For seven years between 1967 and 1974 the Greek military junta used a building at Bouboulinas Street, Athens as a prison where thousands were tortured. Among them a Belgian national named Roland Baumann who recently returned to the infamous building.
By Leslie Absher
It sits behind the National Archaeological Museum in a quiet and unassuming neighborhood in downtown Athens. But underneath its reserved façade is a layered past. A tattered one.
Not the whole street just one building on it—a former detention center used during the military junta to interrogate Greek citizens. It is ironically a Ministry of Culture now, full of bustling bureaucratic energy.
But for the seven years that the Greek colonels reigned in the late 1960s, leftists and other dissenters were imprisoned there. Many were interrogated and tortured on the roof of the building. Others were sent to far-flung prisons—political activists, composers, and ordinary citizens.
But not all prisoners were Greek.
Last week, just days before the 50th anniversary of the Polytechnic, I received an email from someone who said he had been sent to Bouboulinas Street in the early 1970s when he was still in high school.
A Belgian named Roland Baumann said he had read an essay I wrote about my visit to Bouboulinas Street in the Greek Reporter. That visit had been part of a research journey for me, an attempt to reconcile my CIA father and the work he had done while stationed in Athens with my feelings for Greece.
It had moved Baumann to find the account of my visit. It was a kismet moment. He had found me on a whim, an online search. He hadn’t been to Greece in 50 years. But now he was there, trying to make sense of those days in his life. Days of his youth.
Finding my essay seemed like having someone along for the ride. A companion on his journey. For the next four days, we corresponded. He told me about the sites he visited and the memories and feelings they brought up for him. He also told me the story of his arrest.
Baumann was taken to Bouboulinas Street when he was 18, a high school student and a member of Brussels’ communist youth organization. But he wasn’t arrested for being a communist. He was arrested for having hashish.
The trip to Greece had started idealistically. It was summer. Roland traveled to Syria and Lebanon with a nineteen-year-old friend, who was also a member of the communist youth. They had hopes of meeting the Palestinian resistance and staying at one of their camps. But once in Beyrouth, this seemed totally unrealistic and they decided to travel to Greece instead. Before flying to Athens they bought 20 grams of Hashish in Baalbek, known at the time as a dope haven.
They arrived in Crete, slept on the beach in Matala, then returned to Athens. Baumann needed to fly back to Belgium to retake exams, which would enable him to graduate from high school, he had just turned 18. His older friend left for Mykonos.
A day before his arrest, while relaxing in Plaka, Baumann struck up a conversation with two young Greek couples; they smoked his hash and planned to meet up again the next day, a few hours before Baumann’s flight back to Brussels.
Baumann never made his flight
When he arrived at the bar, two grams of hash on his person, only one of the friends from the day before was there. He said a police raid was imminent. They both got up to leave. The “friend” (who Baumann later learned was a police informer) then slipped away but Baumann did not.
“Once arrested I was afraid they’d find the compromising stuff in my luggage: my card of the communist youth which I had brought along with the intention of showing it to whatever Palestinian organization would be interested in hosting us. I knew I had missed my flight but thought that since I was just a teenager still in high school the worse to happen would be my expulsion from the country.”
Baumann says the interrogation inside Bouboulinas Street was brief. He says he can’t remember much.
“It all just seemed like a hallucination, a nightmare. Although they had searched my bag, they never asked me about the political literature I was carrying.”
The two policemen who had arrested him then came to pick him up, causing him to feel hopeful that he would be taken to the airport. But that was not meant to be.
“The car quickly reached that hill, along a busy avenue, and stopped in front of that tiny prison, Vouliagmenis, which looked so primitive and became my new “home.” I waited there until my trial in November.”
Instead of being merely expelled from the country, he was convicted of “trafficking.”
Baumann told the police that he had bought the grams of hashish in Lebanon, where he had tried some and brought the rest with him to Greece. This sealed his fate. It was a devastating moment. To be tried as a criminal, guilty of drug trafficking. Baumann says he received a sentence of 28 months and remembers that his trial took place right before the events of the Polytechnic.
The Vouliagmenis jail is gone, turned into a park, but back then it was a small military barracks used as a prison. “I remember the sounds of tanks and machine guns we could hear from our cell, also of the official images of the revolt we saw on TV. Yes, we had Television in our “dorm.”
Baumann says he was held with other foreigners and an older Greek prisoner in charge of discipline.
“We were about 20 in that cell which looked just like the standard military dormitory (no bunk beds though just single ones) mostly busted for drugs.”
A few months later, Baumann left Vouliagmenis for a Kassavetia work farm. It was there that he learned that General Gizikis, the figure who played an essential role in Greece’s return to democracy, signed his pardon, effectively reducing his sentence to eight months.
Back to the Greek torture prison at Bouboulinas Street
After spending a long unbearable weekend there, a car drove Baumann to the airport and two security police agents led him to the bottom of the stairs leading to the Belgian Sabena plane. “My Greek adventures thus came to an end.”
Baumann says the police didn’t physically abuse him, but that he did suffer severe hazing during his first month in Vouliagmeni. He endured numerous incidents there that affected him for decades causing emotional distress and repeated nightmares.
It wasn’t until 50 years later that Baumann was able to face those days.
Our emails sailed back and forth as Baumann reported on his life prior to the uprising. It seemed to me that a world was opening up to him. His own past and its connection to history and to the present.
On Wednesday 15 November, he interviewed the director of the Jewish Museum of Greece. He had a long chat with her colleague, also an archaeologist, explaining how he had come to Athens for the Polytechnic’s 50th anniversary and was interested in places of memory connected with the Resistance in WWII and the years of the Junta.
She told him about Korai 4, the insurance company building, which housed the Kommandantur and the air raid shelter that the Germans turned into an interrogation center. “She also told me about Bouboulinas and showed me where it was on the map, right behind Athens Polytechnic and so close to the Archaeological museum where I had visited before my arrest and had seen later on my way to and from the security police.”
Baumann says he was overwhelmed by personal emotions, trying to remember his days spent inside the security police building. Finally, he decided to go see the building for himself. Once he arrived, he was “welcomed” by a tough-looking security guard, who said his own relatives had once been imprisoned there.
The guard said it was impossible to visit the cells. They had all been walled off.
“I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Polytechnic, looking at banners, propaganda, and chatting with some of the militants. I was somewhat amazed that they seemed to have so little to say about the times of the Junta and that they only had Gaza on their mind.
“After dusk, I went back to my airbnb, made some further research, and found your piece, which literally blew up in face.”
Each time Baumann emailed me, I encouraged his exploration into his past and Greece’s. I knew from my own experience that understanding history and the ways it intersects with our lives is vital to moving forward. And to healing.
In Brussels, Baumann works as a volunteer at CegeSoma, a historical research and archives center that focuses on 20th-century conflicts. His work there reflects not just events of his life but those of his father’s. Especially the Belgian resistance movements in WWII.
“My father served as courier between occupied Belgium and Vichy France until his arrest over the summer of 1942. He was “a spy” for one of the military intelligence networks operated from London.” A spy who was arrested in France and detained in a succession of prisons in France, Belgium, and Germany, before being sent to Dachau where he was liberated by the Americans on 29 April 1945.
Baumann says he can’t help connecting his personal life with world political and social events. Greece is a permanent part of his story now.
“It amazes me how memory is so dense and often so remote here in Athens because it’s often concealed, erased, hard to reach or retrieve. I’ll never forget Bouboulinas Street.”
Baumann is back in Brussels but plans to return to Greece in the spring. He has signed up for a beginner’s Greek language course.
Leslie Absher is a journalist, essayist, and the author of Spy Daughter, Queer Girl, a memoir about growing up with a CIA father who was stationed in Athens during the junta. She is a cancer survivor and swims in the San Francisco Bay without a wetsuit. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Ms. magazine, The Greek Reporter, and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, California with her wife and two cats.
Roland Baumann is an art historian and a social anthropologist (Tulane University, New Orleans). His Ph.D. dissertation focused on folklore and the memory of civil war in Eastern Andalusia. Professor of Art History and Visual Communication (INRACI), he also taught seminars on the anthropology of war and in visual anthropology (ULB). His interest in GegeSoma derives from his own family history in WW2. His father was an Intelligence and Action agent (ARA) and a political prisoner. His uncle served in the Belgian section of the Royal Navy.