Sun, Oct 22, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Austrian reunited with Greek father after six decades


It could be the typical photo opportunity: A foreign dignitary being warmly greeted by an elderly man at a northern Greek airport.

For Volkmar Harwanegg, 62, it was the end of a lifetime's search for his unknown Greek father and family that he was separated from in the aftermath of World War II.

For decades, Harwanegg's questions about his natural father were met with stubborn refusal from his Austrian mother, Elisabeth. Only after her death in 1995 did the first clues emerge and the trail finally led this year to a village in northern Greece and Giorgos Pitenis, a former forced laborer for the Nazis.

"I am overwhelmed to see my father again," Harwanegg said on Friday.

The retired former waiter was one of tens of thousands of Greeks forcibly transported to Austria and Germany by Nazi occupation forces between 1941 and 1944. Selected as a slave laborer in 1941 in punishment for his left-wing political leanings, Pitenis worked as a car mechanic in Vienna. It was there that he had an affair with Harwanegg's mother.

Harwanegg was born in 1944. After the Nazi defeat, Pitenis was repatriated to northern Greece 11 months later, and the couple never met again.

His mother remarried after the war and had another child. Pitenis remained single.

Pitenis, who can only speak with difficulty after undergoing a tracheotomy, was overcome with emotion at the airport meeting -- their first after a brief meeting in the village of Samarina, near Kozani, in August.

"I was so nervous I hadn't eaten since yesterday," he said.

His sister, Fani Lazaridou, was also present at the airport.

"We are beside ourselves with joy over all this, it completely changed our life," she said. "We are very emotional."

The couple corresponded for a few years, but Pitenis' last letter, dated 1957, never got a response. It was Elizabeth's unposted answer, found in her affairs after her death, that gave Harwanegg a name to match with his father.

Appeals for help to Interpol and the Greek and Austrian embassies failed to locate Pitenis. But in August, while on holiday on the northwestern resort island of Corfu, the Vienna local parliament deputy got a call from his secretary -- with an address.

Father and son met in a Samarina coffee shop, communicating with the help of the village taxi-driver who spoke some German.

Now, Harwanegg, who is accompanied by his wife, will try to fill in the past six decades.

"I will try to find out as much as I can about his life during the three days we will pass together," he said.

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