Tuesday, March 09, 2004


Can a person’s life begin with a prophecy, given almost two hundred years before his birth? A rugged and fierce St Kosmas preaches to the inhabitants of the small village of Kossovitsa in Northern Epirus. Suddenly, he looks up at the mountains surrounding the village and his eyes glaze over. Slowly and distinctly, he pronounces these words: “This village will be girdled by a vast wire.” At the time no one paid any attention. Years later, a villager who remembered the Saint’s words wrote them down, adding in commentary, that the prophecy meant that “something bad will eventually happen to our village.” Something bad did indeed happen to Kossovitsa, as well as the rest of Northern Epirus. For it was girdled by a vast length of electric fences and barbed wire by the Albanian government that would not let anyone in or out for fifty years.
It was in this village, a Byzantine settlement nestled between the foothills of Mount Mourgana that Petros Petranis was born in 1930. Born in a time and place were anything could happen and most often did, his is a most remarkable life including such episodes as: being sent to Tirana at the age of seven, where he almost forgot how to speak Greek, being persecuted by the Albanian government, undertaking with his sisters at the age of fifteen a perilous border crossing and endangering his life in the process, learning of his parents’ death at the hands of Greek communists, sampling the prejudice of Greeks against refugees, learning the printing trade, working at the great hydro electrical works of Louros in Epirus and explaining these to the King, meeting the love of his life, migrating to Australia, setting up a successful printing press, being responsible for the publication of most works of Greek-Australian literature published in Australia, running his own newspaper, acting as a beacon of advice and assistance for newly arrived Greek migrants and spending countless hours assisting them and finally, spearheading the campaign for the recognition of human rights for the Greeks of Northern Epirus.
Most definitely a full life. Now at the age of 73, Petros Petranis provides the Greek-Australian community with one more gift from the heart: the experience of his life and of those Epirots around him. His book «Οι Ηπειρώτες στην Αυστραλία,» (The Epirots in Australia), published by the Latrobe University National Centre for Hellenic Studies and Research is a unique contribution to the historiography of our community for many reasons. The first and most foremost is that quite simply, the Epirot community is one of the oldest and most important Greek communities in Australia. The first Greek woman to migrate to Australia was an Epirot, Catherine Plessas-Crummer, who arrived here in 1830 from Ioaninna, while there are records of Northern Epirot migrants arriving on our shoes as early as 1890. Petros Petranis, with the eye of a true historian, painstakingly thumbed through RSL records, the murky memories of the aged, a multitude of photographs, manuscripts and his own personal archive, amassed over fifty years to bring to life a community of pioneers who like George Bitsis, who introduced new business practices and a spirit of enterprise to Australia, or Giannis Lillis who pioneered the production of Greek literature in Australia, or even Petros Petranis himself, laid the foundations of the large and vibrant Greek community that was to come.
Petros Petranis’ book covers only pre-Second World War migration, the task of recording the arrival of the thousands of Epirot families during the sixties and seventies being beyond the interest of even the most fastidious historian, and of small historical importance at any rate. He also traces the development of the organised Epirot community, the various organisations that were formed to provide a social structure for the newly arrived immigrants, the philanthropic societies and the political organisations. In this, Petros Petranis was a pioneer, for he was the driving force behind the trend for Greek associations to federate and combine resources. The Panepirotic Federation of Australia was one of the first of its kind, having as its aim, not only the social needs of its members but most importantly, the needs of Epirots overseas and especially in Northern Epirus. In his passion for his homeland, Petros Petranis and the Federation did not hesitate to take on governments, dignitaries and clergymen alike and demand explanations and answers. It has always been a force to be reckoned with and has gained the respect of Greece as a lobby group, despite the current consul-general’s persistent snubbing of the same.
The book is not just Petros Petranis’ life’s work. His entire life is enclosed between its covers. Kyriakos Amanatidis, one of our community’s most eminent men of letters has most eloquently and humanely taken us back to the birthplace of Petros Petranis and recounted to us those events that made him the man that he is today, in the first section of the book. It is a most moving story and though I have heard it from the lips of Petros Petranis countless times, I cannot help but be moved every time I consider it. It is essentially an Australian story, a story of privation and hardship as well as redemption in a new land and a story which will strike a chord not only with his contemporaries who had similar experiences, but also with the second and third generations who are not only given a better appreciation of the conditions that caused their forebears to leave their homes but also an understanding of how the Greek community was constructed from the foundations up. In doing so, Petros Petranis’ scope is vast. He deals with the issue on a Pan-Australian level, encompassing culture, industry and social aspects. His book is of vast importance to the corpus of the recent trend of Greek-Australian historical writing.
One of the things in my life that I can say I am truly proud of, is that I have known Petros Petranis from birth. I have basked in the warmth of his smile, have been challenged by his inquisitive and restless mind, fired by his passion and enjoyed him as a mentor and friend. This is nothing out of the ordinary. His fellow-villagers in Kossovitsa, though they have not seen him for fifty years, still remember him with fondness and thank him for his arrangements to obtain for them a clean water supply. His book is a generous offering to the whole community, both as a mirror and as a memorial, now that the organised community and the cause which he fought for is in its swan-song. Like many Northern Epirots, he will probably never be able to return to his homeland. Yet the lure and the song of that homeland is what enabled him to put down such firm roots in Australia and the shadow of his branches embraces all of us. The launch of the book «Οι Ηπειρώτες στην Αυστραλία», under the auspices of La Trobe, the Panepirotic Federation of Australia and the Australian-Greek Cultural league will take place on 21 March 2004 at Moonlight Receptions. For all of those who are interested in the history of our sojourn in this land, this book is a must.

first published in NKEE on 9 March 2004