Remembering the 1953 Kefalonia Earthquake Disaster
August 12, 2012
Today marks the 59th anniversary of the Great Ionian Earthquake. The 1953 disaster killed hundreds of people on the island of Kefalonia, destroying most of its buildings. Thousands were made homeless and forced to evacuate. The neighboring islands of Zante (Zakynthos) and Ithaca suffered similar fates.
Even though I have no family connections, the time spent investigating the event brought the tragedy close to my heart. For those not familiar, over a hundred tremors were reported in mid-August of that year, culminating in a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that lifted the island sixty centimeters. In my fictional version, I concentrate on the days of August 9, 11, and 12.
During my research, I contacted Eleni Villianou, who runs a Kefalonia history and genealogy website. She kindly provided advice on Greek customs and social conditions on the island in the fifties. I got an unexpected bonus when her husband, Dionysis, narrated an account of his experiences in the town of Lixouri during the week of the disaster.
Fourteen-year-old Dionysis Synodinos-Vallianos had been sleeping in his tree house on the morning of Sunday, August 9 when a 6.4 quake struck. His memories of that event inspired my Tree House chapter with the Katros and Matsakis children. At the time of the “Big One”, Dion was in the fields with his parents, picking grapes, while the younger children played in a pear tree. This description, of a rural scene, formed my own picture of the fictional Katros smallholding.
Dionysis was struggling with health issues in the year I finished the first draft. It took me another eight or nine months of edits before I mailed out copies for my beta readers.
I sent the manuscript to Eleni and received a reply a few months later. While I was delighted to hear that I’d captured the essence of the island, I was sad to learn that Dionysis had passed away; Eleni told me he’d been looking forward to reading my book.
Born in the US, Eleni (Elaine) has lived in Kefalonia for more than thirty years. Quite by chance, the main female character in MAGIC is an American named Elena. The fictional Elena struggles with the decision to leave the US for Greece just as Eleni did when she married Dion.
I was further touched to read in Eleni’s email that she planned a day-out with her sister-in-law on the following Saturday – the date of her wedding anniversary. They had chosen to visit the little port of Fiskardo on the other side of the island; the location where my two protagonists meet.
Eleni told me she’d be thinking of Dion and my characters too.
Thanks for sharing your memories, Dionysis. I dedicate the book to your memory.
As I prepare to publish this article, news is breaking of two earthquakes in northwest Iran. Many fatalities are being reported. My thoughts go out to the victims and their families.