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“Born into a family of Greeks from Asia Minor…”: 99 years after the Great Catastrophe

I was born into a family of Greeks from Asia Minor. My grandparents of both sides were forced to leave the western coast of Turkey in 1922. Every 14. September, we, Greeks from Asia Minor, commemorate the Μικρασιατική Καταστροφή.
Together with over one million people, my grandparents became refugees at the tender age of 5, 7, 12 or 15. They left their homes running in horror: Mum carrying the youngest in her arm, older kids bundles with clothes, bread, an icon. Mother hid money and few valuables in her chest and her skirts.
The life they had in Asia Minor, their home, the vineyards with the famous Smyrna-raisins and their tobacco farms  was gone forever. None of them managed to reach homeland Greece with father or older brothers. They were killed or forced to “labor battalions” (amele taburlu), never to unite with their family again.
Once the Greeks from Asia Minor arrived as refugees in their own country, they were anything but welcome. Locals called them ” Τουρκόσπορους” (“Turkish seed”) and the the women “παστρικιές” (“whores”) because they used to wash their clothes and their makeshift homes and to wash themselves obviously more often than the local women did.
I grew up in a home and a neighborhood where all people were refugees from Asia Minor. All our relatives also from there. Families with children. And grandmothers dressed in black, all widows of the catastrophe. One of them was my great-grandmother who came to Athens with 5 underage children after a long journey of hunger, pain and despair.
Almost all families had one or two “unmarried elderly sisters.” I had to grow old enough to find out that these “unmarried sisters” were girls that were raped when the Turks raided the Greek villages to kick the population out of the Ionian land.
These “sisters” always carried the stigma and hardly a man would be willing to marry them. Two of them were my great-aunts, for the other side of the family; victims of war atrocities and cruelty at the age of 8 and 12.
I grew up in a home and a neighborhood of day-workers where helping each other was written in capital letters. Where people had jasmine and roses in big tin cans. They loved music, singing and dance. And there was always food for the neighbor, the relative and the friend, for the poor, even if people struggled to make ends meet.
Sunday mornings, my grandfather would call his friends for backgammon. I always associate the noise of tavla-checkers with the smell of ouzo and little plates with meze that kept coming from the kitchen – grannies be blessed. Every Sunday morning all through the year, except on Christmas and Easter.
Video: Popular folk-song “Alatsatiani” by great amateur singer Kleoniki Tzoanaki and a Mikrasiatiko-setting in their home-yard in Nea Erythraia (1977).
I grew up in an environment where the elderly, the  first and the second generation of refugees, would  indulge in sweet memories about the homeland they left behind, they drew a shiny, rosy picture not matter how miserable their life was.
They hardly spoke of the war or the “bad experiences” they had as they were living Asia Minor. The never spoke about the Asia Minor Catastrophe especially in front of children. I learned of all the tragic personal stories later, when I grew up.
In the 70’s, when Asia Minor Greeks were allowed to go to Turkey and visit their former homes, none from my family or our neighbors went there. My grandmother told me once she didn’t want to see “again” how their home was on fire, how they run with “their soul stuck in their mouth” in agony.
My great-uncle, her brother, was afraid he would “live” again the horrible drowning experience when he was trying to reach a boat. In the crowd waiting for ships to bring them to safety on the island of Chios or Samos, he was separated from his family. He couldn’t remember how he landed in the water but every detail of his “drowning”, of his struggle to breath, go to surface and survive. Granny was 13, her brother 9. He was 85 when he told me the story.
The great-uncle said also that he dropped off school when he had the chance because the local kids called him “Τουρκόσπορο”.
99 years later, all the witness of the “catastrophe”, the widows of the disaster and their children, are long gone. My great-granny, my grandparents, my great-aunts and -uncles, the old neighbors. Gone but their lessons never forgotten:
Help the poor and needy. Forgive. And always have a plate with meze for your friends – Μικρασιατική παράδοση or the Culture of Greeks from Asia Minor.

With the few information I had at hand, I visited the villages of my grandparents in the late 1990’s. In one village I found the house of a great-grandparent. I was overwhelmed with emotions. I didn’t manage to knock the door…

This text was posted as Thread on Twitter on September 14, 2021.

You can check for information on the Greek-Turkish War 1919-1922 here.

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  1. It is important to keep these memories alive. When I first moved here I lived in northern Greece for about 10 years. The vast majority of the population there are descended from ethnic Greeks who were forced to move from the Pontus area of Turkey on the Black Sea in the 1923 population exchanges that followed the events described above. They are often portrayed […] A fantastic group of people with their own culture and dialect. I could not have been made more welcome as a foreigner. They are part of the reason I decided to stay in Greece when I retired albeit at the opposite end of the country. A warning to all tourists – Greece is more addictive than most drugs.

    • …And the point of Pontiak jokes here, under such a story is exactly what? didactic? informative? know-it-all? some people could get offended.

      • If I offend you I apologise. It certainly was not intended. The Pontiak Greeks I lived amongst certainly feel as strongly about their heritage as you do about yours and I love them dearly.

  2. What an amazing story you described … but you did it beautifully!
    Thank you for sharing such sensitive family history!

  3. Lest we forget! Cyprus is a perfect example of what happens when we do.

    Greece can not afford to let it’s guard down to barbaric expansionism. More recently, Greece has been forced to defended its border and seas. A kindred and civil Greece does not have the liberty of procrastinating.

    The bellicose bravado and provocations still prevail to threaten regional stability to this very day.

    The west is faced against an emboldened dictator seeking to expand in Libya and even Somalia, one who aligns himself with the Muslim brotherhood, Jihadist mercenaries, Hamas and even the largest state sponsor of terrrorism – Pakistan, etc, How can Turkey host US nuclear weapons when it is unreliable and does not deserve to be part of a NATO. One that it hides behind while ironically buying arms from its adversary, to play against America or very hand that feeds it.

    The west would do well to review past lessons too. It is unbelievable how a cowardly jockying in Syria or Afghanistan by another immoral, breathtakingly brainless, cheating and corrupt self serving US leader who defies democracy has only diminished global trust, respect, and security. Lets hope the next administration fixes this blunder of having elected a populist and truly handicapped dangerous moron. He didn’t help in relentlessly wanting a job he did not want to do or was able to do.

  4. Thank you for sharing this.
    It is a very tragic history that leaves its marks, even several generations later.

  5. I too am the grand-daughter of refugees from Asia Minor on my mother’s side. Both came from towns near Constantinople. My grandfather spoke Turkish as well as Greek because otherwise they “would cut out his tongue”. My grandmother, a few kilometers over – not a word!

    Both came with their widowed mothers – one had a husband who died in WW1/Balkan wars. The other lost her husband to the Spanish flu pandemic. They eventually settled in Volos, along with many other Asia Minor refugees. They heard the same words yours did: tourkosporoi, denekades (because they lived in tin sheds), koutalades (dancing and singing while clacking spoons was not uncommon). Yet every one of those tin sheds had lace curtains; every one of the tables had a tablecloth for eating, and some kind of ‘carre’ for decorating. The mothers had always magically “just eaten” or were “not hungry” so that they could feed their children and anyone who dropped by. Hospitality was (and is) paramount and heaven help you if you break any of the traditions or do it in some other order! Eggs HAVE to be died on Holy Thursday, only red, with “boiled” dye – no PAAS watercolour dyes for us (here in the εξωτερικο you can buy other types of dyes). And of course the vinegar and so on and so forth. But you, keep talking greece, know the drill!

    I don’t know what was worse for them – coming from Asia Minor, trying to establish their lives on the poorest soil given to them, the mingiest housing, the delays in assistance, having your mother remarry? And as soon as they could get their breath: the war, the civil war (and in Volos a large earthquake), reconstruction. Yet, in those few pictures I have of my grandparents when they were young they are smiling, or deadly serious, and always ALWAYS nattily dressed.

    I miss my grandparents dearly and now my mother is getting up there in years. While we may chafe and complain about learning things – soon we will be the “keepers of the traditions”.

    • My grannies would never go out socially or shopping downtown without lipstick in their cute bags.

      • And their hair just so and a necklace. They wore heels as long as they could and when you went to church you needed nylons and a jacket. sigh.

  6. Today, Turks are blocking vessels 6 miles East of Crete and all Greece can do is protest?

    Perhaps it is time to extend borders to institute the international standard of 12 miles and show them Greece’s lawful sea and air territorial borders, reclaim Cyprus, and secure borders for once and for all to never repeat these brainless and barbaric provocations in the future.

    When is enough, enough? Its a poor NATO partner anyway so one can not lose what one does not have.