Alfonso and Pelion – A Strange Story






Numerous Germans and Austrians have been attracted to Pelion, clearly seduced by the proximity of the sea and the mountain, the sharp contrasts in the vegetation – chestnuts on one side, olive groves on the other.  Add to this the charm of high quality rural architecture and that of a climate which escapes from the stifling heat of summer. Many have come to live there from the 60’s, sometimes according to the rhythms of the seasons and others in a more permanent way. Very often a holiday home acquisition becomes, later, a permanent home.  The origins of this attraction deserve closer attention.

Greece has in fact become, since the development of mass tourism in the 60’s, not only a tourist destination for foreigners who number millions (about 18 million in 2008) but also a permanent residence for some of them.  Since the end of the Civil War Pelion has welcomed a fair number of these foreigners.  As a part of Thessaly Pelion has not suffered the restrictions on property purchase by non-Greeks which has characterised other regions such as Macedonia, Thrace, Epirus and some of the Aegean islands.  In Pelion, therefore. Western European foreigners could, and can, acquire property without resorting to a proxy.

These residents were of two types. On the one hand artists, architects and more generally those who could exercise their talents without living in Germany, all the while enjoying a milder climate.  On the other hand younger people also came, those who had difficulty in fitting in to a Germany where the memories of the Nazi period were too fresh.  They asked questions about the attitude of those close to them during the period 1933 to 1945.  More generally they rejected a Germany judged ‘bourgeois’ in favour of a libertarian ideology which was beginning to flower throughout Europe and which in France has been called the “spirit of ’68”.   For a certain number of these settling in Greece was long lasting and some families have lived there for two generations, the children having attended Greek school. Latterly unions between Greek men and women haven taken place and there are many mixed couples.  For these foreigners Greece has become a second homeland, from which they have learned  the language and appreciated the culture.

Later on the retired have come to join them, for whom these considerations hardly count at all – the advantages of not too costly real estate investment in a pleasant environment have become the most important consideration.  Without doubt the arrival of foreign residents from Western Europe is not specific to Pelion, nor confined to Germans.  Many from the UK have joined them in recent years and even some French.

Several specific elements characterise this German speaking community of Pelion.

A surprising particular trait seems to be at the origin of this relocation:  the role of a literary reference and, in parallel, the example of an unusual personage, Alfonso Hochhauser, of Austrian origin who spent the greater part of his life in Pelion.

A romantic trilogy

Three books are usually found on the bookshelves of the Germans and Austrians of Pelion.  Their author is the German novelist and essayist Werner Helwig, born in Hamburg in 1905 (that is to say a near contemporary of Alfonso Hochhauser, born in Austria on 1906) of whom he became the biographer, by virtue of three novels.  The first was entitled Raubfischer in Hellas (Fish poacher in Greece) which appeared in Leipzig in 1938.  This book was even translated into French in 1942.  Then followed Im Dickicht des Pelion (In the Thickets of Pelion), published at first by Asmus in Leipzig in 1941, and finally Reise ohne Heimkehr (Voyage of no Return) which appeared after the war in Hamburg in 1953.

The later editions of the war period were printed in Oslo, in a Norway then occupied by Germans, and not in Germany.  Perhaps one should discern in these contradictions a reflection of the very particular condition of Werner Helwig.  Despite his being able to have previously some sympathy for certain forms of national socialist ideologies, or rather those of the Hitler Youth, Werner Helwig left Germany at the moment when Hitler took power in 1933.  He lived afterwards in Switzerland, until 1945, and then he stayed on until his death in 1985.

The fact that Alfonso Hochhauser spent many years as a fisherman, then as a renter of accommodation in Pelion, would have remained almost unknown if his history had not been recounted and brought alive by Werner Helwig.  Many Germans have come to Pelion as a result of reading Werner Helwig or through friends who have read him.  The novels of the trilogy have served as an intermediary for a journey in Greece, followed by a stay for several months, some years or a whole life.

Numerous subsequent editions of these works were published of which the last was in 1991 in a paper-back collection in Stuttgart.  Their fate during the Nazi regime is particularly surprising.  On the one hand their circulation was forbidden throughout the territory of the Reich and, on the other, these books were recommended to soldiers of the Wehrmacht.

A case of seduction by well written fiction?  Without a doubt the first book recounts, in its way, the life of Alfonso, alias Xenophon, who had become a fisherman, became subject to the tyrannical authority of a ‘master’ fisherman adept at the use of dynamite to fish, and who tried to find a way to freedom.  The second book leaves behind the Aegean for the huts of the charcoal workers in the forest and the scrub of the countryside away from the sea.  These books are also a song of praise to the simple life of the Greece of the fishermen and loggers; their way of eating, drinking, working and relaxing without pledging themselves to a mechanised and urban civilisation.  However, if these novels are a work of literary fiction, they have as a framework a real life personality that Werner Helwig had met and with whom he had shared his life on several occasions in the ’30s.

This man, Alfonso Hochhauser, was born in 1906 in the small town of Judenburg in Styria.  Son of an artisan, he felt stifled by the family and town environment. Austria, born of the Treaty of St. Germain en Laye (1919), passed through a painful and difficult post war period and Alfonso fled his family for the first time at the age of 17.  He returned, then left again for a journey towards the East.  He arrived in Thessaloniki in the company of three young Austrians and had to leave without having realised his project, which was to publicise and bring to fruition the films which he wished to make with a camera given by his parents.  Seduced by Greece he returned soon after in 1927 and lived there until 1938, at which date he became a German citizen (a consequence of the Anschluss) and was extradited from Greek territory.  During these eleven bucolic years spent in Pelion, Alfonso, as he was called by the Greeks, received three separate visits from Werner Helwig, in 1935, 1937 and again in 1938.  These three visits furnished Helwig with the material for his books,  the first of which appeared immediately after 1939.

Pre-war Walter Hochhauser and the ‘Wandervogel’

The attraction exercised by the novels of Werner Helwig delves into the origins of the history of Germany of the 19th century and in the naturist ideology which developed in the Germany of Wilhelm.  This promoted the return to nature and the rejection of urban and industrialised civilisation.  This naturist ideology met up with the related movement of scouting which was born in the UK at the same time.  This movement is that of the Wandervogel: literally migrating birds.  The movement was founded in 1901 in Germany.  However, much affected by the revolutionary period which followed the First World War, it collapsed before being subsequently picked up and renamed Nerother Wandervogel, Nerother being the place in the Eifel Mountains where the new founder, Robert Oldermann, rebuilt a castle which would be the organisational base of the movement. Werner Helwig was very much involved in the Wandervogel movement for which he composed hymns and songs.  The “Leader” of the Wandervogel, elected for life, believed in the possibility of infiltrating the Hitler Youth, with whom he shared some of their ideology.  However things went very badly for the Wandervogel.  Robert Oldermann was arrested in 1936 and died in the Dachau concentration camp in 1941. The movement was taken over by Robert’s brother, Karl, who emigrated to South Africa and returned to Germany after the War.

This detour around the Wandervogel leads back to Alfonso Hochhauser who had been seen by Helwig  as a living witness and an example for the movement.  In fact one of the favourite exercises of the Wandervogel, which justifies the name, is the initiation journey by adolescents who leave home for a long period and are obliged to depend entirely on themselves to ensure their subsistence and the costs of their journey.  Alfonso, like the Wandervogel, wanted to reconnect with nature and to abandon, as far as possible, the mechanised and urban civilisation, to rediscover the taste of physical fatigue and to rid themselves of the amenities of the modern world.  The life of Alfonso, such as it was perceived by Helwig, appeared as an archetype – the realisation of the ideal of the Wandervogel.

This idealisation brought with it, without doubt, confusion and scorn.  The ideal life thus described seemed completely at odds with the development of Greek society and in particular of the Greek society in Pelion, such as it evolved after the War.  In effect there was a considerable mismatch between the society described and idealised in the novels, that of the ’30s, a poor society who were early emigrants to the US and to Egypt, a post-war society who wanted nothing more than to enter the urban and industrialised world from which Alfonso and his biographer wished to flee.  Furthermore Helwig’s description finishes at the position observed before 1939, even if the last volume, “Journey of no Return”, certainly the least influential, did not appear until 1953.

During the war

Alfonso Hochhauser left Greece in 1938 and his story takes another turn before his definitive return to Greece in 1957.  His absence, therefore, lasted for almost 20  years.  He was 33 years old when war was declared.  He did not seem at all concerned about becoming involved in the conflict.  He was enlisted in Styria, the province of his birth, then worked as a  bunker hand on a ship in the Baltic, and  was subsequently recruited into the interpretation service of the army because of his knowledge of Greek.  It was then that a sub-aqua pioneer, Hans Haas, an Austrian who mounted expeditions and whose technical knowledge in matters of diving interested the Wehrmacht, intervened.  Hans Haas recruited Alfonso Hochhauser for an expedition in the Aegean Sea in 1941-42; he had also read “Raubfischer in Hellas” and he knew Alfonso through his reading.  After this expedition Alfonso was incorporated as a military interpreter in the service of Group 510 of the German army in Greece.  He was badly wounded in the head on the 10th June 1944 during a battle with partisans in the village of Stiri, near Distomo in Beotia.  It was following this confrontation that the German army destroyed the village of Distimo and massacred its 200 residents.

After the war Alfonso was asked for again by Hans Haas, and worked with him until 1956.  Several expeditions were undertaken, in particular in the Red Sea.  Three documentary films appeared in which Alfonso played minor roles:

Menschen unter Haien (Men among Sharks 1948); Abenteuer im roten Meer (Under Red Sea 1951); Unternehmen Tarifa (The enterprise of Tarifa 1954).

These films gave birth to the idea of making a film of fiction; more ambitious and based on the novel of Werner Helwig “Raubfischer in Hellas”.  This film, which takes the title of the book (catalogued as As the Sea Rages) was directed by Hans Haas, and appeared on the screen in 1959. The principal actress was the Austrian Maria Schell; Cliff Robertson and Cameron Mitchell also had roles.  It was a commercial failure and a mediocre film, but as a result a serious quarrel broke out between Hochhauser and Helwig on the question of the rights to the film. To whom should they belong?  To the author of the novel or to his inspiration?  The two friends had a long lasting disagreement but their relationship was already burdened by the same question relating to author’s rights to the novels.  It seems clear that Hochhauser always took the devil by the horns.

The return to Greece

When Alfonso returned to Greece in 1957 he was already over 50 and needed to earn a living.  So began the second period in Greece of this personality, which lasted until his death in 1981, near to Zagora, in the Pelion which he had helped to make well known.

He improvised at that time as a hotelier and tourism entrepreneur.  He leased an abandoned monastery on the tiny island of Palaio Trikeri, facing the village of Trikeri.  Trikeri is to be found in a very particular position in Pelion, of which it is the southernmost village at the far end of the peninsula.  The tarmac road which links it to the other Pelion villages is quite recent and dates back just 15 or so years.  Before its construction it was impossible to reach Trikeri other than by boat or at the most by a mule-track, a journey which took a whole day from Milina, the nearest community.  At first sight the rough limestone range which separates Trikeri from the rest of Pelion has nothing to offer; it is totally without drinking water and only good for goats with a few olive trees in the hollows.  The little island of Palaio Trikeri had been used during the Civil War as a prison for female political prisoners.

Germans who had spent their youth at the monastery of Palaio Trikeri describe an Alfonso who organised boat trips to the coasts and the Sporades islands.  Alfonso tried to convince the locals to abandon their motorised boats in favour of boats with oars.  The comfort of the cells was rustic but the prices were not very cheap.  A young person who stayed in a dormitory of six beds paid 45 drachma per day during 13 days in 1962. At this time a coffee would cost 2 drachmas and I remember having lunched in Thessaloniki for 7 drx.  A German remembers a lively discussion concerning the prices asked of the young ladies. From the beginning Alfonso exercised his authority with goodwill and on a rowdy evening would appear in his long white night shirt with a candle in his hand and with the recommendation merely to moderate the alcohol consumption.

In a letter addressed to the mother of a young man who asked for some details regarding the quality of the food, Alfonso was reassuring.  He boasted about the merits of the dry bean soup, the fasolada, and explained that it lacked for nothing.  Alfonso was not a proselytiser and for the young people, interested above all in sports and fishing, the system appeared excellent.

The reputation of Alfonso’s monastic ‘inn’ was also maintained by the Austrian press; series of articles were devoted to him in weekly magazines.

The Trikeri enterprise ceased in 1969 because the Church increased the licence fee and Alfonso decided to end his contract and  leave Palaio Trikeri.  He needed to find another place to carry out his activities.  He returned to the area situated on the NE coast of Pelion, between Zagora and Veneto, where he had lived before the war.  He moved to a place by the name of Koulouri, a creek near to the ruins of Mitzela.

Here, however, the living conditions were more difficult. He was obliged to construct a building in which to live and which would serve as an ‘auberge’ whilst the guests were received in straw roofed cabins.  Apparently there was no lack of visitors.  All retain a clear memory of their stay and of the master of the site.  They describe him as a sort of tall, thin aesthete with chiselled features which was not far from recalling that of Henry de Monfried.  He held himself upright and even when barefoot would salute with ceremony, clicking his heels.  It was claimed that he walked on foot to Volos to sell the products of his fishing but this story is confused between the two periods of Alfonso’s life, that of the pre-war years, that of the fisherman, and that of the second period after 1969.

The adventure of Alfonso ended in 1981.  Sensing that his strength was ebbing, and having contracted an incurable illness, Alfonso left home alone on an icy 15th January with a bottle of tsipouro, the local alcohol.  Exhausted, on the road which leads to the Monastery of Flamouri, he stopped.  It was there that his body would be found.

The legend of Alfonso

This romantic finish perfects the legend.  Werner Helwig then wrote in the newspapers an emotional eulogy to the one who was his friend, whatever differences had kept them apart.  Other articles followed whilst different elements of his correspondence were made available in various places.  How then did this legend, which developed in the German-speaking countries, also belong to Greece?  Is the history of Alfonso really novel?  Alfonso followed on from other grecophiles, lovers of Greece, and Helwig  is the successor to other writers.  How many travellers have taken the road to Greece after reading Chateaubriand or even Edmond About?  Alfonso is hardly a man of letters; although self-taught he handles language quite correctly.  He is rather a man of action, anxious to convey a way of life which had charmed him in this country.  He is not a traveller after the style of Henry Miller and his Colossus of Marousi.  It is perhaps in his salient feature of a simple man, close to the people, without reference to sophisticated antiquity which exerts his attraction.  All young Germans and Austrians can compare themselves with him and want to imitate him.

The history of Alfonso is very localised, both in time and place.  It is settled in time.  He is a man of the 20th Century.  One can see at Koulouri the cabin that he built, the creek where he moored his boat, and several articles from the last years with the title “marking the traces of Alfonso Hochhauser” describe the journeys of young people who come to visit the site where he had lived.  Although in his correspondence he did not hesitate to call up ancient myths (Pelion became the mountain of the Centaurs) references to antiquity are marginal.  Alfonso took his guests to visit some ruins at Mitzela, but this site is quite modest and indeed Pelion is not particularly rich in witnesses to classical antiquity.

The history of Alfonso is also strictly limited to Pelion.  This is, at first sight, one of the parts of Greece which benefit from a well known strong regional personality of which the limits are clear and which has very marked physical characteristics.

The history of Alfonso is that of an encounter between a man and a country and this encounter enters into the timbre of a period and a society (German speaking communities after the  War).  These communities sought an outlet in the way of foreign countries, an outlet that the young French and British could find, in any event until the 50’s, in colonial adventures.

The desire to flee from a too dull daily routine touched simultaneously the youth of all the industrialised countries.  The solution of scouting and the Wandervogel responds to this need; this desire finds an echo in France in the Zellidja scholarships created by Jean Walter in 1939.  These scholarships applied to young people in the two last years of secondary school and offered them a travel grant for a minimum of one month.  Candidates had to propose a project and produce a report at the conclusion of the journey.  In certain cases the scholars had so taken to heart their project that they returned one year later.

The major reference in Great Britain was without doubt that of Patrick Leigh Fermor.  He left secondary school where his parents, who lived in India had sent him, to fulfil a tour of Europe on foot.  He left in December 1933, crossed Germany, where the Nazis had just taken power, then all the countries of central Europe, as far as Istanbul.  In the Spring of 1935 he arrived at Mt. Athos.  Several years later he wrote up his account of the journey in 2 volumes “The Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water”.  These two accounts which told the first part of his long and complicated journey up to his arrival in Bulgaria, are justifiably held up to be the master works of ‘travel writing’ in the English language.

To a much more modest degree and indirectly, through the novels of Helwig, Alfonso Hochhauser played, and continues to play for German speaking travellers, the role of a ferryman to Greece. It seems clear in addition that the myth of Alfonso has been taken up by the Greeks of the North East of Pelion.  He is equally seen, through their stories, as a German Intelligence Agent, which he could possibly also have been during the Second World War.

1 Author Professor Michel Sivignon, Paris and Kalamos Published in Revue Desmos, N° 31 de 2009 p. 17-25  Edited by the Librairie Hellénique 14 rue Vandamme, 75014 Paris

English translation Sue Wake, Lafkos

2 Further reading in Greek:  Ποιος θυμάται τον Αλφόνς Συγγραφέας: Ακρίβος Κώστας. ΣΕΙΡΑ : ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΗ ΛΟΓΟΤΕΧΝΙΑ: Πεζογραφία  ΕΚΔΟΣΗ : Μάιος 10


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