Blessed romance

by Elspeth Sandys / 10 October, 2009

Help us find and write the stories Kiwis need to read

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.

Latest

Father figure: Jordan Watson on his 'How to Dad' series
93157 2018-07-21 00:00:00Z Social issues

Father figure: Jordan Watson on his 'How to Dad' s…

by North & South

The breakout Youtube star talks about 'How to Dad', paternity leave, and his own dad.

Read more
With friends like Donald Trump, who needs enemies?
93834 2018-07-21 00:00:00Z World

With friends like Donald Trump, who needs enemies?…

by Paul Thomas

The US President treats his Western allies to a tongue-lashing while cosying up to Vladimir Putin, causing alarm at home and around the world.

Read more
Who Is America? is predictably alarming – and scarily relevant
93831 2018-07-21 00:00:00Z Television

Who Is America? is predictably alarming – and scar…

by Diana Wichtel

Only Bernie Sanders comes out unscathed in Sacha Baron Cohen’s absurdist new series Who Is America?

Read more
Organic wine is getting bigger in New Zealand. These are our top picks
93885 2018-07-21 00:00:00Z Wine

Organic wine is getting bigger in New Zealand. The…

by Michael Cooper

Quality rather than quantity drives New Zealand's organic wine producers.

Read more
Killer robots: The question of how to control lethal autonomous weapons
93876 2018-07-20 08:23:45Z Tech

Killer robots: The question of how to control leth…

by Peter Griffin

The computer scientist who has become a leading voice on the threat posed by killer robots describes himself as an “accidental activist”.

Read more
The man who's making sure performing artists are seen in the regions
93813 2018-07-20 00:00:00Z Theatre

The man who's making sure performing artists are s…

by Elisabeth Easther

For 35 years, Steve Thomas has been at the helm of Arts On Tour, taking musical and theatrical acts from Kaitaia to Stewart Island.

Read more
The Eco Economy: Millennials, money and saving sustainably
93645 2018-07-20 00:00:00Z Economy

The Eco Economy: Millennials, money and saving sus…

by Sharon Stephenson

Millenials are leading the rise of the eco economy.

Read more
Cuba Libre is a new Caribbean-influenced restaurant-bar in Ponsonby
93862 2018-07-19 15:05:51Z Auckland Eats

Cuba Libre is a new Caribbean-influenced restauran…

by Kate Richards

Rum, cigars and Cuban sandwiches are on the menu at new Ponsonby restaurant, Cuba Libre.

Read more