This story will be like a fable where neither exact times nor exact locations are known in detail. The events that I use have come to me through my mother and my grandmother and both of them were not very specific about the exact times or places. However, I know that my grandfather, Tilemachos, was born in 1901 at the port town of Patras in Greece, where he lived and prospered. Once he was established in his business, in his late forties, he married my grandmother, who was the daughter of another merchant (my great-grandfather) whose store was nearby. These two men had known and respected each other from many years of business interactions. Just before their marriage they had to move to Athens, to the great chagrin of my grandmother, who loved Patras, so that my grandpa could take over the management of the fabric importing and distribution business and shop owned by a Jewish family called Asser. He died at the age of 62 in the apartment where my mother was born and raised and where I spent quite a bit of time as a child every year.
Tilemachos Economopoulos was a very religious Greek Orthodox Christian man, politically conservative, and a dedicated Greek patriot, having been enlisted and served in the disastrous for the Greeks war against Turkey in 1921. My grandfather was as loyal to close friends and relatives as he was to his country. The stories of his acts of loyalty are many and colorful and they were narrated to me by my grandma, often expressing misgivings for my grandpa’s extreme loyalty, but always with an unmistaken undercurrent of respect and admiration for his character, the most intriguing one being that of keeping his promise to a terminally ill close friend of his that he would take care of and help his friend’s mistress after his friend’s death. At that time, he was married for some years to my grandma and apparently the mistress that he had to take care of had some significant class differences with my grandma.
Tilemachos did not hesitate to keep his promise to his deceased friend by visiting the ailing widow of his friend regularly, but secretly from my grandma, and helped her with moral support and finances during the rest of her life. The regularity of these visits did not go unnoticed by my grandma who insisted to know the truth. Once she did, she realized that her husband’s loyalty made it impossible for him to go back on his word to his friend, and she gave him her support.
Stories like the previous one abound about my grandpa, many times helping friends and relatives against the rational advice of his wife, even though he was very much in love with her and admired her immensely. These stories extend from the generous support for the mother of his wife during her late years of life to the financial and moral support to one of my great uncles who was the black sheep of my grandma’s family because he had wrecked the estate of my great-grandfather due to personal weaknesses. I have to stress at this point that the sense of loyalty to one’s extended family was a very common and dominant cultural attribute of all the Greek people. After all, at the genesis of Greece, the Hellenic city states were an affair of few extended families. It is unique and no accident that the Greek noun for “nightmare” is simply the first name of a Greek that displayed the ultimate disloyalty to his Spartan clan, betraying them to the invading Persian armies. Efialtes was his name and “efialtes” to this day means “nightmare” in the spoken Greek language. The brutal and oppressive Occupation of Greece by the Turks for 400 years only enhanced this attitude so that the Greeks could survive and maintain their faith. Consequently, at the time of my grandpa, the middle of the 20th century, one’s loyalty to the extended family transcended political beliefs, class separations and other misfortunes.
However, the most striking act of loyalty by my grandfather is his support for the Jewish family of the owner of the business where he was working. The story is rather simple and typical of the behavior of some Greek families during the Occupation of Greece by the Germans in World War II, even as many others cooperated with the occupying Nazis. As it has been narrated to me, soon after the Occupation of Greece by the Germans and the beginning of the persecution of the Jews, Mr. Asser decided to flee with his family to a safe hiding place (nobody knows the exact place, but it seems to me that they may have followed the remnants of the Greek army and the King of Greece to Egypt, which was a British colony or protectorate at the time). In doing so, he had two major concerns, namely, first to hide the considerable savings he had amassed which at these times consisted of gold and precious stones (mostly diamonds), and second to make certain that his business was maintained during the German Occupation of Greece. The latter was easy to accomplish. Mr. Asser was the mentor of my grandpa since his teenage years when he hired him as a helping hand in one of his stores in Patras, and through the years he had moved him through all the ranks of his business, eventually making him manager of his store in Patras. Because of this relationship, it was only natural that Tilemachos would assume control of the whole business in Greece, and while the Germans were in power he would appear to be the owner of the business. His obligation was to sustain the business and have the profits made available to the owner’s family. All the appropriate legal papers to this end were drafted and summarily executed.
However, the hiding of the fortune of the Asser family was another matter altogether and even more dangerous. Already Greek acquaintances of my grandfather from Patras were calling him “The Hebrew” because of his close not only professional but also social association with the Asser family for all his adult life. In fact, it was expected upon the disappearance of the Asser family that the German Gestapo would call upon my grandfather first and search his house. Tilemachos was not the man to let his adopted family down. As head of his own family, he decided that the safest way of securing the Asser fortune was to hide it in the house of his sister who was a reclusive intellectual widow. In fact, it was hidden in a receptacle in the floor of his sister’s house under the wood-burning stove, as my grandma found out after the liberation of Greece and the return of the Asser family. After all these preparations and agreements were completed, the Asser family went into hiding, having contact only with my grandpa.
My grandpa was not equally lucky, though. Upon the disappearance of the Asser family, as it was expected, the Gestapo paid a visit to my grandpa’s Patras store, but they found the business transfer papers okay and they went away. However, it appears that other people from Patras talked about the close relation of my grandpa with the Asser family and the Gestapo reappeared at the house of my grandpa and took him to their infamous interrogation center. My grandpa never described in detail what happened to him in there, but then again, he never described in detail the horrible things he saw during the campaign in Asia Minor. These unpleasant events and experiences were not appropriate for angelic female creatures like my grandmother, according to him and the mores of his age. The only thing that he told my grandma Vaso was that he was held at the Gestapo detention center for two weeks and he was beaten regularly. Somehow, he managed to persuade his captors (after all, he was an excellent salesman) that he had stolen the business from the “cursed Jews” and possibly bribed his way to freedom. He cleverly and faithfully ran the business on his own for the rest of the three years of Occupation, and then the liberation came, along with the safe return of the Asser family. Although many Greek families helped Jewish friends to hide and escape the concentration camps during the German Occupation (and I do recognize that many cooperated with their occupiers) it was not atypical for these families to have difficulties to return the valuables that their Jewish friends had entrusted them with while in hiding. They felt that they had put their lives at risk having endured the German Occupation, the murderous famine of 1942, and they ended up liberated but totally financially destroyed. What is wrong in having some material assistance?
Such arguments were not even considered by my grandpa. As soon as the Asser family came back, he remade the papers to pass the ownership of the business back to Mr. Asser, and he delivered to the Asser family their valuables from his sister’s home. For many years after this event, his wife would pull his leg for all the gold that his Jewish friends gave him or his sister for all their troubles. Tilemachos never blinked an eye and never stopped being close to the Asser family. They shared their business and all of their business knowledge with him. The story has a happy ending because upon the death of Mr. Asser, Senior, and due to the business inexperience of his sons, my grandpa was made a minor partner of the business and was appointed as the general manager of all its operations in Athens. This allowed him to be prosperous doing the work he liked for the rest of his life. These were the unique years when a promise made was for life and the need for lawyers minimal.
Many times I have heard my grandma marveling and wondering what made my grandpa behave so altruistically towards the Asser family and ending up always stating that he was an exceptionally kind man and a good Christian. I believe that he was both of them, but I also believe that his altruism was the result of one of his main personal attributes, namely, his sense of loyalty.
Now, it is my thesis that the combination of family loyalty and commitment to one’s “personal honor” result in selfless acts of helping a select group of others, and in our culture, we call it altruism. In fact, this thesis is supported by the responses of people who have acted altruistically when they were asked why they felt and acted this way. The typical answer is that “I had to do it,” as if this was their duty or a necessity even if it endangered their life. They seem to dissociate the morality of their action or their personal risk from the action. They almost say that they were “programmed” to do it. They do recognize the moral value of their act, but they do not appear to connect it to their motivation for the specific action. Consequently, if my thesis is correct, the behavior of my grandpa would have been expected, provided that we can find a reasonable explanation of how a devout Christian came to consider a Jewish family as his own and extend to his adopted family his inbred sense of family loyalty.
My grandpa, in his teenage years, understood that he was not doing well at school. He asked his father to find him some work in Patras, and he was accepted as a junior clerk at the shop of the Asser Company. Tilemachos attached himself to Mr. Asser for all his learning needs and he worked very, very hard to gain his acceptance and approval. Mr. Moises Asser, having gotten married late in life (not so accidentally, in my opinion; my grandpa married very late in life, too) and having very young children was longing for a grownup son to whom he could pass on his wisdom. Tilemachos was more than primed to absorb any knowledge he could get. I only had to change the years, names of schools and places with the ones that I have encountered in adolescence to understand the bond of my grandpa to the Asser business and family as they are so similar to mine with Elan and my counselors there that they have changed my professional life’s direction.
My grandpa learned with amazing speed for a school reject as he acquired technical facts for the fabric technology that the Asser business was involved with, as well as the accounting and management skills necessary for running the business. This, along with his steady rise within the ranks of the clerks in the Asser store, must have given him great satisfaction and made him feel even more indebted to his mentor. His excellent professional relationship with Moises Asser, as well as the enlightenment of the Asser family, made it inevitable that he was invited to the Jewish holidays and participated in many Jewish customs. He got to know and socialize with the entire Asser clan. This may have alienated him from some parts of the Patras society, but it must have enhanced the strength of his bond with his newfound Jewish family. This family was much younger than his parents to whom he was the youngest of thirteen children, introduced him to a finer way of living, and exposed him through their commercial connections to their other European partners. He was sent to Milano, Italy, to enhance his understanding of the commerce of fabric, and he learned Italian in record time. He started calling the relatives of Moises not by their last names but by the first names preceded by relation adjectives, like “Aunt Behorula” or “Cousin Mino.” I believe eventually he came to accept the Assers as his own family with some “strange” characteristics, like their religion, that had no bearing either to his esteem of them or his caring for them. I have seen similar behaviors in Greece based on political differences as I was growing up. Eventually, a “right winger” will consider his “socialist” relative as having a strong “habit of weakness,” which does not prohibit him from loving his relative, being proud of him as a human being and bestowing upon him the family loyalty.
Consequently, my grandpa’s formative years and experiences made him a member of the Asser family, which he honored and gave his loyalty to for the rest of his life. This is the only way that one can explain behaviors of my grandpa as they were related to me by my mother in amazement and with a small degree of resentment, such as going to the synagogue in Athens on special days and lighting the Jewish candles to honor the memory of Moises Asser, while attending devotedly the Christian liturgy the next day. How else can one explain that he had to exchange brown eggs on Passover with his Jewish family over the protestations of his wife for the rest of his life? This was the man who insisted that his daughters go to the most austere segregated religious school in Greece while at the same time expecting them to call “aunts” the female relatives of Moises. His explanation, “We are all creatures of God no matter how we call Him,” was very advanced for his time and not easily understood either by his children or his wife.
I have listened to my mother recite these altruistic stories of my grandfather to me ever since I can remember. Listening to these stories and others throughout my early childhood and into my late adolescence, I believe that they have created a significant impact on my values, morals, beliefs, and even personality. While environmental, economic, and other factors have shaped who I am today, a huge influence has been rooted in the stories of my grandfather and his honorable life-risking behaviors to help protect the wellbeing of others. Hearing these stories has made me not only look up to my grandfather as an idol, but also has made me want to strive toward his fearless, brave, and altruistic behaviors so that other members of my family can be proud of me but also carry on my grandfather’s noble reputation from generation to generation.
The previous analysis, I believe, conclusively established the family bond that my grandfather had established with the Asser family, and hence, what he did for them was nothing more than what he had to do. His commitment to honor just helped him in doing what he had to do by making it easier for him to overcome his fear of the German Gestapo. In our “Anglo” culture we may call him an altruist but I prefer his native characteristic that he truly was a όμορφο ανθρώπινο ον [beautiful human being], as my grandma Vaso always called him.
Previously published in Listening to stories of courage and moral choice: Creating conversations about inclusive care in our schools and communities. (Eds. Baruch, A., Atkinson, R., and Khiel, H.) Narrative Works: Issues, Investigations, and Interventions. Vol 9(1)