Lillia, aged 16 in 1949, points to the mountaintop
battleground where she had just escaped from the Communist
guerrillas during the Greek Civil War
Last Monday, October 8, Glykeria (Lillia) Economou, 79, the sister of my husband Nicholas Gage, died of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. She was, as our priest Father Dean Paleologos said on Thursday at her funeral at St. Spyridon Cathedral in Worcester, MA, a true “profile in courage”.
Lillia was third in line of four sisters and a young brother born to Christos and Eleni Gatzoyiannis in the Greek mountaintop village of Lia, Greece. In her childhood, from 1940 on, their village was invaded by Italian soldiers, then Germans who burned down her grandfather’s house along with an old woman relative who refused to leave her goats. Next, in 1948, their village was occupied by the Communists guerrilla army during the Greek Civil war. By then Lillia was 15 years old.
The children’s father, Christos, worked in Worcester, MA as a chef, and after his last visit in 1939, he was unable to return to help his family because of the war. When Eleni Gatzoyiannis learned that the guerrillas were planning to collect the children of her village and send them behind the Iron Curtain to train them as future Communist soldiers (as they ultimately did in many villages), she began to plan her children’s escape, so that they could eventually join their father in America.
At the last moment—as Nick has recounted in the book and film “Eleni” and the subsequent book “A Place for Us”—the guerrillas demanded two women from their household to go to a distant village to harvest wheat. Their mother Eleni chose herself and, when she asked who else might go with her, Lillia, although third oldest and only 15, volunteered: “Let me go. I’m stronger and I’ll be all right.”
While her brother and three sisters fled down the mountain on foot under cover of darkness and reached Greek government forces the next morning, their mother was imprisoned, tortured and executed for planning the escape. Afterwards, Lillia was taken, with the surviving villagers behind the Iron Curtain into Albania. On the overcrowded boat filled with 250 women and children, violently seasick and crammed together, Lillia reached out and grabbed the clothing of a girl, her 11-year-old cousin Niki, who nearly fell into the sea as she was vomiting over the side. Niki had lost her own mother to the firing squad that killed Eleni Gatzoyiannis and 12 others. Their bodies were thrown into a ravine and left unburied.
After sleeping in a stable and scrounging for dandelions and other weeds to supplement their ration of one hard roll a day, Lillia was forcibly conscripted into the guerrilla army and sent at 16 to the battlefront back in Greece. Because she refused to carry a rifle, she was given a field radio. In a brutal battle in the mountains of Vitsi in Macedonia, as the guerrillas retreated, Lillia hid among dead bodies in a ravine until the Nationlist soldiers arrived and she surrendered.
A colonel in the Nationalist army who knew her grandfather recognized the girl. After being interviewed about the positions and fortifications of the guerrillas, she was sent to a detention center in Kastoria, Greece. The black and white photo above shows her, aged 16, pointing to the mountaintop battleground where she had just escaped from the guerrillas.
On August 24, 1949, a telegram sent by a relative in Kastoria reached her father and siblings in Worcester, saying that Lillia had been found alive. On Feb. 10 1950, she arrived in New York harbor on the steamship LaGuardia, and was met by her father. Her escape and arrival were covered in the Worcester newspapers.
Like her two older sisters, Lillia, by then 17, worked at Greek-owned Table Talk Bakeries, where she didn’t need to know English. In 1956 she married a fellow immigrant, Prokopi (Paul) Economou. With her husband, she operated the Westboro House of Pizza in a two-decker on East Main Street in Westborough, MA. After Prokopi’s death in 1993, their two sons took over, expanding it into the present Westboro House Restaurant and Lounge.
Lillia was the glue that held Worcester’s large Greek community together, and she was also the telegraph operator that spread and commented on all the news within that community.
At Lillia’s funeral last Thursday, our daughter Eleni, who carries the name of her grandmother, who died because she saved four of her five children, gave a brief eulogy to her “Thitsa Lillia”. In it she said:
Lillia holding our granddaughter Amalía, Eleni's daughter, last year.
The baby's father, Emilio Baltodano, is behind her
“Thitsa Lillia was a celebrated chef and a beloved local businessperson running the Westboro House of Pizza with Theio Prokopi. And she was a mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, and friend whose love was all-encompassing. She was so warm, even her customers called her Mom."
Despite all the challenges fate threw at Lillia, from the murder of her mother to her conscription at 16 into the guerrilla army to the early death of her beloved husband, she somehow managed to remain, as Father Dean said at her funeral, the kind of person who saw her lot as a glass half full instead of a glass half empty. Throughout her life, Lillia managed to enjoy her family, her grandchildren, her occasional visits back to the village of Lia where she was born.
She longed to return to Lia one more time at the paneyiri--the three-day celebration that happens every August to mark the village's saint's day--the festival of the Prophet Elias. She never made it back, but next year, as we, God willing, join the throng who climb to the top of the mountain to ring the bell of the small Chapel of St. Elias and then descend to the waterfall to eat and dance, we know that Lillia will be there with us in spirit, observing all the village and family news and gossip and passing it on to the heavenly host.