The video I’ve attached may not be to everyone’s taste, a 1966 documentary that in the ponderous television English of that era tells the story of a Canadian who returned to Sifnos to thank islanders for having saved him during the Second World War. But I consider it a treasure and it’s a story I’d never heard before now.
On November 7, 1943, Robert Adams, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot who had been loaned to the British RAF, was flying his Wellington bomber off the coast of the Sifnos when it was hit by German fire and ditched into the sea a half mile from Chryssopigi. He and his crew, four Britons and one Australian, struggled to shore and took refuge under a tree. Some hours later Giorgios Karavas, a local farmer, found them huddled there and took them into his home. Over the next days Sifnians, at one of the worst times of their lives, treated these strangers with the utmost of kindness, generosity and selflessness. As, in my experience, Sifnians always do. They sheltered the men and hid them in a mountain-top monastery until a navy ship disguised as a fishing boat arrived in the middle of the night to spirit them away.
But though Bob Adams had left Sifnos, it would not leave him. Over the years, he sent back small gifts for the school children and in 1966, he returned, this time with a CBC camera crew following along. Perhaps to his surprise, he found that in the interim his story had been told and retold and he’d become somewhat of a celebrity there. He was met at the port by the chief of police and honoured at more than one official dinner. He visited the school where children sang to him in Greek, greeted him in the shy English they’d learned for the occasion, and presented him with a bouquet of “flowers from our vee-lage.”
As for me, as I watched this film, I practically vibrated at so many of its details. Of course, much has changed since 1966, a time when electricity was new, the cinema in Apollonia too, when the first road had just been built and there were but four cars on the island to drive it. But so very much has not. The terraced hillsides with their stone walls, erected over thousands of years, are still there. The ancient paths through the fields. The churches large and small in towns, on hilltops and in valley bottoms. The monastery of To Vouno where the men were kept hidden, and the stone table in its courtyard, the very table I rested my elbows upon no more than two months ago now.
Nor have its people, with a generosity of spirit that remains to this day. “All day long, men and women swarmed up that hill,” Bob Adams said. At a time when many on the island were literally starving, they brought gifts to the airmen of bread and cheese, eggs and cookies, almonds and figs. They brought lutes and violins, too. “They were shaking your hand,” he said, “and kissing you and handing you food.”
In the 1966 film, he met Antonis Troullos, the handsome young school teacher who’d prepared his students so well, and when I saw that, I found myself … well, tingling. I’d never heard of Robert Adams before, but Mr. Troullos I had, and some forty-two years later in 2008, I’d met him myself. He was an old man by then. Someone had described him to me as a learned man, one it would be worth my while to find and when I finally did, he invited me into his home and pointed me toward a shelf of books, “that I write, the history of my island.” It was with virtually these exact same words in 1966 that he presented Robert Adams with a gift of one of those very books. And thanks to a thoughtful Sifnian acquaintance of mine, her message, and the link to this film that it contained, I was able to hear him say them again. Sophia, euxaristó polí. I hope you can feel how meaningful your gift is to me. Kindness like yours and magical coincidences like this are what bring me back to Sifnos again and again.
They’re what brought Robert Adams back too. This Song Belongs to Freedom, his story is called, the title of the song the school children sang for him that day.
Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and, new in spring 2019, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.