Penelope Part 8-10

Giagia’s Journey

A Photo Journal of the life of  

Penelope Benardos Conomos

By Alexa Conomos

Part 8 - November 22 , 2016 


In 1944, World War 2 raged on. And like many other European countries, Greece remained occupied by Axis forces with the fate of Giagia's family woefully uncertain. Axis forces were killing Greeks in the mainland at an alarming rate. But life on Giagia's native island of Kythera - in the southernmost tip of Greece - would not be as deadly. Kythera wasn't an industrial port so there were only a few bombings and uprisings. 


But enemy forces damaged roads, bridges, forests and natural resources which created terrible hardships for the Kytherians. They looted homes, confiscating food, weapons and anything of use. In fact, the German army commandeered Papou's ancestral home where he and Giagia once lived, forcing relatives to live elsewhere. They used the upper floors as an observation post and the main floor as a stable for their horses. 

As another conquest strategy, the Germans decimated the Greek economy by counterfeiting currency. The drachma became worthless. And with no money to buy food, the Greeks had to rely on bartering, the black market or whatever the island could produce. By the thousands, my grandparents' countrymen and fellow Kytherians were starving. And Giagia could not help but fear -- were her beloved mother and siblings among them? 


As she would later discover, her mother Damiani was largely, mercifully, left alone. Her modest stone cottage in the mountainous village of Agia Anastasia proved little temptation to the enemy. So Damiani was left to use her gift of growing to produce the mainstays of Kytherian fields: olives, almonds, figs and grapes. Her goats provided milk and cheese, the chickens and their eggs a source of protein. 

Giagia's mother would then share her 'bounty' - scarce as it was - with fellow villagers who would have otherwise gone without. For that selfless act, her fellow peasants would revere Damiani for her wartime kindness and sacrifice. And her family would dub her "the indomitable Damiani." For there is no doubt that Damiani taught her daughter - my Giagia- that "such is the life''. And so as Damiani so gracefully demonstrated - the human spirit had no choice but to adapt and to endure. 

And soon Giagia would be forced to do just that yet again. Because even as she despaired for her loved ones in Greece, she had a new fear to consider. Just before 8 a.m. on December 7th, 1941, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes attacked the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. And the next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war against Japan. That declaration passed with just one dissenting vote. 

More than two years into the conflict, the United States would finally join World War II. The sleeping giant had awoken. And the America my Giagia had come to love would never be the same again.


Part 9 - November 23, 2016 

On December 7, 1941 Giagia and Papou stood in their New Kensington, PA kitchen - stunned - as they listened to their RCA Victor radio. The Japanese had attacked Pear Harbor. And they agonized--how could such a thing happen in this great land of promise? Finally, the 'sleeping giant' they'd come to love would enter World War II. And so Giagia and Papou looked to a man they revered for guidance: President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his Fireside Chat on December 9, he urged the nation to prepare to make sacrifices.

Giagia and Papou were eager to meet that directive for three reasons: 1) Their countrymen in Greece were suffering unspeakable atrocities under Axis occupation. And the fate of the beloved mother and siblings Giagia had left behind was still achingly uncertain. 2) As the below pictures illustrate, Papou fought in WWI on the northern borders of Greece. Wounded by enemy gunfire, he would never forget the mammoth vitriol of those formidable Axis foes. 3) Patriotism - Giagia and Papou were incredibly proud to be Greek Americans and would do anything for the country they'd come to love. 

So as the American economy converted to war production, they hunkered down. Too old to join the military, Papou worked at "The Busy Bee" now open 24/7. "Rosie the Riveter" became a symbol of patriotic womanhood that deeply resonated in their bustling industrial town. Many of Giagia's new friends went to work at the mainstay of the New Kensington economy: The Alcoa aluminum plant. Giagia still tended home and hearth, but like her neighbors, she created a "Victory Garden" to help alleviate food shortages. 

As the country faced intense price controls and rationing, she taught daughters Chrysanthy and Anastasia to recycle everything: rags, paper, string and metal scrap for the US military effort. One day, my father saw Giagia peel the label off a metal can, then flatten it with her foot. "Why are you doing that, Mama?" he asked. She simply replied, "So they can make battleships, Tasso." And he marveled--how in the world can a battleship be made out of cans? Well, Giagia was about to teach him even more about wartime sacrifice. Over the next four years she would send little Tasso in his Junior Commando uniform--badge, stripes and all--out into the neighborhood. Ever the disciplinarian, she'd caution--"Mi mas manis rezili!" (do not shame the family name). And so pulling his red wagon, Tasso ventured door to door to collect newspapers and cans of lard (later used to produce explosives); Giagia then deposited them in the nearby recycling center. And such was the norm until one day Tasso witnessed something haunting. 

John T. Conomos 1942
A few years later, Giagia would dress him up in uniform to collect 
recycling efforts to aid in the war effort during WWII

At the nearby railroad station, large wooden crates were being unloaded. He later asked, "What were they, Mama?" And so, like many American mothers, Giagia would have to explain a painful new reality. In her native Greek language she said, "Some soldiers are coming home, Tasso. Many of them were our neighbors." As Giagia had learned from her mother and would now pass on to her son ~ "such is the life" ~and thus Americans had no choice but to adapt and endure. Yes, Giagia and the countrymen she'd come to love would grieve together again and again. But soon a loss would come ~ one that would be more symbolic and momentous than anyone could imagine.


Part 10 - November 24, 2016 

In 1945, life was evolving in my grandparents' New Kensington, PA home. Giagia vigilantly oversaw the family wartime routine - enforcing nightly curfews, blackouts and practicing air raid drills. "The Busy Bee" restaurant was booming with the constant stream of hungry military personnel. Chrysanthy, Anastasia and now Tasso were thriving in the American school system. And while Giagia academically couldn't help with their homework, she imparted invaluable lessons in hard work and sacrifice. 

With her typical "Mi mas kanis rezili" ("Do not bring shame to the family name") - she'd send her brood to after school scrap drives. She helped them buy 10 and 25 cent stamps for their war bond booklets that, when full, could be exchanged for a $25 war bond. And amid rampant food shortages, she'd toil in her "Victory Garden", then share her bounty with neighbors in need. 

As she journeyed door to door, her gaze invariably fell to the inspirational but often painful symbol that adorned so many windows: War Service Flags. As she would learn, blue stars indicated a loved one's military service. Gold stars marked the ultimate sacrifice -- a fallen son or father. And more and more, Giagia would see gold--a devastating reminder that "such is the life". The Americans she'd come to love were struggling to adapt and endure as well.

The War Service Flag that hung in many windows around the neighborhood. A gold star marked that a father or son from that family had died in WWII. Giagia and my Dad would see a lot of them in their neighborhood. Sometimes one flag would have 2 or 3 gold stars, indicating that perhaps 3 brothers in one family had died overseas. And while they were hung in great sadness, they were also hung with great pride.


But a seed of hope soon emerged. Despite the death toll, the Allies made historic headway in the Battle of Normandy. That April, American troops liberated their first German concentration death camp (Ohrdruf). And while there was still no word of the beloved mother and siblings Giagia had left behind in Greece, parts of her homeland were being liberated. Giagia and Papou suddenly dared to hope--could the end of this terrible conflict finally be in sight? 

But a few days later, that hope shattered as they stood by their kitchen radio. Their beloved President Roosevelt -- the man Giagia prayed would ultimately free her loved ones in Greece -- had died. As 7-year-old Tasso watched from the hall, Giagia despaired. Papou wept. It was the first time he'd ever seen his father cry. 

Penelope Part 1

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