The obituary that follows is of George Psychoundakis, who as a young man was a runner for the resistance in Crete during the German occupation in World War II. First of all he ran for local partisans groups or andartes, but from about 1941 he did most of his work with the Special Operations Executive. At the end of the war George was mistakenly taken for a deserter and locked up. He spent around 16 months in gaol and whilst there he wrote his wartime memoires. Somehow Paddy became aware of his incarceration and had George released. He then helped George by translating his memoires into English and sorting out a publisher. The book has been translated into many languages and is called The Cretan Runner. This obituary includes a section written by Paddy at the end.
First published: 12:10AM GMT 18 Feb 2006 in the Telegraph
George Psychoundakis, who died at Canea, Crete, on January 29 aged 85, was best known for his extraordinary account of clandestine life in the Resistance after the German occupation of his island in 1941; the book was translated into English by Patrick (now Sir Patrick) Leigh Fermor, and enjoyed success in Britain as The Cretan Runner.
George Psychoundakis was born on November 3 1920 at the village of Asi Gonia, perched high in a mountain pass in central Crete. He was the eldest of four children, born to a family whose only possessions were a single-room house and a few sheep and goats.
Education at the village school was basic; but unlike most of his fellows George learnt to write as well as read, and gleaned what learning he could from books lent by the schoolteacher and the village priest.
When the German invasion of Crete began, he was 21, a light, wiry, elfin figure who could move among the mountains with speed and agility. While the Germans imposed their rule with the utmost brutality, Psychoundakis was among the many who guided straggling Allied soldiers over the mountains to the south coast, from where they could be evacuated.
As the Resistance grew more organised, Psychoundakis became a runner, carrying messages, wireless sets, batteries and weapons between villages and secret wireless stations, always on foot, always in danger, often exhausted and hungry, over some of the most precipitous terrain in Europe.
It was gruelling work, but in an interview many years later Psychoundakis made light of the hundreds of miles he covered at a run: “I felt as if I were flying, so light and easy – just like drinking a cup of coffee.”
Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of a handful of SOE officers whose job it was to co-ordinate the Cretan resistance, first met Psychoundakis at the end of July 1942 in a rocky hide-out above the village of Vaphé.
The messages Psychoundakis was carrying were twisted into tiny billets and hidden away in his clothes: “They were produced,” wrote Leigh Fermor, “with a comic kind of conjuror’s flourish, after grotesquely furtive glances over the shoulder and fingers laid on lips in a caricature of clandestine security precautions that made us all laugh.” His clothes were in rags, one of his patched boots was held together with a length of wire – but his humour and cheerfulness were infectious.
Humour and danger went hand in hand. Psychoundakis told how a couple of German soldiers decided to help him with an overladen donkey, which was carrying a heavy wireless set under bags of wheat. The Germans beat the poor creature so hard that Psychoundakis was afraid they would knock off the saddle-bags – but mercifully their attention was drawn to some village girls, and the soldiers started flirting with them instead.
He also describes British officers with wry amusement – one had “pyjamas, a washbasin, and a thousand and two mysterious objects. He wore a row of medals on his breast, and had a rucksack full of geological books which he studied all day long.”
At the same time, the harshness of everyday life was everpresent. Near starvation at one point with another SOE officer, Jack Smith-Hughes, Psychoundakis described how they picked broken snail shells off blades of grass and ate them, pretending that each was more delicious than the last.
A bed of springy branches in a dry cave was a luxury: George spent many a night freezing on a rain-soaked mountainside, listening out for German search-parties, knowing what they would do if he were caught. Tales of torture, burning villages and summary executions were all too familiar. On the one occasion he visited England, in 1955, Psychoundakis was awarded the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom.
Yet at the end of the war, the Greek authorities had taken a very different view of the man who had done so much for the Cretan Resistance. Psychoundakis’s paperwork was not in order, so he was arrested and imprisoned as a deserter.
Months of bitterness, misery and humiliation followed in the jails of Piraeus and Macedonia. In the end he was released, though there was little comfort for him at home. His family’s flock had been stolen during the Occupation, they were poorer than ever, and Psychoundakis was now the chief bread-winner. When Leigh Fermor caught up with him for a few days in Crete in 1951, he was working as a charcoal burner.
He told Leigh Fermor, who recorded their meeting in the introduction to The Cretan Runner, that while in prison he had begun to write down everything he could remember about the Occupation. On his release he got a job building roads, and lived in a little cave in the hills. Here he continued his writing by the light of an oil-lamp.
Leigh Fermor asked if he could see the results. “Without a word he dived into his knap-sack, fished out five thick exercise books tied in a bundle, and handed them over.” As he read them, Leigh Fermor recognised Psychoundakis’s manuscript as a unique document and made up his mind to translate it.
At a time when dozens of books by ex-officers were filling the bookshops, this was one of the first to reveal the occupation from the point of view of the local inhabitant – and the fact that it was written with such truthfulness and honesty made it all the more impressive. The book appeared first in English, translated by Leigh Fermor, in 1955. It was published in Hungarian in 1981, and in Greek in 1986.
Psychoundakis’s resilient sense of humour never failed, though bouts of bad luck continued to dog his life. With the money he earned from The Cretan Runner he bought some grazing land, and became immediately embroiled in a dispute with neighbours – “but if I’d bought land by the sea, I’d be a rich man now!”
In later years he looked after the German cemetery in Canea. A German War Graves Commissioner came to see it one day, and was impressed by how well Psychoundakis looked after it – though he was surprised that he spoke no German. “Well, there’s not much opportunity to learn it here,” said Psychoundakis. “All the Germans I look after are dead.”
He never stopped reading and writing. After The Cretan Runner he wrote a book on the island’s legends and customs, Eagle’s Nest in Crete, and translated Hesiod’s Georgic Works and Days.
His most ambitious project was the translation of The Odyssey from other prose translations into Cretan verse, based on the pattern of The Erotokritos. This celebrated 17th-century Cretan epic, composed in rhyming couplets of 15 syllables, rivals Homer in length – though Psychoundakis’s father, despite being illiterate, could recite it word-perfect.
When he had finished, Patrick Leigh Fermor asked what he was going to do next: “He looked surprised at the question, and answered, ‘Oh, The Iliad’.”
For his translations of Homer, Psychoundakis was honoured by the Academy of Athens.
George Psychoundakis is survived by his wife Sofia, their son and two daughters.
Patrick Leigh Fermor writes: George was a one-off, as they say. Nobody was remotely like him. Touchstone and Ariel spring to mind, and there is a dash of Kim. It was the oddity, independence, charm, curiosity and imagination that gave him the cover-name of “Changeling” in our dispatches from Crete.
It seemed strange that someone so inventive could, when he took pen in hand, be so truthful, and it was puzzling that the war-like but unlettered mountain-world could give birth to anyone so gifted.
His pluck, flair and defiance of fatigue and danger were of the greatest help in many contingencies, particularly in rushing signals from cave after cave arranging the departure of General Kreipe.
He was happiest when writing. His last work was a poetic dialogue with Charon who, in modern Greek folklore, is not only the ferryman of the Styx, but also Death himself. We never lost touch.
‘We never lost touch’ excepting, I suspect, the time George spent in jail after the anti communist persecutions following the end of war.
Two inspirational and fantastic men
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