What Starving Greeks Ate During the German Occupation

It is a lingering nightmare for the few remaining survivors: memories of the suffering, starvation, and widespread death during the time of the Nazi occupation of Greece, between April 1941 and October 1944.

As German forces marched into Athens in April 1941, the citizens of the capital and, subsequently, the rest of Greece, had little idea what was to follow. Soon, however, the Nazi occupiers would show just how brutal their unwelcome stay in Greece would be, perpetrating numerous atrocities and reprisals and imposing mass starvation.

A particularly inhuman method implemented by the German army was to ransack food stores, steal livestock, and pillage agricultural land in order to feed the Nazi troops. It wasn’t long before food supplies for Greeks ran dry, with most of what little food remained available to those residing int he capital. Staples like flour or potatoes were very hard to find, and black marketeers became rich selling basic goods at highly inflated prices. Those who could not afford this overpriced food simply starved to death. In the winter of 1941-1942 alone, 40,000 Greeks died of starvation.

Greeks had to seek out alternative foods in order to survive. These foods mostly consisted of items that they would not consider consuming during times of peace.

A book entitled Recipes of Hunger, Life in Athens During the Occupation, published by Oxygen Editions, presents research conducted by teacher and author Helen Nikolaidou, who has performed research and written several scientific books regarding the sources of food available to the people of Athens during the Nazi occupation.

At the time, Greek newspapers offered recipes which utilized the few food items that were available, at least to those fortunate enough to procure those ingredients. One excerpt from a newspaper column of that era reads, “Take the tomatoes, if you find them, make them smooth, then boil and then add the olives: five to six olives for every family member. There, you have a delicious soup that you had not thought of before.”

Greeks also resorted to wild greens that grew on the hills and mountains surrounding Athens. Raisins were also sought after, for their high nutritious value.

Chef Nikolaos Tselementes, whose last name became synonymous with Greek cookbooks, was a newspaper columnist during the period of the occupation. His writings offered practical advice for using ingredients such as leftover beans, which were transformed during wartime from a staple of the poor to a delicacy for the few: “Chop the leftovers, pour them into the pot, add some water, put some olives and prepare the soup.”

Greens, potatoes, cabbage, spinach pilaf, eggplant, rice, and trahana (a mixture of fermented grain and yogurt) were the foods consumed most often by Athenians during the war. In more desperate cases, grass, flowers, and donkey heads featured in the pots of the less fortunate. The above dishes earned the monicker “war food,” but they nevertheless sustained most people.

During holidays, the best gift to give would be food, whatever was available that could be spared. During the first winter of German occupation, cats and dogs disappeared from the city, while donkeys were sold as “beef” and horse meat also ended up on the plates of the more fortunate.

Most Athenians, however, were fed by the soup kitchens set up by the Church of Greece and the Red Cross. The lines were long and tiresome. There were times that people queued for hours, only for food to run out before their turn had arrived.