The Patriarchal Theological Seminary of Halki is located on the Turkish island known as Heyelbiada in the Bosporus straits. It was closed in 1971 by the Turkish government and is the subject of much controversy since it is the only seminary in Turkey and the position of Ecumenical Patriarch can only be filled by a Turkish citizen. Sign the petition to reopen it at www.greece.org
Celebrating the day with an excerpt from Ithaka on the Horizon: A Greek-American Journey
There is a sheer cliff at the end of the footpath of our lives, But he whose soul possesses wings unfurls them and survives.
from a Cretan mantinada
When I was a kid and television was still the kind of entertainment suitable for a family, one of my favorite shows was Father Knows Best. The actor who played the father in the series smoked a pipe, wore a smoking jacket, and spoke flawless English. He had a study where he sat in a big leather chair and solved everyone's problems with unparalleled wisdom. Let's just say my Greek father did not fit this particular mold.
My dad spoke English with a heavy accent. He never smoked, he didn't own a smoking jacket or a leather chair, and his study consisted of the kitchen table. Dad owned tons of books, all in Greek: Euripides, Plato, Homer, Herodotus, the Church Fathers, and on and on. He read the Greek newspaper, carrying it home every night folded in his jacket pocket. He would cut out articles he liked for future reference. Dad had a rule: speak Greek. I had no idea, though, how he was ever going to improve his English so I wouldn't be embarrassed at parent-teacher meetings. If that wasn't bad enough, I had to go along to translate. Sometimes he didn't need translation, as in the case of one particular grade-school teacher who insisted on calling me Steve instead of Stavros. She made me erase the name Stavros from my notebook. When Dad noticed it, he went to school with me the next day, marched up to my teacher, and announced, "Please, hees name is Stavros, NOT Steve. Thees was hees papou's name. OK. It cannot be chan-ged." At that moment I was hoping the earth would just open up and swallow me whole.
Dad was not the kind of guy who spent lots of time playing with us. I really don't think he knew how, since he was never really given much of an opportunity to learn during his hardscrabble youth in the horio (village). Other kids played catch with their dads; mine preferred to fix my Greek homework. Other kids went fishing with their dads; mine helped me memorize the poem of the month at Greek school. Despite all this, there was never any doubt that Dad loved me. There was never a shortage of hugs and kisses, interspersed with a rare attention-gaining whack.
As a kid I saw my father every day. I was lucky. So many kids nowadays don't have a male figure in their lives to give them what only a father figure can. Boys, especially, need a man to serve as an example of how men should behave. Sometimes we men fall short and don't have the right stuff. Real men aren't loudmouthed, muscle-bound bullies, reeking of machismo. Nor are they effeminate, cringing, weak-kneed, narcissists focused on their appearance. Real men are strong, silent, humble, selfless, loving but not permissive, obstinate but willing to listen, and—above all—dutiful. You know—the Gary Cooper types. In the marines, we used to refer to these guys as the ones who would still be there when the smoke had cleared, no matter how dicey things got.
My own dad, like all humans who walk the earth, was not without blemish. He would be the first to admit that very thing. He was the kind of father who would hug us and kiss us on the cheek even as we grew into adulthood, yet he could be aloof and hard to understand. Like the men of his generation, he wasn't very good at hanging his feelings out on the clothesline for all to see. Baba was hardworking; however, he was not an ambitious person. For someone with the equivalent of an advanced degree when most of his peers never finished grade school, he seemed to have put ambition aside in order to concentrate on the really important things in his life, like raising his kids, caring for his family, and fulfilling his obligations to his church and his country. Ask any monk, and he will readily tell you that living a truly Christian life in the world with all of its trials and temptations is as difficult as living in an isolated, remote monastery. In most group pictures he was ever in, Dad was always in the back of the crowd. He was never one to push his way to the front, unless, of course, he was in a queue, waiting his turn. He couldn't abide wasting precious time doing nothing. My father loved books and he loved his garden. When he wasn't reading, he was planting something, and what he planted usually produced something edible. My fondest memories of my father are those of the times we spent working together, doing hard manual labor, like mixing cement, laying bricks, or putting up fences. It was our special time together, the time in which we bonded. We ended up sweaty and filthy, talking and laughing about life or the future, then coming home exhausted but with a sense of supreme accomplishment.
When I wanted to join the Marines at the ripe old age of nineteen, Dad tried to talk me out of it. The Vietnam War was killing American boys on a daily basis, and he was scared. But he realized that I had made my mind up and that for the first time in my life, I was digging my heels in, refusing to do what he told me to do. He put on his best suit and accompanied me to the recruiting office to stand by my side.
Years later he came to visit me when I was a twenty-nine-year-old captain stationed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina. During his visit I bought him a wristwatch at the base exchange. As I handed him the one I'd chosen for him, despite his protestations, he admired it, putting it on his wrist. Teary eyed, he gave me a big hug and kissed me on the cheek. The black saleswoman behind the counter was startled. She quickly recovered her composure and said in a quiet southern drawl, "Down here, men don't do that sort of thing." She smiled uncomfortably, "But honey, I think it’s sweet that yo daddy ain't afraid to show such affection to his son." That was one of the best days of my life.
My dad was always there to give us a nudge in the right direction. Once that was done, he would back off and quit nitpicking. He understood that God is not finished with any of us yet and that each of us is still a work in progress. When it came to the Orthodox faith, which he loved, Dad always led by example. On more than one occasion, I woke from a sound sleep to fetch myself a glass of water and caught my father in front of the family icons, praying; the oil lamp flickered in the evening darkness. On Sundays and feast days, he was at church without fail, always on time to serve as a psalter. Dad understood that he could not give the gift of faith or God's grace to his children. All he could do was prepare us within the church to receive it. And so he did.
My daily contact with him during my youth disappeared during my military career, when we only saw each other a few times a year. When I finally moved my family to Maine, I was able to spend more time with him after a long absence. As luck would have it, his health began failing—first a heart attack and then a stroke a few years later. Dad lived at home with my mother until his mental and physical condition deteriorated to such a point that it was impossible for us to take care of him properly. We watched him progressively weaken, from walking unassisted to using a walker to having to use a wheelchair to being bedridden. Eventually we made a difficult, agonizing choice, one that many people have to make nowadays. Medical science can prolong life; however, it can't ensure a good quality of life. Dad spent the last year of his life in a nursing home. It was to be our longest and most difficult journey together.
Watching what had once been a vibrant and strong man waste away is difficult. What was harder was not being able to carry on a conversation and ask him the important questions that I'd never had the time or smarts to pose when he could have answered them. Toward the end it was the little things that gave us both pleasure: providing physical contact, feeding him my mother's homemade yogurt, or listening to the hymns he loved so much
His room in the nursing home was sparse, his belongings few. His icons and photographs of his parents, wife, children, and grandchildren were next to him. Some evenings when I'd worked late and arrived after he had fallen asleep, I would sit next to his bed, watching him sleep while his slow respirations moved his chest ever so slightly up and down. I'd often wonder what he was dreaming about. I used to imagine that in his dreamworld he was a boy again, back in his village. In this dream, he is walking down a dirt road, herding the family goats and sheep, the bells around their necks ringing as they move toward his home. In the fading light, he sees the smoke of a cooking fire wafting up from the chimney of a simple stone house. His mother, a black shawl covering her head, stands at the doorway, waving to him. He waves back. He is happy, and he picks up his step; all is right with the world. Along the way, he picks a succulent fig from a tree, peels it, and savors it in his mouth, smiling.
My father never made the cover of Time magazine, nor did he ever have his fifteen minutes of fame. In a hundred years, will anyone even remember that he walked the earth? Will his memory and the story of his life be just a collection of distant, fading shadows? Dad was a faithful husband, a loving father, and a good Christian, and he lived his life as best he could. Can any of us ask for anything more?
Happy Father's Day Baba, may the soil that covers your grave rest lightly upon you.
Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
Last weekend my son, Chris and I, planted American flags next to the gravestones of our veterans buried in the Greek Orthodox cemetery in Biddeford, Maine. This labor of love is a token of remembrance and respect. Many of those lucky veterans like myself made it back in one piece, others returned with broken minds or bodies to rebuild their lives as best they could. Memorial Day however is not about veterans, or sales or ball games or barbacues. It recognizes those that made the ultimate scarifice. Like the Spartans at Thermopylae, they answered the call and like them paid a heavy price on behalf of their fellow citizens.
For many Americans, these men are nameless and unknown. We go about our daily lives fairly oblivious to what they endured in the hellish places we sent them to. Places that the average American can neither name or find on a map. As a Marine, I still see their bright young faces so full of life and dreams, faces that span a twenty two year career during war and a turbulent peace. As a father, I can only think about the inconsolable grief of parents for the many sons lost in the prime of their life. I remember the palpable gut-wrenching fear one feels in combat and the struggle to overcome that fear. To do your duty and above all not let down those by your side. I wonder about where they died and what their last moments were like. It is said that our souls leave our bodies when we die, setting out on the road to God, tarrying for awhile among the places and people we love. The words of the Orthodox funeral service come to mind: "O Lord give rest in a place of light, in a place of green pasture, in a place of refreshment where pain and sorrow and mourning have fled away." I pray that all of them have found such a place and live in the presence of their Maker.
Major John Macroglou was a Marine officer who was killed tragically in Beirut in 1983 when the building housing the battalion headquarters where he worked was blown up by a suicide bomber. He died along with over two hundred other Marines and sailors. I met John when we were junior officers stationed in Okinawa, years earlier. Although we were in different units I saw his name on a roster and noticed immediately his Greek family name. We hit it off right away. We were two wayward Greek-Americans far from home, sharing stories, food packages, and Greek music tapes. We would make jokes nobody could understand, teach our buddies choice Greek vocabulary words, and introduced them to the medicinal effects of ouzo. We were definitely a civilizing influence on our brother Marines. John was a consummate professional with a deep seated sense of duty who loved being a Marine. The last photo of him was taken on the rooftop of the Marine headquarters a few days before the Iranians destroyed it. His father Bill wrote to me recently and said: "John was a great son who loved his God and his country." A fitting epitaph.
Lance Corporal Dimitrios Gavriel joined the Corps after 9/11. The son of Greek immigrants, a champion high school wrestler and Brown University graduate, he walked away from a lucrative career on Wall Street to avenge friends killed in the collapse of the Twin Towers. Dimitrios volunteered to serve as an enlisted man, turning down a commission as an officer. He also volunteered to be a "grunt", an infantryman. He was wounded during the vicious fighting in the battle of Fallujah. Undeterred by his wounds he returned to his unit and was subsequently killed in an explosion a few days later. In the words of his father: "he put his life on the line when most of us would have run away. We lost a great kid."
Six feet tall, Nicholas Xiarhos was muscular and strong, but gentle at heart. After returning from service in Iraq, he changed battalions so he could deploy with his new unit to Afghanistan. “He didn’t feel comfortable living an easy life,” said his mother, Lisa. “He just wanted to fight.” Xiarhos, 21, of Yarmouth, Mass., was killed July 23 in a roadside bombing in Helmand province, Afghanistan. He was a 2006 high school graduate and was assigned to Camp Lejeune. Paul Funk, Xiarhos’s high school football and baseball coach, remembered him as a motivated, selfless player. “I know he was doing something that he really believed in,” he said.
Tomorrow let us remember them and those still in harm's way. They are the only thing that stands between us and the evil that has always existed in our fallen world. A thin line of men, very much in the image of the Spartans at Thermopylae. These citizen-soldiers continue to defend us, to lay down there lives for us, in spite of ourselves. We owe them all so much, a debt we will never be able to repay.
Semper Fi, John, Nick and Dimitri, may the soil that covers your graves, rest lightly upon you.
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them."
"Dammit Stavro, I like you too much not to say it. You've got everything except one thing.......madness. A man needs a little madness or else he never cuts the rope and gives his book away for ONE DOLLAR."
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The Pontian Greeks lived along the Black Sea coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey) in a region loosely referred to as Pontus by many scholars. They were descendants of Ionian Greeks who settled there, beginning in 800 B.C. Like other Christians in Turkey, the Armenians and Assyrians for example, the Pontic Greeks faced persecution and suffered during ethnic cleansing at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1923, after thousands of years, those remaining were expelled from Turkey to Greece as part of the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey under Treaty of Lausanne.
May 19 has been recognized by the Greek parliament as the day of remembrance of the Pontian Greek Genocide by the Turks. There are various estimates of the toll. Records kept mainly by priests show a minimum 350,000 Pontian Greeks exterminated through systematic slaughter by Turkish troops and Kurdish irregulars. Other estimates, including those of foreign missionaries, spoke of 500,000 deaths, most through deportation and forced marches into the Anatolian desert interior. Thriving Greek cities like Bafra, Samsous, Kerasous, and Trapezous, at the heart of Pontian Hellenism on the coast of the Black Sea, endured recurring massacres and deportations that eventually destroyed their Greek population. The genocide started with the order in 1914 for all Pontian men between the ages of 18 and 50 to report for military duty. Those who "refused" or "failed" to appear, the order provided, were to be summarily shot. The immediate result of this decree was the murder of thousands of the more prominent Pontians, whose names appeared on lists of "undesirables" already prepared by the Young Turk regime.
Thousands ended up in the notorious Labor Battalions. In a precursor of what was to become a favorite practice in Hitler's extermination camps, Pontian men were driven from their homes into the wilderness to perform hard labor and expire from exhaustion, thirst, and disease. German advisors of the Turkish regime suggested that Pontian populations be forced into internal exile. This "advise" led directly to the emptying of hundreds of Pontian villages and the forced march of women, children, and old people to nowhere. The details of this systematic slaughter of the Pontians by the Turks were dutifully recorded by both German and Austrian diplomats.
The Pontians did try to organize armed resistance. Pontian guerrilla bands had appeared in the mountains of Santa as early as 1916. Brave leaders, like Capitan Stylianos Kosmidis, even hoisted the flag of an independent Pontus in the hope of help from Greece and Russia (which never arrived). The struggle was unequal. The Turkish army, assisted by the Tsets, who were of mostly Kurdish extraction, attacked and destroyed undefended Pontian villages. On May 19, 1919, Mustafa Kemal himself disembarked at Samsous to begin organizing the final phase of the Pontian genocide. Assisted by his German advisers, and surrounded by his own band of killers -- monsters like Topal Osman, Refet Bey, Ismet Inonu, and Talaat Pasha -- the founder of "modern" Turkey applied himself to the destruction of the Pontian Greeks. With the Greek army engaged in Anatolia, a new wave of deportations, mass killings, and "preventative" executions destroyed the remnants of Pontian Hellenism. The plan worked with deadly precision. In the Amasia province alone, with a pre-war population of some 180,000, records show a final tally of 134,000 people liquidated
In 1923, a population exchange negotiated by the participants resulted in a near-complete elimination of the Greek ethnic presence in Anatolia. It is impossible to know exactly how many Greek inhabitants of Pontus, Smyrna and rest of Asia Minor died from 1916 to 1923, and how many ethnic Greeks of Anatolia were deported to Greece or fled to the Soviet Union. According to G.W. Rendel, " ... over 500,000 Greeks were deported of whom comparatively few survived.
U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau accused the "Turkish government" of a campaign of "outrageous terrorizing, cruel torturing, driving of women into harems, debauchery of innocent girls, the sale of many of them at 80 cents each, the murdering of hundreds of thousands and the deportation to and starvation in the desert of other hundreds of thousands, and the destruction of hundreds of villages and many cities," all part of "the willful execution" of a "scheme to annihilate the Armenian, Greek and Syrian Christians of Turkey."US Consul-General George Horton reported that "one of the cleverest statements circulated by the Turkish propagandists is to the effect that the massacred Christians were as bad as their executioners, that it was “50-50.”" On this issue he clarifies that "had the Greeks, after the massacres in the Pontus and at Smyrna, massacred all the Turks in Greece, the record would have been 50-50—almost." As an eye-witness, he also praises Greeks for their "conduct toward the thousands of Turks residing in Greece, while the ferocious massacres were going on.", which, according to his opinion, was "one of the most inspiring and beautiful chapters in all that country’s history."
A number of Pontians wrote about their experiences and recorded in memoirs or simple testimonies the nightmarish events that they had lived through. The most famous of these was Elias Venezis with his book entitled: "The Number 31328," which chronicled his servitude in a Labor Battalion . One eyewitness who survived the genocide and settled in Greece was Savas Kantartzis. The following is his vivid description of the massacre of the inhabitants of his native village of Beyeilan in the region of Kotyron in Pontus, by a paramilitary unit led by Topal Osman, now honored as a national hero of modern Turkey. The tragedy of this village is the tragedy of hundreds of other Greek villages and thousands of Greeks, in Chios in 1821, in Pontus in 1916, in Asia Minor in 1922, in Constantinople in 1955 or in occupied Cyprus in 1974...
“At daybreak, on Wednesday, the 16th of February, 1922, a nightmare begins. News spread that Tsets (Kurdish irregulars) lead by Topal Osman are coming to our village. Everyone is frightened and apprehensive. Some men hurriedly escaped into the surrounding forest, others hid in special hiding places in their homes or stables, all well camouflaged. Women, children and the elderly locked themselves in their homes, hearts pounding and awaiting their fates. More than 150 Tsets, entered the village yelling and shooting. followed by villagers bent on plunder from the neighboring Turkish villages.
As soon as they entered the village, the atmosphere was electrified and the horizon darkened as if a storm was approaching. They screamed curses and kicked doors in, ordering the inhabitants out into the village square. They threatened to set fire to the houses unless everyone came out. In a short time, women, children and the old ones found themselves crying and trembling in the streets. They sensed what would happen to them and many attempted to escape. The Turks and Tsets had foreseen such an eventuality and had blocked every avenue of escape. No one could leave. A few were shot and fell dead or limped back wounded.
These men revealed, once and for all, their criminal intent and it was now apparent to the entire terrorized group of women and children that had been thrown into the streets, their cries rising in despair. Nothing they did now could soften the hardhearted cruelty of the henchman that had been chosen by Topal Osman for this “patriotic” expedition. These sadists began to enjoy the great fun of inflicting pain and torturing their victims. They kicked, struck, and yelled, pushing them toward the village square.
The mothers, stood pale and disheveled in the bitter cold, trembling with fear while holding their clinging infants in close embrace. The young girls, some with their old parents and others with old women or holding up the sick, were herded like sheep, ready for slaughter, into the middle of a pandemonium punctuated by heart-breaking cries and lamentations. Then they ordered their victims to enter two pre-selected houses in the vicinity of the square where they could complete their crime. They herded this unwilling flock into the houses with kicks and shouts. There was no doubt now about the fate that awaited them. The Tsets crammed over three hundred into those houses, anxious to finish their macabre enterprise. When they were sure that no one remained outside, they locked the doors oblivious to the cacophony of cries and supplications for mercy that reverberated in the surrounding mountains and forests.
The final phase of this tragic event needed only a few handfuls of dry grass set alight to create a firestorm that engulfed the two houses in bloodcurdling screams through the pungent black smoke. What followed during the next hour cannot be adequately described…
Crazed mothers clutched tightly, with the all the force of their souls, their crying babies to their bosom. Children cried for their mothers. The girls and the other women with the elderly, the children and the sick, screamed and seized each other as if they wanted to take and give the other courage and help until their hair, clothes and bodies were engulfed by the flames. Piercing cries, maniacal screams and thunderous, wild howls of people, overcome by terror and pain. They beat and flayed the air and the walls to no avail. Hell on earth!
Some women and girls, in their despair and pain, threw themselves out of windows, preferring death from the bullets to the blazing inferno. Osman's men who looked on smiling, enjoying the spectacle before them, were more than happy to accommodate these poor women by shooting them dead. The screaming began to dwindle, replaced by the noise of the crackling timbers and the crumbling walls falling on the smoldering bodies. Nothing remained but the ash and ruins of what used to be two homes in the town of Beyialan.
The tragedy of this village, described in all its horrific details, was repeated in other Christian villages throughout Turkey and even today atrocities perpetrated against Christians are commonplace throughout the Muslim world.
We pay bitter homage to our dead without hate or vengeful thoughts but we should not forget their sacrifice or let the nation who murdered them forget its crime.
It's Mother's Day on Sunday and I thought I would repost something I wrote about my mother. It is one of many stories that you can find in my book, Ithaka on the Horizon: A Greek-American Journey, available on Amazon here.
Happy Mother's Day
Six years have passed since the death of my mother, and she is still a constant presence in my life. I used to think that she was always going to be with us and had convinced myself that eventually we would be in the nursing home together. Mama would still be making sure I was blowing my nose and wearing a warm sweater or cautioning me to slow down in my wheelchair. Greek sons have a special indestructible bond with their mothers, and Greek mothers take special pride in their sons. Greek mothers seem to have a particularly strong affinity for the top mom, the Panagia (Virgin Mary), so they spend a lot of time praying to her to put in a good word for their son with her Son. In Greek society, mothers of sons receive a certain amount of respect and deference. There is probably not much that they wouldn't do for their sons, and their love is unconditional.
Mama and I got off to a shaky start when I was born. After a very difficult labor, she was presented with a tiny red baby with a funny-shaped head, prune-faced and screeching and not very happy about being dragged kicking and screaming into a cold, uninviting world. Mom had never seen a newborn: it's a Greek custom to keep babies at home for the first forty days of life. All the new babies she had ever seen were fat, pearly white, and smiling. She was shocked and horrified that this ugly little baby in her arms was hers. As she later related, "I told myself that you weren't going to be handsome and that I would have to do my best to dress you up nicely to make up for that." There is no love like that of a mother. Even for an ugly duckling.
My mom was always a proud woman. She was proud of her Orthodox faith, her Greek heritage, her children, and her husband. Her mission in life was to instill in us a sense of pride in ourselves and the importance of preserving the family honor. Mama was not a meek wallflower, hanging on her husband's every word. Dad may have been the head of the family, but my mama was not hesitant about telling the head of the family her opinion. When it came to the big decisions in our family, I remember distinctly our parents huddling together, whispering in fluent Turkish that neither my kid sister nor I could decipher. Then my Dad would proudly announce the outcome of the negotiation as if it was all his idea.
Mama loved to sew. When she first came to America, she worked in a sweatshop, doing piecework. It was tough work. As was often the case with Mom, she excelled at it. Funny, it never soured her on sewing. She sewed most of our clothes. She loved to make beautiful things: she painted, sewed, embroidered, worked with wood, and tired everyone out with her boundless energy. When we were kids, every Saturday she would take my sister and me on her rounds of all the fabric stores, looking for just the right fabric or pattern. Jewish shopkeepers owned most of these stores, and she took particular delight in bargaining with them as if she were in a Turkish bazaar. Unlike most other customers, who wouldn't even dream of not paying the listed price, Mama would haggle until the merchants gave up, exasperated, dejected, and defeated. I remember one guy who grudgingly paid her a compliment by saying, "Lady, you're driving me meshuga. Enough already—OK, take it. If all my customers were like you I would go out of business tomorrow."
Mom did not believe in eating out; paying some stranger your hard-earned money to cook funny-tasting food in a filthy kitchen was anathema to her. She always insisted that we bring our friends over for dinner, even if that meant inviting most of the 2nd Marine Regiment. She would politely ask them if they wanted a little bit of this or that, and if they had the temerity to refuse, she would just totally ignore them and fill up their plate. "Amerikanakia don't know how to eat, so we have to teach them," she instructed, calling us little Americans. Mama always knew best.
Mama wasn't exactly thrilled when I joined the marines; she was hoping I would be a doctor. I don't think even she realized what God had in store for her during the next twenty-two years. It is never easy being the parent of a son serving overseas in harm's way. It took a toll on her. I remember the morning we got the news that over two hundred marines had been killed in a bomb blast in Beirut. My leave had been cut short, and I was getting ready to travel back to Camp Lejeune, where I was a commander of an infantry company. Some of my friends were among the dead, including Major John Macroglou, a Greek American. Mama, who was usually talkative in the morning, was quiet, fighting back the tears and white as a ghost. The mothers of Spartan warriors used to send their sons to war with the words, "Return with your shield or on it." I think my mama was just praying I would come home in one piece, with or without the shield.
Mom got her driver's license when she moved to Maine at the tender age of sixty-two. At eighty-eight she continued to drive, despite a few run-ins with the local police department. Once she got pulled over for going "a little fast." Mom got out of a ticket by inviting the police officer over for coffee and baklava. "He was a good boy and so nice," she explained. Another time she got a parking ticket; she marched over to the police station, baklava in hand, and—you guessed it—the desk sergeant tore it up. I knew cops liked doughnuts, but who would have thought that baklava was their Achilles’ heel?
Funny, it was Mama who was the strong one when Baba died, not me. She was the one who wiped away my tears and whispered into my ear to tell me how much my father had loved me. She insisted on making the arrangements for the funeral, my father’s as well as her own, including picking out the coffins. I was aghast that she had included herself. "Ma, you're going to outlive me," I admonished her. "God forbid," she said, turning to the undertaker to ask if he had any wooden coffins in a darker finish.
Life for Mama after my father's death was lonely even though family and friends surrounded her. It was the loneliness of sleeping in an empty bed and not being able to confide in her life partner, to share her fears and joys. She finally moved out of the house they had shared. She had lingered there as if he might someday return to sit in the garden that he loved, even for a short time.
Mama finally decided it was time to give up the small house surrounded by the beautiful garden and large shade trees. The for-sale sign went up. Once Mama made up her mind, there was no holding her back. My wife, Anna, and I begged her to come live with us. We had plenty of room. "Two women cannot cook in the same kitchen," she said wisely. She moved into a nearby apartment building for retirees, and she proceeded to make her small apartment her own. She tried to keep herself busy, doing something other than grieving all day. She was determined to do things her way as long as possible.
She sewed curtains, hung pictures of her family throughout, and placed her icons above her solitary bed. Within a few weeks, she had made plenty of new friends. She played cards, invited neighbors over for coffee and food, and talked with a steady stream of people on the phone. She would invite her friends from church over for formal dinners where she would break out her best china and embroidered tablecloths. She was, as one resident put it, "the happiest person here."
One day she asked me over to do some work in her apartment. As I worked, installing shelving in a closet, Mama was looking over my shoulder, offering an "occasional" bit of advice. Glancing down, she saw Dad's old toolbox, which I have made my own, and was reminded of the days she and Dad worked on projects together. She became pensive. After a moment she said longingly, "I think of him often, rest his soul." The only words I could put together and get out were, "Me too, Ma."
On the way home, I stopped by the old house to check on things before the closing the next day. Standing there in the eerily quiet and bare rooms, I couldn't help but see all the kids scurrying around, all the relatives and friends sharing all the food, music, and laughter through the years. I could still see Baba sitting at his desk, writing letters, surrounded by his books and papers. I could see Mama working in the kitchen, my sister and wife helping her. Outside, the yard was in bloom and the fruit trees and grape arbor laden with ripe fruit. My father's handiwork was evident everywhere. The day we signed the house over to the new owners, we also handed over a piece of ourselves.
Mama's constant companion during her last year was Cloudy the parakeet. My son had given him that particular name because he was blue and white, resembling a cloud. I bought him for her, thinking she might enjoy him as much as her brother Elias enjoyed his parakeet, Budgie. It was a match made in heaven. I have never seen a bird so enamored with a human being. She'd placed his cage next to her bed, and in the morning he would emerge and wake her by flying onto her head, walking down her nose, and pecking at her lips. After a full day together, he would allow her to gently caress him in her hand, kiss him, and then place him in his cage.
A week before her death, she confessed that she was more tired than usual. Assuming the parental role, I admonished her for doing too much. Easter was fast approaching, so I took her to church, and we talked about her coming and staying with us through Holy Week. I kissed her and gave her a hug when I dropped her off. Little did I realize it would be the last time I would see her alive.
Mama was always working on something. On that Friday, she spent most of the day cooking for the luncheon after my father's upcoming memorial service, and she built two window boxes for the tomato plants she'd bought. That evening she played cards with her friends and retired early, saying that she didn't feel well and was going to get some sleep.
The following day her next-door neighbor went to check on her, and she didn't answer the door. Her blinds were still down at midday even though she always awakened at five for her morning coffee. The neighbor called the police, and they eventually called me to inform me that she had died. My younger son, Chris, and I had been out shopping. We were driving home when we got the call. Chris could sense something was wrong from the look on my face as I spoke with the police officer. I was stunned. Chris began crying when he heard the news, and I am not exactly sure how I managed to drive us to her home. I don't remember the trip there. One of Mama's friends comforted Chris as I walked up to her apartment, my heart beating out of my chest. I entered and found her lying on her bed. She looked like she was sleeping peacefully, her icons and oil lamp above her. I reached out to touch her face. It was cold as ice. It was Saturday, the day our Lord resurrected Lazarus from the dead. I broke down and cried like a baby. It would not be the last time. She had left us suddenly, without any warning—with so much left unsaid and no time to say our good-byes.
The hardest part was trying to comfort my inconsolable son and then breaking the news to my sister, wife, and older son. Anna was in Athens; she wanted to fly home when she heard. With her father in the hospital, fighting for his own life, I insisted that she stay put. The living had more need of her than the dead. My sister drove up from New York. She sent an e-mail before leaving:
My dear brother,
I know you will appreciate this quote from John Quincy Adams who spoke about Abigail, his mother upon her death. "She has been more to me than a mother. She has been a spirit from above watching over me for good, contributing by my mere consciousness of her existence, to the comfort of my life…Never have I known another human being, the perpetual object of whose life, was so unremittingly to do good."
Those are my feelings exactly, and I am sure yours. If we are anything, it is because of her. Whatever success our families have had, it is a direct result of her goodness. Let us pray that we can continue her good works and pass on her strength and love to our children and to our children's children, from one generation to another. That is our parents' legacy. This is our purpose in life.
Somewhere I read that an act of love is like a pebble that falls in a pond. The rings, which represent love, spread out infinitely and touch all in its path. It is a never-ending pattern of goodness and love. Our mother has bestowed this gift on us. May she rest in peace. Until we are all together again, in God's glory, forever and ever and unto the ages of ages.
Your sister. Katina
The wake was a celebration of her life even as she lay in her casket surrounded by her children and grandchildren. The mourners just kept on coming, every one of them having been touched in some way by her life. For our small community, she was the uberyiayia, handing out food, hugs, and love generously to all who crossed her path.
During the last years of her life, she had distributed most of her worldly possessions and planned and paid for her own funeral and that of her husband. She counseled her children to feed the multitudes well. "Make sure you give them more than those little sandwiches and some potato chips," she insisted. And so we did.
Mama, or "YiaYia" as she was affectionately known to everyone, was the little old lady that they all wished was their yiayia. She always has plenty of hugs, food, and advice for everybody. They all loved yiayia. What they seldom realized was that underneath that cuddly veneer was something a lot harder. Mama used to say that we don't know what we are capable of until the time comes. For her it came over fifty years ago during the anti-Greek riots in Constantinople when she was barricaded inside her home with her mother and four year old son. A howling mob of Turks was outside trying to break down the door and smashing windows. Her mother ordered her to hide herself and me, expecting them to break through. "There was no way I could leave her, so I hid you and we waited together. I never thought I had it in me," she once confided. Yes, Mama you had it in you, after all you were a Greek mother.
Louis Tikas was a Greek immigrant from Crete who worked as a miner in Colorado. He joined thousands of Greeks lured to the Rockies by the promise of earning more money than they ever dreamed of at home. By one estimate about 40,000 Greeks worked in the mines, mills and on the railroads of Colorado, Utah and New Mexico before World War I . Coming to America was a culture shock for these unmarried young men and the Greek kafenions or coffee houses were an oasis. Tikas, who learned English, ran a kafenion and he helped fellow immigrants with complicated English documents and sending money home. Greeks were used as strikebreakers since they had no tradition of unions back home, however, soon they started to join the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union in droves.
The struggle between labor and the "robber barons" who ran American industry began with the railroad strike of 1877, the first strike in American history when American troops fired on American working men. For decades thereafter, a war was waged for America's soul and the story of Louis Tikas would become only the latest manifestation of that conflict. Tikas became an organizer for the United Mine Workers and eventually lead a walkout of 63 Greek minors at a Frederick Colorado Mine. He was eventually chased by the hired detectives of the company who shot and wounded him as he escaped through the back door of a boarding house. Many of the miners with families resented the Greeks who were unmarried and were more apt to take risks. Nevertheless, after a special convention in Trinidad the UMWA issued its demands and called a strike of the Southern fields of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company owned by mogul John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller thought it was cheaper to replace workers than to buy enough timber to shore up the mines. Nearly all of the miners demands were on the statue books of the State of Colorado but had been ignored by the company. CF&I immediately evicted almost thirteen thousand miners and their families from company housing.
An exodus occurred and moved down into makeshift tent camps set up by the union. The tent city at Ludlow under Tikas' leadership was the largest of these, home for nearly a thousand people, including most of the Greek workers. They would spend the next six months there as Colorado underwent one of its worst winters. The company brought in new workers, hired the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency to break the strike and persuaded the Governor to send the state militia. The massacre at Ludlow, described as one of the most shameful episodes of American history, began as the colony celebrated Greek Easter. Machine gun fire began to rip indiscriminately through the camp. The miners fought back but were eventually overwhelmed. Louis Tikas who throughout the long day had heroically helped women children and the wounded escape the carnage was captured. He was found later shot in the back three times. His body was left unburied for days. Two women and eleven children died in the camp. After Ludlow, the miners fought back savagely and the war came to a halt only with the arrival of Federal troops.
Although the UMWA failed to win recognition by the company, the strike had a lasting impact both on conditions at the Colorado mines and on labor relations nationally. The scorn of the nation was heaped on Rockefeller and his son. John D. Rockefeller, Jr was forced by the resulting furor to accept reforms that included paved roads and recreational facilities as well as worker representation on committees dealing with working conditions, safety, health, and recreation. There was to be no discrimination of workers who had belonged to unions, and the establishment of a company union. The Rockefeller plan was accepted by the miners in a vote. A United States Commission on Industrial Relations, headed by labor lawyer and Democratic activist Frank Walsh, conducted hearings in Washington, collecting information and taking testimony from all the principals, including Rockefeller. The commission's 1,200 page report suggested many reforms sought by the unions, and provided support for bills establishing a national eight-hour work day and a ban on child labor. Tikas was laid to rest on April 27, 1914, in a funeral attended by hundreds of his fellow miners.
Don't miss the new documentary by producer Lamprini Thoma and director Nikos Ventouras. “Palikari” is not so much a documentary as it is a historical document, bringing together lively expert accounts of a story that deserves to be heard by a wide audience. In an effort to achieve this, Ventouras and Thoma plan to make the documentary available for free.
“Anyone can visit their website – palikari.org – and ask for permission to arrange a screening of the film,” says Thoma. “We don’t want money, we just want it to be seen by as many people as possible. Whether it’s unions, schools or any organization, we’re happy to help.” Read the review in Kathimerini newspaper here.
In 1945, a Paschal Liturgy like no other was performed. Just days after their liberation by the US military on April 29, 1945, hundreds of Orthodox Christian prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp gathered to celebrate the Resurrection service and to give thanks.
The Dachau concentration camp was opened in 1933 in a former gunpowder factory. The first prisoners interred there were political opponents of Adolf Hitler, who had become German chancellor that same year. During the twelve years of the camp's existence, over 200,000 prisoners were brought there. The majority of prisoners at Dachau were Christians, including Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox clergy and lay people.
Countless prisoners died at Dachau, and hundreds were forced to participate in the cruel medical experiments conducted by Dr. Sigmund Rascher. When prisoners arrived at the camp they were beaten, insulted, shorn of their hair, and had all their belongings taken from them. The SS guards could kill whenever they thought it was appropriate. Punishments included being hung on hooks for hours, high enough that heels did not touch the ground; being stretched on trestles; being whipped with soaked leather whips; and being placed in solitary confinement for days on end in rooms too small to lie down in.
The abuse of the prisoners reached its end in the spring of 1945. The events of that Holy Week were later recorded by one of the prisoners, Gleb Rahr. Rahr grew up in Latvia and fled with his family to Nazi Germany when the Russians invaded. He was arrested by the Gestapo because of his membership in an organization that opposed both fascism and communism. Originally imprisoned in Buchenwald, he was transported to Dachau near the end of the war.
In fact, Rahr was one of the survivors of the infamous “death trains,” as they were called by the American G.I.’s who discovered them. Thousands of prisoners from different camps had been sent to Dachau in open rail cars. The vast majority of them died horrific deaths from starvation, dehydration, exposure, sickness, and execution.
In a letter to his parents the day after the liberation, G.I. William Cowling wrote, “As we crossed the track and looked back into the cars the most horrible sight I have ever seen met my eyes. The cars were loaded with dead bodies. Most of them were naked and all of them skin and bones. Honest their legs and arms were only a couple of inches around and they had no buttocks at all. Many of the bodies had bullet holes in the back of their heads.”
Marcus Smith, one of the US Army personnel assigned to Dachau, also described the scene in his 1972 book, The Harrowing of Hell.
Refuse and excrement are spread over the cars and grounds. More of the dead lie near piles of clothing, shoes, and trash. Apparently some had crawled or fallen out of the cars when the doors were opened, and died on the grounds. One of our men counts the boxcars and says that there are thirty-nine. Later I hear that there were fifty, that the train had arrived at the camp during the evening of April 27, by which time all of the passengers were supposed to be dead so that the bodies could be disposed of in the camp crematorium. But this could not be done because there was no more coal to stoke the furnaces. Mutilated bodies of German soldiers are also on the ground, and occasionally we see an inmate scream at the body of his former tormentor and kick it. Retribution!
Rahr was one of the over 4,000 Russian prisoners at Dachau at the time of the liberation. The liberated prisoners also included over 1,200 Christian clergymen. After the war, Rahr immigrated to the United States, where he taught Russian History at the University of Maryland. He later worked for Radio Free Europe. His account of the events at Dachau in 1945 begins with his arrival at the camp:
April 27th: The last transport of prisoners arrives from Buchenwald. Of the 5,000 originally destined for Dachau, I was among the 1,300 who had survived the trip. Many were shot, some starved to death, while others died of typhus. . . .
April 28th: I and my fellow prisoners can hear the bombardment of Munich taking place some 30 km from our concentration camp. As the sound of artillery approaches ever nearer from the west and the north, orders are given proscribing prisoners from leaving their barracks under any circumstances. SS-soldiers patrol the camp on motorcycles as machine guns are directed at us from the watch-towers, which surround the camp.
April 29th: The booming sound of artillery has been joined by the staccato bursts of machine gun fire. Shells whistle over the camp from all directions. Suddenly white flags appear on the towers—a sign of hope that the SS would surrender rather than shoot all prisoners and fight to the last man. Then, at about 6:00 p.m., a strange sound can be detected emanating from somewhere near the camp gate which swiftly increases in volume. . . .
The sound came from the dawning recognition of freedom. Lt. Col. Walter Fellenz of the US Seventh Army described the greeting from his point of view:
Several hundred yards inside the main gate, we encountered the concentration enclosure, itself. There before us, behind an electrically charged, barbed wire fence, stood a mass of cheering, half-mad men, women and children, waving and shouting with happiness—their liberators had come! The noise was beyond comprehension! Every individual (over 32,000) who could utter a sound, was cheering. Our hearts wept as we saw the tears of happiness fall from their cheeks.
Rahr’s account continues:
Finally all 32,600 prisoners join in the cry as the first American soldiers appear just behind the wire fence of the camp. After a short while electric power is turned off, the gates open and the American G.I.’s make their entrance. As they stare wide-eyed at our lot, half-starved as we are and suffering from typhus and dysentery, they appear more like fifteen-year-old boys than battle-weary soldiers. . . .
An international committee of prisoners is formed to take over the administration of the camp. Food from SS stores is put at the disposal of the camp kitchen. A US military unit also contributes some provision, thereby providing me with my first opportunity to taste American corn. By order of an American officer radio-receivers are confiscated from prominent Nazis in the town of Dachau and distributed to the various national groups of prisoners. The news comes in: Hitler has committed suicide, the Russians have taken Berlin, and German troops have surrendered in the South and in the North. But the fighting still rages in Austria and Czechoslovakia. . . .
Naturally, I was ever cognizant of the fact that these momentous events were unfolding during Holy Week. But how could we mark it, other than through our silent, individual prayers? A fellow-prisoner and chief interpreter of the International Prisoner's Committee, Boris F., paid a visit to my typhus-infested barrack—“Block 27”—to inform me that efforts were underway in conjunction with the Yugoslav and Greek National Prisoner's Committees to arrange an Orthodox service for Easter day, May 6th.
There were Orthodox priests, deacons, and a group of monks from Mount Athos among the prisoners. But there were no vestments, no books whatsoever, no icons, no candles, no prosphoras, no wine. . . . Efforts to acquire all these items from the Russian church in Munich failed, as the Americans just could not locate anyone from that parish in the devastated city. Nevertheless, some of the problems could be solved. The approximately four hundred Catholic priests detained in Dachau had been allowed to remain together in one barrack and recite mass every morning before going to work. They offered us Orthodox the use of their prayer room in “Block 26,” which was just across the road from my own “block.”
The chapel was bare, save for a wooden table and a Czenstochowa icon of the Theotokos hanging on the wall above the table—an icon which had originated in Constantinople and was later brought to Belz in Galicia, where it was subsequently taken from the Orthodox by a Polish king. When the Russian Army drove Napoleon's troops from Czenstochowa, however, the abbot of the Czenstochowa Monastery gave a copy of the icon to czar Alexander I, who placed it in the Kazan Cathedral in Saint-Petersburg where it was venerated until the Bolshevik seizure of power. A creative solution to the problem of the vestments was also found. New linen towels were taken from the hospital of our former SS-guards. When sewn together lengthwise, two towels formed an epitrachilion and when sewn together at the ends they became an orarion. Red crosses, originally intended to be worn by the medical personnel of the SS guards, were put on the towel-vestments.
On Easter Sunday, May 6th (April 23rd according to the Church calendar)—which ominously fell that year on Saint George the Victory-Bearer's Day—Serbs, Greeks and Russians gathered at the Catholic priests’ barracks. Although Russians comprised about 40 percent of the Dachau inmates, only a few managed to attend the service. By that time “repatriation officers” of the special Smersh units had arrived in Dachau by American military planes, and begun the process of erecting new lines of barbed wire for the purpose of isolating Soviet citizens from the rest of the prisoners, which was the first step in preparing them for their eventual forced repatriation.
In the entire history of the Orthodox Church there has probably never been an Easter service like the one at Dachau in 1945. Greek and Serbian priests together with a Serbian deacon wore the make-shift “vestments” over their blue and gray-striped prisoner’s uniforms. Then they began to chant, changing from Greek to Slavonic, and then back again to Greek. The Easter Canon, the Easter Sticheras—everything was recited from memory. The Gospel—“In the beginning was the Word”—also from memory.
And finally, the Homily of Saint John Chrysostom—also from memory. A young Greek monk from the Holy Mountain stood up in front of us and recited it with such infectious enthusiasm that we shall never forget him as long as we live. Saint John Chrysostomos himself seemed to speak through him to us and to the rest of the world as well! Eighteen Orthodox priests and one deacon—most of whom were Serbs—participated in this unforgettable service. Like the sick man who had been lowered through the roof of a house and placed in front of the feet of Christ the Savior, the Greek Archimandrite Meletios was carried on a stretcher into the chapel, where he remained prostrate for the duration of the service.
Other prisoners at Dachau included the recently canonized Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, who later became the first administrator of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the US and Canada; and the Very Reverend Archimandrite Dionysios, who after the war was made Metropolitan of Trikkis and Stagnon in Greece.
Fr. Dionysios had been arrested in 1942 for giving asylum to an English officer fleeing the Nazis. He was tortured for not revealing the names of others involved in aiding Allied soldiers and was then imprisoned for eighteen months in Thessalonica before being transferred to Dachau. During his two years at Dachau, he witnessed Nazi atrocities and suffered greatly himself. He recorded many harrowing experiences in his book Ieroi Palmoi. Among these were regular marches to the firing squad, where he would be spared at the last moment, ridiculed, and then returned to the destitution of the prisoners’ block.
After the liberation, Fr. Dionysios helped the Allies to relocate former Dachau inmates and to bring some normalcy to their disrupted lives. Before his death, Metropolitan Dionysios returned to Dachau from Greece and celebrated the first peacetime Orthodox Liturgy there. Writing in 1949, Fr. Dionysios remembered Pascha 1945 in these words:
In the open air, behind the shanty, the Orthodox gather together, Greeks and Serbs. In the center, both priests, the Serb and the Greek. They aren't wearing golden vestments. They don't even have cassocks. No tapers, no service books in their hands. But now they don't need external, material lights to hymn the joy. The souls of all are aflame, swimming in light.
Blessed is our God. My little paper-bound New Testament has come into its glory. We chant “Christ is Risen” many times, and its echo reverberates everywhere and sanctifies this place.
Hitler's Germany, the tragic symbol of the world without Christ, no longer exists. And the hymn of the life of faith was going up from all the souls; the life that proceeds buoyantly toward the Crucified One of the verdant hill of Stein.
On April 29, 1995—the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Dachau—the Russian Orthodox Memorial Chapel of Dachau was consecrated. Dedicated to the Resurrection of Christ, the chapel holds an icon depicting angels opening the gates of the concentration camp and Christ Himself leading the prisoners to freedom. The simple wooden block conical architecture of the chapel is representative of the traditional funeral chapels of the Russian North. The sections of the chapel were constructed by experienced craftsmen in the Vladimir region of Russia, and assembled in Dachau by veterans of the Western Group of Russian Forces just before their departure from Germany in 1994. The priests who participated in the 1945 Paschal Liturgy are commemorated at every service held in the chapel, along with all Orthodox Christians who lost their lives “at this place, or at another place of torture.”
In 1914, Nikos Kazantzakis, perhaps the greatest Greek author of the twentieth century, traveled to Mount Athos. He wrote about his forty day sojurn on the Holy Mount in his book, "Report to Greco." The following excerpt describes his meeting with the ascetic elder, Makarios.
My sight finally became accustomed to the darkness and as I peered inward with protruding eyeballs, I saw a gentle phosphorescence---a pale face and two emaciated arms---stir in the depths of the cave and I heard a sweet gasping voice.
Working up the courage, I entered the cave and proceeded toward the voice. The ascetic was curled on the ground. He had raised his head, and I was able in the half light to make out his face as it gleamed in the depths of unutterable beatitude---hairless, with sunken eye sockets, gnawed away by vigils and hunger. All his hair had fallen out and his head shown like a skull.
"Bless me father," I said, bowing to kiss his hand.
For a long time neither of us spoke. I kept looking greedily at this soul which had obliterated his body, for this was what weighed down its wings and prevented it fron mounting to Heaven. The soul that believes is a merciless man-eating beast. It had devoured him, flesh, eyes, hair---all.
I did not know where to begin. The ramshackle body before me seemed like a battledfield following a terrible massacre; upon it I discerned the tempter's scratches and bites. Finally I gathered up the courage.
"Do you wrestle with the devil, Father Makarios.?" I asked him.
"Not any longer my child. I have grown old now and he has grown old with me. He doesn't have the strength.....I wrestle with God."
"With God?" I exclaimed in astonishment. "And you hope to win?"
"I hope to lose, my child. My bones remain with me, and they continue to resist."
"Yours is a hard life, Father. I too want to be saved. Is there no other way?"
"More agreeable?" said the ascetic as he smiled with compassion.
"More human, my Elder.
"Only one way."
"What is it?"
"Ascent. You must climb a ladder, from full stomach to hunger, from slaked throat to thirst, from joy to suffering. At the peak of hunger, thirst and suffering sits God. The devil sits at the summit of the comfortable life, Choose"."
"I am still young. The earth is good. I have time to choose."
The ascetic stretched out his five bony fingers, squeezed my knees, and nudged me.
"Wake up, my child, wake up, before death wakes you up."
I recently gave a book presentation at the National Hellenic Museum. It was my first visit to Chicago and my first opportunity to see the Museum which is a tribute to the Greek American legacy but also to meet new friends in the large, dynamic community in Chicago. Located in Greek Town in the center of the city it is a beacon to all comers which highlights the struggles and accomplishments of Greeks in America. I appreciate very much the warm hospitality and the opportunity to present my book there. I would highly recommend that anyone visiting Chicago take some time to visit and avail themselves of the exhibits at the museum including listening to some of the oral histories that they have collected.
Small communities throughout the United States, like many other far flung diasporan communities celebrate Greek Independence Day. Parents and relatives watch proudly as young children, dressed in traditional costumes, present their poems and renditions of patriotic songs on this important Greek holiday. Greek Independence Day was always exciting for me. It was a big deal. Especially the thought of marching in the parade down Fifth Avenue. Since those days I have had some time to ponder the true meaning of Greek Independence.
The history of the struggle against the Ottoman Empire is replete with tales of daring and bravery, unfortunately, it is also a litany of man's inhumanity to man. Struggles of this type, against a determined and fanatical enemy, are never high-browed affairs as many Philhellenes like Lord Byron found out. The uprising in 1821 was a no holds barred war of attrition that can only be characterized as a fight to the finish. No quarter asked and none given. After all, the Greek subjects of the Ottoman Empire were nothing more than slaves. Slaves either submitted to the will of the Sultan or were to be made an example of and easily expendable. As happens in the writing of history, national mythologies have been developed around the events of those years. The winners and losers in any armed conflict often see things differently.
The question every Greek must now ask, no matter where they may find themselves today, almost two centuries later, is whether the Greek world actually achieved "true" independence when the revolution ended. Despite all we have accomplished in the modern period of our history, and it is substantial, are we truly free of the shackles that weigh us down? Hellenism as an idea is not encumbered by the narrow borders of the nation-state. Any reading of history or a survey of where one can find communities of Greeks will attest to Hellenism's worldwide reach. Nevertheless, our outlook tends to be parochial, shortsighted and xenophobic. Hellenes throughout the world have to look inward and reassess where we are going as a people.
Modern Greeks have always been beholden to outside powers. We could not have achieved our independence without their intervention. That is a historical fact. Unfortunately, ever since, Greeks have aligned themselves with one power or another in order to achieve national goals. After liberation Greeks were forced to accept a foreign monarch and they divided themselves into warring political factions according to political loyalties based on allegiance to foreign powers. Eleftherios Venizelos saw fit to align Greece with Britain in order to achieve the goals of the Megali Idea. Ioannis Metaxas, a monarchist and opponent of Venizelos, again sought British help during World War II. During the subsequent Civil War, George Papandreou put his faith in the United States to defeat the Communist insurgency and the Colonels put their misplaced trust in the US to help them in Cyprus with disastrous consequences. Greeks then turned to the membership in the European Union as their savior from the threat posed by their unruly neighbors, only to see history repeat itself as their interests were put aside. It would be easy to place all the blame for the current state of affairs on friends, real or imagined. It would be easy to see the root of Greek problems in our enemies, real and imagined, whether we live in Greece or not. Before we look for scapegoats, we need to take a good look at ourselves. Before we look for solutions elsewhere, we need to devise our own, based on the inherent ideas of our own rich culture.
In order to achieve true independence we must liberate ourselves from the constant debilitating infighting between Left and Right or between Diasporan and Helladic Greeks. We must free ourselves of our reliance on discredited, bankrupt foreign dogmas and look at the road map that our own ancestors drew for us. Let us cast aside the "isms." Let's reject nihilism, anarchism, narcissism, consumerism, secularism, multi-culturalism, statism as inappropriate and destructive to the eternal essence of the Greek spirit. Why are we producing young people that are alienated from their ethnic roots and Orthodox faith? Why do young Greeks increasingly fail to recognize the beauty and value of the gift that our martyred ancestors placed in our hands at such great human cost? Why do some Greeks take to the streets to kill other Greeks and to burn and destroy? Why do young Greek women abort their babies in a despicable genocide that we as a people silently countenance? Where are the Greek leaders untainted by corruption and scandal who able or willing to come forward and actually lead? Why have Greek schools and streets been abandoned to violent hoodlums and become centers for political indoctrination rather than learning and debate? Why have we lost our moral compass as a people?
These problems are not exclusively Greek, they are Western problems. What saddens me so is that Greeks, wherever they live, are not in the forefront of the battle to save what is good and important. Why are we not, once again, standing at the pass of Thermopolyae and showing the rest of the world how to combat the rot overtaking us. Does what remain of the Greek spirit lie dormant and asleep only in forgotten places like Northern Epirus or Occupied Cyprus, waiting to awaken once again like a King made of Marble? Οne of the great heroes of the struggle for independence General Makriyiannis reaches across time and speaks to us in his memoirs. Perhaps it would behoove us to listen well to his words:
"Posterity should learn to sacrifice for their country, their faith, to live virtuously according to our religion. Without virtue, love for the homeland, and faith in their religion, nations cannot exist. And they should be careful that they are not deceived by personal motives. And if they trip up, then they will head towards the cliff, as we did. We are headed towards the cliff each day.”
In 1821, our ancestors fought an enemy made of flesh and blood, to liberate our Patrida. Today we must fight a much more elusive and insidious enemy, that enemy is a set of ideas that corrupts and debases our societies. It sucks the very courage and fortitude we need to preserve our legacy right out of us. Let's hope that we can summon the spirit of our ancestors to fight the good fight and prove ourselves worthy of their legacy. Then Greeks will have truly achieved a lasting independence.
"ITHAKA ON THE HORIZON is a moving memoir about a close knit immigrant family that struggles to maintain the cherished values of the old country while taking advantage of the freedom and opportunities of their new-found land. A touching story told with rare simplicity and emotion." Nicholas Gage, author of the bestseller "ELENI"
"OUR story, the story of our parents and grandparents who left Greece, Pontos, Mikrasia, Cyprus, Northern Epirus in search of a better tomorrow... a book that will touch you enormously. A sensitive, nostalgic story that had me smiling and tearing as I read it on the Metro going in to the office... Your Ithaka was a joy to read, Stavros, the love and nostalgia shining through like a beacon of light."
“Yiayia preferred the simple pleasures of working in her garden, spending endless hours in her aromatic kitchen, or reading someone's fortune from the sediment at the bottom of a coffee cup. I would ask Yiayia what her coffee cup told her. She would smile and look carefully at it, proclaiming that I would be lucky and happy in my life, even though I sensed that she had not been lucky or happy in hers.
I used to love watching her meticulously rolling dough into paper-thin sheets with which she fashioned meat-filled braids of pastry while she regaled me with stories of her childhood. She always seemed busy with something at hand: digging up dandelion leaves with a knife, baking bread in an outdoor brick oven, planting flowers, tending her vegetable garden, cooking balls of fried dough that she would dip in honey and offer her guests, or brewing another strong cup of Turkish coffee in her copper pot with the long handle. To me she was soft and smelled of lemon cologne; on the inside, however, she was as hard as a walnut, very much in the mold of the Epirotan women who carried ammunition boxes on their backs up narrow mountain trails to resupply the Greek soldiers fighting the Italian invaders in 1940.
In her later years, Yiayia always wore her hair like the women of her village, pulled back, braided, and coiled in a bun that she would loosen at night to comb while we talked. "Tell the Panagia what bothers you, my boy, and she will always listen and pray for you," she said, pointing to the icon of the Virgin Mary on her dresser, lit by a small oil lamp.
When we lived in Turkey, she would often take me for a walk on sunny days down to Taksim Square, where the statute of a stern Kemal Ataturk looked down on us from his lofty perch. She would invariably buy me a sweet roll sprinkled with sesame, which I shared with the pigeons that congregated there; then she would swear me to secrecy, lest I divulge the fact to my mother. And, of course, it was the first thing I blurted out when I came home, running up the stairs. It was a game we played.
Yiayia possessed her share of human frailties, to which I was always totally oblivious. To me she embodied all that one could want in another human being because she loved me unconditionally. Nothing else mattered, and I returned her love in kind."
Matrimony is a much maligned institution these days. Many people even question its relevance or think it's old fashioned, a relic that should be discarded. You see society has taught us that it's all about the person staring back at you in the mirror. The goal of life is getting your needs met. There are so many. The need to be loved and pampered by the man or woman of our dreams is right up there with that new car, the career, a nice home and all the other indispensable stuff we can't live without. If our dream mate doesn't work out then we can throw them away as needed to make room for the next lucky guy or gal. The right one is out there somehwere and you will live happily ever after. Isn't that what happens in the movies? Marriage and all the icky things like children that come with it is merely an imposition on our time, not to mention a distraction from the really important things in life. Then there are those pesky vows. Who's really in charge anyway in this relationship? And what do you mean for richer or poorer until death do us part??
Thank God for weddings. If you don't get married you don't have an excuse to have that big, espensive day. Wedding dress, check, bridesmaids dresses, check, tuxedos, check, limo, check, catering, check, wedding cake, check, booze, check, flowers, check, photographer, check, party favors, check, honeymoon, check. A good time was had by all except for cousin George who vomited on the dance floor and what about the two bridesmaids who almost killed each other jumping to catch the bride's bouquet. It is over in a flash and now comes the hard work.
Yep, hard work. It's no bed of roses. Maybe you won't realize that until you are up at 2 AM with a sick kid, or when your spouse comes home to tell you they lost their job or maybe you just had a no holds barred argument about something you can't remember now and you called each other some very ugly names. So there you are, feeling like your whole world is crashing in around you, wondering why it's not about you anymore.
Relax.....it's going to be OK.
I like you, so I am going to give you some unsolicited advice. Being married is about COMPROMISE. If you want it your way, try McDonalds. There's two of you now. Don't try and change your spouse, accept him or her as the person you fell in love with but true love has nothing to do with chemistry. It is about shared sacrifice and the realization that it is the two of you against all that life throws at you.
There will be fights. It happens to everbody.
There will be setbacks perhaps even failures, we are human. Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Above all don't ever, ever, go to bed angry. That is THE secret, pass it around.
Hold your spouse, kiss them and turn the light off. Things will look a lot better in the morning.
Don't take it from me, I have only been married for 27 years. A work in progress. The most important things I learned about married life I learned watching my parents, who were married for over sixty years. Sixty years full of laughter and tears and .....love, the kind you earn.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
C. P. Cavafy
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