Monday, July 06, 2009


“Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.” Ralph Waldo Emmerson.
Apparently, Queen Elizabeth II can claim her descent from the Anglo-Saxon god Woden and the Japanese Emperor is said to be descended of the sun goddess Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, in unbroken line beginning with the first, Jimmu, who ascended his throne in 660 BC, whereas the Russian Tsars could trace their descent to the Byzantine Emperors. Many Australians are able to trace their ancestry back to the First Fleet and even beyond that, with surprising results. Australian pop singer Holly Valance for example, turns out to be a relative of British comedian Benny Hill. Among Greeks though, the ability to trace ancestors back past a few generations is extremely limited, owing to the dearth of documentary records taken during the Ottoman period. Plato may have noted that: “There is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors and no slave that has not had a king among his,” but even then though, attempts to trace one’s lineage are not without surprises. My maternal cousins in Greece for example, share the surname Massavetas with none other than the revolutionary hero Athanasios Diakos and they are related to him. It transpires that Diakos’ family, presumably his brothers, were granted large tracts of land by the free Greek state which were over the course of a century, gradually lost, culminating in my cousins’ great-grandfather’s ill-fated decision to sell the last of the estate in order to buy two taxis, at a time when automobiles were barely known in central Greece. With the advent of the Second World War, the two taxis were requisitioned and the family reduced to penury. My paternal cousins who reside in ordinary Melbourne suburbia are descendants of Samian pirates who terrorised the Turks and even had the small island to the south of Samos, now known as Samiopoula named after them for a time. On the other hand, no one really knows where the Kalymnioi came from. What little I have been able to glean after questioning the elders of my father’s village is that they hailed from a small village in the environs of Aydin in Asia Minor called Akbuköy, something corroborated by my grandfather who fled from there to the village of Mytilinioi in Samos during the Asia Minor Catastrophe. They had a different surname, which has now been lost. It is said, implausibly, that my surname is derived from an ancestor who had a godmother who came from the island of Kalymnos. Try as I might, I have not been able to unearth any further Kalymnian connection and tantalisingly enough, while perusing a nineteenth century history of Samos last year, I found, quite by chance, people with my surname listed among those attending the conference of Samians that resulted in the island deciding to join the Greek Revolution. Further than that, I can only trace the family back to my great-grandparents, and that, through the stories told to me by my grandmother on long winter nights. Her father, was particularly long lived, dying when he was ninety-six and the day when his photograph was included in the village calendar for 1991, was a proud day for all of us. His surname, Kefalas, also graces the central square of the village because one of his ancestors, was apparently, a hero. My grandmother did not know this story, as she died before the first time I visited Samos and there is no one now who can take the story further. Other topographical evidence in the village also connects me to my ancestors. One of them of the nineteenth century, Euthymios Kalymnios, was an archimandrite in Jerusalem. This being a particularly lucrative profession for him, he was able to amass enough money to fund the construction of a school in his home village, to which, replete in himself, he chose not to grant his family name but rather, his first name: the Euthymiada School. Photographs and chance encounters can also lead one to gain an insight into one’s ancestors: viewing a nineteen thirties’ photograph of my uncharacteristically fashionably attired grandfather getting cosy with a particularly enraptured young lady and asking the relevant questions, I learned something that I hadn’t known before, that my grandfather had been engaged prior to his going away to war and that it was only upon his return, to learn that his fiancée had died, and after considerable heartbreak, that he consented to marry my grandmother. The discovery of this singular fact did more to explain the dynamics of my grandparents’ relationship than anything I had observed during the eleven years I spent with my grandfather, prior to his death. On another occasion, I was hugged by a «συγχωριανό,» of my father’s who is always overly enthused to see me. “You know why I love you so much?” he gushed. “Because you have your grandfather’s name. You probably don’t know this but I was your grandfather’s shepherd. When he left for Australia, he gave me his whole flock. Imagine, I was penniless and suddenly I was the owner of a flock. I have never forgotten it. Your grandfather was an amazing man.” According to my experience, my grandfather, was a silent man with flashes of extremely biting cynicism. During the course of my enquiries, I have pieced together tantalising clues indicating a much more complex interior along with reasons as to why this was masked so effectively.
Some stories require detective work, and also, signify how chance can affect families down the generations. As a child, my maternal grandmother mysteriously ended up being cared for by a Vlach woman for a couple of years, during the course of which time my grandmother attended a Vlach school and travelled around Epirus and Western Macedonia. Even more mysteriously, she was ‘stolen’ back from the Vlach woman by my great-grandmother – suggesting circumstances that have never adequately been explained. Years later, it was this Vlach connection that brought my mothers progenitors together: in the fifties, the Greek government had the unfortunate habit of billeting soldiers in the homes of villagers and my grandmother overheard my Vlach grandfather making lewd comments to a fellow soldier in the said Romance tongue. “I hope you know I understand what you are talking about,” she warned them in Vlach. The rest, as they say is history.
It has been said that genealogy is the study of family history, while family history is the study of genealogy and everything else--including the background, location, and circumstances of people's lives. Writing in The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, Val Greenwood remarks that "if you can understand the forces which shaped men's lives then you can better understand those men." He goes on to say: "to successfully research an ancestor is to determine the events in which he may have been involved, to determine whether those events would have been recorded and, if so, to determine where the records are located." This interpretation of family history fits squarely with the view that all family history is contextual, i.e., it cannot be viewed in isolation or separated from its historical framework. What is certain is that it is this knowledge, that forms the unbroken thread not only of kinship but also of mentality and attitude throughout my family. I can pinpoint exact events in our family history that will explain why the women in our family are so indomitable, why certain things should not be discussed and even trivial things like why as a general rule, we despise the colour black. Most importantly, our shared family history binds us as a collective conscience, imperceptibly sometimes, despite the centrifugal forces of our transplantation within another country and lifestyle. I am who I am, to a large part in relation to the events and attitudes that have shaped my ancestors lives and I find it fascinating to trace the psychological formation of these down to my generation. In respects innumerable to mention, the dynamics of my mother’s extended family can be attributed to events that transpired between fifty and a hundred years ago and at the apex of all this is my great-grandmother who at one hundred and three, is the oldest Epirot in Australia and considering that her mind is as sharp as a tack, an invaluable resource of family and village history.
Some families are not so lucky as to have such long-lived primary historical sources, and it is for this reason that the Epirotic Brotherhood of Tsamanda “St Nikolaos” decided to painstakingly compile a history of its families living in Australia. The Book “From Tsamanda to Melbourne,” written and researched by Philip Dimitriadis, lecturer in Literary Studies at Victoria University, is an invaluable resource of historical material whose primary motivation is to take the place of primary sources of oral history as more and more of them pass away from among us and further, as more and more of the intended recipients of that oral history no longer have the capacity to receive that history in its original language. By recording this small community’s family history, the Tsamanda Brotherhood has ensured that generations of Tsamandiotes shall be able to refer to it in order to gain an understanding of their origins. This, the gift of self-knowledge derived from the preserved knowledge of one’s ancestors is one of the greatest gifts of all. Some Greek organisations leave as their legacy, dances and discord. Tsamandas in preserving our past, grants us our future.
It is for this reason that the brilliantly enlightened Food for Thought Greek Australian Women’s Network, in collaboration with the Tsamandas Brotherhood and the Panepirotic Federation of Australia is holding the event: “Why is it Important to Document Family Histories? – Strategies used to engage second and third generations.” This function, to be held at the GOCMV building, 3rd floor, 168 Lonsdale Street on Friday, 10 July 2009 at 7:00pm, will explore the necessity of recording Greek-Australian family histories as a method of cultural and ethnic preservation, through the experiences of guest speakers Dimitrios Kostandakopoulos, Senior Research Fellow in European Studies at Bristol University, an eminent genealogist and the inspired Philip Dimitriadis. Yours truly has the immense honour of launching the tremendously significant repository of family history: “From Tsamata to Melbourne,” a veritable treasure trove of the raison d’etre for the Tsamantiotes’ transplantation in this land. Given our position at the crossroads of defining and preserving our collective identity and history, it is imperative that our family histories are not forgotten as they form as legitimate a part of broader Australian history than the experiences of all other citizens of this country. This then is truly an event not to be missed. We take your leave this week, with this gem by Bertrand Russell, to all would be genealogists: “My first advice on how not to grow old, is to choose your ancestors carefully.”


First published in NKEE on 6 July 2009