Rozalia
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history         of Rozalia

The mad woman of Exarcheia

A Friday morning in May, the square is still empty. Soon, at the corner of St Themistokleous and St Andrea Metaxa, the small tables of the “Ancient” will be lined up under the trees and the sunblinds and will be crowded. The “Ancient”, a 2 storey building, was once the Delicatessen of Stavros Xinogalas, and is now the meeting point for the young. Boys with worn out jeans will park their scooters down the street and will gather round in a nonchalant way, girls with unkempt hair will keep looking everywhere with seeming nonchalance, some will order a “café frappe”, other will ask for a cold chocolate…

There won’t be a free chair left at the corner of the Themistokleous and Valtetsiou streets either, which was used to be the neighborhood cheese shop. It will get really busy in front of the former bakery Floral too. It was from the ground floor of this blue building that the alarm bell would ring out during the war. On the other side, at the corner of Themistokleous and Arachovis streets there was an open air cinema.

I enter the Valtetsiou mall. I pass between tables covered in chequered plastic tablecloths. On my left side the “Rozalia” tavern, the very place where Madam Augusta’s basement once was.

“If you don’t finish your oatflakes, I will call Madam Augusta” was what mothers from the neighborhood used to tell their children during the Occupation to frighten them.

Oatflakes were cooked when nothing else could be found at Stavros Xinoglas Delicatessen – a handful of rice full of stones, some dry rotten vegetables, some flour crawling with vermin. And the kids had to swallow the oatflakes to make sure they would have some flesh on their bones.

But Madam Augusta wasn’t only the terror when it came to oatflakes. She was also the same for the bad behaviour, for tumbles down Strephi hill, for scratched knees. Madam Augusta’s name would be used by mothers for the used clothes that would tear while playing cops and robbers or hide-and-seek or even playing war with improvised wooden weapons…

“I will call Madam Augusta!”

And all at one everyone would stand to attention. All of them, my brother Manu and his friends Milon, Leonidas, Jourdain, Alekos, and the others were already going to school. And me the little one, the only girl, “the baby’ of the gang.

How not to be scared stiff of Madam Augusta? People said that she ate children. Her wild expression, her crow-black dyed hair, her hooked nose, her hunched back, and her dirty ragged clothes that dragged around her feet. She appeared from time to time, on the doorstep, muttering incomprehensible words, gathering left over food that Ioanna, who worked at Xinoglas, sometimes left for her, and letting herself once again be swallowed by the shadow of her basement, from which came strange inexplicable noises. And at night time, so it was said in the neighbourhood, she walked the streets, even though it was mortally dangerous to go out after curfew.

“No way. I don’t believe she eats children” says Milon, lifting his head fiercely, he believed he was bigger than the others.

“Well I believe it” trembled Jourdain.

“Me too” cried Leonidas, working himself up “the day before yesterday again, I saw with my own eyes and boy in the basement. I saw him I tell you. He was skinny with a pale face and he was wearing torn blue trousers”.

“And how could you see him, seeing it was dark inside?” Alekos looked at him with a distrustful expression. “And where is he know, and how has it happened that no one else has seen him?”

“Because she has eaten him, you dummy”, Leonidas responded, triumphantly.

It was impossible for me to calm down that evening. And Madam Augusta became more and more terrible in my head. A horrible monster, a frightening sorceress, worse even than dragons who froze my blood each day I saw them passing, carrying out menacingly their tour of the neighbourhood with their khaki green uniforms and their shiny boots that they clicked hard on the cobblestones – gap goup – the adults called them Nazis.

Until one day, Madam Augusta disappeared from the neighbourhood. That must have been in December 1943.
“She must have died of hunger and been collected by the council” said my father, shaking his head.
“Surely she went out one night and was sent away by the Gestapo, what do you think, she was mad” my mother spoke her thoughts aloud.
“Perhaps she was caught for another reason”, murmured my cousin Olga, with a knowing air. Olga was like my second mother, big sister, she was aware of everything that happed in the neighbourhood. We never knew in the end how Madam Augusta had disappeard.

Many years later, I came across a book with the names of the resistance fighters who had been executed by the Germans. My eyes stopped on a name both familiar and unusual:
“Augusta…” I couldn’t remember any more the family name.
It was written underneath “Stopped in December 1943, having acted under the pseudonym Rozalia”. Judged and condemned to death for having helped and hidden British spies as well as members of the Greek resistance. Also accused of having printed leaflets, that were found in her house. Executed 1st May 1944 at Kaisariane”

It was written that her neighbours treated her like a madwoman, or that her house was in Exarchia in Valtetsiou street. Nor was it written that she frightened children with her wild expression and her crooked nose, her crow-black bushy hair, and the strange noises that came from her basement – at the exact place where the restaurant Rozalia stands today…

A Friday morning in May, and the square is deserted for a moment. It is soon filled with girls with unkempt hair, and boys with worn out jeans – big children, at the height of their madness: some have doubts, talents and dreams, others, despair, injuries and nightmares.

And me, I head back up Valtetsiou St, my age and my memories…
And I ask myself each time:
Was it our Madam Augusta that this book was talking about?
Was it really true that the madwoman of Exarchia worked for the Resistance?
Or is the name of the restaurant just a coincidence?

 

An extract from the work “The time of chocolate” by Loty Petrovits Andrutsopulou
Published by Pataki, 2007.
« The time of chocolate » is a collection of stories
of the years of the occupation – 2nd world war,
a collection of deeply moving stories,
that the author had experienced in his youth. (Unofficial translation of his work) ».

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