A haunting ultimatum: work or die

Man abused by Nazis seeks compensation

July 14, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The old Austrian cities of Graz and Innsbruck offer tourists high culture, great winter sports, good beer and rich food. But they evoke in Baltimore's Savas Kardiasmenos memories of fear, hunger, oppression and unremitting slave labor.

Kardiasmenos spent 3 1/2 years of World War II in Nazi work camps near Graz and Innsbruck where often the only alternative to unpaid forced labor was death.

Now he wants to be paid for all his hard work.

When he was taken hostage by German SS troops in the summer of 1941, Kardiasmenos was 21 years old and a U.S. citizen who had grown up in Greece in a lovely coastal town called Leonidion. He was born in New York City, but his parents returned to Greece when he was younger than 2 years old.

He's 80 now, a bluff man in a striped shirt sitting under small Greek flags in his paneled kitchen. He lives on Newkirk Street with his wife, Metaxia, who greets visitors with a table full of Greek pastries, small spicy meatballs and other delicacies.

Kardiasmenos had gone to Athens to work a few months before the Germans occupied Greece in April 1941. SS men caught him up in a sweep after a German soldier was shot by partisans.

He knew they were SS men by the death's head insignia on their caps. And he knew what SS meant: "The Germans that kill."

They threatened to shoot the Greeks they had picked up. The reprisal ratio in occupied Europe was generally 10 civilians for one German soldier, a kind of deadly benchmark often grossly exceeded.

"They gave him an offer," says state Sen. Perry Sfikas, translating for Kardiasmenos, whose English remains halting after more than a half-century back in the country of his birth.

"You will go to Germany as a laborer or die."

Like hundreds of thousands of people in Nazi-occupied countries, Kardiasmenos became a slave laborer.

Sfikas first heard Kardiasmenos' story when Mrs. Kardiasmenos approached him after a community meeting in St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. She showed him a clipping from The Sun, which told of compensation being paid to Americans who survived Nazi concentration camps.

"My husband was a survivor," she said.

After some study, Sfikas' law firm took on Kardiasmenos' case and filed a civil suit in federal court asking $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages against two dozen German and American companies, known and unknown, which they allege benefited from Nazi slave labor.

In 1941, after three or four days of beatings by the SS in Athens, Kardiasmenos was put on a train he thought was going to Germany. But he was dropped off in Graz, after frequent halts during air raids.

He was lodged in bare wooden barracks under harsh guards and put to work making minor automotive repairs.

`I didn't scream'

He had begun a stark passage through slave labor camps that would take him roughly from one end of Austria to the other.

Work was hard: "From when the sun was coming up to when the sun was going down," he says.

Food scarce: "Potatoes. Occasionally rice. But potatoes all the time. I don't eat potatoes today."

Beatings frequent: "I stole a radish and they made me drop my pants and they whipped me."

If he screamed, the beating continued. He remembers a friend who went crazy as he screamed and the Germans beat him more and more, 50, then 60 strokes.

"I didn't scream," Kardiasmenos says. "I bit my hand."

He got 15 lashes.

A kind of declension of brutality prevailed among the guards: "The Austrians were all right. German soldiers bad. If it was German SS, oh my God!"

Brutally beaten

The Germans brought a bushel of rotten apples one day. A young prisoner objected and a guard slugged him.

"I took the basket and threw it at him," Kardiasmenos says. He was taken away and three men, probably Gestapo agents, beat him for four hours. "With a club, with fists, with feet, with a chair."

Kardiasmenos was hauled half-conscious to a jail little bigger than his rowhouse basement. He spent a month there jammed with 50 other prisoners before returning to the work camp.

After about a year at Graz, he was sent across Austria to Innsbruck, where he was made to dig ditches summer and winter. One snowy day in midwinter, a German "captain" decided if he made his prisoners take their shirts off, they would work faster to keep warm.

Kardiasmenos got pneumonia. He survived with the help of another prisoner, a Russian doctor who nursed him back to something like health.

" `You're not going to die,' she said. `I've taken an oath to save lives.' "

The war ended for him at an old iron-making town called Donawitz, once again not far from Graz. He liked it better there.

"I worked inside and it was warm," he says.

The Russian Army occupied Graz in May 1945 and Kardiasmenos was liberated. His family had already begun a Red Cross search and he was recognized as an American citizen.

He returned to New York in December 1946 aboard the U.S. Lines ship Ernie Pyle. He worked for years in Manhattan as a waiter in a place called the Paradise Restaurant.

He moved to Baltimore in 1960 and got a job as head waiter at the old Acropolis nightclub on Broadway in Fells Point.

He's retired, and he has health problems. He smokes Kent Golden Lights and watches Greek television. He survives.

And when he thinks about the past, he wonders whether compensation can assuage the pain and sorrow of his war years as a slave laborer.

"I hope," he says, with gruff simplicity.

Pub Date: 7/14/99

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