Sunday, November 7, 2010

Chapter III - The Wine Dark Sea

Aegean Sea
I know the “Wine Dark Sea” is a much-quoted turn of Homeric phrase but I am going to use it here nevertheless for in three words it depicts the great vastness of the sea, a sense of loneliness and wonder. I don’t think Homer would have minded if a fellow Chiotico borrowed this, especially as the sea, so strong a character in his life and every other generation of Hellenes, played such a central role.

For my grandparents, the sea surrounded the place where they were born and met, the sea separated them once my Papou left the island, the sea, that vast battle ground of ages would have been the canvas of sorrow on which my Yia Yia would have transcribed her worries, dark and looming as it were. And yet, the sea would have been a place of hope. Yia Yia was not a very social person and I can imagine that during the occupation, even less so. But perhaps, when the mist of early morning crept up the hill from the harbour of Lagada, she ventured out from their stone dwelling to go the water’s edge, to utter a prayer for the safety of her husband and the child that would arrive imminently.

Staring out to sea, Yia Yia would have wondered where Papou was, if his merchant ship had entered the lists of countless others sunk by German U-Boats. Then again, there may have been another thought that might have been chipping away at the hard edges of worry, that Papou would make it to America and that he would send for them. Both would have been possible but as is the way of things in that ancient land, it was not good to think of happy things until they actually happened, it was more important to address the darkness of thoughts and worries than dwell on hope. Hope is to remain hidden and unvoiced, this to avoid jinxing it. A Greek, when presented with going to either a funeral or a wedding, will always choose the funeral because that is what you do. Not because they enjoy it, but rather because that is what requires addressing, that is when others need you most. The happiness will take care of itself.

Ruined stone dwellings of Lagada village
where Ploumi lived with her son Manoual
No letter came to Chios and Yia Yia gave birth to my uncle. I don’t know where. Perhaps in the little stone house attended by the village midwife and some of the other black-clad ladies, all young at the time but no doubt showing early wrinkles in the brow and around the eyes as they all carried a weight that Atlas would not easily shrug.

The baby was named Manoual and he came into a world occupied: by Germans and Italians, by women and worry. He would have to grow up quickly with little time for boyhood games. He would not meet is father for eight long years. I imagine that when he was old enough, Yia Yia would have explained to him that his father was at sea on a ship far away, and that he was to pray for his safe return. My uncle might have gone with my Yia Yia into the hills to pick wild greens for food, and other items not taken by the occupying forces. Perhaps he ran around with some of the other boys, his cousins Emanoual, Zani and others, pretending to shoot at German and Italian soldiers with sticks or toy guns?

Whenever I imagine the Greek Islands, I hear music. Island music is generally happier and more upbeat than that of the mainland which is dark, aggressive. However, during those dark years, how can the music have been anything but dark and brooding? Mournful chants would have wept out of the doors of Nea Moni up on the mountain and the harbour of Lagada must have been silent except for the occasional record playing Wagner or Pucini for soldiers dining at one of the few tavernas still open to keep the unwanted clientele happy and distracted.

Harbour of Lagada
 I need to find out more details about the life of the people of Chios and our village during this time, but it was probably a time of trepidation, an exhaustive state of constant alertness, especially for someone with a small child. When my uncle was older he began going down to the harbour and looking out to sea, wondering about the father he had never met, perhaps picturing him heroically manning the barrels of a deckside canon on the ship he worked on. Did he know that his father was a cook on a ship? Did he know that every person on board that ship was risking his life daily, that they were constantly under threat of having a German torpedo rip a hole in the side of their vessel? Probably not. The questions were likely more simple than that: what does my father look like? Will he like me? Will he ever come and take Mama and I away from here?

If my Yia Yia and my uncle were lonely, I can only imagine what my Papou must have been feeling when he stood on the deck of his ship staring out to sea. The break from the sweaty environment of the kitchens would have brought the welcome freshness of sea air on a good day or near hurricane gusts of Atlantic wind that would not even have allowed him to light the cigarettes he had started smoking. He could not have helped but be plagued by worry for his wife and the child she had been expecting when he left the island. For him, as for most other Greek men with family, children or lovers, it must have been like leaving Ithaka behind for Odysseus, uncertain how long the war would go on or whether they would ever see home again.

US Navy cooks at work in the 1940s -
photo from Naval Slide Collection
Apparently, on ship, they would receive reports of other merchant navy vessels that had come under the guns of Germans destroyers and U-Boats and many of the crewmen of these unfortunate ships turned out to be friends and relatives of my Papou. The lists of dead men known to him must have weighed heavily, especially since he had a wife and child depending on him.
It might have been as he stood alone on the deck during one of his breaks, watching a lonely sunset, his pea coat wrapped tightly about him, collar up, that he must have taken the decision to do what any man with something to loose might have taken. Tossing his cigarette into the sea, determined not to get blown away by the Germans like so many others, he decided to jump ship. And where better to do that than their next port: New York City.

The sea had taken him there safely but there was still another hurdle. Many men un-wanting of death were doing the same thing, so it did not take US Immigration long to find Papou and give him the same options there were giving everyone else: incarceration until the end of the war when he would be sent back to Greece for punishment or join the US Navy. And like most others, Papou chose to serve and went from a Greek Merchant Navy vessel to an American Navy ship. The two constants in all of this were his role as a cook and second, the thoughts he had of being reunited with Yia Yia and his child.

As we all know, the war to end all wars, finally ended in 1945 and as the world rejoiced it also set about picking up the pieces of a life blown to smithereens. Families scattered to the four winds had to find their way home to places and loved ones, their own Ithacas.

Papou met up with a cousin of his in New York and began to work in a restaurant there. I do not know the name. What I do know is that when he had enough money he finally sent for Yia Yia and my uncle to come and join him in America. The mixture of hope and worry he must have felt when he posted that letter, or sent that telegram, is difficult to imagine. I do not know how much contact Yia Yia and Papou had during their war-time separation. They were not letter-writing people but somehow, this one message would have got across, along with some money for the journey.

Ploumi and Manoual Haviaras - Chios 1947
However it happened, Yia Yia and my uncle boarded a ship bound for America in 1947, two years after the war ended. This photo is the last photo of them that was taken on Chios just before their departure.

Like her husband eight years before, Yia Yia would have looked back on the village of her birth, of the birth of her son, and wondered if she would ever see it again. Perhaps a few relatives waved her off from the quay, their black silhouettes fading away as the boat pulled away from Chios one more time. She would have held her son close, her chin up as they headed into the unknown, to a place of modern myth, a place where anything was possible.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Chapter II - Pólemos

Being a large, fertile island with many gifts, Chios has long been the object of invasion. Strong in trade and naval skill, the island has always been at the centre of issues of Aegean dominance. Like many places ancient in place and memory, it has had its share of violence and tragedy.

Ancient Greek Warship

In the 7th century B.C. Chios had established itself as a major naval power and became a close ally of the Ionian city states. It enjoyed a relatively long period of prosperity until the Persians, under Kind Darius, brought slavery to the island which came under the control of tyrants appointed by the Persian King. The Ionian Revolution against Persia began in 499 B.C. and Chios expelled the tyrant Strattis and made a stand with one hundred war ships at the battle of Ladi. The effort failed however, and the Persians conquered the island fully in 493 B.C.  As a result, Chios was forced to fight on the side of Persia in the battle of Salamis, one of history's greatest naval battles. After the defeat of Persia, Chios joined the Athenian Alliance and enjoyed another period of good fortune.

Greek Hoplites
The Peloponnesian War ended that. The victories that the Greek allies had earned and enjoyed in the Persian wars were piddled away in the futility of the Peloponnesian War. Chios remained an ally of Athens until the latter’s defeat in Sicily and then it was brought into the fold by Sparta. At the end of the war, the Peace of Antalkideio awarded the island to Athens.

Chios and its people were constantly caught in the politics and polemics of its day. Following Alexander the Great’s attempt at unifying the Hellenic world and the subsequent tragedies of the wars of his successors, Chios sided with the rising power of Rome in its war with Mithridates of Pontus. The latter punished the island for siding with the Romans but Chios was freed by the Dictator Sulla, who defeated the Pontic king.

Such are the wars of antiquity in which Chios found itself drawn for better or worse. However, the real tragedies that befell the island, as well as the rest of the Hellenic world, began in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire and Sultan Mehmed II. Where previous conquerors of the islands, from Athens and Sparta to Venice and Genoa, sought not only to control but nurture Hellenic lands, the Ottoman Empire sought to enslave and dominate. History is filled with atrocities and many sprang from that tragic axe blow to Byzantium

1453 - The Fall of Constantinople
In 1556 Piali-Pasha occupied Chios without a fight and dissolved the Genoese government that had ruled the island for close to two centuries. At first, the island was treated well enough as the Sultan valued the masticha groves which had flourished under the Genoese and much of the crop was sent to the Sultan’s harem. There were attempts to free the island by the Florentine Knights of St. Stephen (1559) and then by the Venetians in 1694-95 but they were unsuccessful. Masticha, in a way kept the islanders safe at the outset of Turkish rule and the population reached about 100,000.

When the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, Chios was drawn into the fray when rebels from Samos arrived and, along with a group of local men, besieged the Turkish garrison. On the eleventh of March, 1822, a Turkish fleet landed thousands of troops on Chios in order to take down the rebels. The unarmed population of Chios suffered the worst massacre in the island’s history. For fifteen days, Turkish troops slaughtered the people and destroyed the island. All of the Greek leaders of the island were hanged publicly and more than 25,000 people were killed. Survivors were sold into slavery apart from those who managed to escape the island.

The Massacre at Chios - by Eugène Delacroix

The destruction of Chios outraged European nations who pressured the Sultan so much that he allowed survivors to return to their homes unharmed. However, the damage was done and burned into Greek and western consciousness. Life on the island would never be the same, the crops never as prosperous as they had been. Cold years and earthquakes finished what the Sultan’s forces had begun. On November 11, 1912 however, it was liberated and became part of the Greek state. Once more tragedy would strike the Hellenes of the eastern Aegean when in 1922 the Greek inhabitants of Ionia were either slaughtered or expelled, pushed into the sea, some escaping to Chios. This last memory remains, and burns. Within the mountain top monastery of Nea Moni, there stands a large wooden cabinet inside the chapel that is full of the skulls of Greeks slaughtered by Turkish forces. It serves as a dark reminder of past wrongs, a cabinet of worry and sadness, of anger.

What does one do with such history? What can one think today? I thought about this in 1998 when I stood before those empty-socketed skulls (perhaps some were my ancestors?), about what they had gone through, the horrors they had seen. This is the old world and things are not easily forgotten. I began to see the source of all the anger and hatred between Greece and Turkey, to understand the prejudices of the older generation. How can you forget the massacres, the burnings, the rapes? In truth, you can’t, even at three or more generations removed, it is there, it flows in your veins. If history teaches us anything it is that things can happen again and again when people in the moment forget or disregard the past. The key is not to ignore it but rather acknowledge, understand…and move on. No matter how difficult it is to lay pain and anger aside it is essential to do so. One cannot carry the burdens and prejudices of those that have gone before for it only leads to further atrocity.

Perhaps that is why so many Europeans quit the world they had once loved in favour of America, a land that promised something new, a new beginning? Perhaps they needed to leave, to get far away from the memories in order to try and forget. And now, later generations are returning to the old world, to learn what happened, as I am doing now.

When the Germans arrived on the island during World War II, the Chiotes, like many of their Hellenic brothers and sisters elsewhere, resisted in any way they could. The island was occupied by both Germans and Italians. Some people say that the Italian occupiers were more violent toward the population than the Germans, but that could just have been due to a bad brigade or commander. The situation on Cephalonia, for instance, was quite the opposite. Whatever happened, it was during this period that many men of Chios, my Papou among them, joined the Greek Merchant Navy. Lagada gave many men into service and many, I’m sure, joined for their own personal reasons. If I have learned anything from the stories I have heard and been told, the histories I have read, it is that Greeks throughout history have been resilient in the face of hardship and can band together when it counts, from Thermopylae to WWII. Chios may have ceased to be a centre of trade but the people certainly have not given up.
1943 American poster in support of Greece

What must my Papou have been thinking leaving his pregnant wife in occupied Chios to go and serve in the Merchant Navy? I hope to find out more as my research progresses. Apart from doing his part in the war, he may have been scouting out new frontiers for the Haviaras family. I imagine him setting out from Lagada one day, walking down to the small harbour with my Yia Yia, casting a final glance back up the hill at the stone house they lived in. I can imagine the worry mixed with resolve on both their faces, perhaps the very first tremors of Parkinson’s that might have arrested my Yia Yia’s body, just then, as she held her swollen belly and watched my Papou set off sometime in 1939. Once he was out of sight, I can imagine Yia Yia, her kerchief tied about her head like Bouboulina herself, stern-faced, determined to hold back her tears until she was home again.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Chapter I - The Land of Homer

Our story really begins on island of Chios in the eastern Aegean Sea, the place where our family hails from. More accurately, the village of Lagada, a tiny fishing village a few kilometres north of Chios town, on the east coast of the island.

Map of Chios - Eastern Aegean
In 1998 I had the chance to return to the family island, the village. The historian in me had already set about researching the background of Chios, one of the largest islands in the Aegean with its mountainous landscapes, ornate villages and beautiful beaches. The island is perhaps most famous now for being the only place where masticha trees grow; the resin from these ancient squatters has been the island’s source of wealth for thousands of years and continues as such where other items like Chian wine, a luxury item of the ancient world, have faded into the realm of memory. Masticha has been used in everything from chewing gum, alcohol and medicines to glue, nail polish and instrument lacquer to name a few. There are several medieval masticha villages (including Pyrgi, Olympi, Mesta) which are well worth a visit if only to see the dizzying array of buildings covered top-to-bottom with black and white geometric patterns.

The island is also known as one of the possible birthplaces of the poet Homer, to whom the epic Iliad and Odyssey have been attributed for ages. Homer has generally been thought to have been born c. 850B.C., four hundred years before the historian Herodotos. For hundreds of years afterward, there was a guild of bards on Chios known as the Homeridae (the Sons of Homer) who specialized in Homeric recitation.

The first colonist of Chios is said to have been Oinopionas, a grandson of King Minos of Crete. Oinopionas was said to have brought the art of viticulture to the island thereby teaching the inhabitants to make the wine for which Chios would later be so renowned. Oinopionas had a daughter whose name was Chiona, whom the island was said to be named for.

Reproduction of Chios' ancient seal
During the classical period of antiquity, Chios was one of the original twelve members of the Ionian league, taking as its symbol the Sphinx for almost 900 years.  Amphorae bearing the Sphinx and grape seal have been found as far away as Gaul, Upper Egypt and Eastern Russia. Shipping and trade have always been part and parcel of Chios and its people, as it was and is for many islands. Though the island is vast and varied in its terrain, the sea is a part of everyone’s lives, everything. The sea has surrounded it, created it, destroyed parts and given birth to others. As with many island cultures, the sea has influenced music and poetry, trade and tragedy. It allowed people to settle on the island, to find refuge, but also to escape it, however reluctantly.

The small village of Lagada, where the Haviaras family comes from, produced mainly two things, fishermen and merchant marines. Though the name ‘Haviaras’ is derived from the word for caviar, my grandfather entered the merchant navy during World War II, the sea being the vehicle by which he would begin his own Odyssey to America.

I should not get ahead of myself however, for there is one thing that shaped the place where my grandparents came from perhaps more than the crystalline globules of the much sought-after masticha trees – WAR.


There were three gateways though which the members of our family funnelled into America: the Atlantic Ocean, Ellis Island and lastly, Rosedale Lunch, the diner begun by my grandfather sometime around 1949 at
11506 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Michigan.

Rosedale Lunch became a sort of vessel of Americanization for those first members of the family who came from Greece to America after the war. The diner was a doorway to all that the USA had to offer. People went in as travel-weary Greeks each carrying their own worries and sad experiences, armed with resilience and the hope of something better. After a metamorphosis that involved trials of dish washing, peeling potatoes, making soups and flipping burgers, they came out as Americans, they came out as artists, military men, engineers and accountants, dreamers and even crooks.

As a child much later on, I remember crossing the border from Windsor, Ontario to Detroit every Saturday or Sunday to visit the two short, elderly people that I called Yia Yia and Papou (Grandmother and Grandfather), my father’s parents. I could not really speak with them because of the language barrier (they had never attained their comfort level with the English language) but I remember feeling their sense of pride in their grandsons, my younger brother and I, a warm affection.

My grandparents’ sharp, humorous and quick mimetic attempts at communication always got the message to us. If words failed, waiving arms, shoulder shrugs and an extensive repertoire of sighs, whistles and other sounds would get their meaning across. Usually the meaning revolved around food. Even though, by the time I was born, the diner had closed, they still served up the works. Some of my fondest memories are of cornucopic Saturdays and Sundays, running about with my brother and cousins getting into mischief and refuelling at the table of plenty that was my grandparents’ kitchen table. Mountains of stuffed vine leaves, creamy pastichio, steaming lemon rice soup, platters of cumin meat balls and all manner of honeyed sweets brought all of us to a tingling euphoria. It was all made fresh, all with an extra measure of love because we were family. If you loved someone and wanted to make them feel good, you fed them. In a way, Rosedale Lunch went on living after the lights on Woodward Avenue dimmed. Indeed the very pots and pans from that family diner are still being used by myself and others.

But why write a blog about this? Good question. As I get older, I find myself wondering more and more about these two loving people, whom I did not know very well but to whom I am eternally grateful for the risks they took to come to America, the happy memories and their kindness. Where did they come from? And how?

Polykarpos and Ploumi Haviaras - Detroit 1967
There are many questions to be answered. Admittedly, I do not have all the answers, lost as they are to time and the elements of humanness. This blog is not only an ongoing exercise in research and genealogy, it is also a record, a tribute to people whom I did not know very well but who, I know with absolute certainty, loved and trusted their family very much.

I will share with you, dear readers, anything useful that may aid your own research along the way. Your comments are welcome as well as any helpful tips you may have for me. Though this is the story of one branch of our particular family, it is also a story that likely rings true for many families who came to America from far abroad in the hope of creating something better for themselves, a future for their children.

I hope you enjoy…