Sunday, September 23, 2018

"500 Years of Greeks in America!"

As the 83rd Thessaloniki International Fair comes to an end, it's a good time to stand back and take a deep breath. 

Even as the United States was the honored country this year -- last year China and Russia the year before -- one is constantly reminded that there is a simmering anti-Americanism never far from the ubiquitous political conversations/arguments. Everything and anything bad is America's fault, don't you know? Now with Macedonia question on top of the various financial/refugee issues... 

The fair's US Pavillion focusing on technology was indeed very impressive and well-attended. But I was really surprised upon entering the Greek Government Pavillion to suddenly be standing in front of a stand-alone display extolling the virtues of Senator Paul Sarbanes. Then one for Olympia Dukakis, Pete Sampras, Maestro Dimitris Mitropolis, Dr. Georgios Papanikolaou, Maria Callas, Constantino Brumidi (Google him!) and many others.  All under the heading "500 Years of Greeks in America." Wow!

Even more amazing was the sponsor of that exhibit: "The General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad" of the Greek Foreign Office (www.ggae.gr) -- "the government's coordinating body for the implementation of state policy with respect to Diaspora Hellenism," about 5 million people of Greek descent on 5 continents and 140 countries. An agency created to "support the the interests and the expectations of the Greeks abroad." Who knew? 

Three million people of Greek descent live in the US, and thus the long list of distinguished accomplishments -- plus a multitude of organizations, schools, churches, restaurants, newspapers, radio/TV stations, etc. The first Greek in the "New World" was Don Theodoros Griego (1528) with the first Greek outpost in St. Augustine, Florida (1768). The first Greek Community was founded in New Orleans (Holy Trinity/1864.) New York, Chicago and San Francisco are all important to the narrative, but who can possibly forget Tarpon Springs?

More significantly, there was a wave of American Philhellenism that did its part in support of the Greek Revolution of 1821 -- bolstered by Thomas Jefferson,  James Madison, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, and Henry Clay. Others actually fought in Greece against the Turks, including Samuel Gridley Howe and George Washington's cousin William Townsend Washington. It was a fitting effort to help Greece towards independence while the USA itself was still in its infancy. To this day there is an active Hellenic Caucus in Congress still fighting for Greece!

The USA has contributed much to Greece in the last 200 years and still supports Greece in many ways. Those efforts/policies may not always be perfect or altruistic,  but they are way too often misunderstood or taken for granted. On other hand, it's very clear that Greek-Americans have contributed much to the USA -- 500 years worth to be exact. 

I am proud to be a Greek-American and part of the Greek Diaspora story still being written -- thanks to my immigrant father and grandparents who worked very hard for a better life. It's a very tricky thing being Greek-American when living part-time in Greece -- which is why I'm standing back and taking a deep breath. Somewhat hard to explain, but I'll keep trying.

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Sunday, September 2, 2018

Making Memories with Basketball, Gin Rummy and Refried Beans

So, I was walking up the street in Naousa when someone called my name. Turning around, I saw a man approaching whom I did not recognize...until he showed me a of photo of himself when he was a student at the American Farm School in Thessaloniki when I worked there (1968-1978). John Dourakis -- one of my very best English students! -- has lived in Naousa for 13 years working for an agency that coordinates Greek peach canneries. I had absolutely no idea. But about 10 days ago a mutual friend happened to mention my name to him. Stunned and amazed, he had then been on the lookout for me. Wow!




We, of course, reminisced about our years at the School -- including when he an a few other students took me to see a big, important soccer match between PAOK and Olympiakos. I've been a PAOK fan ever since, but I also swore never to set foot in a large soccer stadium again. Standing on bleachers for all 90 minutes, we were constantly being pushed towards the brink. I was sure we would be trampled to death, but did live to talk about it...45 years later!


More importantly, you'll notice that John is wearing a Delta College basketball uniform -- and no accident that talk then turned to my pal Ernie Marcopoulos. Many years may have passed since he, Josie and their 3 kids -- from my hometown of Stockton, California -- spent their sabbatical year in Thessaloniki  at my urging. But the revered Coach of the San Joaquin Delta College Mustangs has not been forgotten here in Greece.


Ernie volunteered to coach basketball and teach PE at the Farm School for basic "room-and-board."  He brought with him some retired uniforms and worked tirelessly with the boys. John was a left-handed sharpshooter who might have excelled further had he not continued his studies in England.

Everyone at the School got super excited when Ernie was asked to also coach the PAOK professional basketball team for that one season.  We all became PAOK fans.

Behind the scenes, however, the Marcopoulos clan and I did our own thing...religiously. Every Tuesday night -- my day off from my Girls School Dept. dormitory duties -- I headed over to their apartment for our weekly Mexican Food Night and Gin Rummy Marathon. Ole!


Josie -- of Mexican decent, but who NEVER made tortillas in Stockton -- did, in fact, make tortillas from scratch every week thanks to a rolling pin that our friend Harry Theocharides graciously cut down to size. I learned to make them, too, along with refried beans and salsa. There may have been some carne asada and beer involved. The adults played cards until our (self-imposed) 12 o'clock curfew. Who was "World Champ" is still in dispute.


That's what happens when you live in Northern Greece and need a Mexican food fix -- which, in fact, I still often do. But I don't think I'll ever be able to top basketball + gin rummy + refried beans.






Monday, June 25, 2018

"No, I am not an enemy of the people" (a Greek story of reunification and quasi-redemption)

Sticky wicket might well describe the role of communism in Greek history -- as the promises of the Bolshevik Revolution crept into the consciousness of the working man, captivated some, but  fell  down during a crushing Civil War following WWII.  In Naousa, bitterness and mistrust  still  simmer under the cover of normalcy. But little-by-little, lost facts/secrets are being uncovered and confronted...occasionally by people seeking their roots.

So when I heard that a book entitled No, I am not an enemy of the people was going to be presented at the Naousa cultural center a few weeks ago, I immediately assumed that the reference was to the Greek people with some sort of apologia for someone who had simply been castigated as a Communist.  But it was a human story much more complicated than that.



Markos Markovitis was born in Naousa in 1905, the eldest of 9 children in a relatively prosperous family. He was not alone in falling under the spell of the communist promise. But by 1925 and with a messianic fervor, he was one of the movement's hard core evangelists in Thessaloniki, where he was arrested and condemned to death in 1931. Managing to escape, he went to Russia, the Communist "Fatherland." There he studied, married, and tried mightily to become a citizen. But in 1937, it all came apart for Markos. He was arrested in a Stalinist purge and condemned to death as an enemy of the state -- prompting the writing of two poignant letters to Stalin.

"No, I am not an enemy of the people,"  Markovitis wrote to convince Stalin that he was dedicated to the Communist cause. That he had come to Russia full of joy and hope to serve Stalin and the State. That he wanted to stay and live out his dreams. But those letters were never read by Stalin. Markos was executed and buried unceremoniously in a mass grave. Meanwhile, his family in Greece had long lost track of him. 


In Russia he had a new family, with children. After the execution, that family  disappeared  itself in order to survive -- his children going into orphanages under assumed names. It wasn't until 1957 that the KKE (Greek Communist Party) learned of Markovitis's fate, but his family was not informed until 2002. By then his parents had died and other relatives ("down to the last cousin") had also been hounded and stigmatized as Communist sympathizers -- all due to a lost son of Naousa who had died in Russia 80 years ago as a suspected traitor to the Communist cause!
 
Reunited Markovitis Family
Enter Markovitis's grandson Dimitris, whose search for the real Markos Markovitis led to the discovery of the two letters in Russian archives -- bringing him into contact with his family in Greece and with Marios Markovitis, nephew of Markos and the author of the aforementioned book..a labor of love with a double meaning in terms of political consequence and historical perspective.   

The room for the book reading was full and captivated, especially by the author whose closing comments were so very powerful on several levels: Markos Markovitis,  he  declared, died twice in 1937 when he was executed and, even worse, disappeared as a person -- and now in 2018 the truth comes out and "we can mourn him properly."  He named others who had suffered much the same fate.


Why did it take so long to find and publicly talk about Markos Markovitis? Because "history is written by the victors," as you may have heard before.  But in Greece, victors have been few and far between. 


NOTE: In Greece, as in many parts of Europe, the Communist Party is a legal/viable, if not particularly successful, political party. Indeed  the KKE in Naousa recently staged a public event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. But a certain kind  of  paranoia/hostility abides due to that Civil War which fully impacted Naousa -- and where a pipeline for Communist abduction of young people literally ran down Andarton, the street where my father grew up so many years before.  

Thursday, May 3, 2018

On June 3rd we are going to Makronisos!

Not because we have been rounded up by the Greek police due to our political beliefs, but to never forget the 100,000 detainees who were held on that island 1946-1953 and tortured until they recanted theirs. There were other islands/prisons where enemies of the state (mostly communists)  were held or exiled for random, indeterminate lengths of time -- an ugly kind of political punishment favored in Greece during other periods in her history, too.


Makronisos
I recently stumbled upon the not exactly well-known Makronisos Museum and the Museum of Political Exile Agh. Straty -- both located in the same building at 31 Asomaton in the Keramikos area of Athens. Lucky for me, the latter was offering an educational program aptly  entitled "My whole world in a suitcase." It was a heart-breaker regardless of your political leanings, and it also resolved some lingering questions that had haunted me since living in Greece under the military dictatorship of 1967-1974. By then Makronisos had largely been abandoned...so those resisting the Junta were reportedly exiled to Giaros and Leros, and/or held at prisons in Oropo, Aegina, Hania and Corfu. But in our then mind's-eye, our hero friends were all being "sent to Makronisos*."




Trikeri
Makronisos and Agh. Straty had facilities often built by the prisoners themselves -- Agh. Straty subsequently becoming more palatable post-1950 due to growing criticism voiced by European allies. A theater there begat plays like "Perses"  (Act I), with hand-made costumes and hand-painted backdrops. There was regular feel-good (censored) correspondence with "greetings to those you know." Prisoners  created  poignant "works of art" with whatever materials they could find,  including rocks and bones. And a rather remarkable official holiday photo taken on Trikeri  clearly  shows to what degree detainees literally put their best foot forward to show that they were all right and still loyal to their beliefs. Just like a bunch of girlfriends on a summer vacation.



Agh. Straty
But political exile/detention with was no vacation, especially on Makronisos if you were forced to carry a large boulder uphill on  your back while tangled up in barbed wire. 95% of all detainees  finally  gave into the programs of "reeducation," disavowing their beliefs and signing on the proverbial dotted line to go home. There are too many stories "pou then leyontai" (which cannot be discussed), despite the creation of the museums, annual pilgrimages and a free press. Fearful former exiles destroyed documents to protect their children...or maybe to cover up their own capitulations. Many  NEVER  spoke about time spent on Makronisos, Agh. Straty, Trikeri, or any other island of torture and dehumanization.


It was, after all, a period in Greek history defined by a cruel Civil War* that followed the German/Italian occupations: Government forces (supported by the UK and USA) versus Communist insurgents (supported by the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania) who had also fought  as partisans during WWII. Brother against brother. Neighbor against neighbor. Too much of what happened then is still under wraps with the hope perhaps that certain people will forget or simply fade away -- a sentiment shared here in Naousa, where bitterness and mistrust still  simmer under the cover of normalcy. Occasionally some bit of information slips out if you dig deep enough, but the cycle of silence continues...


Some Greeks disgusted by the current financial/political situation have rather casually dared to say: "Bring back the Junta, they gave us discipline and built roads." Those people should be first in line to visit Makronisos on June 3rd for a much-needed reality check...never forget, or ever repeat!


NOTE: Visit Makronisos** by calling PEKAM (National Union of Those Held on Makronisos) at 210-3247820 or by sending an email to info@pekam.org.grThe Makronisos Museum at 31 Asomaton Street is open on Tuesday-Friday 10 am - 1pm and on Saturday-Sunday 11am-2pm free of charge. The Museum of Political Exile has identical hours Tuesday-Friday, but is closed Saturday-Sunday.


*For a very good understanding of this terrible time in Greek history, please read ELENI by Nicolas Gage (Random House, 1983)
**Makronisos became a Greek Historic Landmark on May 16, 1989 [1285/24255], a decision signed by then Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Poignant "Never Again" Remembrances in Thessaloniki (aka Salonika)

A bad cold prevented me from traveling to Thessaloniki yesterday for the 6th Annual silent march from downtown Liberty Square to the Old Train Station -- under the banner of  “Never Again: 75 years since the first train departed for the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps” and led by 92-year-old Holocaust survivor Moshe Aelion in his wheel chair.  Marchers laid flowers on the tracks, lit candles and wrote messages on the old train carriages. I was there in spirit.


(Photo Credit: GreekReporter.com)
The Jewish people have been an important part of this corner of the world for centuries, but the German Occupation changed everything. Imagine the horror facing Greek Jews who could not escape deportation. Or that of non-Jews forced to bear witness, some who intervened however they could. When I worked at the American Farm School circa 1968-78, I knew both Jews who had been hidden and those who had hidden them.  Nevertheless, 48,533 (mostly Sephardic) Jews left Salonika for Auschwitz on those trains between March 20 and August 18, 1943. Others arrived to Treblinka and other camps for a total of 54,000. In all, 65,000 Greek Jews perished in the Holocaust.


A series of annual events has been established to pay respect to both the Jews who perished and Salonika's  rich Jewish  heritage.  Two years ago,  children from six primary schools in the neighborhoods of that train station were asked to imagine the journey of children who got on those trains, resulting in amazing heart-breaking creations that were later exhibited.  In the words of Mayor Ioannis Boutaris: “The story of the Jewish matter had been swept under the carpet. We decided to gradually showcase the city’s Jewish identity. You cannot build the future if you don’t know the past."


The future will include a Holocaust Museum (to be built over the train station), a metropolitan park with an olive tree planted for every Thessaloniki Jew who perished, and potentially a Jewish School to support the current 1300-4500 member (depending on who's counting) Jewish Community.  Unfortunately this wave of goodwill was marred this past January by the defacing of Thessaloniki's Holocaust Memorial in the name of the ultra-right party Golden Dawn, a group embodying the populist movements sweeping Europe in response to the Syrian refugee crisis and emboldened by the hardships on the Greek people due to the financial crisis. (Should I mention that there are currently 65,000 refugees trapped in Greece?)


The good news is that some Salonika Jews returned home after the war to rebuild their lives --  like the family of Heinz Kounio, owners of a camera store founded 100 years ago. They managed to survive because they spoke German and were put to work in several locations before being rescued in Austria by US forces led by General George Patton. Kounio's is the oldest camera shop in Greece and a tribute to Jewish resilience -- a beautiful and amazing story recently profiled in the Forward.

That must-read story rang familiar to me on several levels, as I had once met Flora Lazar Schneider (mother: last name Kounio) whose parents managed to leave Thessaloniki before the war...so two weeks ago I went to 24 Komninon Street. Speaking with Heinz Kounio's granddaughter Nora and looking at the graphics on the wall outlining the store's history, it became evident that this was the place that I had all my Kodak Instamatic photos developed more than 40 years ago. And it was just blocks away from the renowned Molho's Bookstore -- which, unfortunately, no longer exists -- where I picked up a copy of the International Herald Tribune every Saturday. They were simply the best camera store and bookstore in town -- and are now part of a lasting Jewish legacy in Thessaloniki,  aka Salonika.

NOTE: There is an excellent and relatively new Jewish Museum in downtown Thessaloniki at Agiou Mina 13 and another excellent Jewish Museum in downtown Athens at Nikis 39. Closed Saturdays!