Parallels
7:00 am
Sun October 27, 2013

American's Death Still A Greek Mystery, 65 Years Later

Originally published on Sun October 27, 2013 1:10 pm

George Polk may have been born to make history. He was descended from the American president who led the conquest of Texas and much of the Southwest. But for George Polk, Texas was too small, says his brother William.

In the 1930s, "Texas was a little backwater at the time, and very few people even knew where other countries were — what the names were, what the languages were that were spoken," William Polk says. "And he had a tremendous sense of curiosity."

So George Polk became a journalist, reporting from China, Japan and France. During World War II, he served as a fighter pilot in the Pacific and was badly wounded. After the war, he watched the trial of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, Germany.

"He had the remarkable experience of sitting just a few feet away from Hermann Goering and the various other leading Nazis," William Polk says, whereas during the war, "he had been in a foxhole in Guadalcanal, where a Japanese soldier tried to kill him with a knife."

George Polk was determined that the world not fall back into the grip of fascism, his brother says. And that's one reason he was attracted to Greece, his base for broadcasting as the CBS radio correspondent for the Middle East.

A Gruesome Discovery

In the late 1940s, Greece was the front line of the Cold War. Communist guerrillas were fighting a right-wing government in a bloody civil war. More than 158,000 people died, and more than a million were displaced. Polk suspected Greek officials were, at the very least, stealing aid money from the United States.

"He found that what the Greek government at that time was doing, and what it was like, was not the kind of government he fought to save during World War II," William Polk recalls.

The Greek government was so unhappy with George's reports that they asked CBS to reassign him (CBS refused). He got death threats and was constantly followed. Undaunted, he traveled to the port of Thessaloniki in the embattled north. A few days later, a fisherman found his body floating in Salonica Bay.

He was blindfolded, hands and feet bound, with a bullet wound in the back of the head. George Polk was 34 years old and had been married to Rea Kokkonis, whom he'd met in Greece, for just seven months.

A Show Trial

The Greek government blamed his murder on the communist rebels. In a trial the following year, two were convicted in absentia. A third man, a journalist named Gregory Staktopoulos, confessed to involvement. But William Polk wasn't buying it.

"The trial was a joke," he says. "The defense attorneys never raised any of the issues they could have raised. They never called witnesses they could have called. It was like a Soviet show trial."

William Polk was then just 19 and had dropped out of Harvard to find out what really happened to his older brother. He wondered whether a secret organization called X may have been involved. Then he started getting death threats, too. And he received no help from Americans, who supported the Greek regime.

"The American government at that time said, OK, it's corrupt, OK, it's deceitful ... but it's our group," he says. "We can't deal with the communists."

The U.S. government seemed content with the verdict. And the man accused of involvement in the Polk murder, Staktopoulos, went to jail for more than a decade, until he was pardoned. But until his death in 1998, he never stopped professing his innocence. Staktopoulos also wrote a memoir that alarmed writer and Princeton University professor Edmund Keeley.

"He described in detail how he'd been mistreated, how he'd been beaten, how he'd been held in police headquarters in Salonica under terrible circumstances," Keeley says. "He was forced to make a number of confessions, and the confessions changed as [the authorities] found new evidence that did not corroborate what they'd made him confess before, so he had to confess again. It was clear he had been railroaded into confessing things that he hadn't done."

Searching For Exoneration

Keeley wrote the definitive book on the Polk murder and investigation, The Salonika Bay Murder, published in 1990. Several more books on the case, in both Greek and English, have come out since then.

The latest is by a retired prosecutor named Athanasios Kafiris. He'd first heard about Polk when he was a sixth-grader in a rural school in the Peloponnese.

"All we knew about the story then was that communists had killed an American journalist," says Kafiris, who now lives in Athens.

As the case faded away, ignored by a succession of Greek governments, Kafiris never questioned this narrative — until 2002, while serving as a prosecutor on the Greek Supreme Court. The widow of Staktopoulos asked Kafiris to help her exonerate her husband. It was the family's fourth appeal.

It did not take long for Kafiris to conclude that Staktopoulos — and the other two men convicted for Polk's murder — were scapegoats. But the Supreme Court, once again, rejected the appeal. He resigned from his post as prosecutor in protest.

Kafiris, now 75, is trying again. He's enlisted the help of another prosecutor as well as his publisher, Angelos Sideratos, who's trying to make a documentary about the still-unsolved Polk case.

Kafiris says Greece must right this wrong and face its past. The social turmoil in Greece today is not just a product of the deep economic depression, he says. It has its origins in a bloody civil war that pitted families and friends against each other.

"What's happening in our country today is directly related to the civil war," he says. "The rise of neo-Nazis like Golden Dawn, for example, that's a result of deep hate that still exists after so many years."

William Polk is now 84 years old and a noted scholar of the Middle East. He agrees that overturning the verdicts in his brother's murder case could be cathartic for Greece. But he doesn't expect it will help him find out what happened to his brother.

"The documentation has now all been destroyed, illegally I should say. It was supposed to be in the national archives, but it has been 'lost,' " he says.

William Polk says that would have galled his brother, who believed that "the message is the really important thing. If the public doesn't receive the message, it cannot be responsible as a citizen. And therefore democracy and freedom simply will wither away."

George Polk is buried in Athens. Shortly after his murder, the George Polk Awards, honoring brave journalism that lays bare the truth, were named in his honor.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

The George Polk Award is a coveted prize in journalism. It recognizes courageous reporting, placing a premium on investigative stories.

The award is named after CBS correspondent George Polk. He was murdered in Greece while covering that country's civil war in the late 1940s. Now, 65 years later, a retired Greek prosecutor has petitioned to re-open the case.

Joanna Kakissis has the story.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: George Polk was descended from the American president who led the conquest of Texas. But Texas was too small for George, says his brother, William Polk.

WILLIAM POLK: Texas was a little backwater at that time and he had a tremendous sense of curiosity.

KAKISSIS: So George became a journalist, reporting from China, Japan and France. Then, during World War II, he served as a fighter pilot in the Pacific and was badly wounded. After the war, he reported on the trial of the Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, Germany.

POLK: So he had the remarkable experience of sitting just a few feet away from Hermann Goering and the various other leading Nazis, whereas six months before he'd been in a foxhole on Guadalcanal, where a Japanese soldier tried to kill him with a knife.

KAKISSIS: George was determined, William says, that the world not fall back into the grips of fascism. That's one reason he was attracted to Greece, his base for broadcasting as the CBS radio correspondent for the Middle East.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS RADIO BROADCAST)

GEORGE POLK: Today Soviet agents are busy in Turkey, Greece and other Middle East countries.

KAKISSIS: In the late 1940's, Greece was the front line of the Cold War. A bloody civil war was raging there. Communist guerrillas were fighting a right-wing government. George Polk suspected Greek officials were, at the very least, stealing aid money from the United States.

He found that what the Greek government at the time was doing, and what it was like, was not the kind of government that he had fought to save during World II.

POLK: George got death threats and he was constantly followed. Undaunted, in May of 1948, he traveled to the Port of Thessaloniki in the embattled north. A few days later, there was a gruesome discovery.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The body of George Polk, Middle Eastern correspondent for the Columbia Broadcasting System, was found floating in the bay of Salonika, Greece.

KAKISSIS: He was blindfolded, hands and feet bound, with a bullet wound in the back of the head. George Polk was just 34 years old.

The Greek government blamed his murder on communist rebels. In a trial the following year, two were convicted in absentia. A third man, a journalist named Gregory Staktopoulos, confessed involvement. But George's brother, William Polk, was not buying it.

POLK: The trial was a joke. The defense attorneys never raised any of the issues they could have raised. They never called witnesses they could have called.

KAKISSIS: William had dropped out of Harvard to find out what happened to his brother. He started getting death threats himself. And he got no help from U.S. officials who supported the Greek regime.

POLK: The American government at that time said, OK, it's corrupt, OK, it's deceitful but it's our group. We can't deal with the communists.

KAKISSIS: The U.S. government seemed content with the verdict. And the man accused of involvement in the murder, Gregory Staktopoulos, went to jail for nearly a decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGORY STAKTOPOULOS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: A few years before he died in 1998, Staktopoulos told a documentary filmmaker that he had nothing to do with the Polk murder. He also wrote a memoir that alarmed Edmund Keeley, a writer and Princeton University professor.

EDMUND KEELEY: And I found it very convincing because he described in detail how he'd been mistreated, how he'd been beaten, and that he was forced to make a number of confessions. And the confessions changed as they found new evidence that did not corroborate what they had made him to confess before, so he had to confess again.

KAKISSIS: Keeley wrote the definitive account of the Polk case. "The Salonica Bay Murder" was published in 1990. Nearly 20 years later, a retired Greek prosecutor named Athanasios Kafiris came out with his own book on the case.

(Foreign language spoken)

I met Kafiris at his apartment in northern Athens.

ATHANASIOS KAFIRIS: (Through Translator) I first heard the name Polk when I was 12. All we knew about the story then was that communists had killed an American journalist.

KAKISSIS: He says he did not question this narrative until 2002, when he was a prosecutor at the Greek Supreme Court. The widow of Gregory Staktopoulos asked him to help exonerate her husband. It was the family's fourth appeal.

KAFIRIS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: It did not take long for Kafiris to conclude that Staktopoulos and the other two men convicted for Polk's murder were scapegoats. But the Supreme Court rejected the appeal.

Now Kafiris is trying again, enlisting the help of another prosecutor. He says Greece must right this wrong and face its past.

KAFIRIS: (Through Translator) What's happening in our country today is directly related to civil war. The rise of neo-Nazis like Golden Dawn, for example, that's the result of deep hate that exists even after so many years.

KAKISSIS: William Polk is now 84 years old and a noted scholar of the Middle East. He says documentation on his brother's case has all been destroyed. And that would have galled George, he says, who strongly believed that...

POLK: The message is the really important thing. If the public doesn't receive the message, it cannot be responsible as a citizen. And therefore, democracy and freedom and so forth, simply will wither away.

KAKISSIS: For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.