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Rescuing the rescuers

Following, am reprinting a long and thoughtful article from todays NYTimes celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of a book of portraits and text I’ve long admired (actually, revered), for many years. It’s author’s – Gay Block and Malka Drucker (now Rabbi Malka Drucker) – happen to be friends. Their formidable, iconic book “Rescuers”, was researched and compiled during the identical several years I was neck deep in the same wrenching subject matter. Looking back, I realize how fortunate we all were at the time since – had we waited much longer to shine light on our various stories – we would have been too late and our subjects might have been swept into oblivious.
Here then, as an homage to the subjects of this book, it’s author’s too, I’m attaching Blaustein’s entire article:

[credit: The New York Times]

7/23/2018 written by Jonathan Blaustein

Risking Torture and Death to Save Jews During the Holocaust

In “Rescuers,” Gay Block brings to light the efforts of Europeans who put their lives on the line to protect Jews during the Holocaust.

In 1986, Rabbi Harold Schulweis recruited Malka Drucker, a children’s book author, and Gay Block, a fine art portrait photographer, to embark on a project documenting “Rescuers,” non-Jewish Europeans who risked torture and death to save Jews during the Holocaust. There were ceremonies for these brave souls at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, where they were honored and trees were planted.

But their accomplishments were little known.

“I met Malka in 1985,” Ms. Block said in a recent interview, “and in 1986 she said to me: ‘My rabbi, Harold Schulweis, from Encino, is a great, great man. He has been wanting someone to write a book about the rescuers for 25 years.’ Nobody had wanted to pay attention to their stories because Holocaust survivors said that it whitewashed the Holocaust, and he had never gotten anyone to do it.”

The writer and photographer began interviewing some of the rescuers who had relocated to Southern California, but they eventually traveled to Canada and Europe for 100 interviews. They worked on the project from 1986 to 1988, and in 1992 Ms. Block had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A separate traveling show was produced by Curatorial Assistance, and traveled to 50 venues over 11 years.

Ms. Drucker wrote the original text, Ms. Block made the portraits and edited the interviews, and Cynthia Ozick contributed an introduction to the resulting book, “Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust.”

 Now it’s the 30th anniversary of the “Rescuers” project, and in a time replete with misinformation and unsettling incidents of racial and religious violence, Ms. Block hopes to bring the exhibit back for the 21st century. She says these stories can inspire others to stand strong in difficult times.

“Each rescuer was so different; was their own person,” she said. “There wasn’t any kind of formula. But by the time we met them so many years later, they didn’t always have such an easy life. It was the biggest privilege of my life to be able to meet these people.”

Maria, Countess von Maltzan Credit Gay Block.
“It was easy for me to resist Nazi authority because I had always resisted my mother’s authority,” she said.
Maria, Countess von Maltzan, was a veterinarian living in East Berlin at the time of her interview. She told of being raised on an 18,000-acre estate in the Silesia region of Germany, to fabulous wealth, a doting father and a cruel and unforgiving mother.

Familial rebelliousness first drove her to become a member of the underground in Berlin during the war. “It was easy for me to resist Nazi authority because I had always resisted my mother’s authority,” she said.

The countess hid Jews in a secret compartment in her sofa (among other places) and once dared an SS officer to shoot at it while her future husband, Hans, was still was inside. (He failed to call her bluff, thankfully.)

“I was a queen on the black market all during the war,” she recalled, “but I had to be good at it because I had so many extra people to feed. I always said, no matter what came along, ‘I prefer to be in a tough situation than to go to bed with a bad conscience.’

Gustav Mikulai CreditGay Block

Gustav Mikulai was raised in a Social Democrat family in Budapest and grew up with Jewish friends and neighbors. As a budding musician, he was impressed by the Jewish students he encountered in school.

“The Jews were capable and everyone was envious,” he said. “I understood that from the beginning. I couldn’t be anti-Semitic, first because I thought it would be immoral, and second because I thought well enough of myself that I didn’t need to be envious of them.”

 Mr. Mikulai eventually married a Jewish musician and then hid her and her parents when the Germans invaded in March 1944. From that point on, he dedicated himself to saving as many Jews as possible.

Being a resistance fighter required huge sacrifice, because, as he said, “I found during this time of the Holocaust that I could kill anyone who was suspicious of me. It was a terrible time for humanity.”

Mr. Mikulai was able to look back knowing that he was no bystander, watching while the world was subsumed by chaos. Reflecting from his perch in Bonn, Germany, he knew he had made a difference.

“I think in all I was able to save at least 50 people, and maybe 80 or a hundred,” he said. “I’m happy about the times I was able to rescue children who, now married and with children of their own, who’ll not have had such a life without my help.”

Jan Karski Credit Gay Block

Jan Karski was a Polish spy who eventually became a professor at Georgetown University in Washington. Like a real-life James Bond, he once skied across Slovakia into Hungary on a mission and was eventually caught by the Germans before being rescued by the Polish resistance.

 Shortly thereafter, he was recruited by the Jewish underground to take news of the Warsaw ghetto, and the annihilation of the Jews, directly to Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But first, he had to visit the ghetto to see for himself.

“The ghetto was macabre,” he said in his interview. “It was not a world. It was not a part of humanity. I did not belong there. I vomited blood that night. I saw horrible, horrible things I will never forget. So I agreed to do what they asked of me.”

Mr. Karski managed to meet with both leaders, but was disappointed to hear they were unwilling to put resources directly to stopping the Holocaust, as their focus was on the war. (“Helping Jews was no advantage to the Allied war strategy,” he said.)

When he asked the president what message he should take back to Poland, Roosevelt replied: “‘You will tell them we shall win the war and the enemy will be punished for their crimes. Justice will prevail. Tell your nation that they have a friend in this house. This is what you will tell them.’”

Zofia Baniecka Credit Gay Block

Zofia Baniecka, from Warsaw, was visiting her friend Ruth in Staten Island when she was interviewed for the “Rescuers” project. She and her mother had been integral to the Polish resistance after her father was killed by a Russian bomb in 1941.

Unlike some other rescuers, she and her mother evaded detection the entire time they fought the Nazis. “I was never interrogated or nearly caught, though I don’t know why,” she said. “I was just lucky. Luck, it was only luck, because I kept people and guns in my house from the winter of 1941 until the Polish uprising in August 1944.”

She was consistent with many of her fellow rescuers, however, in stating her desire that these stories be shared well into the future.

“There are many people who have saved my belief in humanity, and that is why it is important for people to know about this time, of Poland during the war, and that there were those of us who did try to save Jews,” she said. “It is necessary for the children to know that there were such people.

Johtje and Aart Vos CreditGay Block

Aart and Johtje Vos lived in an artist colony called Laren, near Amsterdam, and their home became a reliable stop on the underground. (So much so that they once had 36 people hiding there.)

“More and more people came to hide in our house,” Johtje said. “We had mattresses all over the floor, and they had to be camouflaged in case the Germans came.”

 The couple’s bravery ruffled feathers within the home, with one of their own children questioning the risks they were taking. It was never a question for them, though, as they couldn’t stand idly by while the Germans picked off their fellow countrymen.

“Holland was like a family and part of that family was in danger,” Aart said. “In this case, the Jewish part. The Germans were threatening our family. We weren’t thinking, ‘What shall we do?’ We just did.

 

Helene Jacobs Credit Gay Block

Helene Jacobs, who was born in Berlin, worked with a group called Confessing Church to provide false papers and identification to German Jews. Eventually, her counterfeit ring was tracked down by the Gestapo, and she was arrested in 1943.

In her interview, she said: “From childhood I believed that each of us who is given the gift of life is responsible for our own life and for what and whom we decide to surround ourselves. This is why I fought Nazism.”

Ms. Jacobs spent 20 months in prison for her “crimes,” and when she was released, discovered that her home had been burned. As a German who battled the Nazis, she felt it was her duty to fight.

 “I always knew how dangerous it was, but I did it for humanity, and because I was a patriot,” she said. “I was ashamed of what the German people were doing.”

 

Agnieszka Budna-Widerschal Credit Gay Block

Agnieszka Budna-Widerschal was interviewed in Israel, where she lived with her second Jewish husband, Shimon. She sheltered her first Jewish husband, Motl, in Poland during the war and also saved his brothers.

She described her brazen plan to sneak her brothers-in-law through the ghetto to safety: “I pretended to be drunk while the two brothers walked on either side of me, each of them holding me under my arm. There were Nazis all over the street. I knew we would surely run into one of them, and when we did he just took one look at me and said with disgust, ‘Ach, that’s just like a Pole!’ And he walked his way and we went ours!”

Though her family came through World War II intact, Motl died soon after from diabetes. Worse yet, in 1954, during a period of rising anti-Semitism, Agnieszka’s daughter Bella was murdered by a gang of Polish teenagers.

 Agnieszka and Shimon moved to Israel a few years later.

 

Pieter and Joyce Miedema Credit Gay Block

Pieter and Joyce Miedema were interviewed in their home in Canada, where they emigrated in 1952. He had been a Presbyterian minister in Holland and was an early proponent of helping Jews in the face of the Nazi onslaught.

He had a stroke late in life, and his wife spoke on his behalf. They had worked together to shelter and support Jews during the war.

“He thought he should practice what he preached,” she said. “He was always one step ahead,” and told his congregants, “‘If you opt against opening your home and heart to an innocent fugitive, you have no place in the community of the just.’”

 

Semmy Riekerk Credit Gay Block

Semmy Riekerk worked with her husband, Joop Woortman, to save Jews for the Dutch resistance. “My sister helped, too, but I didn’t know it at the time,” she said in her interview. “You never told anyone anything they didn’t have to know. My husband used anyone he could trust.”

 Beginning in 1942, they organized efforts to steal and forge papers to help Jews escape, but later focused their energies on saving children. (Ms. Riekerk adopted a refugee during the war.)

When Joop Woortman was captured, and later killed in Bergen Belsen in 1944, Ms. Riekerk took up his mantle and did the work herself.

“I had to carry on his work until the end of the war,” she said. “They gave me the book that listed 300 names and said: ‘These are the people who are hiding children. You have to take them ration cards and money every month.’ The banks provided money from the Dutch government-in-exile, and our organization provided the ration cards.”

 

Johannes de Vries Credit Gay Block

Johannes de Vries, a coal miner, and his wife, Janke, took two Jewish children — a brother and sister named Salomon and Eva Haringman — into their home in southern Holland in 1942. They raised them alongside their own two children, and were also foster parents for other refugees, short term, as a part of an underground railroad.

Eventually, the Jewish children were reunited with their mother in Amsterdam after the war and then moved to Israel when she died in 1947.

 By the time Gay Block and Malka Drucker interviewed Mr. de Vries, he was living in Ontario and going by the nickname Joe.

Recalling Mrs. Haringman’s original predicament, he said, “What it must have been like for that mother to give up her children to someone she didn’t know.”

Stefania Podgorska Burzminski and her husband, Joe Credit Gay Block

Stefania Podgorska Burzminski, born in a small village in Poland, was interviewed above her husband Joe’s dentist office in Massachusetts. She had saved him, and two of his brothers, by hiding a cohort of 13 Jews in a cottage she procured during the war.

Joe’s parents and two of his other brothers had been taken by the Nazis, but he escaped by jumping from a train and soon showed up at Stefania’s house.

“Poor Joe, he was filthy and his clothes were rags,” she recounted. “I gave him my nightgown to wear. Joe cried all night, and my sister laughed at him in my nightgown. I explained to my sister who Joe was, that he was a Jew, that Germans wanted to kill him, and that we had to help him.”

 Ultimately, they survived the war, and Joe converted to Catholicism in order to marry Stefania. It was very difficult for her to discuss the past, and Ms. Block returned a year later for a second interview to better understand the story.

“I work hard all day now, helping Joe in his dentist’s practice,” she told her. “Every time I have to do an interview like this, it brings back all the memories and I can’t sleep for some nights.”

 

Alex and Mela Roslan Credit Gay Block

Alex and Mela Roslan were living in Clearwater, Fla., when “Rescuers” was shot. They were originally from Poland and lived near Bialystok during the war.

Alex had a textile business and noticed his Jewish clientele were disappearing, so he put on a star and entered the ghetto. “I saw so many children, hungry and starving,” he said. “They were so skinny. The parents had been taken to ‘farms,’ but we knew what that meant. I came home and told Mela we had to do something. We decided to go to Warsaw.”

The young couple took an apartment and eventually hid three young, wealthy brothers: Jacob, Sholom and David Gutgelt. Though they were never discovered, tragedy struck regardless, as Sholom died of illness, and the Roslans’ son Yurek was killed by a Nazi sniper.

 But Jacob and David survived the war and were eventually reunited with their father in Israel. Alex and Mela moved to America, and they all lost contact for years.

In 1980, though, David moved to America to study at the University of California, Berkeley, and was reunited with the family that saved his life. “At first I didn’t recognize him,” Alex said. “I hadn’t seen him in so long, and he had a beard. But then he threw his arms around me. David is a mathematician, and Jacob is a nuclear scientist.”


Blowing on the embers

Following, a paragraph taken from the home page of the dazzling blog

SunnysideHanne.com:

“Part of blowing so damn hard on the embers is to bring back the tastes of childhood, my mother’s expatriate Danish cooking, my Father’s Eastern European specialties like his sweet Tzimmes and half sour tomatoes, my Aunt’s traditional Danish farmhouse fair and elegant midsummer night desserts, and the foods of our young childhood spent with our parents on a Greek Island. I will throw in as well the influences of my husband’s Israeli youth and my years spent living with him on kibbutz. As I have learned it is love and connections that makes this tapestry bright.”  

If these lines needed a witness to raise one hand and put the other into those bright embers, I volunteer and attest to the sumptuousness of that childhood. You see, I was sometimes a sworn part of the writer’s – Johanne/Hanne’s – childhood. We met  on that Greek Island when she was about two-and-a-half years old, a soft, sweet-smelling, wide-eyed, giggling cherub with platinum-blond curls. Hanne, along with her family, me, my son, the feta, the fresh bread, the olives were baked together under that strong sun into a tasty pie. Ever after we’ve re-recipe’d that pie – in Rhode Island, Los Angeles, New York when she was a frisky, irreverent 7 year old i.e. photo below on East 57th Street

then, in Greece again, and all of the above redux. In just under fifty years. She was a guest on this site a few years ago [see “Capitalist Girl”] but now that she’s SunnysideHanne.com, and since she and her husband are here on a visit, I take the moment to quench my curiosity about her intriguing blog whose photos never fail to cause me to salivate. Here’s how she introduces her blog:

“I cook the vibrant plant based food I crave and then try to resist eating it until I capture a good photo.” Johanne
Me: May I ask a couple of things.
H: Ask away.

Me: How long have you been doing the blog now?

H: I first posted in January 2017. I’d planned to begin before that, but then my mother suddenly died, and life got in the way. By the time I was ready, my direction had changed.

Me: How so?

H: It became more about the link between nostalgia, memory and taste than I’d originally intended. I began trying to re-create links to my childhood, or childhood in general, through taste.

Me: Can you give me an example?

H:  For instance, let’s say I’m remembering a moment in a house in Cairo. I can’t really reproduce the look of the hallway or the smell of the mold on the wall. Nor can I re-create the smell of the grandma’s apron when she hugged me. But … I CAN re-create that grandma’s babka … I can bring back the flavor, the smell, the taste of it.

Me: You mean your cooking re-creates the experience?

H: I can re-create the nostalgia with food, can get under the many layers of lacquer that time and distance has applied.

Me: How long have you been a vegan?

H: About eighteen to twenty years … before that I was a crypto-vegan …

Me: A what?

H: I started as a crypto-vegan. I had a  cake business once. Wedding cakes, cakes for occasions. You know … English style cakes decorated with roses, sweet peas, lotus flowers, raspberry brambles. I started doing vegan but no one ever knew. Why use two dozen eggs for a buttercream cake when I could culture almond milk into butter? I wanted to cause as little harm as I could. People have prejudices against non-dairy. They don’t find taking breast milk from a cow disgusting yet they’ll wince when milk is made out of a legume.

Me: Did anyone ever guess?

H: Never. If I make it, it has to taste the best. I don’t like to disappoint anyone. That’s why I don’t like people coming to dinner. I like to test and re-test.

Me: What about the mistakes?

H: I eat my mistakes myself, they’re always delicious. Just not perfect yet. My personal weakness has become my strength with the blog.

Me: I couldn’t agree more. Your photos dazzle me.

See what I mean?

[classic-Babka-with-Orange-Glaze-Vegan]

[nicoise-salad-with-grilled-orange-tofu-vegan]

Me: What does “Labneh”  mean?

H:  It’s when you to take a diary product and curdle it and separate the curd from the whey … check out the post that mentions my mother.

I do. See below. And see what I mean about salivating as a result of her photos, her words, her bountiful heart and soul. Vegan Labneh Recipe.

Labneh is a tangy, silky Levantine cheese spread that can be served as a dip with pita bread or smeared on a toasted bagel. The cheese can also be rolled into balls, encrusted in herbs, and preserved in golden olive oil.  

In winter there was rain that fell for days without end and pulled from the almond trees green fruit so tender that you wanted to cup them with your hands and protect them like the fuzzy heads of newborns.

This seasonal memory is one of the corners where my husband’s and my childhood intersect, he on a kibbutz in Israel and me on an island in Greece.

 My mother would mix lemon juice and salt into our leftover yoghurt, wrap it in white linen and hang it from a hook until it had drip, drip, dripped out all of it’s whey and become an impossibly tangy, thick spread. As we had no refrigeration this alchemy was both practical and delicious.

[Hanne on my couch last saturday putting up with my questions]

Lunch with Vivien Leigh look-alike

Had Vivien Leigh lived into her eighties, she would have looked like my friend Carol***  does at eighty-five. Carol, who grew up in Manhattan, with an Irish mother and Scottish father, who ran a boarding house on the Upper West Side, met me today at my corner so that we could lunch together. She carries two cloth shopping bags, tells me they’re heavy, but – unfortunately – must keep them with her always since she can no longer leave anything of value in her apartment. “You see … they come in and look after I leave the building. I see the scratches they make on the floor. You understand, don’t you?” I put my arm around her thin shoulder and draw her close. She’s tied a cheery turquoise, cerise and white silk scarf that matches her windex-blue eyes around her neck, has put on a baseball hat, wears a dark blue jacket. She seems to get smaller and thinner every time I see her.We walk to the Greek (one of the last) coffee shop on 9th Avenue, find ourselves a booth. Carol orders a hamburger with avocado, also tea. I go with a fried egg sandwich on a roll, also coffee. This is the only sandwich on which I splat ketchup. As we await lunch her eyes moisten: “When I realized they’d stolen all my papers … my brother’s things … mine … bank things, I called the police. Right away the man came from the building … you know him … ” I don’t. “I overheard him telling the policeman, ‘We’ve had trouble with her before.’ Can you believe it?” I shake my head, No.

Our plates and mugs arrive. Carol oohs and ahh’s over the hearty, grilled hamburger. ‘Delicious, a whole meal.’ she smiles, then scoops a forkful of cold slaw from it’s little plastic cup, “Wonderful. They do make the best cold slaw.” She offers me a bite of hamburger. I say, “No thanks.” She offers some avocado. I say, “No thanks.” She offers another fork-full of hamburger. “No thanks.” I explain: “I only like one flavor at a time.” and hold my roll up in the air (ketchup squeezing out its sides) to show her, hoping she’ll stop asking. She nods, scoops up a dab of fresh avocado with her fork. “Delicious. A treat. I don’t cook at home anymore … I used to of course …” then breaks off a bite of meat.

It’s hard for me to eat slowly. Try as I might, I rarely succeed. Before I know it, I’m swallowing the last bite of eggy, ketchup-ie Kaiser roll though Carol has made almost no headway into her meal. She’s exchanged fork for knife, is slicing back and forth across the hamburger. I notice the serrated side of the knife is face up rather than down. “This cold slaw IS terrific ..” I concur, forking the small cup-full into my mouth.

I ask the waiter with the plaid shirt for a to-go cup for the remainder of my coffee; Carol requests he wrap her leftovers to take home. She’s eaten barely a quarter of her meal, so surely has a second meal from what remains. I request the bill. Today’s my turn to pay, her’s to provide the tip, so I take it when it’s written. Carol reaches into her pocketbook, pulls out and thumbs through an envelope fat with cash. “How much tip shall I give?” “Give me $5.” She hands over a crisp $5 and a $1. I put the money directly into our waiter’s hand when he returns with Carol’s doggy bag and my classic blue to-go cup. I pour my left-over coffee into it and press on its plastic top.

Walking toward my building Carol explains, “I’ve no family anymore. Once I had two brothers.” “What about the niece you told me about … the one from out of town who was going to be your executor?” “Oh ..” Carol sighs, “When she visited me last month or maybe it was last week, she kept asking questions about my things. What I have. How much. She wanted to see my papers … I didn’t really like it.” She’s downcast, but cheers up when a set of twins wrapped up for the Arctic are pushed toward us in their double carriage.

We embrace at my corner. She smiles her youthful, beguiling smile, her pale eyes again reminding me of Vivian Leigh, who died at age fifty-three not long after making her last film, “Ship of Fools” in which Leigh plays a bitter divorcée-has-been. That film, based on a favorite book of the same name by Catherine Anne Porter was described by reviewer Bosley Crowther in the NYTimes as an allegory of the ” … passage of foolish humanity into the maw of Nazism.” (Not unfamiliar to us here and now.)

Carol goes toward her building which is three blocks further north. I know that she had one son who died of an o.d. when he was twenty-four, many years ago. For the decade I’d known her, she’s been a walker in the city, sometimes walking all through an entire day, criss-crossing Manhattan from river-to-river, Wall Street to Columbia. Recently, though, she admitted, “I don’t walk as far or as much as I used to anymore …” and gestured at the heavy bags she protectively lugs everywhere.

I had just turned into my walkway when I hear my name and turn back. Carol scurries toward me waving an arm. She’s distraught.”Is something wrong?” “I think I forgot to give you money to tip our waiter?” “No. No. We tipped him.” I assure. “Are you sure?” “I’m sure. I promise. You gave me a $5 and a $1. I put it right into his hand.” She is relieved and resumes her journey home. How soon will it be, I wonder, before anguishes overcomes her again as to whether or not a tip was given? I shout after her to tell her she should phone me if she again forgets whether or not she gave a tip so I can reassure her once more that she has. She keeps walking North. I’ll never know whether or not she’s heard what I’ve said.

***[Carol is not her real name]

Khodasevich on a cool September night

Adrift on this cool September friday, I listen to the traffic, a voice shouting at no one in the street below me. I drink old coffee, wander from room to room a bit like Karen Stone in The Roman Spring … read read read all day long. It’s cozy inside; a breeze visits in fresh figure-eights. I don’t need an excuse to burrow under the chartreuse and powder-blue duvet; and do. Later, I find myself reading and re-reading poems of Vladislav Khodasevich. I’ve gone gently (albeit twitchingly) into the dark night.

Born (1886) in Moscow of an aristocratic Polish-Lithuanian family, Vladislav Khodasevich had Jewish maternal grandparents who converted. In 1919 he moved to Petersburg to work with Maksim Gorky where he published several acclaimed collections of poems. He was admired and sought after. When the great poet Aleksandr Blok died and the poet Anna Akhmatova’s husband Nikolay Gumilyov was executed (1922) for no good reason, he left Russia.

He and his lover, writer Nina Berberova, traveled to Berlin, then the spa at Saarow, then  dipped their toes into Prague, Marienbad, Venice, Sorrento, Belfast, finally settling in Paris. In time he wrote fewer and fewer poems, more critical studies and memoirs, while the fame and poetry he’d left behind in the USSR quietly faded and disappeared from the public eye. Soon he was all but forgotten. He died at age fifty-three, not knowing that – in later years – his poetry would be resurrected and celebrated once again in his Motherland.

A Variation

Out on the balcony again

to warm my shoulders and my arms

But when I sit there, all the sounds in dreams.

At once, I’m filled with lassitude

and float somewhere unknown to me:

but there’s my world, in spreading rings

dispersed like ripples on the sea.

 

Endearing wonder, carry on!

I join the second circle, where

I listen to the distant steady

knocking of my rocking chair.

[August 1919, Moscow]

Vladislav Khodasevich, Selected Poems  

[Translated by Peter Daniels – Angel Classics, UK]

 

 

Guest: Dance that doesn’t look like dance

 

isFor a long while I’ve greatly admired, and felt true kinship, with playwright/poet/dancer  Sissy BoydOriginally from Philadelphia’s Main Line, she currently resides, creates and performs in Southern California. Sissy is a former Martha Graham dancer, has acted in films as well as on stage. She’s a woman after my own heart, spare, understated, still-waters-running-deeply incarnated that includes a  sharp mind, dry wit too. We always laugh together. Just now I had the good fortune to read her most recent play “Movement for Two Voices” performed as part of a two play evening whose overall title is Riddance. Imbued with a psalm-like luminescence, I invited “Movement for Two Voices” to visit this blog. Sissy accepted my invitation on behalf of the play’s two character – V1 and V2. The complete text of this short, restrained play is reproduced below. For a glance into the author’s backstory by way of introduction, I sent Sissy several concise questions and received equally concise replies. These follow:

Q: Would you tell me a little about “Movement for Two Voices” – what motivated you to write it?

A: it was an an amends to my mother.

Q: What was your goal?

A: to get through to what is beautiful about unconsciousness.

Q: Is dance intrinsic to this work or not?

A: movement is…I don’t want it to look like dance.

Q: Who is Wesley Walker.?

A: Wes is a playwright…we shared the evening; 2 separate pieces. and Wes did a lot of the direction in my piece.

Q: Tell me a few lines about your play-writing career, and some themes of the previous plays.

A: my plays are always about my stiffling upbringing, my rigid, cold mother.

Q: Tell me a little about where your plays have been workshopped, also the theater group with which you’ve been involved for so long?

A: I was so fortunate to land with John Steppling. a brilliant and incredible teacher. and some of the same writers are still together.

Q: What about your dancing life?

A: Everyone thought I looked like a dancer, but I was never truly happy. I found my self dancing to words. and then very poetic words…I don’t like dance movement…

Q: What about your poetry writing life and with whom you studied?

A: I studied with Holly Prado, a wonderful L.A. poet. she never told me what to do; I stumbled around which is what she hoped for.

Q: Say a word or two about your background, anything you’d like.

A: I was born into an upper type household. manners meant everything. I never saw anything artistic until a boyfriend, an architecture student, Louis Kahn’s protege, found and liked me! he was magnificent, took me to foreign movies, museums, all of it.

Q: Also, if you have a more general photo of yourself, could you send?

A: HEAVEN HELP ME…

photo-70

(emply stage. V1 and V2. V1 enters from upst. R, moves diagonally forward. V2, at the edge.)

photo-69

SC.1

V1: the stage is colorless, empty.

V2: how beautiful,

say that again.

V1: I lie down in the empty space of

tight silence,

bleached light.

V2: what can you do then?

V1: inch toward my mother.

V2: though she’s dead?

(pause.)

V1: with dreadful grace then I rise and turn, straining to find her.

the beastly clouds the black crows flock.

so your Mother died.

the flat shadows the blue midnight.

 

SC.2

V1: lying there

on the station floor

practically nothing

the smell of low tide

waiting for it to rise

and roll me out

V2: what good

none you remember

not your children

V1: the station

where I wandered

water dripping

V2: get up see the door

none you remember

V1: how I have wandered

from under the dogwood

from a town of grasses

then stepping

into the outskirts

into a dark roar

V2: from precision

from your feet placed

from graceful timing

 

SC.3

V1 lying in the boat. on the boards.

weight of the sea under me.

Mother, look. come closer.

Mother I can’t move.

come stand over me,

draw a circle around us.

watch. I am motionless,

so that you may come closer.

listen. I am silent

so that you might list

the horrors I brought.

 

I will listen.

I belong here.

Mother, draw the circle

and keep me beside you.

I am more afraid than ever.

 

Father found me drunk on the floor.

Had I climbed into bed with him?

 

there was always horror.

train stations.

strangers. scary men.

the tall man.

 

had I climbed into bed with my father?

 

I didn’t go on after that.

I’ve been here a long time.

not knowing.

this boat.

 

Mother.

I trained myself to lose my way.

looking for the tall man.

 

did I walk?  

for a long time.  it was gray.  I was relieved.

the gulls stood, many.

facing the sea.

 

Sc.4

V1: still there

with the sanderlings

in the lapping.

the thick sand under me.

waiting and there is nothing.

his voice ran out

and his arms fell away

nothing of a body

armless in the end

however once he knew

I remember

that surf

steady I was there.

V2: in a turn

turning

and on then

 

Sc. 5

V2: go back.

V1: I was paralyzed.

the hospital for months.

lonely.

no not that.

too ill to be.

endless noisy nights.

clang of food trays.

concave on the white bed.

dreams of perfect balance.

death.

a weightless balance.

 

I looked through tints of blue.

 

that dream.

V2: paralyzed in hot August.

and months leading up.

V1: until my toes.

I saw them move.

still not feeling.

V2: not yet.

 

Sc.6

V1: remember empty stages.

entering before sound.

V2: talk about your body.

lo, the very stepping in.

V1: this is possible.

my arms lifting.

V2: how slowly you move.

crossing the space.

your ribs lifting

V1: so high I turn.

I spiral.

V2: your head falls.

V1: my neck and shoulders.

and rises.

V2: you love falling.

and rising.

when you may.

 

Sc7

V1: I watch myself

dress stuck, salty.

sea rolling out.

V2: you watching.

V1: him saying

your dress, stuck to you.

him saying

pull it off.

sea rolling in.

me saying

you pull it off.

V2: the hazard, the drowning.

the black night, black dogs.

V1: waves softly,

me falling,

pulling him.

 

the waves.

I step,

about run. but slow,

slower, longer.

him saying, your dress, pull it off.

me saying, you pull it off.

 

who then. he.

pulling the stuck dress.

nothing settled about love.

 

me saying pull again.

 

him pulling the stuck dress.

 

me there so naked.

at last.

[YouTube: “Bleed”: Sissy Boyd w. Debra Di Blasi}

[Music for Riddance composed by Sissy Boyd’s longtime musical collaborator Sharon Smith –Music cues by Sharon Smith]

Guest: “Capitalist Girl”

By Johanne Rosenthal

(Johanne has a successful blog named sunnysidehanne.com, featuring her original recipes)

When I sit down to relate the story of my soldier it feels as if I am relating a Bubba-miser, a fairytale, as if the snow that fell was really goose feathers, the moon in the sky a matzo ball.

The Norwegian boy’s dismissal of me stung and chilled my heart. We’d planned to meet at the theatre called East of Paradise. I bought my ticket and waited for my mercurial, oft distant Norwegian. I sat alone in the lobby until the doors to the theatre closed, sat through the movie, still waiting and wondering. I walked home through the slippery February Arhus streets pondering my next move. The next afternoon I walked in the Queen’s forest beneath the black Beech branches, along the strand, boots pushing aside the snow like an ocean liner parting waves. I craved the sun. Not this watery winter light but a fierce buzzing heat that would bleach my bones.

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Israel and Spain were my top choices, in my mind they were both lands of golden oranges, twisted olive trees and sloe eyed boys. Israel won because I knew that my Jewish grandmother would spit in the bucket if Israel was the destination. She did, a meagre spit, but every bit helps when you are a budget traveler. My travel agent had a connection on Kibbutz Nachshon and he arranged for me to volunteer there.

I arrived in the night and woke in early morning in the little shed I was to share with a German girl, Suzanne. She left for work before dawn and I laid there in that tin can of a room, filled with regret. What had I done fleeing from heart ache to this strange land? Three poppies waved outside my door, like old friends from Hydra, my childhood island. Just the sight of them steadied me. I wended my way to the communal dining room, stopping to ask directions from a tall dark man with a gold earring that glinted pirate-like in the dawn.

jojo pix 2So I began my time on kibbutz working in the pink flowered almond orchards, scything the weeds, filling my canvass sack with coral persimmons, weeding the cotton fields gazing at the soft hills of Jordan. Together with the other volunteers, we sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot “Looked over Jordan and what did I see?”. The months passed and my heart swelled in this strange land, I wandered the prayer clogged streets of Jerusalem, splashed in the fern guarded pools of Ein Gedi, danced the night away on thick wooden tables in the pulsing nights of Tel Aviv and fell asleep to lamenting songs of jackals. There were sloe eyed boys and fields of sunflowers that threw challenges to the sun.

My wandering feet drew me on to Egypt, and then to Turkey, Greece and round about to Denmark (where that Norwegian boy came to me, kneeling, to confess his regret and continued longing, like a perfectly wrapped present) and home to America.

Home. I was home and tried to settle in and be normal. I worked and saved, living with my mother. There was one problem. I would wake many nights from dreams of wandering, lost. Staggering to my mother’s room I would sob and tell her I had forgotten something, left something in Israel. I had to go back. She would sooth me and stroke my hair with her long dry fingers, telling me that I would go back. I did. Six months after I had come home I landed in Ben Gurion, stepped off the airplane to warm evening wind enveloping me in the scent of orange blossoms, lifting my hair high. Maybe that is what I love most about Israel it smells like turkish delight: confectioner’s sugar, pistachios and orange blossom

A friend picked me up at the airport and we arrived just in time for me to throw my back pack on my bed and head for dinner. Arriving at the base of the stairs leading to the dining room, I heard a man’s voice in the dark saying, ”You’ve been here before” as he clumsily rested his arm on my shoulder, his wide farmer’s hand slipping through my huge golden hoop earring. Trapped he tried to extricate himself from my wild hair and oversized earring with out further damage to ear or ego.

Sitting with his friends at a far away table he gestured to me telling them that he was going to marry me. They smirked.

After the meal I got up to make myself a cup of Nescafe and he came to our table and descended on my friends. Tell me something about her he begged anything before she comes back. Well Daniella said, she loves Joni Mitchell.
Just that day his Father had given him Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. He went home and played it. Loudly.
After dinner I was wandering the dark paths looking for my friend’s newly assigned soldier-room. Hopelessly lost I heard Joni Mitchell singing in the dark. Oh, I thought who ever is playing Joni must be nice and so I knocked on the door to ask directions.

jojo pix 3He was a soldier/kibbutznik with over two years left of service. He fell hard. It took me a few weeks but I too fell hard. Each month we’d cross off another square on the back of his belt, the thistles turned from green to gold. The first quenching rains of winter (yoresh) and last rains of spring (malkosh) before earth crackling summer. The waxy pomegranates bloomed, swelled and burst with seeds. I worked in the children’s house. He was a soldier.

It is a classic Kibbutz tale. The tale ends when the volunteer leaves the soldier and returns home with a broken heart and a good story. The soldier takes her to the airport, sheds a few tears and then marries the right girl.

But I clung to him like the seeds in a sunflower. Around the seasons we went. We wanted time together. Time without the army pressing on us. Time without me needing to leave the country every six months to renew my visa. We were tired of saying goodbye.

Hanaan came home every other week-end. He would arrive on Friday afternoon late. Bone-tired, sore, worn, he would find me where ever I was working and give me a huge hug and kiss. He smelled of freshly laundered uniforms and leather and the metallic, oily scent of guns. He smelled wonderful, sharp, safe, like the first snow of winter is about to fall. Magic and anticipation and relief. My soldier stumbled to our tiny nest of a room, lay his Galil in the corner and slept. When work ended for me I would rush home. Often special allowance was made for me because my soldier was waiting and I was sent home 15 or 20 minutes early.

On good days I would let him sleep till 6:30 and then wake him. We’d dress for Shabbat dinner, he always in a white cotton button down as is the custom for men and women on special occasions on Kibbutz. I would choose something simple and pretty from my meagre wardrobe. (My mother sent me care packages with shampoo and creams from home because I didn’t want to smell like all the other girls. Those kibbutz hotties who all used the same creams that they handed out for free each month along with tampons, aerograms and sensible items. I wanted to smell exotic like a capitalist girl) On the way to dinner he would pick a hibiscus (gold, red, pink) from a passing bush or a sprig of jasmine and tuck it behind my ear. We’d all converge on the dining room at 7. The air was gay and I can’t imagine that Paris in the Belle Époque held more glamour than those Friday evenings.

On badJohanne and Hanaan circa 1990 days Hanaan was un-wakeable. I would shake him and beg him to wake in time for dinner but he was too deeply asleep to respond. Our time was short. I would sit and cry into the night. Those ten days had worn him down. On Saturday he would wake after lunch and we’d walk in the Carob orchards and visit his family for cakes and coffee.

Sunday morning arrived. We’d wake before dawn. He’d dress in his freshly laundered uniform, polish his black boots and sling his gun over his shoulder. I’d fold his sleeves up sharply and turn down his collar. We’d walk together feet dragging with sadness until we reached the gate of the kibbutz. He set off towards the highway by the carob orchards just lit by the rising sun. I’d set off to work.

The tenth month of the second year was gridded his belt in weeks, the eleventh in days. On that day in May when we crossed off the last day our bags stood waiting in the corner. The next morning we flew to America.

[*****I’m pleased to post this tale written by invited guest, Johanne Rosenthal. Because I love her writing so much, I’ve been after her for a long time to send me something I could share. Finally, “Capitalist Girl” arrived. Bravo!!! I’ve known Johanne since she was three years old and sat on my lap laughing very hard, her feathery honey-colored hair tickling my nose. I’ve known Hanaan, her husband, only as a stalwart adult. This posting is to celebrate their twenty-fifth (25th) wedding anniversary. Below, a photo of my arrival on Hydra in 2013 taken by Hanaan with Johanne – in Black hat – and her scrumptious family enfolding, energizing me, after a long, tiring journey. Happy Anniversary Johanne and Hanaan !!!]

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Guest: Part II of II — Ruins

Part II: Ruins on the Mountain

When the Canadian poet (not yet a novelist, not yet a musical sensation) Leonard Cohen came to Hydra in 1960 and bought a home there, he attempted to inveigle himself into Ghikas’s villa by means of his slim connection to Jacob Rothschild, whom he had recently met in London. Jacob Rothschild – the Fourth Baron Rothschild – was the son of Barbara, whom Ghikas took as his second wife in 1961.

As told in Various Positions, Ira Nadel’s biography of Cohen, the young poet was firmly rebuffed at the door by Jacob’s sister (Nadel doesn’t say which sister; Jacob had two). Ann Diamond’s version of this tale, related in her book The Man Next Door, is that Ghikas himself refused Cohen entry; Diamond also wonders, in her review in The Toronto Quarterly of yet another biography of Cohen, whether the Rothschild children might have “had a bone to pick” with Ghikas. In any case, Cohen is supposed to have left in a huff, cursing the place.

Not long afterward – goes the story – Cohen was on his own terrace (which faces the mountain, not the sea) when he heard and saw the conflagration on the mountainside. This tale – Cohen being turned away, Cohen issuing a curse, the house then burning down – is now part of Hydra legend.

In Nadel’s account, the more banal cause of the fire was the accidental ignition of kerosene set down in the wrong place by a thoughtless watchman. This is consistent with the version of the event recounted in a New York Times blog post: the fire started when a drunken servant carelessly discarded a live cigarette.

So we have the highly combustible combination of a drunken man, a cigarette and kerosene – and, for the supernaturally inclined, a curse. But, as my father used to intone, the plot thickens. An article in The Australian ascribed the fire to the housekeeper, who was purportedly motivated by loyalty to the first Mrs Ghikas. How the housekeeper is supposed to have set the fire has not been recorded, to my knowledge.

Different sources give different years for the calamity: 1960, 1961, 1965. (If it was really 1965, which is doubtful, then it was the year before my family arrived.) Ghikas’s own account of the fire, given in a presumably poorly translated interview that appeared in the newspaper Kathimerini in 1993, makes no reference to curses or pathologically loyal female servants:

“my house was burned in 1965, it burned down by negligence of a servant. He was there to guard it when we were missing but when we were missing he use to go to the tavern and getting drunk. One night he went home drunk to sleep, he threw his half-burnt cigarette and the house caught fire, when he woke up the flames were coming out of the roof and had already burned three rooms”

As far as I know, no one was hurt in the fire, which raged until it burned itself out. (Ghikas was likely at his Athens home at the time, or perhaps he was traveling with Barbara, who was English.) Fire-fighting on Hydra was, shall we say, rudimentary. There were no fire trucks, and even if there had been, there was no road by which a wheeled, motorized vehicle could have reached the villa, high above the village. There were, naturally, no fire hydrants either. The primitive nature of island life was bewitching and kept people there for years; sometimes it also led to their undoing.

For Ghikas, it seems, the spell was broken. Or the shock was too great. Or he was heartbroken. Or all of those things. Ghikas did not return to rebuild his home. Instead, he settled on Corfu, where Leigh Fermor and other old and new friends would visit him and he would go on to produce many superb paintings.

When asked why he left Hydra, Ghikas responded, “I never left, they kicked me out.” It’s not clear what he meant by this. Could he have been alluding bitterly to the negligence of the drunken servant? A note by Alan Massie in his wife’s volume of poetry suggests a different outrage: Massie says that Ghikas’s paintings were stolen following the fire. In his book, Seven Decades of Photography, photographer Wolf Suschitzky, who was a guest of Ghikas not long before the house was destroyed, claims that, “The entire painting collection there was lost.”

Hearsay still swirling around is that villagers rescued whatever furniture they could but left the paintings to burn. Perhaps this was in Ghikas’s mind when he said, “they kicked me out”. The rumor suggests that the wealthy, cosmopolitan, patrician Ghikas and his neighbors – ordinary islanders – were on a poor footing.

Ghikas said in his interview for the Kathimerini that he never set foot on the island after the fire: all was destroyed; the magnificent 18th century mansion could not be resurrected. Ghikas explained,

“There I had spent my childhood, and then I was there in my first marriage and later in the second. I had done many projects in Hydra…I couldn’t see it again.”

Ghikas is gone – from Hydra and from this world – but the ruin remains. This is a photograph of it that I took in 2011.

Ruin_Babs_mdfd

Your ruined villa still

guards the broken hill

observing avarice and fire.

Thus begins the poem “For Ghika” in The Poetry of Bettina Helen Massie. A note in the book by the poet’s husband says that they used to filch figs and almonds from the garden. The writer Henry Denander admits that he tried many times to get inside the remains of the Ghikas estate but never managed it. He is not the only one to have become beset with the notion of gaining entry to the place, either before or after its destruction.

Viewed from the house where my mother, my sister and I used to gather almonds, here is part of the long wall – almost indistinguishable now from the mountainside to which it faithfully clings –­ that still surrounds the Ghikas estate:

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And this is a photograph I took one May morning of Alison waiting for my mother, my daughter and me on a bench in front of the island’s old folks’ home, in the shade of the giant eucalyptus tree that guards the foot of the Ghikas property:

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Here are Alison and my mother further along that same road, heading toward the cemetary, to pay their respects to an old friend, and thence to Vlychos:

Alison_Rie

Old Hydra hands cannot approach Kamini via this back route from Vlychos without thinking, however fleetingly, of Ghikas and of the fire. When I take newcomers on this road I tell them about the house, and the man, as my father told me, though I omit the ghost. Visitors are intrigued by the story’s loose ends. Some want to know who owns the property now, which I cannot answer. Like so much else on Hydra, the ownership of the estate is the subject of speculation.

For me, the question that niggles least is why he never returned. What I wonder most is this: once he resettled on Corfu, how badly did Ghikas long for Hydra and his view of the sea from the mountainside above Kamini? This painting, done in 1967 – years after Ghikas left Hydra – of a moonlit harbor scene that he called Nocturnal Hydra, suggests that Hydra haunted Ghikas’s art just as Ghikas’s house came to haunt Hydra.

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As the ruins are being absorbed into the mountainside, Ghikas and his mansion have become absorbed into the island’s rich mythology. Intact, the house inspired great works of art and literature. Even as a burnt-out shell it still fires the imagination and sparks flights of fancy. As my sister has said, it is as though the burning of the house set free its creative genie, which is still floating down on Hydra in tiny flakes of ash.

Helle V. Goldman (with big thanks to Alison and Johanne)

Forty-five and a half years ago I arrived on the Isle of Hydra with my five year old son. We came for a month, stayed two years, left and have serially returned for long sojourns since. My son’s first playmates: the author of this two part piece, also age five, and her scrumptious, flaxen-haired three year old sister. When both our families were first stung by the Hydra asp it was a poor, ruin-filled island, dirt cheap, populated by, of course, Greeks (fisherman, seamen), as well as poor would-be writers, poets, painters, divas, drunks, mercenaries, ne’er-do-wells among a soup of international others. In recent years, Hydra has evolved into a jet-set destination. One could live for three months then on what a meal costs today. Almost no ruins (except human ruins, like me), remain, with the exception of – unforgettable, stately, evocative – ballast to all who love Hydra, Ghikas’s on the mountain side. I see it, breathe it, every day. Long may it ruin.

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Author and Author

Guest: Part I of II – Ruins

Guest: Part I of II – Ruins

 

I’ve a long, rich association with the author of this post, Helle Valborg Goldman. It’s a pleasure to welcome her as my first invited guest. She’s a kindred spirit, always was, always will be. Helle has been mulling over long form ideas relating to the atmospheric, mythic Isle of Hydra, Greece, where our families met, got close and where I happen to be right now. One of these explorations is a documentary film idea she’s spearheading for which a Norwegian film company has shown interest and, recently, Helle, a director and small crew visited the island and began preliminary interviews with some of the colorful, long surviving cast of residents. 

Helle’s Danish mother and American father brought her to Hydra when she was three months old. Her formal education began in a village school on Hydra and ended at New York University where she received a doctorate in anthropology. She has lived and worked in Tanzania and now lives north of the Arctic Circle in Tromsø where her office at the Norwegian Polar Institute overlooks the sea but no ruins. She has recently translated the book, So Long, Marianne, by Kari Hesthamar, from Norwegian into English.

Part I: The Ruins on the Mountain

Lingering on the mountain slope above the Greek village where Alison has had her writing retreat since the 1970s are the ruins of the Ghikas mansion.

Ruins are everywhere on Hydra. At the peak of the little island’s prosperity, in the 18th century, there were perhaps as many twenty-five thousand inhabitants. By the mid-20th century the population had dwindled to some three thousand. Among the inhabited stone houses were many long-abandoned dwellings in various states of decay. During the war, thick ceiling beams were scavenged for firewood, assisting the natural forces of deterioration. The ruins were rarely entirely lifeless. Giant fig trees took over courtyards and terraces. Cats laid claim to dark corners in which to give birth to their young. Some ruins became donkey and goat pens. In the 1960s, errant hippies used them as crash pads. This is when my family first came to Hydra, though we did not live in a crash pad.

Most ruins had been humble homes, some no more than two- or three-room stone huts. A few were grand. One of these was the 18th century mansion of the Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas family. What set this ruin apart was that it was a new ruin. Up until at least 1960, it was the home of the painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas (1906-1994).

Ghikas – as he was known (sometimes Ghika) – was a leading Greek painter. His works are featured in the National Gallery in Athens, the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris, the Tate Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of New York and private collections. He produced fine paintings during his many years in his family home on Hydra. Then the house burned down, never to be rebuilt.

Here is an undated photograph of the grand white-washed villa and its terraced gardens:

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The American writer Henry Miller (1891-1980), accompanied by his friend, the British writer Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990), visited Ghikas in that house in 1939. This was the eve of the war that would devastate Europe and wreak convulsions of hardship and conflict upon Greece that would far outlast the war itself. Miller’s account of that journey, The Colossus of Marousi, came out in 1941 and is considered by many to be his greatest book. Miller worked on the first draft while staying at Ghikas’s house.

The American was intoxicated with Hydra – with its Cubist blocks of white-washed houses, its “wild and naked perfection.” Ghikas’s art also had a powerful effect on Miller. He wrote:

“Ghika’s canvases are as fresh and clean, as pure and naked of all pretense, as the sea and light which bathes the dazzling islands. Ghika is a seeker after light and truth…It was Ghika’s painting which roused me from my bedazzled stupor.”

Miller described the painter’s house and its mistress in similarly rapturous phrases:

“Madame Hadji-Kyriakos, Ghika’s wife, laid a wonderful table; we rose from the table like wine casks. From the terrace, which was distinctly Oriental in flavor, we could look out on the sea in drunken stupefaction. The house had forty rooms, some of which were buried deep in the earth. The big rooms were like the saloon of an ocean liner; the little rooms were like cool dungeons fitted up by temperamental pirates. The maids were of divine origin…”

This is a painting of Hydra that Ghikas did in 1938, the year before Miller and Durrell came to visit:

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For people who know this place, it is easy to imagine Miller, Durrell and Ghikas on the vast terrace, drinking whiskey as the sun sank and first the bats and then the stars came out. Their view would have taken in the village of Kamini virtually in its entirety. The tiny old cottage that was to enter into Alison’s care nearly forty years later lay far below the Ghikas mansion and on the other side of the valley that runs down the middle of the settlement, scoring it like a loaf of bread.

At roughly the same altitude on the mountain slope as the Ghikas estate – to the right of the three men drinking and talking on the terrace as they faced the village and the sea and, across it, the Peloponnese – was an old house that friends of my parents (and, later, of Alison) would acquire in the 1960s. My mother, my sister and I would pick almonds there, in the garden of that house. As an adult, I stayed in that house and sat by the olive tree at the back of it and looked across the gully at the crumbling walls that steadfastly protected the wreckage of the Ghikas property.

My father used to try arouse our interest in the house when my sister and I were little girls, as we walked past it on our way back from having swum near the village of Vlychos. He’d talk about the mysterious circumstances of the fire and the fact that the owner, who had been rooted to Hydra and had done perhaps his best work there, never came back after the house burned down. My sister has recently reminded me – I had forgotten this part – that he also made much of a ghost that was supposed to haunt the place. My father was a good story-teller. I can’t help wondering now whether the ghost was local lore that he picked up or if he invented that bit himself.

But I am jumping forward in time. Let me go back again to when the magnificent house was still whole.

After Durrell and Miller, other writers, artists, socialites and celebrities alighted on the island, enjoyed the hospitality of the Ghikases and were inspired by Hydra. Among these visitors and friends was Patrick Leigh Fermor, who ranks among Britain’s preeminent travel writers. He is credited with having called the house “a perfect prose-factory”. Leigh Fermor lived there, on what he called the “inviolate island” of Hydra, in Ghikas’s “fine family ziggurat”, for two years in the 1950s, working on his book, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. The book was brought out in 1958 and is considered one of the outstanding travel books of the 20th century.

This is a painting Ghikas did of his house in 1955, about when Leigh Fermor and his wife Joan were in residence:

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Here is a photograph of Ghikas (left), the English painter John Craxton (1922-2009), Barbara Hutchinson (1911-1989) – who would soon become Ghikas’s second wife – and Leigh Fermor on the terrace in 1958:

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Here is Craxton, sketching in ink on the terrace in 1960 (Alison’s house is down the hill, approximately by the tip of Craxton’s nose):

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Here is one of Craxton’s paintings of Hydra:

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And here is Ghikas on his “Oriental” terrace, apparently surveying his gardens, in that period:

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TO BE CONTINUED-