By Pierre Kosmidis
All photos © Thanassis Paraponiaris and Ourania Karali, submitted to www.ww2wrecks.com and used by permission
The island of Leros has a history lost in the depths of the centuries. The period of Italian rule, from 1912 to 1943, has left its mark on the Island and the battles of 1943 had effects that went beyond the geographical boundaries of Leros. More than 60 years ago, the late Yiannis Paraponiaris , started collecting items from the Battle of Leros and then housed his rich collection in the Museum “Deposito Di Guerra – Warehouse of War Artifacts” .
Today, in the year 2023, 80 years since the Battle of Leros and 10 years after the Museum was inaugurated in 2013, the son of Thanasis Paraponiaris , is a worthy successor to the work of his late father and shares with www.ww2wrecks.com his thoughts about the historical importance of Leros.
When did your late father Giannis Paraponiaris start the collection and what was the reason for him?
“My father Ioannis Paraponiaris was born in 1954, a few years after the end of the war. At the age of 8-10 he started collecting various objects, since there were all kinds of objects everywhere. After the war ended, the children collected metals and sold them for little money.
That’s how my father started, with the difference that he NEVER sold anything he found.
At first he started with unit badges, buttons, medals and later he collected helmets, bullets, caravans, barrels and whatever else he found in the fields of his home and in the mountains when he went with his father. He was fascinated by all this even though he was a child , over time and searching inside walls, wells and hard-to-reach places, he found weapons, bayonets and various more dangerous objects.
At the age of 16 and while he was working on a barrel of a gun to clean it without knowing that it was loaded, a shot went off in his face and for a year he had lost his sight, after operations and hospitalizations his sight returned without problems fortunately.
This adventure cost him quite a lot, of course (besides the important part of health), because his mother gave to a certain collector several of the objects that she considered dangerous and thus he lost a lot of material that he had managed to collect up to then.
He often traded other items for anything that might be related to the battle of Leros or bought anything that might be related to it! Growing up, his longing and desire to collect become even bigger.
Apart from the museum that was his whole life, a second major project that my father aimed to carry out, after the death of my grandfather Thanasis V. Paraponiaris, was to make a book of the notes that my grandfather wrote in notebooks about the his life (memoirs, experiences 1935-1965) and publish it.
The book became a reality.. “The notebooks of Lalis”.
The purpose of what was written was for his grandchildren, as he said himself, to learn the difficult course of his life, hunger, poverty, the Italian Occupation, World War II, the decision to become an immigrant in order to survive, the dangerous life of a sponge diver, the hard time he had when he worked as a miner in Belgium and finally his career as a sailor on ocean-going ships….these life lessons.
Fortunately, my father managed with the help of a teacher friend of his, Kostas Aslanidis, and a few friends to publish it and made his presentation at the cinema of Leros in the summer of 2016. The participation of the people was great, locals as well as visitors to the island.
When did your father decide to exhibit all the WW2 items?
In the early 1990s my father started to exhibit his collection in a 23 sq.m. room. in the lower part of our house and on a wall in our living room.
This was made known, with the result that, especially in the summer months, there is a lot of traffic at the house every day.
This was a bit difficult for our Family’s daily life and in combination with the sharp increase in finds, the existing space now seemed small and unsuitable to accommodate the collection.
For this reason, my father and I both built a space in the form of the warehouses that the Italians had in Leros during the years of Italian rule.
So after years of persistent effort, with a lot of love, passion, fatigue, anticipation and anxiety, in 2013 the building was completed to house our collection.
In September 2013, the inauguration took place and my father’s dream of the “Deposito Di Guerra – Warehouse of War Artifacts” came true!
You, as a worthy successor of your father’s work, how do you see the Battle of Leros and the objects that your father managed to collect?
The battle of Leros in 1943 was one of the most important war events, with great geostrategic implications.
From a young age, whether I wanted to or not, I had been nurtured with the concept of the battle of Leros and its importance.
I won’t hide from you that even from a very young age I used to find objects on every walk in the mountains or at the sea, so I also stuck to the “same madness” the same rage and longing to collect objects from the war and because of the love that the my father for the collection I acquired the same love.
I was always close to my father in events with experts and history buffs, activities with World War II veterans, searches with historians and researchers in various locations on the island together in maintenance, carrying from the historical routes in the mountains, diving were my couple (after we started lessons to be able to visit the many shipwrecks of our island from the Second World War) et al.
What my father always said to visitors is that: “these objects do not belong to Paraponiaris but to the whole of Leros, I just happen to be their custodian”
This year marks 80 years (1943-2023) since the Battle of Leros. What do you, as a Museum, plan to do to promote this anniversary?
This year with the 80th anniversary of the battle of Leros is a year with great symbolism. We will also participate in various ways in the activities of the events of the 80th anniversary of the battle of Leros that are planned.
The program of the official visit to our site has also been determined. We are talking to the organizers and contributors about how we can help as much as possible in highlighting and promoting this battle of great historical importance.
Also, this year we complete 10 years since the opening of our museum in the new space, of course without the initiator and creator of this museum, Ioannis Paraponiaris, being with us.
Of all the exhibits you have in the Museum, which one is the most important to you and why?
I think that all the objects in our collection from the smallest to the largest have the same important historical value because each one individually adds something to the collection and all together give the result you see.
Of course, in order not to be seen as avoiding the question in an oblique way, I will point you to this map as the most important exhibit for me:
1st because it is the map of my island, Leros
2nd All these, the hundreds of objects are collected from every bit of land on Leros from all over the battlefield and pieces of every kind of object that was used in the battle
3rd , the soil on which the map is exposed is from the heavily bombed Merovigli (British command post) in our area, i.e. a little above the site of the museum
Do you have any future plans for the Museum and if so, what are they?
First and foremost, the museum must continue to exist.
So we start from the survival of our collection as a museum, which anyone can visit like any other state or private museum.
This year, in order to have an income, for its maintenance and upkeep, we founded a non-profit organisation, so that we can cover its expenses.
So there is a minimal amount as a ticket donation when visitors enter the museum. Our plans are to expand the Deposito Di Guerra both as a collection of finds and as a space.
In other words, creating infrastructures that will have an educational character (eg a representation of a fortification or a representation of battle positions) that will be easier for the visitor to walk through when entering the premises of our museum.
The goal is that in the future we will be able to organize days of historical interest, to establish days of remembrance (eg 12-16/11), to participate with other organizations (on and off the island) who are really interested in highlighting the history of our country, to contribute to the protection of so many historical facilities-buildings to raise awareness among the general public and especially our fellow citizens.
Leros has a great history from ancient times until today, it has a “unique identity” and we must make it known and present it, as it deserves.
Is there any help from the Municipality, or private individuals?
Unfortunately, there has never been any help from the municipality or the local government, nor from the prefecture or the region.
This was one of the reasons we re-created our space.
While we asked the local government agencies to grant us a building out of the dozens that house livestock breeders, on rent and with our proposal that the Municipality collect the largest percentage of the ticket (but that the supervision and security be from us), the answer was unfortunately negative.
On the contrary, several private individuals-friends contributed, each in their own way and in their own way to help. They know who they are and I thank them very much.
What is the most important piece of advice your father gave you about the Museum?
In general, my father was a calm, meek man, he avoided tensions, but in this he was vertical and did not negotiate and he constantly repeated it to us as advice was the following:
All these objects are the heritage of Leros, evidence of so many years that marked Leros and no one has the right to sell or take objects outside the island, to go to state or private collections that had nothing to do with our place!
It is the legacy of our children, of the next generations, to get to know an important part of the history of their place, Leros!
The address of the museum is: AGIA IRINI LEROS
CONTACT PHONES: 6972645159- 2247023158 -6908985108
TRIPADVISOR: Deposito di Guerra – Museum of War Artifacts