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Book Recounts Grandmother’s Sacrificial Death that Saved Her Children

A family's extraordinary past comes alive through a new book, released this summer in the United States. "North of Ithaka", by young American magazine editor Eleni Gage, describes the experiences she recently had living for a year on a tiny mountain village in Greece, overseeing the reconstruction of a house that her family left behind more than half a century ago.

The house Eleni Gage talks about in "North of Ithaka" is located in the remote Greek village of Lia, near the Albanian border. It was the home of her grandmother, Eleni Gatzoyiannis, for whom she was named.

Eleni Gatzoyannis was executed in 1948 by communist guerillas during the Greek Civil War because she arranged to have four of her five children escape to America. She stayed behind to facilitate this exodus to freedom and sacrificed her life to ensure their safety.

Her story, written by one of the smuggled children, American-raised Nicholas Gage, became a bestseller in 1982 and the basis for the critically acclaimed motion picture "Eleni".

His daughter, author Eleni Gage, decided to go back to Lia in Epirus, the poorest region of the European Union. As the reviewer of her book put it, "She wanted to lay the family's ghosts to rest".

"I grew up hearing the stories of my aunts and my dad growing up in the village and living in that house and so I wanted to restore it to the house they remembered instead of letting it just fall into ruin," said Eleni.

At a recent book signing in Washington D.C., Eleni said that when she announced her plans to take a sabbatical from New York and return to "a village with more sheep than inhabitants", her aunts started shrieking.

Her father, Nicholas, was also skeptical. “We had mixed feelings about it because my mother was kept as a prisoner there and was tortured there before she was executed. We didn't want to rebuild it, we let it fall, and became a pile of ruins,” said her father. “But Eleni, rightfully, as we later recognized, said that this shouldn't happen, the house needs be rebuilt to demonstrate that our family was not dispelled but survives and flourishes.”

Eleni befriended shepherds, gypsies, and Albanian refugees in Lia who helped her build a family home so her father and her aunts would have the opportunity to relive the happy days of their childhood.

Eleni says, "I thought it was important to go back and rebuild the house as a monument to my grandmother and my family. I survived and I had a great time."

"She embraced the things that I love and that's another thing that gives me a great pleasure," boasted her father.

"North of Ithaka", or "My home in Epirus", as the Greek version of the book is called, is part travel memoir, part family saga, part story of self-discovery, but above all it is a journey home.