Ylekeria (Gatzoyiannis) Economou, 79
WORCESTER - Ylekeria (Gatzoyiannis) Economou, whose courageous escape during the Greek Civil War at age 15 to join her siblings in Worcester, MA was recounted in two books, died here Monday at Holy Trinity Hospice, surrounded by her family, after a long illness. Known as "Lillia", she was born in Lia, Epirus, Greece on January 3, 1933.
As recounted in the book and 1984 film "Eleni" by her brother, author and producer Nicholas Gage, and in his subsequent book "A Place for Us", when Lillia's mother, Eleni (Haidis) Gatzoyiannis, planned a nighttime escape from their Communist-held village in 1948, an order came from the guerrillas for two women from their house to harvest grain. The mother chose herself and when she asked who else might go with her, Lillia, although third oldest and only 15, volunteered. "Let me go," she told her mother. "I'm stronger and I'll be all right."
While her brother and three sisters fled down the mountain on foot under cover of darkness and reached Greek government forces the next morning, their mother was imprisoned, tortured and executed for planning the escape. Lillia then was taken behind the Iron Curtain into Albania, forcibly conscripted into the guerrilla army and sent at 16 to the battlefront back in Greece. Because she refused to carry a rifle, she was given a field radio. In a brutal battle in the mountains of Vitsi in Macedonia, as the guerrillas retreated, Lillia hid among dead bodies in a ravine until the Nationalist soldiers arrived and she surrendered. (pic. left) A colonel in the Nationalist army who knew her grandfather recognized her. After being interviewed about the positions and fortifications of the guerrillas, she was sent to a detention center in Kastoria, Greece. On August 24, 1949, a telegram sent by a relative in Kastoria reached her father, Christos Gatzoyiannis, and her siblings in Worcester, MA, saying that Lillia had been found alive. On Feb. 10, 1950, she arrived in New York harbor on the steamship LaGuardia to be met by her father, who worked as a chef in Putnam and Thurston's restaurant in Worcester. Her escape and arrival were covered in the Worcester newspapers.
Like her two older sisters, 17-year-old Lillia worked at Table Talk Bakeries. In 1956, she married a fellow immigrant, Prokopi (Paul) Economou. With her husband, she opened the Westboro House of Pizza in a two-decker on East Main Street, working there until Prokopi's death in 1993, when their two sons took over, eventually erecting a new building on the site and expanding the business into the present Westboro House Restaurant and Lounge.
Lillia faced the many hardships in her life and the illness that ended it with the same courage that she showed at 15 when she volunteered to stay with her mother during the Greek Civil War. She is the first of Eleni's children to pass on.
She is survived by her sons, Fred and Spyros Economou; daughter-in-law Elaine, wife of Fred, and two grandchildren, Paul and Lilly, all of Worcester; three sisters: Olga Bartzokis of Needham, Alexandra (Kanta) Stratis and her husband Evangelos of Worcester, and Fotini (Tina) Haithis of Ayer; one brother, Nicholas (Gage) Gatzoyiannis and his wife Joan of North Grafton, and many nieces, nephews and cousins both here and in Greece.
Calling hours at O'Connor Brothers Funeral Home, 592 Park Ave., Worcester, are from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., on Wednesday, October 10. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 102 Russell St, Worcester, where the funeral will be held at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday. Burial will follow at Hope Cemetery.
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Published in Worcester Telegram & Gazette from Oct. 8 to Oct. 9, 2012