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Children of the Greek Civil War: Refugees and the Politics of Memory

Children of the Greek Civil War: Refugees and the Politics of Memory

by Loring M. Danforth, Riki Van Boeschoten

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At the height of the Greek Civil War in 1948, thirty-eight thousand children were evacuated from their homes in the mountains of northern Greece. The Greek Communist Party relocated half of them to orphanages in Eastern Europe, while their adversaries in the national government placed the rest in children’s homes elsewhere in Greece. A point of contention


At the height of the Greek Civil War in 1948, thirty-eight thousand children were evacuated from their homes in the mountains of northern Greece. The Greek Communist Party relocated half of them to orphanages in Eastern Europe, while their adversaries in the national government placed the rest in children’s homes elsewhere in Greece. A point of contention during the Cold War, this controversial episode continues to fuel tensions between Greeks and Macedonians and within Greek society itself. Loring M. Danforth and Riki Van Boeschoten present here for the first time a comprehensive study of the two evacuation programs and the lives of the children they forever transformed.

Marshalling archival records, oral histories, and ethnographic fieldwork, the authors analyze the evacuation process, the political conflict surrounding it, the children’s upbringing, and their fates as adults cut off from their parents and their homeland. They also give voice to seven refugee children who poignantly recount their childhood experiences and heroic efforts to construct new lives in diaspora communities throughout the world. A much-needed corrective to previous historical accounts, Children of the Greek Civil War is also a searching examination of the enduring effects of displacement on the lives of refugee children.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Herzfeld
“This remarkable study breaks new ground in several areas: in its methodology, its style, and its topic. Historically and ethnographically, the book tells a duplex tale: by two authors, writing about two opposed camps, and exploring the vicissitudes of two states and two ethnicities. Balanced to an impressive degree, Children of the Greek Civil War succeeds magnificently in showing the parallels between the experiences of the two sides in a way that is moving as well as analytically compelling. Yet the greatest strength of the book, aside from the seamless writing and its emotional impact, lies in the theorization of the children’s agency in organizing their present lives and understanding their past.”
Maria Todorova
“Successfully combing archival research with extensive ethnographic fieldwork, Children of the Greek Civil War is a work of first-rate scholarship, grounded in original research and sophisticated theoretical analysis, that is often gripping as it ranges from historical prose to deeply moving personal vignettes. Given the contentiousness of the book’s subject—an understudied but highly significant episode—it is as courageous as it is informed. The time seems ripe for beginning the process of reconciliation, and Danforth and Van Boeschoten’s work will help us move down that difficult road.”
Choice - K. Dubinsky
“Danforth and Van Goeschoten grippingly tell the stories of thousands of Greek children relocated during the Greek Civil War….Amid charges of communist baby snatching and fascist child manipulation, the book charts an astonishingly evenhanded and supremely well-researched course. Insisting that refugee children ought to occupy center stage in their own history, the authors support their argument with two chapters of testimony from the historical actors themselves remembering their own childhood experiences. This innovative book ends with some insightful thinking about the production of historical memory….Highly recommended.”  
Times Literary Supplement - Richard Clogg
“In this excellent book, Loring Danforth and Riki van Boeschoten steer a careful course between claim and counter-claim. . . .  The life stories revealed in their interviews with the evacuees make for fascinating, if at times harrowing, reading. The book is an important contribution to the study of a still contested aspect of the civil war in Greece and to one of the least-known dimensions of the Greek diaspora.”
European History Quarterly
“Danforth and Van Boeschoten provide a well-written, fair-minded, and convincing comparative study of the actions of both sides and of the subsequent politics of memory.”

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University of Chicago Press
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New Edition
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Children of the Greek Civil War

Refugees and the Politics of Memory

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-13599-1

Chapter One

Framing the Subject

Exile ... is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home.

—Edward Said 2000, 173

In 1948, when tens of thousands of children were forced to leave their homes during the Greek Civil War, the vast humanitarian enterprise known as the "international refugee regime" (Zolberg, Suhrke, and Aguayo 1989, 258) had only recently come into being, and no binding legal framework was available to guarantee their protection. Today this international refugee regime consists of a worldwide network of organizations and laws for managing refugees as a global humanitarian "problem" and for protecting their fundamental human rights. According to The State of the World's Refugees 2006: Human Displacement in the New Millennium, in 2006 the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided assistance to over nineteen million "people of concern" in 115 countries throughout the world. Over nine million of these "people of concern" were refugees; the others were internally displaced people, stateless people, and asylum seekers. Nearly half of the refugees were children under eighteen. The refugees under the care of the UNHCR had been driven from their homes in Vietnam, Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan as a result of wars, campaigns of ethnic cleansing, and acts of genocide (UNHCR 2006).

The beginnings of the international refugee regime are to be found in the efforts to address the humanitarian crisis caused by the forced migration of millions of Europeans during World War II. In her valuable review article on the anthropology of refugees, Liisa Malkki situates "the birth of the modern, internationally recognizable figure of 'the refugee'" in Europe during the period after World War II (1995a, 497). In 1943 the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was founded to repatriate seven million refugees who had been displaced from their homes in Central Europe. More importantly, in 1951 the UNHCR was established, and the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted. This convention, as modified by the 1967 Protocol, which expanded its scope beyond the postwar European context, has become "the universal instrument of refugee law" (Nobel 1988, 21).

According to Article 1 of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees,

the term "refugee" shall apply to any person who ... owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

In The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century, Michael Marrus provides a more general definition of the term "refugee," according to which all "people obliged by war or persecution to leave their dwellings and seek refuge abroad" are considered refugees (1985, 3). We propose to extend this definition even further to include people who leave their homes in search of refuge from war or persecution, but who remain within the borders of their own countries. In the context of the "international refugee regime" these people are officially referred to as "internally displaced people" or "IDPs." While there are important differences between people who cross international borders during their flight and those who do not, in many cases the similarities that characterize their experiences warrant the use of the term "refugee" to encompass them all.

According to Malkki, the discourse of the "international refugee regime" generally treats refugees as a political and humanitarian "problem" whose solution involves their voluntary repatriation to their country of origin, their voluntary resettlement in a third country, or their integration and assimilation into their host country. This discourse has had significant influence on the interdisciplinary field of "refugee studies" that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. In the process of constructing "the refugee" as an object of scholarly knowledge, much of the early work in this field exhibited a tendency toward essentialism. In an effort to define "the refugee experience," this work posited "a single, essential, transhistorical refugee condition" and made the assumption that all refugees "shared a common condition or nature" (Malkki 1995a, 507–11). An unfortunate consequence of this essentialism has been the creation of a single universal image of refugees as anonymous victims, powerless to say or do anything to influence the future course of their lives.

The image of refugees as innocent victims is even more compelling when the refugees are children. The vast international legal system for the protection of children that exists in the early twenty-first century was still in its infancy in the early 1940s. Many of the basic ideas concerning the rights of children that would later be enshrined in humanitarian law played a significant role in public debates about the fate of the refugee children of the Greek Civil War. In 1959 the United Nations first expressed public concern for the protection of children in its "Declaration on the Rights of the Child." Three decades later this concern took legally binding form with the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the UN General Assembly in November 1989. This convention is based on the principle that children are "entitled to special care and assistance" and "should grow up in a family environment," since the family is "the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children." For this reason, the family "should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community" (preamble). More specifically, according to Article 9 of the convention, "state parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child."

There can be no doubt that the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as the specific focus of humanitarian organizations on the children affected by war, has had very positive effects. International human rights discourse on children, however, like that on refugees, has been marked by a tendency toward essentialism. It has adopted a universal, cross-cultural model of the "generic child" (Mann 2004) based on a specific form of childhood that developed in Europe and North America during the industrial age. Social scientists involved in the study of childhood have argued that by relying on this mistakenly universalist model of childhood, human rights discourse on children inaccurately presents them as helpless victims rather than as independent actors (Boyden 1997, 254).

It is certainly true that infants and young children are extremely vulnerable; they are in need of care and protection. The same is significantly less true, however, in the case of older children in their mid- to late teens. In many cultures—and this includes rural Greek culture in the 1940s—even young children play an important role in family life and have to make independent decisions in looking after the family's survival or in caring for their younger siblings (Mann 2004). Recent research with children affected by war has also shown that, even when severely traumatized, children frequently exhibit remarkable resilience and are able to play an active role in determining their own fate (Boyden and de Berry 2004, xvii; Panter-Brick 2000, 11). To regard such children as powerless, without voice, and unable to act independently as agents in their own right is clearly inappropriate. This insight has led to an important paradigm shift that emphasizes the need to counterbalance an exclusive focus on children's vulnerability with a new interest in their competence and agency. It is necessary, in other words, to listen to children's own voices.

Since the work of Philippe Ariès (1962), sociologists and anthropologists have rejected the notion that childhood is a natural or universal stage in the human life cycle and have embraced the idea that childhood is a social construction that varies widely from culture to culture. In order to avoid accusations of ethnocentrism or worse, cultural imperialism, it is essential that international human rights discourse on children reject a monolithic view of childhood and remain sensitive to the cross-cultural variation in conceptions of "the child." It is equally important, however, to reject a totally relativistic perspective that makes concern for human rights impossible (Cowan, Dembour, and Wilson 2001). Only by striking a careful balance between these two extremes is it possible to understand both the many ways children can participate actively in shaping their own lives and the many ways in which they genuinely need the care and protection of their parents, other adults, and in extreme circumstances, the state.

International human rights discourse treats refugee children who have been separated from their parents as powerless victims for two reasons: because they are refugees and because they are children. They are treated as "matter out of place" (Douglas 1966, 48) for the same reasons. As refugees, they should be returned to their homeland; and as children separated from their parents, they should be returned to their families. Just as repatriation is the solution to the "refugee problem," family reunification is the solution to the problem of "unaccompanied children." While in many cases repatriation and family reunification may actually represent the best solution to the difficulties facing refugee children separated from their parents, this is not always the case. The proper goal of international organizations committed to the welfare of the world's children is "to devise policies of protection that do not so much rescue and save children as involve and empower them" (Panter-Brick 2000, 12).

In this study of refugee children from the Greek Civil War, we attempt to reverse this tendency toward dehistoricization and depersonalization by focusing on the specific historical moment and the unique personal and family circumstances in which these children were separated from their homes and became refugees. We seek to empower refugee children of the Greek Civil War by restoring to them their own voice and listening carefully to their own stories. Only in this way is it possible to understand how refugees are able to construct meaningful lives for themselves in the aftermath of these tragic events.

The Evacuation of Children during War in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s

In the twentieth century alone, from the Armenian massacre to the disintegration of Yugoslavia, unaccompanied children have been among the most tragic victims of war. In many such conflicts refugee children have been removed from their homes and families in organized evacuation programs. Some of these programs have been noble humanitarian efforts to rescue children from genocide; others have been genuinely evil attempts to kidnap children in order to create a "master race." The aims of still other evacuation programs have been more mixed: to serve the goals of particular military strategies, to facilitate specific plans for social change, or to prevent children from having to live under repressive political regimes.

The scope of the suffering of refugees, displaced people, and unaccompanied children in Europe during World War II and the Spanish Civil War that preceded it is difficult to imagine. According to estimates, by the end of the war in 1945 there were six and a half million refugees and displaced people living in Europe. This included over a million children who were living in institutions because they had been "orphaned," "abandoned," or separated from their families in some other way (Ressler, Boothby, and Steinboch 1988, 18, 22).

After the first year of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), 90,000 children had been orphaned or abandoned. Accompanied by school teachers and Roman Catholic priests, many of them were taken to France, England, Mexico, and the Soviet Union. As often happens, what was originally expected to be a short period of separation became a much longer one for several reasons: Franco's victory, the outbreak of World War II, and political conflicts between the host countries and the Franco regime. Two-thirds to three-quarters of the children from France and England had returned to Spain by 1940. As a result of the Cold War, the repatriation of children from the Soviet Union did not begin until 1956. In Spain, France, and other countries where they now live, refugee children from the Spanish Civil War have formed social organizations that sponsor reunions and pilgrimages where they commemorate and share their past experiences.

With the incorporation of Austria into the Third Reich in 1938 and the spread of anti-Semitic laws and pogroms into other countries in Central Europe, a variety of plans were developed to evacuate unaccompanied Jewish children to safety in other parts of Europe. In a program known as the Kindertransport, 10,000 Jewish children were evacuated with the consent of their parents from countries under Nazi control and settled in England prior to 1940. During the war and the immediate postwar period, 10,000 more Jewish children were given temporary asylum in Switzerland before being resettled in other countries, and through the Youth Aliyah program over 20,000 more were evacuated to Palestine (Ressler, Boothby, and Steinboch 1988, 20–21). For the great majority of these children, the end of the war brought tragic news of their parents' deaths in Nazi concentration camps.

Within days of the British declaration of war against Germany in September 1939, 750,000 unaccompanied children were evacuated from urban areas to the countryside throughout England to avoid the anticipated German bombing campaign. British children were also evacuated overseas, primarily to Canada and the United States. The Children's Overseas Reception Board made plans to evacuate tens of thousands of children, but the program was ended after only 2,700 children had been evacuated when a transport ship was sunk by a German torpedo boat, killing 73 children (Ressler, Boothby, and Steinboch 1988, 29). At the end of the war, the majority of these children were safely repatriated to Great Britain (Bailey 1980).

When Finland was invaded by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939, approximately 67,000 children between the ages of one and fourteen were evacuated to Sweden—over 7 percent of all the children in Finland. There is evidence that many parents with large families to support may have agreed to the evacuation of one or more of their children in order to save them from poverty and provide them with better opportunities in Sweden. Contrary to the general understanding that the children would return to their families in Finland after the war, 15,000 of them remained in Sweden (Ressler, Boothby, and Steinboch 1988, 28–29).

While the Kindertransport program stands at one end of the moral continuum between good and evil, the program carried out by the Nazis, in which children with "desirable racial characteristics" were abducted from German occupied territories and subjected to a process of forced "Germanization," stands at the other. In 1941, Nazi officials established a program in which a large number of children were kidnapped from Eastern Europe, mainly from Poland and the Ukraine. "Worthless" children were sent to concentration camps, while "racially valuable" children of suitably "Nordic appearance" were either placed in state boarding schools run by the Lebensborn Society or given to German families for adoption, where they were raised as Germans with no knowledge of their origins. In 1946, 40,000 of the 200,000 Polish children reported to have been abducted were returned to their homes (Sereny 2001, 45–52). At the Nuremberg Trials of 1948, Schutzstaffel (SS) officers responsible for this program were convicted of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.


Excerpted from Children of the Greek Civil War by LORING M. DANFORTH RIKI VAN BOESCHOTEN Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Loring M. Danforth is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Anthropology at Bates College and the author of several books, including, most recently, The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World. Riki Van Boeschoten is associate professor of social anthropology and oral history at the University of Thessaly, Greece, and the author of From Armatolik to People’s Rule: Investigation into the Collective Memory of Rural Greece (1750-1949).

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