Theio Yianni

In spite of the fires, we finally got to visit my Uncle John Haralambopoulos (or Theio Yianni, as we say in Greek – though many now call him Barba Yianni (from what I can gather, Barba is a term of endearment/respect for an older man, it’s a bit like “uncle,” though people who aren’t your relatives can still use it).

Theio Yianni is, I believe, the most senior member of the main left party (aka Socialist party, aka PASOK) here in Greece.

He retired from politics 3 years ago or so, was a member of parliament for three or four decades, and served as the Greek Foreign Minister, Defense Minister, UN Ambassador and Deputy Prime Minister under the government of Andreas Papandreou.

My Theio Yianni Haralambopoulos and his wife, my Aunt Aga, at the summer home near Kalamata, Greece. Both are amazingly in their 90s.

My theio Yianni Haralambopoulos and his wife, my aunt Aga, at the summer home near Kalamata, Greece. Both are amazingly approaching 90 years of age.

For heading up the resistance against the military junta that controlled Greece (with US support) from the late 60s to the early 70s, Uncle John was repeatedly arrested and regularly beaten. He told me that he still gets terrible headaches every day from the beatings they gave him to the back of his head, now over 30 years ago. He was then exiled to a prison island, affectionately known as Devil’s Island, for four years. My aunt Aga, his wife, told me that she sent him some olive oil one time in prison. In the bottom of the container was a secret panel in which she hid a transistor radio, his only contact with the outside world for months until the junta fell and he was released.

Uncle John is a stately figure. Tall, confident, long swirling mustache like some figure out of Greek history (he actually resembles the statue of Kolokotronis, the Greek revolution hero). I’d met him 20 years ago when he was Greece’s defense minister. But the big surprise of this trip was his wife, Aga, whom I’d never met. What an unexpected joy. Uncle John is around 88 or so. I believe Theia (aunt) Aga is more senior. You’d think she was 60. What an amazing presence and mind this woman has. It was like meeting someone I’d known all my life, and wished I’d known all my life. She has been for decades and decades a leader in the Greek women’s movement. She’s as smart as she is politically savvy, a wealth of data stored inside her head. I was simply blown away. I was so looking forward to talking with Uncle John about the family history and politics this weekend, and we did, but Theia Aga was the unexpected treat.

My theio Yianni Haralambopoulos.

My theio Yianni Haralambopoulos.

Unfortunately, Uncle John asked that our weekend discussions be kept off the record. He stopped giving interviews a few years ago, and thus doesn’t want to be quoted about politics, understandably. So I can’t fill you in on the substance of our discussions (other than the details of our famous uncle, Dimitris Papatsoris, who helped lead the revolution against the Turks in 1821 – he said that I could share his views on Greek history – I’ll get to that another time).

But it really is amazing to meet people who have lived through history that we can’t even imagine. Being born in a small village in southern Greece (Uncle John’s mom and my grandma (yiayia) were sisters). He grew up a few blocks away from my mom in a town called Dorio (though we’re actually from Soulima). To come from a village, then go through WWII, where he fought in exile during the German occupation of Greece, to watch your country then succumb to a military coup and watch yourself and your sons be thrown in jail and tortured for simply supporting democracy… all things that are hard to imagine for an American. I suspect all of these experiences give Uncle John, and all Greeks of his generation, a special appreciation for democracy and freedom that most Americans know in name only.

A crowd welcome my Uncle John Haralambopoulos' release from prison on July 26, 1974; two days after the Greek junta fell.

A crowd celebrates my Uncle John Haralambopoulos’ release from prison on July 26, 1974; two days after the Greek junta fell.

It’s difficult, I suspect, to truly appreciate freedom, and the sacrifices you have to make to preserve that freedom, unless you’ve had it brutally taken away by a “benevolent” government. Yes, Americans like to talk about “freedom,” but far too many have shown, since September 11, almost a disgust for our way of government and the values and rights it represents and engenders. I often wonder if the majority of Americans won’t recognize the danger that omnipotent and omniscient government poses until each and every one of them suffer personally from the “benevolence” of such a government.

Uncle John, along with my much older ancestor Papatsoris, have had a profound impact on my career choices. I really feel as though my work in politics, my advocacy for human rights, and my general love of all things international, have been inspired by, and are the natural continuation of, a long line of political leaders who believed they could change the world around them. And they did.

UPDATE: Theio Yianni passed away in October of 2014. Theia Aga passed away a few years before that.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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