As life keeps conspiring to get in the way of 48 weeks of historical craftivism, this is now 48 acts. Still chuffed and determined to do this, though, so keep posted!
This week I’m talking about a piece of work that has made the rounds of various blogs, but I think is still important to include in this project, Alexis Casdagli’s F*ck Hitler cross stitch, which he made as a POW in WWII.
After six months held by the Nazis in a prisoner of war camp, Major Alexis Casdagli was handed a piece of canvas by a fellow inmate. Pinching red and blue thread from a disintegrating pullover belonging to an elderly Cretan general, Casdagli passed the long hours in captivity by painstakingly creating a sampler in cross-stitch. Around decorative swastikas and a banal inscription saying he completed his work in December 1941, the British officer stitched a border of irregular dots and dashes. Over the next four years his work was displayed at the four camps in Germany where he was imprisoned, and his Nazi captors never once deciphered the messages threaded in Morse code: “God Save the King” and “Fuck Hitler”.
This subversive needling of the Nazis was a form of defiance that Casdagli, who was not freed from prison until 1945, believed was the duty of every PoW. “It used to give him pleasure when the Germans were doing their rounds,” says his son, Tony, of his father’s rebellious stitching. It also stopped him going mad. “He would say after the war that the Red Cross saved his life but his embroidery saved his sanity,” says Tony. “If you sit down and stitch you can forget about other things, and it’s very calming…
Most of all, though, Casdagli recorded his anger and frustration in cross-stitch. He had picked up sewing skills from elderly relatives and, when Red Cross parcels began arriving (containing hairbrushes with secret compartments that concealed maps, which the prisoners annotated with intelligence and smuggled out), he acquired materials. He also borrowed more threads from his old Cretan general friend – this time from his pyjamas.”
The amazing thing about Major Casdagli’s work is that it was displayed in four separate camps where he was imprisoned, but his captors never caught on to the secretly stitched messages. He also ran a needlework school for 40 officers inside the camp. His work illustrated his thoughts and feelings, and was undoubtedly a major source of strength in surviving his four years as a POW.
“Having run a textiles company before the war he knew a little about sewing, so when he was given a canvas by another prisoner he started stitching for something to do.”
Alexis was held along with a Greek general, from whose dress jacket Alexis pulled the threads he used to stitch the sampler.
“The Red Cross wouldn’t give care packages to captives until they had been held for over a year ,” said [his son,] grandfather-of-five Tony.
“So my father had to pick threads from items of clothing. Eventually he was able to ask for thread and canvas in his packages.
“He was so good at it the Germans had him giving classes to his fellow officers, but the Germans never worked out his code.”
The BBC did a wonderful interview with his son, Tony, which you can listen to here.
Also, the Washington City Paper was kind enough to do an interview with me the other week! Yay!