This interview was granted to Demetra Giannopoulou-Gaitanou* for the Athens News Agency-Macedonia Press Agency (ANA–MPA) and was published by ANA-MPA on May 1, 2014, the anniversary of the death of Alekos Panagoulis in 1976.
Translation by James C. Henderson
Born on January 30, 1929 in Detroit, Michigan, USA, Athena Psyhogios returned to Greece in 1932 due to the Great Depression with her mother and younger brother. The first years they settled in their father’s home in Efpalio, Doridos. The war found them in Pagrati, a suburb of Athens, but because they could not survive the depravation of food and money there, they returned to Efpalio.
“Those years were hard. Initially, the war and after that the civil war, brought successive, horrible injustices,” said Ms. Psyhogios, adding that “ever since I was aware of what was happening around me, I could not accept injustice and, although I was very young during the war, I participated actively in the guerrilla movement fighting the Nazis and the right-wing guerillas in my area called the 5/42 Battalion Psarros.”
Ms. Psyhogios noted, then, “in 1946, almost without warning, my family voted to go back to America.” I sailed on the U.S. naval ship Marine Carp to New York City and from there by train via Chicago to the town of Janesville, Wisconsin, where we settled with my father, then a restaurateur. In 1953, I married Peter Psyhogios in Janesville and soon moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. I had three children: Constantine, Maria, and Sotiria. My heart was beating but it was beating in Greece. Therefore, despite the adversity and over the objections of my husband, in 1965, I broke the piggy banks of my three children and returned with them to Greece. The thrill was indescribable when, after 19 years, I again saw the Parthenon. After a stay of three months, we returned to Minneapolis. Having within myself the flame of justice and democracy, I joined organizations against the Vietnam War and the dictatorships in South America. With the outbreak of the dictatorship in Greece in April 1967, an immediate need to return to Greece flared in me. I could not return to Greece but joined a group in Minneapolis dedicated to opposing the Greek Junta.”
“Early in 1971,” Ms. Psyhogios continued, “Stathis Panagoulis came to talk to our group about his brother, Alekos Panagoulis, who had been arrested for his failed assassination attempt on the head of the Junta, Yiorgios Papadopoulos, in August 1968. Stathis detailed how Alekos had been tortured since his capture, through his trial, and into his imprisonment and asked us to help win Alekos’ release. It was the first time I had met Stathis and he immediately won me over. I had already decided to return with my children once again to Greece, despite the obstacles. Stathis and I made an appointment to meet a few days after I arrived in Athens. Our meeting took place at the Hilton Hotel, where he talked to me about my role in the resistance. He told me I should contact a close friend of his, a lawyer named Kostas Androutsopoulos, and that Kostas would arrange my involvement in the next steps of a plan to free Alekos from prison.”
Remembering events and feelings from those times, Ms. Psyhogios described the difficulties she experienced, noting that “At one point Stathis Panagoulis had to leave Greece and he asked me to help smuggled him out of the country. I left my three children in my father’s care and accompanied him first by bus from Athens to the port of Thessaloniki. All night we stayed up on a bench, waiting for dawn to take the train through Yugoslavia, with the final destination Rome. My presence beside him was in the role of eyewitnesses in the case he was arrested and killed. Stathis and the resistance wanted someone they trusted with him to testify to his arrest and murder. The Socialist Party of Italy had made Stathis a multitude of passports with fake names. On this trip, he travelled under a passport in the name Paolo Pivi. We did not travel together, but pretended to be strangers, so I could not be implicated with him but be free to report what happened.
“On the train, the Yugoslavian guards accepted Stathis’ fake Italian passport without a second thought, but questioned my American passport. They kept it without explanation the entire trip, handing it back only when we got to Trieste, Italy. From Trieste, we changed trains to Rome. Once we arrived the police appeared. We were immediately detained. They opened our bags, but found nothing objectionable. Stathis, who understood Italian, told me that they were looking for drugs and so our hearts went back into place. Immediately after having finished my mission, I flew back to Athens, where I settled with my children in the suburb of Maroussi.”
Ms. Psyhogios talked about the implementation of the plan of escape Alekos Panagoulis: “Very quickly I came in contact with Kostas Androutsopoulos, thus putting into practice the escape plan to free Alekos Panagoulis from Boyati Military Prison. To implement this plan, Kostas informed me one of Alekos’ guards would be working with us. I vehemently objected because I firmly believed that this guard would betray us. Thinking, because I was an American I would be safe, I worried about the other members of our group who were responsible for the escape of Alekos Panagoulis. They included, besides Kostas and me, Lady Amalia Fleming—widow of Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin—and John Skelton from New Jersey, USA, who was studying theology in Athens and was a personal friend of Lady Fleming. When we were arrested, we learned that my rented apartment in Maroussi had been monitored. The Greek military police, the EAT/ESA, had rented the neighboring apartment. So, they knew all my movements in the plan to free Alekos.
“When it came time to implement the plan, Kostas, John Skelton, and I boarded a car with John driving and Kostas in the backseat. I sat in the front passenger seat, ready to welcome Alekos and lead him straight to the house of Lady Fleming, where she waited with warm food and clothes. The guard who was working with us, a man named Staikos, betrayed us at the outset. All the letters Alekos sent to Kostas through Staikos, he first showed to the head of EAT/ESA, the Junta’s most notorious torturer, Major Theophyloyiannakos.”
Describing the development of the project, Ms. Psyhogios noted: “All was set. At 3:00 in the morning we arrived at Boyati. We parked with the door ajar for Alekos to slip inside; we were, instead, invaded by cars that encircled us with headlights on. I don’t know how many cars there were, but immediately, we realized what had happened. A policeman grabbed me roughly and pulled me out of the car and lined me up along a fence with John and Kostas. The policeman fired his gun beside Kostas’ ear and Kostas cringed in pain. My hands were handcuffed behind me and I was thrown into the backseat of a car, having on my right and left a policeman, each jabbing a machine gun into my ribs. My head was pushed down constantly to prevent me from seeing the route. Both of the men began playing with my breasts. I shouted, ‘Does anyone here know English?’ I was pretending not to know Greek. ‘Tell them to take their hands off me.’ When we got to EAT/ESA headquarters, I was thrown in a room. It was still night and I had lost my bearings. I thought I was in the mountains. Actually, I was in Athens, right next to the American Embassy. I was constantly thinking about my kids.”
Ms. Psyhogios talked about the “horrific torture” in the prisons of the Junta, saying, “First Theophyloyiannakos came into the room. He pulled my hair and beat my head against the wall. I was interrogated many times a day, and for a week I was not allowed to sleep. Outside the door to my cell, guards dropped iron bars on the concrete floor making noise so I could not sleep. I spent a week with insomnia and without food and a proper bathroom. I lived only on water and it was drugged. At one point, they had put me in a special cell attached to the side of ETA/ESA. The bed had a dirty pillow full of gnats and I started to scratch from their bites. A guard ordered me to stop, then he pulled me out of the cell and fogged it with insecticide. When he tossed me back inside, I could not breathe. I choked and pounded on the door to be let out. Apart from physical torture, there was psychological torture. I was pulled from room to room and the furniture was constantly rearranged or changed to confuse me. But the fiercest psychological torture for me was when I was told that Maria, my eldest daughter, was in a mental hospital, while my eight-year-old was lost somewhere in Athens. That crushed me. Being in jail and to not know the fate of your children is a terrifying feeling. After a week of no sleep and incessant interrogations, I was asked to give names of those I was working with. I refused to talk but they insisted. In Minneapolis, I knew some of those who supported the Junta. Finally, I gave them their names and my interrogators left me in peace. During my stay in ETA/ESA, two guards pulled me by my hands in opposite directions, dislocating my wrists. They were so angry at me, it is as if they wanted to crucify me.”
Completing the narrative of the experiences of her detention, Ms. Psyhogios noted: “One day while I was held in the hallway, two doors parted like an eye blinking, and I saw Kostas wearing only pants and a tie, his face swollen and bloodied. Lady Fleming was held in a cell adjacent to mine, but she was not tortured like us, because her arrest had jeopardized relations between Greece and England. Torturing her would have complicated things. England was already threatening to break diplomatic ties over the incident. Once, to intimidate Lady Fleming, Theophyloyiannakos opened a desk drawer and showed her the fingernails and teeth of other political detainees.”
Finally, Ms. Psyhogios made reference to her trial, saying, “A month after our arrest, we started trial in military court. First questioned was Lady Fleming. When my turn came I did not answer any of the judges’ questions. All I did was file a complaint that I had not been allowed to see my children. Ours was a show trial, since everyone knew from the first moment that we would be found guilty. Kostas Androutsopoulos and I were each sentenced to 14 months in prison, Lady Fleming 16. As for Skelton, he did not served his sentence and soon returned to America. I was imprisoned at Korydallos Prison in the outskirts of Athens for 13 months and 2 days, being released 28 days early on parole. Lady Fleming was in Korydallos with me. She was released early on parole a few weeks into her sentence because, as a diabetic, her health had been terribly neglected by the military police. Immediately after she was released she was deported to England by airliner. This devastated her, because above all, she did not want to leave Greece. During my stay in Korydallos, I used my time to achieve better living conditions not only for myself but also for the other prisoners. My stay in prison was a college, compared to my time in ETA/ESA.”
Athena, Lady Amalia Fleming, and Kostas Androutsopoulos at their military court martial, September 1971
Concluding, Ms. Psyhogios said, “Upon my release, I fled the country. My first stop was Rome, where two members of the resistance, the famous Eva and Nikos Zambelis were waiting to interview me about what I had suffered. With a stopover in France, and a brief visit to Lady Fleming in England where she hosted me in her home, I returned to Minneapolis and my children. Lady Fleming gave everything she had in energy and spirit to free Greece from the Junta. All the expensive gifts that Sir Alexander Fleming had received for his discovery of penicillin, she sold to buy political prisoners food and to help pay for their lawyers.”
Answering the question, “If this happened today, knowing all you went through, would you do it again?” Ms. Psyhogios responded that she would do “just the same.” As for the Junta of Greece, in response to a question pointing out the lack of recognition or honor she has received from the Greek nation for her actions to bring about the Junta’s demise, Ms. Psyhogios expressed the opinion that she did nothing to warrant recognition or honor. “What I did was a matter of conscience, although I didn’t know Alekos Panagoulis personally before. The one and only time I came in contact with him, was, when he was finally free, he rang me in Minneapolis to thank me warmly for what I tried to do for him.”
As for Alekos Panagoulis’ partner, Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist who wrote a book about Alekos’s life, entitled, A Man, while on tour promoting the book, she traveled to Minneapolis to thank Athena, and inscribed a copy of her book to Athena with the personal dedication: “To a woman.”
Today, Athena Psyhogios is 85 years old. She remains astute, energetic, and optimistic. Along with philhellene husband, Jim Henderson, she visits Greece for a few months from time to time. A rare example of sacrifice and patriotism, modesty and humility, she emphasized: “I didn’t do anything important. It was a matter of conscience and sacred duty towards Mother Greece.”
* Demetra Giannopoulou-Gaitanou is a graduate of the Law School of Athens in the Department of Political Science and since 2004 lives and operates in Chicago, Illinois, USA.
Athena and Lady Fleming arrive for trial by military court in Athens, Greece on
September 27, 1971.