KALAVRYTA, Greece — Canada’s prime minister is usually the focus of attention when he travels abroad, but the excitement around Stephen Harper’s trip Sunday was also about someone who came with him.
Harper’s communications director Dimitri Soudas has a close family connection with Kalavryta, a mountain region of 8,000 about three hours’ drive from Athens. The family of Soudas’ mother is from the town of Kalavryta itself.
Soudas’ grandfather was among the 498 Greek men and boys from the town rounded up and executed by the Nazis in 1943 as a reprisal for attacks by Greek guerrilla fighters. Two hundred more from the region were also killed, as the women and children hid in a local school.
The town’s history goes back farther: the Greek revolt against the Ottoman Empire began here in 1821 at the Agia Lavra monastery. The revolt eventually led to independence for Greece.
The day after the 1943 massacre, the Nazis burned the monastery down.
Harper, his wife Laureen and the Greek prime minister arrived in the town via helicopter. As he stepped out, Harper told local officials he’d heard a lot about the history of the place and was looking forward to seeing it.
Hundreds lined the streets to watch Harper and his entourage make their way through the town. They cheered and applauded as he arrived at the monastery, where he toured the chapel and small museum.
But they also obviously took pride in their direct link to the Canadian government.
At a museum to the massacre, known locally as the Holocaust of Kalavryta, the guide showing Harper around took a moment to point out the portrait of Soudas’ grandfather, hanging among dozens of others on a memorial wall.
On a hilltop overlooking the town sits a soaring stone monument to victims of the massacre. For Harper’s visit, a Canadian flag was placed off to the side.
Former Mayor George Lazouras gave a speech there before a wreath-laying ceremony. He told the assembled monks, schoolchildren, local residents and dignitaries that Canada has allowed many people of Greek origin to live there and succeed.
“One such proud example is your communications officer, Dimitri Soudas,” Lazouras said through a translator.
“That is why, prime minister, your presence here today has special importance and meaning.”
Another spokesman for Harper, Andrew MacDougall, said the prime minister chose to visit the town as a nod to its historical significance.
“There are obviously a lot of Greeks who know their history and (he came) to show them he empathizes and sympathizes with what was obviously a very dark time during the Second World War, and a very proud moment for them in 1821 when they declared their independence.”
Harper did not formally address the crowd or reporters at the wreath-laying ceremony, though he did meet Soudas’ aunt and chatted briefly with some of the people he met at the various stops.
But in response to a question called out as he was leaving the wreath-laying ceremony, he called the visit sombre.
“These are things we must never forget even as we move forward together,” Harper said.
Soudas said he never forgets.
“It was almost hard to believe that Prime Minister Harper visited the town where as a young boy, each summer, I would visit my grandmother who would tell me all about what happened during the massacre of 1943 and how she still managed in the most unimaginably difficult times to raise on her own her three daughters, including my late mother,” he wrote in an email to The Canadian Press.
Harper’s visit to Greece comes as the country faces a major economic crisis. The government is making drastic cuts as part of an austerity program.
Harper had formal bilateral meetings with Greek officials on Saturday, where he said he had confidence they could overcome their challenges.
Greece is currently dependent on billions of dollars in financing from international institutions, and political leaders failed last week to come to an agreement that would secure a further round of funding.
So, one younger resident of Kalavyrta saw Harper’s visit as an opportunity to forge new links instead of simply focusing on history.
It’s a good sign that the Canadians came to visit, said Valetine Kovaic, 21, at a local Internet cafe.
“In this crisis time, help is good from anyone,” he said.
“And this visit helps.”