprisal for German casualties or for acts of resistance. (Locals had no rights under the Geneva Convention as they were not armed or uniformed, due to British command ineptitude). In these perilous circumstances Ned survived hunger, thirst, sepsis and German search parties with the help of villagers in places like tiny Sklavopoula, two hours climb up from the south coast. One of those who cared for him there was the schoolteacher, Katina Toraki, daughter of the local Orthodox Priest. She taught him Greek to help him pass as a local, for his Maori complexion and features meant many thought he was Cretan. Ned was deeply attracted to Katina and later told a friend, "The moment I saw her, I fell in love with her. I'll be quite candid about that. She was just beautiful, that's all I've got to say . . ." During the rest of his time at large, held in his heart the hope of a future with her. He was captured in 1942 and sent to a POW camp in Poland, where he suffered such ill health that he was repatriated to England. At the end of the war, he sought permission to return to Crete. Officials were cautious; they did not want Kiwi men taking home brides, because they knew there were thousands of women waiting back in NZ. 

His pleas and prayers were answered and he did return to Crete, shortly after VJ day, at the same time as the many letters he’d written to Katina. He wasn’t sure what his reception would be. He had harboured these feelings for years, but had only a hunch of how she might feel. But when he knocked at the door, Katina was there waiting, and within a few weeks they were married. They returned to New Zealand and worked together in farming, commerce and hospitality. Their family businesses and three sons in Wellington are only the next chapter of their amazing family story. In 1980, they returned to the Dargaville area where the Maori Renaissance and a fight for family land have deepened their sense of  identity as Tangata Whenua, although regular contact with, and visits to, family in Crete are also profoundly important. Ned always spoke of the debt he owed the people who looked after and fed him, during his time as a fugitive. I feel privileged to have known this amazing couple, Ned, who died in 1987, and Katina, who died not long after we left Dargaville in the midnineties.

The particular God moment for me as I reread this story in situ so to speak, was Ned's description of his lowest moment while evading capture in the mountains. In a state of desolation, near delirium and not knowing what to do, he came across the crumbling walls of a disused church. It seemed "so much part of the rocky walls against which it stood that it was almost spectral' (N&K, p 79) . To Ned it was like a sign that God had not forsaken him, and he felt a new courage.  He went inside and prayed, and found some stale lamp oil which he drank. Outside he found figs which gave him enough strength to climb further up the mountainside, where, dehydrated and seriously ill with dysentery and wound infection, he eventually found a village and a safe haven.

Ned's description of a fresh hope and courage rising up in response to something he saw reminded me of an incident my father experienced as a POW in Austria. Someone had a horned owl in a cage, and he found it so beautiful that he thought, "well old Hitler can take a lot from me, but there are some things he can't take."

That bird was sign of hope for Dad, just as the old church brought new hope to Ned. Both were men of faith; both served their country well.
Ki te tūohu koe, me he maunga teitei
    Pursue excellence – should you stumble, let it be to a lofty mountain.

To Chew Over: what has been a  sign of hope for you?