Blessed romance

by Elspeth Sandys / 10 October, 2009
Patricia Grace tells the true story of the love affair between a Maori and a Cretan, and between two cultures.

Shortly after dawn on May 20, 1941, the normally clear blue skies over Crete turned black. The soldiers of the 28th Maori Battalion were used to what they called "the hate", the bombing and strafing of their positions by squadrons of Stukas and Messerschmitts. But the morning of the 20th was different. The waves of bombers just kept coming, dropping their deadly cargo on the orchards and vineyards, the whitewashed villages and hillside chapels of the island the Greeks call "Blessed". The noise was so horrendous some of the men, crouching in their trenches, started to bleed from the nose and ears. In the face of such overwhelming force, there was nothing they could do but "keep their heads down, cover their ears, and hope".

Worse was to come. In the wake of the bombers, those men brave enough to lift their heads were greeted by an eerie sight: hundreds of gliders, let loose from their parent planes, swooping soundlessly towards the earth, delivering troops and supplies in the first wave of the largest airborne invasion the world has seen.

Among the infantry shooting at the "umbrella men" was Corporal Ned Nathan, one half of the love story Patricia Grace tells in Ned & Katina, her first non-fiction book. It was "a horrifying sight ... firing at a man who was helpless ... I felt terrible about it ... they didn't have a chance ..." On his deathbed 46 years later, Ned testified to "how rough and brutal a man can become in that kind of situation ... sometimes I want the answer ... how we got ourselves psyched up to doing that."

In the wake of that brutal start to the Battle for Crete, Ned would become involved in some of the fiercest hand-to-hand fighting of the war. He would perform numerous acts of mostly unsung heroism, sustain wounds that would leave him blind in one eye, miss out on the chance of evacuation, and fall in love. But the story Grace tells is far more than that of a handsome young Maori soldier and his love, passionately reciprocated, for the daughter of the family who sheltered him from the Germans. It is a story of a love affair between two cultures - Maori and Cretan.

'The moment I saw her I fell in love with her," Ned was to say of his first encounter with Katina, but he might just as well have said: "The moment I saw the Torakis family - Father Alexandros, priest of the village, his wife, Vasiliki, the three daughters and two sons still living at home - I fell in love with Crete." By the time Ned was captured, a year later, he had a Cretan name, spoke the language fluently, and was, in his own mind anyway, engaged to the beautiful and courageous Katina.

As a boy growing up in a large Maori family in Northland at the height of the Depression, Ned observed at first hand the custom of manaakitangi - welcoming any­one who came to the door. Now, he was to observe the same "sacred duty" - filoxenia - in action on Crete. With the difference that there, in the face of German threats of reprisal, a great deal more than generosity was called for.

Ned was not alone in carrying, through the rest of his life, a deep sense of obligation to his Cretan friends. Many of the Kiwi soldiers who fought on Crete have borne witness to the same sense of connection: an intimacy, born of war and hardship, shared by two peoples on opposite sides of the world. The marriage of Ned and Katina was a long and happy one, as is the continuing friendship between Crete and New Zealand.

In this meticulously researched, deeply moving book, Grace has succeeded in telling a story at once personal and profound. If occasionally the novelist can be seen at work, this is no bad thing. Ned & Katina is a triumph.

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