Katerina Whitley: The Life of a Storyteller
"Your total will be 15,000 drachmas."
The German soldier looked towards his Greek interpreter, his brow furrowed in confusion. As the interpreter began to speak, the German soldier's expression quickly changed from one of puzzlement to one of anger. His outrage rising, the soldier began shouting, swearing and jeering at the shopkeeper.
On the counter sat many sheets of fine leather. The small shop, located in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, sold leathers and other shoe-making supplies. Thessaloniki, alongside other major Greek territories such as Athens and the Aegean Islands, were among many territories to be occupied by the Germans during World War II, from the spring of 1941 to the autumn of 1943. Known as the Axis powers, Germany, alongside Bulgaria and Italy, occupied Greece for the duration of WWII. During this period of occupation, many German soldiers would stop by the small leather shop to purchase supplies for boots and shoes. On this particular day early in the occupation period, the German soldier had wandered into the basement of the shop, loading up his arms with all the finest leathers offered.
The soldier continued to shout, removing his gun from its holster and pointing it at the shopkeeper. Digging in his pocket with the other hand, he dropped 100 drachmas on the counter, continuing to aim his gun with skillful precision at the shopkeeper's head as he made his way out the door.
That shopkeeper was Katerina Katsarka Whitley's father. Only a child at the time, Katerina still remembers the dehumanizing feeling of occupation, the fear that accompanied every action.
"Occupation is a terrible state of being," Katerina said. "Occupation deprives you of your value as a human being, it's as if someone is controlling your life and the most ordinary activity can bring danger, even death."
In her most recent memoir, "Myth and Memory: My Childhood in WWII Greece," Katerina recalls a conversation she had with her father after two German soldiers attended their church one Sunday. Her mother, who Katerina describes as "always hospitable," later invited them to Sunday dinner, despite the barriers in language. Katerina writes of a conversation she had with her father that night, questioning why her parents had extended such hospitality to two men who were seen as enemies. Her father, gentle and kind, responded with grace.
"Daddy, are they our enemies? Josiah and Seigfried? They are German soldiers, why are they welcome in our home?" "Not every German agrees with Hitler," Daddy explained. "And those two men--they are our brothers in Christ. Their nation is cruel, but these two are not our enemies." (Whitley, 152)
For Katerina, both in her childhood in war-torn Greece and her later years in the United States, faith has been a constant source of balance and community. The Katsarka family was part of a religious minority in Greece at the time, belonging to an evangelical, Protestant group of Christians, as opposed to the Greek Orthodox faith practiced by the majority. Katerina looks back fondly on her faith community, noting that though to be Protestant was an oddity, and even somewhat dangerous at the time, she felt secure and loved amongst those with whom she worshipped.
"It was unusual to be a Protestant in Greece in the early 20th century, even more unusual because we hadn't had a lot of foreigners visit the country, so it was rare to find people that did not call themselves Greek Orthodox," Katerina recalls. "My family was Protestant from my grandfather on--my grandfather started the evangelical movement in Northern Greece. But we were a large clan and we had our own congregation where we felt at home, it gave us a sense of security, a sense of being loved by God and our families and people in the church. It was a time when one needed security, a time of war and deprivation. But no matter what, we always felt thoroughly Greek."
As the war reached its end and it became clear the Germans would lose, Greece was plagued by internal conflict. As the divide grew between the loyalists, or those who continued support of the Axis powers, and Greek nationalists, it became clear that the nation was headed towards civil war. For Katerina, still a child, the period is marked by a different tragedy, as the Katsarka family mourned the loss of one of their own.
"Once again, you never knew which Greek was a friend and which would become an enemy," Katerina notes of the period of civil war. "All that contributed to a very difficult emotional time for my mother, who ended up getting tuberculosis and dying at the end of the civil war. So in my home, we didn't just have the tragedy of the occupation and war, we had the tragedy of our mother's illness and death. It didn't make for a happy, easy childhood, but because of a lot of love it was a secure childhood."
Despite the pain of war and death, Katerina was a passionate student, musician, and writer. At school, she loved studying the romantic poets, devouring the words of poets like Woodsworth and Keats. As a lover of music and voice, she learned to love the rhythm of the English language , and practiced writing in both English and Greek. As she neared graduation, one of her teachers took note of her passion and creativity, and offered her a unique opportunity.
"The man who taught me music in my high school was an American composer, Warren F. Benson," Katerina said. "Warren liked me as a person--he asked me if I wanted to study in America and I said, 'My dad would never let me!'"
Upon his return to the states from Greece, Benson took a job as the band director at Mars Hill College, known today as Mars Hill University, in western North Carolina. Upon finding out that the university was offering scholarships to international students, Benson informed the university about Katerina, and she was offered a scholarship to study at the college upon graduating. It was quite the family excitement for the Katsarkas, but Katerina, excited about the opportunity and adventure, made the decision to move to America at just sixteen years old.
"You have to imagine a life without computers, without television, and we protestants were not allowed to go to the movies, so the only image I had of America was from books!" Katerina said. "The books that I read described something like an image of New England--snow covered carriages and jingle bells! You cannot imagine what it was like then when I got to this little campus that was just deserted and I couldn't believe my eyes. I was a city girl, I didn't know anything about the countryside."
Despite the culture shock and rarity of it all, Katerina once again found her people through her faith at Mars Hill College. In"Myth and Memory" she recalls the joy and community that she felt upon being invited to a Bible study on her first night of university.
"I sat in that room alone as night fell and wrote one of my many letters home, describing everything in glowing terms. No one must know how disappointing it all looked. I sighed. It served me right. Before I slipped into self-pity, someone knocked on the door, and two older girls looked in. They introduced themselves and said, "We are having Bible study and prayer meeting. Would you like to join us?" It was then that I knew all would be well. This was the language of my church and my family in Greece. No one among my Greek Orthodox girlfriends would ever have mentioned the Bible and prayers. This language was even more familiar than even my native tongue." (Whitley, 232-233)
During those years at university, Katerina grew in her independence, language, and faith. Following Mars Hill College she attended Furman University and then theological seminary, and upon graduating, she knew she wanted to be a storyteller, inspired by her faith and her desire to give voices to those often overlooked. Having married a born-and-bred North Carolinian and made the conscious decision to stay in America, she began working for the Diocese of Eastern North Carolina in the field of communications. After some time, she moved up to working for the episcopal Church at the national level.
"I started working for the Episcopal Church in 1981 when I started working for the [Eastern Carolina] diocesan paper," Katerina said. "I made it kind of a personal duty and passion to visit every parish in that diocese and I did. I love listening to people and telling their stories. And when I moved to New York [to work at the Episcopal Church Headquarters] in the 90's, I made it my goal to do the same thing and I did, I listened to women and photographed them, I photographed their children. I created a newsletter for the Presiding Bishop's fund called 'Lifeline' to tell these stories of the people I met in various parts of the Anglican Communion. It wad the best job in the world and I loved it."
Throughout her travels for the Episcopal Church, Katerina developed a special passion for women and their stories. She remembers once meeting a Palestinian woman on her travels, recalls becoming friends with two of her sons, one a Christian, one a Muslim. Upon returning to the home of this woman years later, she learned that the Christian son had passed of a brain tumor and the Muslim son, regardless of differences in faith, had taken in all of his children. In the expression on the mother's face, Katerina could see her agony in losing her son, her fear in keeping her family safe, her pain in spending a lifetime under occupation. Katerina recalls seeing this mother's face in her mind one Christmas, and knowing she was called to share the stories of women.
"One Christmas, I really heard the voice of the Virgin Mary, talking about what it meant to have that particular child and to be given such promises that have never been given to a woman before, and then I thought, 'Imagine being given such promises and then thirty-some years later seeing that child hanging from a cross?" Katerina remembers. "The tragedy of it hit me so hard and I looked at her as a living woman and a mother, and being a mother at the time myself I understood it. So I wrote my first monologue in 1981."
Written from the perspective of Mary, mother of Jesus herself, Katerina's first monologue quickly evolved into many. As she began to craft narratives written from the perspectives of biblical women, Katerina remembered the women she had met on her travels, and inspired by their mannerisms and gestures, used what she had learned from them to shape her stories. As she began crafting a series of narratives, writing as the voices of women from Elizabeth to Mary Magdalene, she began to perform her monologues, bringing the voices of these women to life. Finally, in 1998, Katerina published her first book, a slender collection of narratives entitled, "Speaking for Ourselves: Voices of Biblical Women." In 2000, Katerina moved to the mountains of North Carolina and began focusing on continuing to write and tell stories.
"That's kind of my signature piece, to get people to look at the biblical story from a different perspective, make it more real, more alive, to recognize what is familiar is still exciting and vibrant and provocative," Katerina said. "I had written two slender volumes, "Speaking for Ourselves" and "Seeing for Ourselves" when a friend from my parish, Holy Cross Valle Crucis, was creating Stations of the Cross to hang in our parish. He asked me to write the monologues for these woodcuts and I said, 'I don't hear the voices of men.' But one day I looked at the eyes of one of the soldiers and I heard his voice and that was it, that was the inspiration for 'Walking the Way of Sorrows' which may be my most beloved book."
Since then, Katerina has dedicated herself to her writing and teaching of Intercultural Communication at Appalachian State University. Now an author of eight books, she hopes to have passed on some of her love for storytelling and understanding of others to her students. Above all, she hopes that her faith continues to guide her towards a better recognition of the stories of others, and that she continues to find joy in community.
"I love telling the stories of other people, the wonder of seeing the joy of Christ's presence and love in people who seem to have nothing material in this world, they inspire me beyond anything else," Katerina said. "To be able to see them and photograph them and to hear them was the greatest privilege of my life."
Katerina Katsarka Whitley is a member of Church of the Holy Cross, Valle Crucis. She is active in the The Episcopal Church Women of Western North Carolina. To learn more about her history and books, please visit https://katerinawhitley.net/
Click here to purchase a copy of her latest novel, "Myth and Memory: My Childhood in WWII Greece"
Whitley, K. K. (2020). Myth and Memory: My Childhood in WWII Greece. Katerina Katsarka Whitley.