Constantine Kokossis in conversation with Andreas Patenidis
Andreas Patenidis: You are a writer but also the Greek ambassador to the Czech Republic. You have lived in various countries, e.g. Cyprus, Turkey, and the USA. In what ways has this experience enriched you? Is there something that it has taken away?
Constantine Kokossis: In life, things are never black and white. In this job you are offered the possibility to see your country and your mentality from an external point of view. You never stop feeling and being Greek. You can see what people think about your mentality. Suddenly you become a citizen du monde, a member of the whole international society and you cannot ignore it.
AP: Many Greeks living abroad often speak of cultural up-rootedness. Do you ever feel this way? Or is it the other way round?
CK: This is not the case with me. I was born, brought up, and studied in Greece; my job obliges me to return home often. On the contrary, I can understand much better how the Greeks of the diaspora or the expatriates migrated, those who were expelled from their country. Once they left they couldn’t return; there was no communication possible between them and their homeland and families. The tragedy was that they had to adapt very quickly to survive, but they did. That was a herculean task.
AP: In your book, you have captured the history of three or four generations of Greeks. The book follows those who were partisans during the Second World War, who were not allowed to return to Greece because of the civil war and whose children were sent east for their protection. Last but not least, the book is concerned with the third generation. Are the accounts genuine, or is it fiction?
CK: I would say it’s a compilation of personal accounts. More precisely, a compilation of the histories of 24 or 25 people. The whole story started as follows: I visited the mayor of Hradec Kralove. He had an initiative to record accounts of all these people, based on the fear that that this generation is slowly disappearing; most of them have already passed away. I had heard that the European Union was interested in paying for the research, for the recording of these accounts. So I started something on my own, solely out of my own interest, without having the intention, number one, to make it public as an official record and number two, to keep it as a dossier of each case, each person. It turned out a bit differently. Later, Kateřina Králová of the International Relations Department, invited me to join a project for documenting the personal stories of all these people, with the assistance of undergraduate students.
AP: What were the difficulties connected in this process? Were all these people willing to cooperate?
CK: The problem is that this generation has disappeared or is about to disappear.
The people I wanted to speak with were not eager to cooperate. And you can understand why– they had a big BMW outside with a driver. Of course I was trying to be as cordial as I could, but nevertheless I was Mr. X, coming into their homes, and some of them didn’t want to tell me anything. Later they realised that the purpose was not to make a dossier, a file for the embassy. Naturally, they feared some sort of state monitoring which I assured them was not the case.
People were also very sensitive to the fact that I had a dictaphone. When I noticed their distrust I realised I couldn’t use it. They said, “I want to say something but I don’t want to be recorded.”
AP: Speaking of psychology, in your book there are very strong emotions related to the main protagonist’s attempt to deal with the death of his mother. Why is that? Why is the role of mother so strong in this story?
CK: This is another critical point I noticed. The children of the first generation had to live in a strange and unnatural way. They were in orphanages; their parents were working in remote areas. These were children who did not know where their parents were and vice versa. Many had psychological problems because they missed their parents and lacked the presence of a mother.
AP: Do you think that the most traumatic moment for them was being separated from their parents and taken to Poland and Czechoslovakia?
CK: Imagine, back in Greece when the children were being sent away, many of them were under the care of a woman or a man from the village or a neighbouring village. These children were sent away to safety at the age of five, six or seven. They were taken by this person to the sea… Imagine, these were children from villages. They had never seen the sea. When they first saw the ship, which was to bring them to Poland, they were afraid because they had never seen such a thing before. This emotional trauma certainly marked these children.
AP: For your book, you have recorded many testimonies, many personal accounts. Is there something you could not include?
CK: I didn’t want to put all the accounts into the book because the theme is very sensitive. If you try in literature to put in too much sentimentality you run the risk of becoming melancholic. This I did not want.
AP: Do people of Greek origin venture back again to find answers to the question of their identities?
CK: In the US, there were people, assimilated into society, speaking of Greece idealistically and trying to find their roots. Other immigrants were facing exactly the same problem. Now the fourth generation of Greeks is coming back. I will never forget one man telling me that he is originally from Lithos and has a piece of land there on a hill overlooking the ocean. What did he mean by that? Lithos is far from the sea…He was feeling a sudden a desire to return to his roots, and that is important. I’m not talking about nationalism, but a human tendency –you have everything you need, yet you want to go back and discover your lost roots.
And if you take into account all the cases from the previous generations, I mean four generations back, you find it is all interrelated. This was the psychological drift I had while recording their personal accounts.
AP: In the core of every nation, there is one thing, maybe a credo or something else that glues the nation together. Maybe a central idea around which a nation revolves. What is it for Greece?
CK: For Greeks, for our nation, it has always been migration. This started with [Homer’s] Ulysses, the first important work. We started migrating because the country was under many attacks or threats, or because of expansion, or maybe to find a better job, or even simply because we like travelling, crossing the seas and oceans. It is something deep in our psyche…the Greeks have always migrated overseas; you cannot speak about Greece and forget this part of Hellenism, which is still very much alive.