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Thursday, 12 April 2012

Easter in Eastern Thrace (Πάσχα στην Ανατολική Θράκη)

... I had opened a bottle of good wine, toasted a few slices of bread, tossed a little oil onto them, with some oregano and pepper, as a way of seducing Grandma Elengo to go to Thrace. 
  "Yiayia Elengo, tell me the story of what you did at Easter in Kastaboli, in Eastern Thrace."
  "What kind of life is this here?" cried my grandmother, "I am here, but my mind is there." She squinted as she fixed her glasses. "I will become blind, my child, I feel dizzy."
  "Come now, yiayia, it's nothing, it just seems like that to you because Easter is approaching. Please tell us, what did you do in Kastaboli in the Holy Week?"
  Yiayia Elego breathed a long great sigh as she was used to doing in such cases, and she began to speak.
  "You know that the father of your grandmother Poupoula (Vasilikoula) was our priest."
  "Yes, I do," I replied.  "From Palm Sunday onwards, everyone went to church because the Holy Week was beginning. Work stopped, we didn't do any weaving on the loom. On those days, there was only church. And I remember saying: 
Μεγάλη Δευτέρα – μεγάλη μαχαίρα Holy Monday - a large knife day
Μεγάλη Τρίτη – μεγάλη κρίση Holy Tuesday - a big crisis day
Μεγάλη Τετάρτη – μεγάλη ζάλη Holy Wednesday - a day of dizziness
Μεγάλη Πέφτη – σκιέται ο ουρανός και πέφτει Holy Thursday - the sky darkens and falls 
Μεγάλη Παρασκευή – Ο Χριστός στη φυλακή Good Friday - Christ is imprisoned 
Μεγάλο Σάββατο – Ο Χριστός στο Θάνατο. Holy Saturday - Christ meets Death...

The story was written by Eleftherios Hatzopoulos, the president of the Thracian Community is Serres (a town in Northern Greece), in April 2003, as he remembers his mother telling it to him, when his grandmother was 94 years old and living in Thessaloniki. The link was passed on to me by Stacy, who readers may remember as the person who contacted me from the US for help in finding her Greek family's roots, whose origins were in Eastern Thrace, a former Greek region now part of modern Turkey. With the help of my friend Hrisida, who is more well versed in Northern Greek customs (Crete is a million miles away in terms of distance and common points with Northern Greece), Stacy made contact with some Greek Thracian associations that were able to help her trace some members of her Greek family.

Stacy was very excited to make contact with the Greek side of her roots; it was the beginning of the end of a very long and personal journey, not just to trace her family, but to find out where she came from, as she had fears that all of her family's history was close to being lost as family members passed away, one by one. Having played a small role in Stacy's success, I too was personally very touched by it all, and immensely relieved for her sake. If you lose touch with your past, you only have your present to turn to, which is not always stable; but your past is stable because it's over and done with, and can't change. That's often all you have to hang on to, and Greek people's past is certainly very long.
Papou Elias Sevrikos, from Myriofyto Kastampoli (now known as Ormanli); he also lived in Ganochora, all former Greek villages of Eastern Thrace.
All Stacy had to go by was the name of her grandfather Elias Sevricos (who went by the name of Lee Costas in the US) and his brother (her great-uncle) who migrated to the US in April 12, 1912, a hundred years ago today. Finding out whatever she could about her immediate family proved quite difficult because once her Greek family migrated to the US, they Americanised their names. At the same time, the region of Eastern Thrace where they were born and had lived until they left Greece also changed hands in 1922 after the Greek-Turkish population exchange, which meant that the place names also changed: formerly Greek villages were renamed with Turkish words. One's family roots do not lie solely in the name and place of one family, but when you do not have any other basis to use in your search, then it becomes very difficult to gather the threads.


Stacy's mother and aunt, nee Costas, but their father's surname was originally Sevricos

Eventually, Stacy's mother found the surname of one of her Greek father's cousins, Hatzopoulos, on an official document.  That's quite a common name in Greece. It may also be spelt Hatsopoulos, which (Stacy found out) has a different origin. The Hatzopoulos cousins lived in the same region that her father came from: Kastaboli (Καστάμπολη), Ganochora (Γανόχωρα) and Miriofytou (Μυριοφύτου), the place he left behind a hundred years ago when he made the decision to emigrate: a masive earthquake had destroyed his village, and with the growing animosity between the Christians and Muslims, his future in his homeland was not secure.

Elias Sevricos and his family were neighbours with his cousins; living close to your relatives is a common trait among Greek rural families in older times (as well as nowadays, in rural regions). But the Hatzopoulos cousins moved to Thessaloniki in 1914, two years after Stacy's father moved to the US. He lost touch with them since then, as communication was very difficult in those days. Through the internet and online translators, Stacy found the names of Hatzopoulos and Kastaboli linked together in the Easter story presented above. Could there be a family link there too?


Stacy's grandfather, Elias Sevricos, from Kastaboli, Eastern Thrace, with her grandmother in thier restaurant (the People's Cafe) in Portsmouth, VA.

On being contacted, 70-year-old Mr Hatzopoulos (from the same generation as Stacy's mother) was moved to tears when he heard that someone in the US with Kastaboli roots was looking for her Greek family. Sadly, he did not recall Stacy's grandfather's surname Sevrikos(z), as it had never been mentioned in conversations with his own people. But he did recall hearing the name of Paraskeva (Stacy's grandmother's name) mentioned. With the upheavals, his side of the Hatzopoulos family had lost touch with the Paraskeva family since the latter moved to a village called Milio (Μηλιό), located between Ganochora (Γανόχωρα) and Kastampoli (Καστάμπολη), where Stacy's family were from or living, and since then, there had been no contact between them.

Mr Hatzopoulos also gave Stacy a short history lesson about his surname. Up until the late 19th century, the family's surname was Theodosiou. At one point, a Theodosiou family member went to Jerusalem as a pilgrim, where he changed his surname to Hadjis. This was later changed to Hatzopoulos. He also mentioned some of his own Hatzopoulos relatives in the States to Stacy, who he still keeps in touch with. His father's oldest brother (ie his uncle) was Theodosios Hatzopoulos, who had a cousin with the same name (a very common trait in Greece for first cousins from their father's side, since they are named after their grandfather - this still happens today) who moved to the States in 1914 where they stayed in Virginia where he still has first cousins there - and Stacy just happens to live in Virginia.

Members of Stacy's extended Greek family from the Hatzopoulos side in Virginia, US, some of whom she has only recently met.
Hrisida had the idea of using the Greek tradition of naming the boys after their grandfather's name from their father's side. A possible first step in leading Stacy to some of her roots seemed to be Mr Hatzopoulos' cousins in Virginia. Hrisida thought that there might be a Joseph or Stelios Hatzopoulos (Joseph and Stelios were the names of the Theodosios Hatzopoulos' fathers), and maybe also a Theodosios (Americanised to Theo or maybe even Theodore) Hatzopoulos, possibly living in Virginia today. Mr Hatzopoulos was able to provide telephone numbers for his US relatives.

A quick check on the Hatzopoulos name in Virginia revealed that there were indeed Hatzopoulos descendants living there, with the names that Hrisida had guessed - Stacy has been living in the same state as her long lost relatives all this time! Not only that, but some of the first names found hinted at Thracian origins. While living under Ottoman rule, the Greek Thracians were not allowed to give their children Christian names, so they invented names that showed qualities rather than dedications to saints, such as Syrmatenia (from syrma - σύρμα = wire) meaning 'wiry'. Despite the name changes, the various spellings and the Americanised forms of the names, the Greek tradition of naming children after their grandparents was still quite strong, even a century later in the very diluted Greek melting pot culture of the US.

It took a century for the extended Hatzopoulos families to be once again re-united with their Sevricos connections. For Stacy, it must have been a relief to discover that she was living in close proximity to her family roots in the US. So this story could finish here... 

*** *** ***

... but that is not possible. What about Stacy's family - the bigger one - that was left behind in Greece? What happened to them? Stacy's grandfather moved to the US, but he left his mother, Zafeiria Paraskeva, Stacy's great-grandmother, in Greece. What happened to her?

Stacy's grandfather migrated with his brother, Stacy's great-uncle, Ioannis, known in the US as John Costas. A legal document was unearthed in a US court house by Stacy's Greek-American mother, showing the last legal will signed by her great-uncle. It bought forth the Kampas name, together with the addresses of two Kampas women, both living in Kavala, another town in Northern Greece, who Ioannis had sent money to. Stacy's great-uncle died in 1962, fifty years ago. Would any of those people mentioned in the will still be around now? Stacy's quest to find her roots could be seen as a race against time in this context.
Stacy's great-uncle's naturalization papers
Mr Hatzopoulos, the story-writer (see beginning of post) was once again contacted - had he heard of anyone by the name of Kampas from Kastaboli? No, he had never heard of the name. But he himself had some relatives with Kastaboli origins who were now living in Kavala, where Stacy's great-uncle had sent money to. Stacy was able to add some more names of Kastaboli contacts to her list: Syropoulos and Lafkaridis.

The women's names that were mentioned in the will - a mother, Panagiota, and her daughter, Theopoula D (the initial probably refers to Theopoula's father's name, ie Panagiota's husband) were vital - they are direct links to Stacy's Greek family in Greece. But they were going to pose a problem. The mother had obviously married a Mr Kampas, making the Kampas name related to Stacy by marriage only. The daughter could possibly have married since Stacy's great-uncle's death, so she will have changed her surname (since 1983, by law, Greek married women keep their own surname). There was also the problem of urban drift - perhaps the families of these women did not live in Kavala any longer. The street address stated in the will was still valid, but no one by the name of Kampas was living there any longer (this was checked up on by local contacts in the area). The web was getting more and more tangled...

Stacy decided to do a web search of the Kampas name. Just like the Hatzopoulos name, it is plagued with misleading associations derived from its spelling. Firstly, the Greek spelling of the name needs to be used. If a contact is in Greece, there is a chance that they may not be able to understand what Stacy is looking for, leading to misunderstandings, due to the communication problem. Then there is the English spelling. Stacy was able to use the English spelling in the US court records, but this doesn't guarantee that all the Kampas families in Greece, and more importantly, her own family, will be using the same spelling (some may be using 'Kabas', or even 'Kambas').

Stacy now realised the value of social networking sites, something that she did not wish to use until this time. She signed up to facebook. Through various contacts, she met some Hatzopoulos, some Paraskeva, and some Kampas families. She also contacted the Greek city halls in each area that she believed she had relatives living there 50 years ago. She had started herself on a wild goose chase...

*** *** ***
... but what Stacy was overwhelmed by, more than anything else, was the private help that she would receive from everyone she contacted. Without expecting anything in return, without asking for compensation, without even putting it into their head that a crazy American was looking for something she didn't even know still existed, Greek people went as far as they could in helping Stacy. Some people went to the addresses that Stacy had given them to see if they still existed, and to look at the names on the doorbells. Some people gave her the names of more people whose origins lay in the Kastaboli region. Some people made private phone calls to people they did not know, people who simply had the same surname among those who Stacy was looking for, and everyone simply asked others if they could help a woman of Greek origin find her roots. 

On hearing about Stacy's plight, ordinary Greek people, complete strangers to Stacy, were moved enough to search out the people and places denoting Stacy's origins. Here, we see a Greek cousin living in Kavala, and the address where Stacy's great-uncle's remittances were being sent to (the apartment block was built after he died, but the present residents are not related to Stacy). 

Through the hard work of ordinary people, acting on their own initiative, without any incentive other than that of wishing to help a fellow Greek find their family, came the great breakthrough. Stacy woke up one morning and found an email just before Christmas last year (almost a year to the day she first contacted me to get help in finding her Greek relatives) from Evi Arampatzoglu, an employee at the Tourist Office in the Municipality in Kavala, who Stacy couldn't even remember writing to, because she had written so many emails to Greek people in Greece that she did not know personally, and had lost track of the so many new names she was coming across for the first time:
"After a survey we conducted and after several phone calls to confirm that, we found Mrs Theopoula Kampa (mother's name Panagiota), and we can inform you that she lives in Kavala. She may be absent for the Christmas holidays. We hope we have helped you to find your relatives."
Stacy, her mother and aunt really could not contain themselves. They had found their family, they had found their roots, they now knew where they came from. Now all they needed was to hear from Mrs Kampa herself about what had happened to the family side named Sevricos, a name that seems to have disappeared from Greek records. Here lies the problem of the language barrier. Although Stacy has started learning Greek, her knowledge of the language was not good enough to chat with an 80-year-old Greek woman! In the meantime, a resident of Kavala (just another nice person who wanted to help Stacy find her roots) met Mrs Kampas' brother. He told him about Stacy's story. Although this man didn't actually know the Sevricos brothers, he had contact with people whose origins were in Kastaboli/Miriofytou and he had heard the Sevricos name being mentioned in his family home; he remembered quite clearly that his family had contact with Stacy's great-uncle (unfortunately not with Stacy's grandfather). 

*** *** ***

Stacy kept me informed of the progress she was making throughout her search. During this time, I was particularly touched by Stacy's determined stance to find her family. What moved me most was to hear Stacy talk about the kindness and generosity she found from the Greek people, who were complete strangers to her: "Things are very different here," she wrote to me. "You can hardly count on people you have known for years to be so thoughtful." My immediate thoughts were: "Even when it concerns family?" The speed with which Stacy was able to make contact with everyone is due to the internet and the willingness that people have shown to help her find her roots, which is just another sign of how important it is for Greek people to be connected to their family. They felt Stacy's unbearable pain.

Stacy's cousins in Kavala, Greece

Family is very important to Greeks, and never more so than now in times of crisis. Throughout history, during times of social and political upheaval, in times of great suffering, Greek people have always been sustained by their religion, their village and their family. These are driving forces behind Greek identity, as discussed by Benjamin Broome. The power of religion in Westernised countries is waning while urban drift and industrialisation lie behind the demise of the village; all that remains is family, whose importance has now been shown during the present crisis, with Greeks leaving the cities and returning to their rural homes, thus dispelling the belief that village life could never be revived.

It's very difficult for me to understand what was going on in Stacy's mind all this time. This is because I know my family's roots well. When I was young and living in New Zealand, I'd often ask my parents to tell me the names of their relatives. I'd draw family trees of each one of my grandparents' families. When we hadn't heard from some of them (phone calls were not common at the time), I'd ask my parents if we could write letters to them. Besides Greece, I sent letters and festive cards to relatives in the US and Australia. During my two trips to Greece, my parents took me to all their former homelands, the villages where they grew up in Hania. Eventually, I remained on the island, where I am quite firmly rooted. To this day, I wake up every morning to the sight of the mountains that my parents used to see every morning when they woke up in their homes in their respective villages.

lefka ori covered in snow fournes hania chania
All successive generations of my family have been looking at these hills from different angles.
For Greek people, it is very important to know where they are from because Greeks are dispersed all over the world, so they want to know about their common roots. Without roots, they feel lost. This is not something everyone feels in every country - some people leave their country and never look back, but a Greek person could never do that. I was born, raised and educated in New Zealand, and now I live in the town where my parents were born and raised. As I walk in the town and the surrounding hills, I feel the ghosts of my family following me. All my close relatives - every single one -  have come from Crete. Even my husband comes from the same general area, and now my children are born here. That amounts to thousands and thousands of years of unbroken continuity of place.

*** *** ***

Finally, the moment we have all been waiting for - what happened to the family that Lee Costas (Elias Sevricos) left behind? Let Stacy tell us:
"Giota, my fourth cousin, if I am counting correctly, relayed to me in broken English the most beautiful story of the family I never knew. She said that when my great grandmother left Kastampoli with my grandfather and great uncle, she took with her Giota's grandmother, Panagiota Kampa. She told me that her grandmother had been orphaned, I am assuming from the war. The two ladies lived together for many years and she can remember her father telling her stories of how my great-grandmother would lull him to sleep when he was a baby. She also said that my great-grandmother died in the arms of her grandmother. She gave me the name of the cemetery that she is buried in, along with Panagiota. I plan to go there and pay my respects and thank her for the ultimate sacrifice that she made. As hard as it must have been for my grandfather and great uncle to leave their mother and all that they knew and loved, they made her proud by what they did with the opportunity that she gave them. It makes me feel good to know that she was such a loved woman and that she did not die alone after her boys immigrated to the US.
"I still don't know for sure what happened to my great-grandfather, but I suspect that he died during the turmoil in Turkey, since he did not leave Kastampoli with his family. Times must have been very difficult for them even after they arrived in Greece because if I understand correctly, Panagiota's home was robbed and everything, including pictures, were destroyed. It is disheartening to know that I will never see the faces of these family members, but the colorful stories that are being shared with me are confirming the image that I have had in my mind all along. It's a beautiful tapestry that just continues to grow and grow. My Greek is not good and their English isn't great, but we are learning together and finding ways to share priceless, precious information with one another."
It is touching to know that in our own small way, we Greeks made a difference to someone's life.

It is customary to dye eggs red for Easter on Holy Thursday (Μεγάλη Πέμπτη), remembering the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made with his life for the good of mankind.
And what about that strange name Sevricos that doesn't seem to be in use any longer in Greece? What happened to it? What do we know about it? Stacy decided to use facebook once again to help her. She has already learnt that spellings are not stable, so she sent a few messages to people with the same last name using a variety of spellings. These people all lived in Turkey. Quite quickly, she heard back from one person who told her that the name has its roots in Greece. In his case, his own grandfather was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, but the family all live in Turkey (the perosn explained to Stacy that they were Turks, and not Greeks in origin). The Sevricos name is a compound of the Turkish words "seferi" which means 'traveler' and "coz" which means 'family'. This links Stacy to none other than George Seferis, a Greek Nobel Prize winning poet, who was born in Smyrni, a former Greek area, now part of modern-day Turkey. And all the rest is history, as the saying goes...

Turks and Greeks did intermarry, contrary to what many people think about Greeks and Turks (which is the result of a misunderstanding caused by politics).  A century ago, people living in various parts of Greece and Turkey differentiated themselves as Muslims or Christians, rather than a specific nationality; neither Greece nor Turkey had its present shape, so it was difficult to give a name to them as nationals. They spoke either Greek or Turkish (or both), but could not be differentiated according to their language. During the population exchange of 1922 between Turkey and Greece, Christians who spoke Turkish were thrown out of Turkey and banished to Greece, while Muslims who spoke Greek and no Turkish were thrown out of Greece and banished to Turkey. Since then, no family from those ones with such a history (Stacy's family is included in this group) has ever swapped sides and reversed their religion/nationality. They simply blended into whichever culture they were forced to live in. This 'ethnic cleansing' (for that is what it actually was) worked because the religions were what united the people rather than the language. This is why we still hear about Cretan Turks, however contradictory this may sound: they are now Muslim Turks who feel they are Cretans because they have maintained their Cretan customs even ninety years after the exchange took place.

As I read the grand finale in Stacy's story - a story that has not really finished, as Stacy continues to weave the threads as she finds them - I realised that my own parents had made similar sacrifices for their own children as did Stacy's grandfather and great-grandmother. If they hadn't left Greece, if they hadn't migrated to New Zealand, if I had been born in Greece instead, I would not have had the chance to be well-educated, nor would I have had the opportunities that have been given to me through my education, and I may not even be in a position to live in my crisis-ridden homeland as I am now.

Easter is a time to reflect on sacrifice; by telling you Stacy's story, I have been able to contemplate on the sacrifices that were made for my own well-being.

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A recipe that reminds us of the happier Easter moments is Easter koulourakia, butter biscuits specifically made at this time of year. Children love to make these with the older female members of the family. Most Greek housewives (my mother included) would make enough of these to fill a laundry basket. Koulourakia is one of my most popular recipes on the blog, perhaps because it is a simple and tasty no-fail recipe.

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Websites dedicated to Asia Minor cooking (as the former Greek areas now under Turkish rule are collectively known) give a slightly different version of the same cookies. Whichever cookie recipe you use, the house will smell of Greek Easter after baking a large batch, like most Greek women still like to do. 

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