Between 1913-1922 Ottoman authorities and the Turkish National movement led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk embarked on a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing targeting the Christian minorities of the former Ottoman Empire. These minorities included Assyrians, Armenians, and the indigenous Greek populations of Anatolia and Eastern Thrace. By 1923 over 1 million Greeks had been killed, and 1 million survivors had escaped to Greece as refugees. This is one of their stories.
“Name and origin? The man with the strange accent asked my sister. I gripped her hand. I remember thinking, I would never let go again.
“Name and origin?”, he asked again. I looked at my big sister hoping she would reply, but she had not spoken since that day.
“Where is my mother?” I interjected. “We lost her at the harbor.” There were so many people, everyone was screaming. The sky was black… I had never seen the sky black before. I will never forget that day.
“Name and origin?” he asked again.
“Where is she, where is my mama?” I demanded.
“Where are you from, little girl? What is your name?”
“In the crowd … we lost her. They pushed us into the sea.” I was the best swimmer of all my friends, but the water was thick that day. I remember desperately looking for my sister amongst the drowning people when suddenly, a voice called to me through the horror. As the voice drew closer, a small wooden boat emerged from the darkness. It was my sister. She was rowing towards me in a small wooden boat. There was a stranger with her, the stranger in the green hat. He saved us that day.
“Name and origin?” the man persisted.
“Where is our mama?”, I was persistent as well. At that moment, I began to realize how many thousands of people were waiting behind us. They reminded me of the crowd from that day, only this time… they were silent.
“Name and origin?” he tried asking my sister again.
“My name is Zoe!” I exclaimed instead. “My name is Zoe, I am ten years old, and I am from Heliopolis.”
“And your sister? What is her name? Why does she not speak?” he asked.
“Her name is Eleftheria” I told the man, holding back my tears. “They took her voice.”
“Put them with the orphans,” he said to the man standing next to him. As we were being taken away, the man with the strange accent called us back again, “Wait!” he yelled. “Your mother, what was her name?”
“Her name is Elpida” I said. “And we will find her.”
Authorities registered refugees like Zoe that arrived in Greece upon entry. Their names, city of origin, and possessions were recorded. These historical documents still exist today and can be accessed by the public at the Greek National Archives. The next time you are in Greece, if you have an ancestor that escaped those tragic events, take a trip to the National Archives in Athens.
Using a family name and region of origin, archivists will assist you in tracking down your family records and even provide the original documents for examination. Find your family members’ names, take a picture, and publish them next May 19th so that their memory will live on, and nobody will ever forget.