I have been watching on television the numerous shows about searching your family tree. Most recently there is “Finding Your Roots”. On that show, Newark’s mayor, Corey Booker, who is African-American, learned that his great-grandfather was a white, southern physician that his family never knew about, and at the end of the show, he met his second cousin, a white, southern attorney. It was definitely interesting.
Searching for your ancestors and where you came from is fun and exciting and I started doing this over 30 years ago. When I started researching, I was positive, like every other Greek-Macedonian boy, that my lineage would trace directly back to Alexander the Great. It was a no-brainer!
30 years ago the internet did not exist so whenever there was a family gathering, I would take out my little notebook and pen and start asking the old folks what they remembered. You would be surprised what they recollected once they got talking. Oral history can be just as important as internet research. We eventually compiled over 600 names from both sides of the family. Some of the names were not be complete since, back in the days of village life, people were known by nicknames. The one thing that Greek family trees do prove is how everyone has the same name and is named for someone before them, like in the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” when the father introduces his family to the new non-Greek in-laws to be – this is Nick, Niko, Nikki, Nikoletta, Nikonia, etc. You get it.
The problem with our family, and for most Greek-Americans, is that there are not many documents we can search in the United States since we are relatively newcomers to this country (I did find Pappou Theodoro’s U.S. Citizenship Certificate dated 1927). When going back to the old country, most of the records, we have been told, were destroyed by the Turks, Nazis, or Communists. Although families usually stayed in the village and did not move around (we think our family has been in the village of Sklithron for over 300 years), names have been changed, including my own, which hampers research. Our family name was originally “Iliou” but someone down the line was a relative with a darker complexion then the rest of the family and the last name was changed to Kara (meaning dark), and eventually Hellenized to “Karapalides”.
The furthest we can trace my father’s side is to my great-great-grandfather, Christos Karapalides, who was born in 1843. On my mother’s side, it is also my great-great-grandfather, Stereo Grammeopoulos, who was born about the same time.
All of us hope that we have some famous or even infamous ancestors. Unfortunately, my family doesn’t. My father’s families, from what they can remember, were basically merchants and there are stories of them traveling in caravans of camels through the Middle East deserts to bring back goods to sell.
The closest we get to anyone famous is my maternal great-grandfather, Stephanos Grammenopoulos, who was grammateas (secretary) to Pavlos Melas, the famous Makedonimahos. He wrote the communiqués for Melas. There was actually an actor that played him in the Greek movie, “Pavlos Melas,” and I was told that there was a photograph of Pavlos Melas and Papou Stephano together, but it has long since disappeared. Other than that, no royalty, no famous actors or musicians, no great scholars or politicians, and not even one outlaw – that we know of! Just your typical hard working common folk. I told my kids they will need to become the famous ones.
The other new thing to do in searching your roots is DNA testing. That’s how Mayor Booker and his newly-found cousin were proved to be related. It also tells you what your race make-up is – European, African, Asian, etc. But do we really want to find out? Isn’t it more romantic for us Greeks to believe that we are all directly related to the Ancient Greeks? Isn’t Alexander the Great my grandfather-100 times removed? We Greeks just have to accept the fact that so many different peoples have come through Greece over the last 3,000 years that we probably have a very mixed up DNA make-up. My grandfather-10 times removed, may not have even been Greek – KRIMA!
Come to think of it, my father did have red hair and freckles until he turned 20, when it eventually turned black. Maybe an Irishman did come through the village on the way back home? Just call me Harry O’Karapalides “Erin go braugh!”
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