What is the true cost of sacrifice? Can the pain of perdition that history leaves behind be measured? Mrs. Katerina Georgaki has struggled with these questions for almost all her life.
For most people around the world, Nov. 17th 2015 is not a memorable day. But Mrs. Georgaki, a retired high-school principal, woke up true to a habit that has lasted for her entire professional career. Although she left her school four years ago, she did not want to break this habit. Mrs. Georgaki keeps coming back every Nov. 17th.
Schools around Greece celebrate this day. In this country, Nov. 17 is a national observance day honoring the 1970's student uprising, which set in motion a sequence of events that ultimately toppled the military junta regime that ruled the country.
Greek people honor the student's legacy by celebrating the restoration of democracy and rule of law in their homeland. But for some people, Nov. 17th is not merely a date of honor and remembrance. For those few, who happened to carry the burden of history in their memory and soul, Nov. 17 feels "very personal."
"The story of the student struggle and the other events of this era speak directly to the heart of my family; especially of my father, who died with this burden in his soul," Mrs. Georgaki remembered.
The story that changed her family forever did not actually take place on this day. It was Sep. 19 1970. Mrs. Georgaki, who was then a college student at the University of Athens, was back in her native Corfu island. Dawn was approaching when the ring of the phone in the living room interrupted the silence of the night. She woke up before her parents and answered the call. But the phone fell off her hands because she could hardly believe the news.
As the newspapers' headlines wrote later, her 22 years old beloved brother, Kostas Georgakis, "Burned Like a Candle for Democracy." It was 3 a.m. in Matteotti Square in Genoa. The Greek student deeply disturbed by the absence of resistance against the military junta decided to proceed in a desperate move hoping to send a loud message to the world.
While running in the square, Kostas set himself ablaze and shouted "Down with the tyrants. Long live Greece." His move drew attention and raised international awareness for the Greek political problem. Kostas was the only one who sacrificed his life against the junta and many people credited him as the herald of the following student uprising in Athens.
The world, however, became divided in the view of the flaming man. The military regime attempted to censor the news because Kostas represented a sedition threat. He suffered from "depression and emotional imbalance disorder," said the report of the Greek Consul General in Genoa.
In "metapolitefsi," which is the Greek democratic spring that followed the fall of junta, Kostas was hailed as a symbol of sacrifice and resistance.
In our days, some Greeks may even not know his name, while the most cynical continue to doubt and question his motives.
But for Mrs. Georgaki, her two parents, and her younger brother, this story is not about history; it is rather deeply "personal." As her heartbroken father used to say every Nov. 17, "We lost Kostas, the nicest kid in town."
How do you remember your brother and what was your relationship?
We were always together because the age gap was small. We were together in school and all extracurricular activities throughout the day. And we always shared everything. When he was in high school he decided to publish a student-run magazine and asked me to write a piece. We had a really close relationship and this is the main reason I could never overcome this incident. For most people it is a sacrifice. But for me this incident is my brother's absence all of these years. I always missed him and I still continue to think of him.
During the years of the recent economic crisis some people in Greece appear disenchanted with the student movement against the military junta. They say that some of the leaders of the uprising are responsible for the current financial meltdown. How do you feel and what is your response to these remarks?
I feel really terrible about this point of view. It is true that some people capitalized the student movement and benefited from it. However, we cannot accuse all the students who rose and fought for regime change. They are not the ones who created the crisis. It is shame to blame all these young people who defied danger and gave an honest struggle. I fear that the people who are responsible for our current condition are the ones who did not contribute anything to this student movement. History repeats itself. For instance, the traitors were the ones who profited the most during the German occupation of Greece in World War II.
Is the message of the 1970s student uprising still relevant today?
It is very relevant. Students were chanting 'Bread, Education, Freedom,' which is basically what a person needs to live with dignity. Today we have democracy and freedom in Greece, but 'bread' and 'education' remain relevant problems. Poverty has skyrocketed during the years of the financial crisis. And also we have a record number of unemployed young people. They are trying to make all of us poor and I am not exaggerating. Every day they slice our income while they hike our taxes. For instance, my pension has been cut by 50 percent. As civil servants we always paid our deductions for our insurance and we never hide our income from IRS. The problem begins from the top. Cheating and overspending happened because of poor leadership.
How would you like students to remember your brother?
Kostas died very young; he was only 22 years old. So he never had the opportunity to grow up. He would always be remembered as a student; a young man who at some point of his life realized that he had to do something radical for reminding his fellow citizens that dignity and freedom are worthy causes to fight for.
Would you like to see young people to make sacrifices and fight for improving Greece? After all these years, do you believe that sacrifices can change a country?
I wish I could say that. I would like to see the current people forming their own movement and fighting for change. But to be honest, I do not believe that these fights would produce any concrete results. I am really disappointed because I use Facebook and I communicate with my old students. And what I have realized is that our creditors have ruined our country with their austerity. There is no hope for young people in Greece. By any means I would not like to see a young person to repeat the action of my brother. Kostas' sacrifice inspired and produced some results. But it definitely did not produce the results that he had on mind.
How do you spent Nov. 17th?
I always pay a visit to Corfu town's graveyard because I feel the need to be close to my brother.
Many years have passed since this incident. Do you believe that time heals soul wounds?
No, it can never happen. I don't believe that it heals the pain. But I do believe that it offers moments' of happiness that allow you temporarily to forget. Deep inside you always carry the marks of this wound and it can never get healed. I wish from my heart that no parent in the world would ever have this kind of experience. I wish it because I have a daughter. Every time that she travels I fear to be close to a phone. I'm very scared because as I told you I was the one who answered the call and learn the news about my brother.