On April 27, 1941, Penelope Delta, the famous Greek author, decided to take her own life just as Nazi Germany’s forces occupied Athens.
Delta was well known for the children’s books that she had written throughout her life. Aspects of her own childhood and family were used as starting points for her stories, including for her Romiopoules (“Young Greek Girls”) trilogy that she finished toward the end of her life.
A girl from Alexandria
Born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1873, Delta was the daughter of a wealthy merchant named Emmanouil Benakis, a future mayor of Athens.
Alexandria, then part of the Khedive of Egypt, was a historic center for Greek culture. The city received its name from Alexander the Great in April 331 BC and Greeks continued moving to the city during the 18th and 19th century. Greeks came to live in the city up until the 1950s, with a small community still there today.
The family eventually moved to Greece after the British occupation of Egypt. In Athens, Delta would acquire her iconic name after marrying Stephanos Delta, a prominent businessman from one of the Phanariot families of Constantinople.
Her marriage to Delta produced three daughters, but she was also linked romantically to another man who would profoundly affect her life, Ion Dragoumis. Delta had briefly moved back to her hometown of Alexandria when she first met Dragoumis, who was then serving as vice consul for Greece. Delta never divorced her husband, but the romantic relationship with Dragoumis would end in 1912.
Dragoumis later became an instrumental figure in the struggle for Macedonian independence from the Ottoman Empire. Deciphering his many papers throughout her life would be a project Delta worked on until the time of her own death in 1941.
A life of proximity to Greece’s best-known politicians and intellectuals
Delta’s work on children’s books was well-known, but her contributions to literature on Greece’s national identity was also noteworthy. Her early novels took place in the period of the Byzantine Empire, but later books also were set during important points in Greek history.
Her interest in Greek identity was no doubt influenced by her own personal proximity to major events during the early part of the 20th century. Her father’s political connections led Delta to becoming close to one of Greece’s most consequential figures, Eleftherios Venizelos.
Venizelos, the dominant statesman in Greek politics for the first half of the century, was a regular guest of her father, who served as Venizelos’ finance minister. There is even debate about whether the Prince in Delta’s 1912 novel “A Tale With No Name” was based on Venizelos.
Another individual Delta was connected to was Bishop Chrysanthus, who later became the Metropolitan of Trebizond in the Ottoman Empire. The friendship between the two contributed to one of her novels, “Life of Christ,” before he would return to Trabzon before the First World War.
Delta’s connection to politics in Greece at the time began to take a personal toll on her later in life. In the 1920s, royalists nearly assassinated Venizelos and her father, and they succeeded in murdering Dragoumis. After his death, Delta wore black for the rest of her life in mourning.
Her personal health also began to decline. In 1925, she was diagnosed with polio, which gradually worsened to a point of partial paralysis later in life.
The Nazi occupation and Delta’s choice to take her own life
Eventually, political developments in Greece came back to trouble Delta again at the end of her life.
It was Sunday April 27, 1941, when German troops entered Athens. The rise of the Nazi swastika on the Acropolis marked the beginning of the German occupation. Soon the Germans set up a puppet government with Georgios Tsolakoglou, the general who signed the capitulation, as prime minister.
The occupation only grew harsher as the Germans dug themselves in further over the years. In 1944, the Nazis would withdraw as their fortunes in the war began to sour, but Delta would not live to see that day.
Delta was deeply affected by the Nazi invasion. Her paralysis was developing further, but now her family was forced to endure a life under a vicious German-imposed regime.
On April 27, the day German forces entered Athens, Delta committed suicide by poisoning herself and dying days later on May 2. For Delta, it was better to die a patriot to her beloved Greece than see it ruined by the Nazis. Before committing suicide, Delta left one last note to her children that read:
“My dear children, I do not want to have a priest nor an official funeral upon my death. Bury me at a corner of our garden, but only when you are certain I do not breathe anymore. I kiss you all, With love Penelope Delta,” it read.
Her children followed her request and buried her in the family garden. One exception they made to following her will was inviting the Archbishop of Athens to preside over her burial. The archbishop, Chrysanthus of Trebizond, was not only her friend but one of her earlier inspirations.
Delta today is remembered as one of Greece’s most storied novelists for her ability to transfer her active presence in Greek intellectual and political life into her work.
She was survived by her three children, who also went on to have children of their own. Among Delta’s modern descendants is former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, her great-grandson on his mother’s side.