Disasters and Emigration of Our Hellenic Ancestors

by Mary Papoutsy

Recently, one of the editors of The Weekly Genealogist, Lynn Betlock, penned a short note about disasters and the effect that they had upon one's ancestors ("A Note from the Editor: Disasters and Our Ancestors," October 31, 2012 • Vol. 15, No. 44 Whole #607)
. She recommended interviewing family members about past disasters and recording their recollections, especially since these momentous events had the capacity to "profoundly affect their lives." At the very least, these stories could illuminate an event or a period in the life of an ancestor and provide interesting stories for a family history.

What prompted her remarks, of course, was the devastating landfall of Hurricane Sandy this week. Amid the bleak outlook offered by unprecedented flooding and destruction in the Tri-State area, she suggested that folks record their own experiences and observations of this extraordinary event for future generations. At first, I recoiled at this notion. But as I ruminated, my opinion slowly changed. Perhaps she was right, after all.

Maybe a youngster 50 years from now would find it interesting to read how I had filled sandbags to protect my front door and raised all of my basement furniture up onto bricks to keep them from getting wet. Would she or he laugh that I had bagged all of my research files into extra-large zip-lock bags to keep them dry, in case water filled our cellar? (There wasn't enough time to move everything off-site.) What would they think when they read that I had stayed up until 2am to ensure that the midnight high-tide didn't bring a watery disaster to our home? I had donned my garden boots, oversize long raincoat with hood and safety goggles (to keep the whipping sand and salt out of my eyes) to check on the wooden boards protecting our front stairs; I wanted to know if they had withstood the battering wave action of the ocean or if I had to fill more sandbags while 80mph winds were whipping across our yard.

Yes, Betlock may be right. There may be someone who would find such a story interesting.

But Betlock doesn't stop with her own account of Hurricane Sandy. Like a good genealogist, she interviews her relatives about similar tragic events in the past. Among the disasters that have affected her family were the Flood of 1972 (Minnesota), the 1900 and 1915 floods in Galveston, Texas, a chemical explosion in Texas City, Texas (1946), and the Blizzard of 1978 (New Hampshire). After the blizzard, her parents decided to move permanently to Florida.

Aha, I thought. The move to Florida from New Hampshire was caused by a disaster. This is a strategy that Greek-American families can readily understand. They all have stories about being profoundly impacted by disasters, both natural and man-made. And for the purposes of genealogical research, understanding the types and chronologies of these disasters can be useful and illuminating.

Disasters in Greece have fallen into one of two broad categories, as I have mentioned: natural disasters and man-made ones. The natural disasters are generally earthquakes, but occasionally there have been floods, wildfires, and droughts. Village populations fluctuated in proportion to the severity of these tragedies. When the rural folk weren't able to support themselves, particularly following disasters, their youth left in proportionate numbers to find work and to support the rest of the family. Just in the last few decades alone, hundreds of people have been killed from earthquakes in Greece, with the damage amounting to more than 11 billion dollars. There have been a number of significant quakes in Greece since antiquity, among them the 426 B.C. Malian Gulf earthquake (started a tsunami), seismic action in Sparta in 464 B.C., an infamous earthquake on Chios Island in 1881, Ierissos in 1932, Thessaloniki in 1978, Athens, 1999, and earthquakes in the Peloponnese and in the Dodecanese Islands in 2008, according to PreventionWeb.net. Other earthquakes recorded by ancient sources indicate that Rhodes was hard hit in 226 B.C. when its Colossus toppled, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders. Another earthquake in Crete in 365 (A.D.) destroyed most of the villages on the island and shot out a tsunami that leveled Alexandria, Egypt. (Wikipedia). Other quakes have been recorded: Corinth, 856 (A.D.); Crete, 1303; Rhodes, 1481; Crete, 1810; Chios (and Chesme, Alatsata), 1881; Kefalonia and Zakynthos, 1953 (Wikipedia). My friends from Zakynthos recall the devastating earthquake there, how nearly all the buildings on the island were destroyed. Their families moved to the U.S. shortly afterward.

In another interesting instance, islanders from Mytilini wrote about a terrible cold snap late in 1850 that descended suddenly upon villages and destroyed many of the olive trees and agricultural produce. An English translation of this event can be found elsewhere on the Hellenic Communication Service website at the URL: http://www.helleniccomserve.com/vatoussagreatfrost_030705.html . As a result of the climatic disaster, many families left the villages, emigrating to other areas in Greece and to cities abroad. And this disaster was one of several that the original author of the Greek article had mentioned, including a plague in 1836 during which 25,000 people perished, and a "great earthquake" on February 23, 1867. So, it is worth while for Greek-American researchers to develop and keep a time line of events, natural and man-made, that affected their particular area of Greece, so as to help them understand the reasons for the migrations of their ancestors.

The greatest influx of Greeks into America, however, took place between 1891 and 1924.  Nearly a half-million brave young Hellenes reached American shores searching for a better life. The earliest emigrants, mostly from the Peloponnese, were forced to leave--nearly 1 in 5 young men--because of agricultural collapse. The traditional agrarian model of village life couldn't sustain their families, forcing them to leave to support their siblings and parents. A good glimpse into village life in the Arcadian sector of Peloponnesos is given by Arcadia, My Arcadia, by Dr. Nicholas Kokonis. The author accurately portrays the desperate poverty of these country hamlets and the great struggle to succeed of the youth who emigrated.

But the next two great disasters to befall Greece with great impact upon future Greek-American generations, were the Balkan Wars and the Asia Minor Catastrophe. Tens of thousands of young Greek men working in the U.S. left to return to Greece to fight against the Turks and later against the Serbs in the second of the two Balkan Wars. The Balkan conflicts led to a successful conclusion for Greece: she gained back lands historically Greek in the north and the east. Many interesting accounts exist of the preparations for war in the U.S. Greek communities held weekly drills as they waited for the signal to depart for Greece. A few men kept journals during the wars. My own grandfather wrote letters back to one of the professors at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, and claimed repeatedly that at least one was published in a magazine. Imagine my surprise when I found it in the School's publication! My father had always thought that "papou" was exaggerating. Newspaper accounts of the preparations of the local Greek communities abound, too, for researchers who are willing to go to local libraries and read through microfilm images from 1912-1914. Occasionally names of local commanders and community leaders are mentioned in the newspaper articles. Some young men, like my grandfather, who survived the wars, came back to the U.S. with honors. My grandfather had a written citation and two medals, one for the Kilkis-Grevena Battle, and the other for the Battle of Giannitsa. But as oral histories from Massachusetts Greek-Americans attest, there were many young men who didn't return, with tragic consequences for the families they left behind (Nicholas Karas, http://ecommunity.uml.edu/hellenicheritage/features/greek_triangle.htm ).

Following closely on the heels of the Balkan Wars--and World War I--was the Asia Minor Catastrophe (or Mikrasiatiki Katastrofi). The after effects of this series of events was explosive. A 3,000-year history of Greeks in their Asia Minor homeland came to an abrupt halt in 1922. Millions were killed by the Turkish Muslims. Over one million women, children, and old men were evacuated and saved throughout the second half of 1922 and the beginning of 1923. It was the single largest forced expulsion in history of native persons from their ancestral homeland. Doubling the pain and sorrow, of course, is the steadfast refusal of Turkish authorities to take responsibility on behalf of the perpetrators, and their underhanded methods of attempting to blackmail governments that recognize the genocides of the Armenians, Greeks (especially Pontian Greeks), Assyrians, and other ethnic groups that had existed since antiquity in Asia Minor--long before the Turks had arrived from the steppes of Asia. What gives this Catastrophe particular significance for Greek families is that the 1.25 million who were absorbed into the populace of Greece amounted to 20% of the total population at that time. Absorbing so many refugees, and so quickly, plunged the entire country into abject poverty for decades. And much more, the Greeks of Asia Minor, a well-educated and cultured class, lost their homes and property, forcing them to disperse throughout Greece and other western countries. For researchers trying to trace the ancestry of any families from Asia Minor, the lack of vital statistics before 1922 may well prove to be a permanent stumbling block. Although refugee families were scattered throughout Greece, there were pockets of greater concentration in and around Thessaloniki, Thrace, Piraeus, and the islands. And refugee families didn't always remain where they had been initially settled. If they could locate other members of their family lost in the uproar of conflict and evacuation, they would seek them out. Likewise, if they could contact relatives in other countries or business partners or friends for assistance, they would do so and move as necessary to try to restart their lives. Investigators may have to painstakingly retrace all steps of the family until they find the earliest village or settlement location of their target subject. A great many fine accounts are now available about this period of Greek history, including, but not limited to the seminal work of Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City, and continuing with Thea Halo's Not Even My Name, Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919-1922 by Michael Llewellyn Smith, Farewell Anatolia by Dido Soteriou, George Horton's A Blight of Asia, and my husband's Ships of Mercy.

In my travels across the U.S. to offer genealogy talks and workshops, I have been privileged to hear many colorful and hair-raising stories about narrow escapes of Greek refugees from the hands of the Turks in 1922. On every occasion I encouraged folks either to write down or record these stories told by their parents or grandparents. These oral testimonies are important and certify the events as told by historians.

At one workshop I heard an unbelievable story told by an older gentleman whose family was from Smyrna.  According to family oral history, his father and grandfather had a successful store for dry goods. He chuckled as he told me that the joke in his family was that his family had become known for running a "house of ill repute." From time to time, Greek families would be duped into consenting to let their beautiful daughters marry a Muslim, only to discover later that their daughters had been prostituted afterward. The dry goods store of the gentleman's family ran guns, an extremely dangerous side-line, with the weapons hidden at the bottom of flour and sugar containers, so that the Greeks could buy their daughters back from the abusers at exorbitant prices.

Unfortunately, with increasing frequency I have been noticing accounts in print, and especially on the Internet, where the Greeks are blamed equally in the Asia Minor Catastrophe, couched with such stock phrases as "both sides were doing those things" or "both sides were responsible" or "both sides were committing atrocities." That's simply not accurate. There has been a major effort underway to revise this history of the Mikrasiates (Greeks from Asia Minor) by groups who do not want the truth to be told. If Greek-Americans do not record the history of their Anatolian ancestors, it may be rewritten for them in a far less flattering light and may make the Greeks culpable for the entire debacle, including the deaths suffered at the hands of the Turks and the expulsions from their own lands. One day their descendants may be reading only what the Turkish lobbyists will have funded in "official" versions. And you can bet that none of these Turkish accounts will resemble a Greek Trail of Tears, as Thea Halo has written. That's why it's so important for Asia-Minor families to record their own accounts.

So, Lynn Betlock's position that "disaster stories can explain how an extraordinary event could affect a family and even profoundly alter their lives," is certainly correct as far as Greek families are concerned.

(Posted 30 October 2012)

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