4 women as role models
Why are my 4 apartments in Athens called Xenia, Myriam, Eva & Rena?
Xenia, Myriam, Eva and Rena were four powerful women which played an important role in my life. They are also worth mentioning as role models because they offered a lot with their ethos, hard work and dedication. Nowadays so many personalities steal the limelight and blast their paths through social media. However, how many of those deserve to be our role models? I think that these 4 remarkable women should not be forgotten, even though that's inevitable usually after passing away.
All four of them had the ability to care for others and love unconditionally. They were givers, helping freely, while expecting nothing in return. They did this in a quiet and understated way. Xenia, Myriam, Eva and Rena were highly moral and ethical. They had the challenge to deal with difficult men. They had a strong will to persevere and do good to their family and to society at large, despite all the setbacks and constant challenges that they encountered. All four lived through World War II, which left its mark in their lives.
Thus for good reason I named my apartments in Athens after these 4 remarkable individuals.
Below is my recollection of certain aspects of their personal stories as they had recounted to me over the years. Their story is told and done justice
Xenia, my godmother, was always a giver and almost never a taker. Her deep faith in God was a major source of her strength. Initially she took care of, and protected her siblings, as the oldest sister in a tough military household. Then she took care of her husband under adverse and sometimes humiliating circumstances.
However, her most important contribution to society was her volunteering as a Red Cross nurse through most of her life. During World War II, she took care of wounded Greek soldiers under artillery shelling from the Italian Fascist forces, high up in the snowy mountains of Pindos. She was decorated with a series of medals.
In the place where the Xenia apartment stands now, used to be a large house. In 1937 young Xenia built this house with blood, sweat and tears, working together with the architects and builders. This house was her dowry. At that time in Greece, such dowry was necessary for a woman to secure marriage. After Xenia moved in, her father managed to lose this house one night in a game of cards! Men at that time owned the real estate wealth of the family. You can imagine Xenia’s despair. Yet she managed to get a loan and thus she bought back the house. During World War II all bank debts were forgiven in Greece. All of the sudden Xenia could enjoy her house debt-free. Some things are meant to be!
Myriam was a dear friend of mine for more than 30 years. Myriam had a strong will and was a managerial type, yet she was quiet and unassuming. Not surprising for someone with Leo as her zodiac sign.
Her early life was marked by tragedy. Her father was from Corfu and her mother from Florence and they were both Jewish. As a result, her parents, Myriam and her brother barely survived the Holocaust in WWII, unlike most of her relatives who perished tragically. To escape the Nazis all four of them fled through Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Brazil and luckily made it to safety by settling in New York City. They went through incredible hardships through their escape. At one point, her father had to dig holes in the soft earth for his family to hide in.
Myriam never liked to have her picture taken. Perhaps because she was so modest or perhaps because as a little girl she had learnt that in order to survive she had to be invisible from the Nazis. She was an extremely private person, probably because of her severe childhood traumas due to the Holocaust. For instance, at Myriam's send-off event in New York following her passing away, so many of us who were close to Myriam discovered that we have never met each other before, because Myriam preferred it that way.
Despite all this suffering as a young girl, Myriam remained a wonderful person, self-effacing, always a giver and capable of showing so much unconditional love. She has helped people all her life, especially children with learning disabilities. She was fair and gave generously to charities. For decades Myriam was wheelchair bound, quietly suffering through various ailments, without complaining. For all these reasons, I consider Myriam a remarkable woman.
As a painter she captured in her watercolors beautiful flowers and scenes from Manhattan, such as buildings, musicians and people. I cherish the book of her artwork that she published. In my eyes, her art is full of innocence. She preferred to write her name as Myriam and not Miriam to avoid confusion with a famous Swiss painter of the same first and last name.
Eva was my maternal grandmother. During a long life of 99 years spanning two centuries, she witnessed major changes in Greece, where she lived, but also in the world.
Early on, Eva experienced traumatic moments upon the suicide of one of her beloved brothers. He was a merchant and blew his brains out of honour when the ship carrying his cargo did not arrive in port.
Greece was a poor country when some of Eva's distant relatives, major landowners in the fertile flats of Thessaly, possessed their own rail car, which would get hitched behind the regular steam trains of those times. Yet another distant relative of hers, "Aris", became a controversial figure, as one of the heads of the Greek Communist uprising after WWII.
Eva's husband enjoyed a high position in the Greek military and as a result, there were soldiers serving in the house. An atmosphere of military discipline weighted heavily over this family, and especially the children.
Eva endured years of total separation from her husband as her husband took part in Greece's military campaign in Minor Asia in the 1920s and then, following the Greeks’ defeat, he was held captive for 4 years deep within Turkey.
Eventually, World War II came about. The Italians, driven by the Fascists, invaded Greece in 1940. Eva’s heart was with her son and her daughter Xenia. Her son was fighting the Italians up in the snowy mountains in a game of dare as a ski scout. Xenia served as a volunteer nurse, right at the front line.
During the occupation of Athens by the German Nazis, Eva had to sell her jewelry, plots of land, precious furniture and even a piano in order to secure enough food for her family to survive and satisfy hunger. At that time, it was not uncommon for land to be exchanged for one goat or a grand piano for one can of olive oil.
Following the Nazis’ retreat, there was a savage civil war in Greece and at its peak, the Greek Communist movement occupied all of Athens, except the Parliament Building. Eva feared that the Communist fighters will come to her family house, something that indeed happened, in order to arrest her husband and put him on trial, given his high military rank. Fearing for his life, Eva successfully hid her husband in the attic and thus saved him, suspecting that if caught, she as well faced the death penalty.
Eva’s husband was accomplished in many fields but had serious vices, mainly gambling, which left a mark on his family. One long night, he lost in a game of cards the two story residential house, which used to stand here at the address where the Xenia apartment is. This house was Xenia's, his daughter's only dowry and Xenia built this house with blood, sweat and tears. Without such dowry, Xenia would have had difficulty finding someone to marry her. So it's obvious that Eva's husband did as he pleased and Eva had to acquiesce obediently to his caprices.
Despite all these setbacks and dangers, Eva stood strong and shepherded her family without grudges or complaints. But what made Eva so strong and be able to deal with all this? Eva's forebears were all in the Greek military since the early 1800s and this resulted somehow in good genes, discipline, organization, and an ironclad family ethic. She had a strong faith in God and kept repeating to me how important God was. She never wavered her blind obedience and support to her husband. It is remarkable how self sacrificing she was for her family
Rena was my mentor and a distant aunt. She was one of the wisest and most intelligent persons I've ever met. For instance, she could memorise the exact contents of a book page after only a short reading.
She worked as an economist in her entire career and this led to a deep understanding of the individual countries which she was following as a senior economist at the World Bank in Washington DC. She knew the history, the politics, even the languages of so many countries! She was a senior economist at a time where there were scarcely around any women in that role. But how did Rena manage to hold such an important position in a world dominated by men?
Back at the Economics University in Athens, Rena scored the top grade at the competition to win a scholarship for the London School of Economics (LSE). The runner-up, a male student, challenged the award of the scholarship to Rena by arguing to the dean of the University that the Greek text establishing the scholarship was referring to a “he” and not a “she”. If I recall the story well, that university dean was a university professor of obstetrics and famously said that he knew the lower body parts of women much better than their upper body parts (their brain) and thus he could not take sides on the issue, thus allowing Rena to hold on to the scholarship!
On her way to London she was stranded in Calais because she needed a Visa stamp on her Greek passport. This was during WWII and the French coast was about to get cut-off from the free British side because of the rapidly advancing Nazi military forces. A French policeman took to young Rena immediately but in exchange for her stamped passport he demanded to sleep with her. All of the sudden, poor Rena grabbed her passport from the policeman’s hands and run and run and run away. Thus she was able to reach London. Rena's punchline recalling this event was that male prurience could be helpful!
Because of the Nazis’ devastating bombings, the London School of Economics was temporarily relocated to Cambridge. Thus Rena’s lucky star allowed her to study under the famous economist John Maynard Keynes. Unsurprisingly, she became a staunch supporter of Keynesian economics. She also worked for the Greek government in exile in London during WWII, under Kyriakos Varvaressos, the governor of the Bank of Greece at that time.
What was remarkable about Rena is that she eagerly and freely helped others, especially in matters of economic theory, business and financial markets. She also gave good sensible advice about life in general and her deep knowledge of all these different countries was very useful in the process. Despite her amazing achievements, Rena was always modest and almost never talked about herself!
P.S. At the time of the inception of the Euro-currency, Rena prophesized that ultimately the Eurozone, as is, was doomed to fail. Well, the jury is still out...
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