Saturday, April 30, 2022



When I was young, Anzac Day barely rated a blip on the radar of my community consciousness. I was lucky enough to attend a private school but even there we received no instruction as to the importance of the day. Within the Greek community, the day barely received a mention. Sometimes as the day approached, I would catch snatches of conversation between members of the elder generation in which the words: “RSL,” “Shrine” and “racism” could be discerned. When I pressed them for an explanation, I was told that this was none of my business. 

Returning home from university on the tram one day, while reading Odysseas Elytis’ epic poem inspired by the Second World War «ΆξιονΕστί», I noticed an elderly, blue eyed gentleman stare intently at me. Then, he began, falteringly to read in a broad Australian accent: “A-xion E-sti.” Dumfounded, I asked him as to the source of his knowledge of things Hellenic and he replied that he had fought in Greece during World War II. He stated that whilst fighting there, he was impressed by the indomitability and generosity of the Greek people. “I’ve never met anyone like the Greeks,” he confided. “A noble and spirited people. Even here in Melbourne, I’ve always been drawn to my Greek friends. You are a very old but lively people. You are fighters. And you should be marching alongside us on ANZAC Day.” To my everlasting regret, I cannot recall his name. Yet this chance encounter made me reassess the importance of Anzac Day both to myself and the communities to which I belong. 

A few weeks ago, I was having coffee with some friends in South Melbourne. While volubly disputing the topics of the day in Greek, a lady approached us and asked us for change. Having received the object of her request, she walked off. A middle-aged lady seated at the table next to us, commented loudly: “How’s that for manners? Not even an ευχαριστώor a παρακαλώ!” Amused at our astonished expressions, she explained: “Yeah, I’m Aussie, but I went to Greek school. My dad fought in the war in Greece and he came back in love with the Greek people. He was full of admiration for the way they fought for their country and stuck their necks out for Australian soldiers. I grew up here in South Melbourne. So when all my Greek mates started going to Greek school, my dad thought it would be a good idea for me to go as well. I went for several years. I am a bit rusty, but I can still make myself understood.”  

In recent years there has been increased interest by members of the Greek community in Melbourne in participating in the Anzac Day March at the Shrine of Remembrance. This interest has been paralleled by an interest in military history, with special reference to the theatres of war in which Greece and Australia fought side by side, or as allies. The works of historians such as Jim Claven, Marina Hill and Martyn Brown among others have done much to elucidate the pivotal role Greece played in assisting the British imperial campaigns that Australia was a part of. As a result, the teleturgics of our community have changed. We now commemorate, among other events, the Battle of Kalamata and the retreat of Australian soldiers from Greece with a wreath laying ceremony at the Hellenic War Memorial, and there are many events which centre around the Epic Battle of Crete, one of the last events with a Greek flavour to be commemorated at the Shrine of Remembrance. T 

The emphasis on these military commemorations should not be seen as a glorification of war. Instead, what we are witnessing is a phenomenon whereby a “Greek” community feels excluded from a key mainstream “Australian” marker of identity and is seeking ways, founded upon historical experience, to be included within a national narrative which historically has not officially accommodated it. It is this need for inclusion that has proved the driving force for the erection of the Lemnos Gallipoli Memorial which firstly commemorates the nurses and soldiers who served on the Greek Island of Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 during World War One, and only then the role of Lemnos in the campaign. Similarly, the George Devine Treloar memorial which holds sacred the memory of a remarkable Australian soldier who saved Asia Minor Greeks from certain death in the aftermath of the Genocide, serves to remind the broader public that the Australian military discourse does not exist within a vacuum. It is multi-faceted and overlaps with our story, a story which we would submit, is just as Australian and deserves reception into the wider narrative. 

The Australian descendants of the villagers of Krithia and of the 15,000 Greeks who were ethnically cleansed from the Gallipoli peninsula by the Ottomans in order to fortify the area in anticipation of the Anzac landing also deserve to be honoured by the mainstream in recognition of the fact that wars, especially imperialist ones, result in collateral damage being inflicted upon the innocent and the vulnerable. The relatives of Hector Vasily, a ten year old Brisbane boy who while throwing gifts to soldiers returning from World War I was struck and killed by a vehicle carrying returned soldiers, also needs to be honoured. To banish their stories from the narrative, and indeed those of the many Greeks who fought as Allies or risked their lives to hide or assist Australian soldiers is to propagate a racially exclusive neo-colonialist discourse that while purporting to foster multiculturalism, in effect, creates two classes of people, whose participation in important civic events is determined largely by race, with a grudging acceptance of those few Greek-Australians who fought in the Australian armed forces. 


Smarting from the hurt of having our Greek national day celebrations banished from the Shrine of Remembrance, and our general exclusion from Anzac Day commemorations, our community this year was heartened by the news that the Evzones from the Presidential Guard would be “permitted” to participate in this year’s Anzac Day march, along with students from Greek community schools and organisations dressed in national costume. Yet just a few days before Anzac Day, prospective participants received the following email:  

“It is with great sadness that we have to inform you that your participation in this year's ANZAC Day parade has to be cancelled. Both the Victorian Returned Services League and the Hellenic RSL Sub Branch have officially written to us today clearly indicating that the youth are not allowed to Parade in Greek National Costume.  Furthermore, it was highlighted that unless students are direct descendants of our ANZAC soldiers, wearing their grandfather’s / grandmother’s medals they are not allowed to take part in the Anzac Day Parade.” 

In other words, to the powers that be, while descendants of enemy soldiers may march proudly beside the Anzacs, descendants of allies may not. Young Greek-Australians whose grandparents fought on the same side as the Anzacs in two World Wars and the Korean War are being told that their family history is irrelevant to the propagators of Australia’s national identity and that they have no place within it. While those Australians who fought in and for our motherland fully appreciated and cherished the sacrifices of the Greek people, those appointed to honour their memory, do not. In adopting such a policy, those arbiters of military identity dishonour the very legacy of those they purport to revere. They don’t have to follow such a policy. New South Wales veteran’s organisations are more than happy to allow descendants of Allied soldiers to march with them.  

I spent Anzac Day this year reading about the pogrom perpetrated by Australians against the Greeks of Kalgoorlie in 1916, as they were considered a subversive alien element. I read about Arthur Halkas, Edward Basil Makriyiannis and George Leonidas Paxin who died fighting in the Australian army in France during the First World War. I read about Angelo Barbouttis who destroyed two barges carrying Japanese soldiers in New Guinea before being killed in 1943. I read about Lela Karayianni of Athens, who was shot by the Nazis for saving the lives of dozens of Australian soldiers. 

I told my children about how their great grandfather along with other soldiers, having fought for the freedom of their country in the rugged mountains of Northern Epirus, decided to emigrate to Australia after the war because of the ties forged between the two nations on the battlefield. He, like so many others did not bring their medals with him. He sought no affirmation or reward for his service. His descendants and the descendants of all of the ancestors of Greek-Australians who fought in wars on the side of the Australians would most likely fill a football field. And then I told them why despite all this, they can never hope to participate in the Anzac Day parade.  

Our people don’t know of the Last Post, or of stultifying clichéd expressions of remembrance. Instead, as dusk fell over my grandfather’s grave, we recited these verses from Elytis’ “Axion Esti,” deeming them tribute enough: 

Those of us still left on hard soil 

will burn incense for the dead 

and when the caravan of Death, 

the great itinerant wrestler, 

is lost in the distance 

we’ll dance in their memory. 


Those of us still left in the morning 

will eat a slice of the loaf of sun 

and a bunch of grapes from the vineyard 

and without fear’s buzz anymore 

we’ll be moving ahead in life. 


Those of us still left in the night 

will go out in the desert to sow grass 

and before night takes us forever 

we’ll make of earth an icon stand 

and a cradle for unborn children. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 April 2022