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When Greeks Defied the Nazis to Attend Great Poet Palamas’ Funeral

Poet Kostis Palamas. Credit: Public domain

On a day like this on February 28, 1943, Athens was trembling by the sentiment of grief. One of the nation’s greatest poets, Kostis Palamas, had died the day before.

Palamas’ works became the artistic beacons of Greece, and he was considered a top Greek poet of modern literature and one of the most inspiring figures of Hellenism. His funeral was meant to become the first massive anti-Nazi and anti-occupation demonstration in Europe.

A national poet in the making

Born in Patras on January 13, 1859, Palamas lived long enough to see Greece occupied by the Germans, as he died on February 27, 1943.

Palamas’ enormous poetic work is imbued with history, Hellenism, and the formation of the “Great Idea” for his homeland. It is the idea that Greece could reach its former glory of the Byzantium and of the ancient world.

However, Palamas’ work wasn’t just that. It also dealt with the everyday, ordinary man and his feelings. This is why he was named Greece’s national poet. Because he knew what the Greek wanted and what it actually meant to be Greek.

The poet’s lyricism and word-making skills have been remarkable. However, aside from being an exemplary poet, Palamas was also a literary critic, writer, and philosopher.

The early life

Palamas lost both his parents at an early age. In 1864, his mother, Penelope, died during a premature birth, while less than a year later, his father Michael passed away as well.

His uncle, Dimitrios Palamas, attained custody of the six-year-old Kostis, and they lived in Mesolonghi, Greece’s renowned “Holy City.” The young boy stayed there from 1867 until  1875. He started writing poems and literature as early as high school.

As soon as he finished high school, in 1876, he moved to Athens, the newly-established capital of the modern Greek state. There, he enrolled in the Law School of the Athens University.

His studies, however, did not last long, as the heart of young Palamas belonged to poetry and literature. He started working as a journalist to make a living using different aliases, and he kept writing feverishly.

Palamas soon stood out from his colleagues. He became the founder of the “New Athenian School” in poetry, and in 1886, he published his first poetry collection, the Songs of My Fatherland.

Palamas’ Adult Life

In 1887, Palamas married Maria Valvi with whom he had three children, Nausica, Leandros, and Alkis. Tragically, his youngest son, Alkis, died at the age of five, and the poet grieved deeply.

In memory of little Alkis, he wrote the poem “Tomb,” a magnificent elegy.

In 1879, he was appointed secretary of the University of Athens and, until his resignation in 1928 as secretary-general, he won many honorary distinctions, the most important being that of the academic in 1926.

In 1924, the French Government honored Palamas with the “Legion of Honor” title, to honor his contribution to Europe’s literature. In 1929, he was appointed President of the Academy of Sciences in yet another milestone of his unbelievable achievements.

Early in 1933, the great Greek poet was also honored with the “Goethe” medal by the German ambassador to Athens. He received additional medals and honors in the following years from various European countries.

In 1936, Palamas celebrated his fifty-year contribution to Greek poetry and literature and received the title of Dean of the Royal Order for his contribution in the “Letters and Art” of the Ministry of Education of the country. In 1937, his statue was raised in Messolonghi, which was a rare honor for someone who was still alive.

The Historic Funeral

The coffin of Kostis Palamas. Credit: Public domain

Unfortunately, on February 9, 1943, his life partner Maria passed away. A few days later, on February 27, 1943, Palamas died too.

For his funeral, an astonishing number of about one hundred thousand Greeks paid their respects to the “National Poet” before the shocked gazes of the German conquerors. The Nazi occupiers were very strict with their commands for “public order” in their conquered lands. However, this was not enough for the thousands of mourning Greeks to stop paying their respects to a real legend.

Renowned poet Aggelos Sikelianos wrote and recited the touching “Palamas” for the funeral service. Early in the morning, thousands of people began to gather at Athens‘ first cemetery.

Even the occupying forces of Germany and Italy sent their representatives to show that they respected the great Greek poet. However, the gathered crowd could not hide its anti-Nazi sentiment. The whole spirit of the day was brilliantly expressed in the words of Sikelianos: “The whole of Greece rests in this coffin,” he said.

After the coffin of Palamas was placed in the grave, a brave member of the crowd began singing the national anthem. The entire city was then flooded by the voices of the Athenians who sang the anthem of the country.

“Long live the liberty of spirit!” one man shouted. “Long live Liberty!” the crowd responded, fearless and determined to show to the Nazis that they were never welcome in Greece.

Kostis Palamas became a legend and remains so to this day.

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