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Biographer, Ilias Chrissochoidis, retells the story of Greek American film pioneer Spyros Skouras

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By Ilias Karagiannis.

Sleepless nights, full of thoughts, nothing to eat and with ghosts flickering lights in the dark. The uncertainty conquering the mind from the first light of each dawn. These were the days of the Greeks during the occupation by the Axis Powers, when nobody knew if they would live to see another day.

Greek American motion picture pioneer and film executive, Spyros Skouras, had a keen eye for these kinds of screenplays when he was choosing which one to bring to the big screen.

During the occupation, together with the Greek War Relief Association (GWRA), an organisation of Greek Americans who were willing to offer a helping hand to their motherland, he managed to save 3 million Greeks from death. Keep in mind that back then, the total population of Greece was roughly 7 million.

Skouras was one of the founding members of the GWRA. He had his own filming company when he realised there were so many things that needed to be done in Greece and he could extend a helping hand together with leading American figures such as the wife of US President Roosevelt, Eleanor.

Greek American motion picture pioneer and film executive, Spyros Skouras.

With Hollywood as the starting point, the organisation succeeded in getting the American public opinion in favour of defending the Greek fighters. By mid-April 1941, the GWRA had raised $5 million for the cause. Every week they were transferring to Athens between $250,000 to $500,000. After Greece’s collapse due to the German invasion, Skouras kept the organisation alive and he continued collecting money for humanitarian aid to save the Greeks from starving.

These are just a few of the ‘gems’ Ilias Chrissochoidis found when he decided to study the life of Skouras. The research associate at Stanford’s Department of Music was kind enough to talk to The Greek Herald about his research work on the unknown benefactor who saved 3 million Greek lives from starvation during the occupation.

Mr Chrissochoidis had the opportunity to study countless hours of Skouras’ private recordings about his life, his career and his thoughts and worries on Greece’s ordeal.

“From the first second I opened up the first box with Mr Skouras’ memoirs, I came to realise I had on my hands Mr Skouras’ autobiographical notes. Until that day, I knew very few things about him,” Mr Chrissochoidis tells The Greek Herald.

Skouras with Marilyn Monroe.

“I immediately began to read the notes and very soon I was really impressed with the work of the Greek War Relief Association, for which I knew nothing about, and his initiatives for the relief of our compatriots.”

Churchill, Alexander the Great and Skouras:

If you wonder which was the starting point of Skouras’ efforts to help his compatriots who were in great need, Mr Chrissochoidis explains: “it all began through private correspondence and afterwards he received some shocking, initially classified, photos of people who had lost their lives from famish. That was when the Greek community in the USA began to understand the magnitude of the national catastrophe in their homeland.”

With Skouras and other pioneers, like Archbishop Athenagoras, the GWRA reached out to all of the Greeks in the USA and in Canada and they were able to collect food and medical supplies for the Greeks.

“When the Allies imposed the naval blockade, Skouras put pressure on the American government and he, personally, persuaded Winston Churchill… to agree on a partial lift and allow for the refuelling of ships to save the Greeks,” Mr Chrissochoidis says.

Skouras never forgot his Greek roots.

“The help approached Greek ports under the International Red Cross flag since the occupying forces didn’t want the mission to be received as a propaganda from the Allies. Even to this day there are millions of Greeks who are unaware they were saved from their brothers and their sisters in America. Before the end of the war Skouras had started already his mission to get the American government to help with the rebuilding of our country.”

How much help was given to the Greeks?

“The total sum was astronomical. We are talking about food and medical supplies for the total weight of one and a half tone, worth $250 million. If you put in the equation the reduction of the administrative expenses to 5 percent, you can understand we are talking about the most successful international assistance fund campaign of World War II. After Alexander the Great, I consider Mr Skouras the most influential man in the world. As the president of 20th Century-Fox he had access to a quarter of the planet.”

An assessment of Skouras’ contribution:

A few years ago, Mr Chrissochoidis discovered the archives of 15 different meetings the GWRA’s Board of Directors had during the 40s. That was the time Skouras was in charge and was head of the Board. This revelation opened the path for one more thorough assessment of Skouras’ contribution to the salvation of millions of Greeks from famish during the occupation. How exactly was he able to help?

Letter from former US President Richard Nixon to Skouras.

“If we set aside his profound generosity to everybody (from his compatriots to Onassis, Karamanlis and the British Royal Family), his great achievement was persuading the British navy to lift the blockade they had imposed in Greece in 1942,” Mr Chrissochoidis says.

“Thus our country gained access to much-needed medical supplies and food in the middle of the occupation. At least one in 3 Greeks was saved from starvation and the epidemics, thanks to Skouras’ heroic campaign: for three months he put pressure on Churchill and Eden to let the ships sail. At the same time, he single-handedly worked on convincing the Swedish ships to accept the money and take over the precarious operation.”

Onassis’ refusal to allocate his fleet for the cause damaged their friendship. Nevertheless, Skouras’ help wasn’t just about the difficult times of the occupation.

“He continued providing assistance after the war, through his networking and by attracting foreign funds and capitals for purposes and businesses like an oil refinery, a TV station, housing estates and canned agricultural products.”

Skouras.

The ‘Esso Pappas’ might be the biggest industrial investment Greece ever had (its worth is $100 million). It was one of Skouras’ achievements together with his good friend, Tom Pappas, who eventually took over the project by himself.

But Skouras didn’t do just that. He has behind the production of film “The child and the dolphin” in Hydra (1957) with scenes at the Acropolis, Epidaurus and Meteora – the first global advertising campaign of Greece. Same goes for “The 300 of Spartans” and “It Happened in Athens,” in 1962.

With that being said, we can understand that every time we honour the day of our freedom from the occupation the least we can do is illuminate unknown stories of our great expatriate benefactors,  like Skouras’ one. 

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