A Greek-American Woman’s Resistance to the Nazis and the Greek Junta
by Athena Mihos Psyhogios Henderson with James C. Henderson
(A memoir serialize in chapters)
My father was the first of his family to leave Greece for America. He was just seventeen when he sailed to New York City in 1909. He landed at Ellis Island and found a job on the railroad as a water boy. It was the only job he could get without speaking English. My father was out-going and was well liked. Those he worked with Anglicized his name, Basilios, to Bill. He kept the nickname and changed his last name to Johnson in an attempt to avoid discrimination. Greeks were looked down on at the time. They were considered by many as a threat to take away a job from a native-born American. Greeks were among the later ethnic groups to immigrate to the United States and were low on the immigrant totem pole. Often called “dirty Greeks” they were considered to be non-white. The Ku Klux Klan made them a target, and my father told me that Greeks were told to use toilets for the “colored.” It was not until the Italians invaded Greece at the beginning of the Second World War and the Greeks drove them out into Albania and on the way to Rome that Greeks were treated with respect in the United States.
My father’s job on the railroad took him west, all the way to Oregon. One day, his supervisor asked him how he liked his job as a water boy. He’d learned some English by this time and he said, “I hate it. I’d rather be foreman.” My father was smart and educated for a young man from a village. He had finished sholarhio, the Greek equivalent of today’s college in the United States. A man had to be nineteen to be a foreman, but his supervisor lied about his age for him. Two days later my father was a foreman, supervising men from many different countries and of many different languages.
In 1921, with a few dollars in his pocket, he decided it was time, at the age of twenty-eight, to sail back to Greece and take a wife. He was at a stage in his life when he wanted someone to share it with.
My father was tall with a fair complexion and hazel eyes and dark hair, and because he also came from America, women wanted him. His mother, Athena, told him he could consider all women, but she wanted him to pay special attention to a young woman named Sotiria. Her father was the mayor of the area around the village of Patidania, north of the Gulf of Corinth in Roumeli, near my father’s village of Efpalio. Marriages were arranged in those years: families thought they knew best which young man and woman would make a good match, which ones would could get along in life as partners and solve the problems that marriage brings. Love was not seen as the most reliable indicator of success in a marital partnership. Still, even if the young couple were not in love when they married, they fell in love over time. This was the case with my parents. They fell in love quite quickly.
When my mother first saw my father, he was riding a horse, and she thought him handsome right off. She’d also heard he was an American who had brought with him eight silk shirts.
My father and mother were married for only six months when he fled Greece on a forged passport under the name of Christos Tasopoulos to escape compulsory service in the Greek army. He did not want to fight in the Greek government’s war to take Constantinople, the ancient capital of Byzantium renamed Istanbul, and parts of Anatolia, or Asia Minor, from Turkey and reincorporate them back into Greece, in what was called the Megali Idea, the Grand Idea.
The Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire, which began in 1821 and ended in 1829, was considered only a partial success by some Greeks because the territory inhabited by ethnic Greeks around the Aegean Sea in Asia Minor had not also been liberated from the Turks. Only the southern half of Greece gained independence in 1830. The Megali Idea was to enfold this territory into a Megali Ellas, a Grand or Great Greece. In short, it was a dream to reunite all the original lands of ancient Eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium into a Greek state. Greece was expanded in the years following Greek independence with the annexation of the Aegean islands, including Cyprus and Crete, along with the northern territories of Thessaly, Macedonia, Thrace. What was left unaccomplished in 1919 was to reclaim Anatolia, make it Greece, and replace Athens with Constantinople as the capital.
During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire had fought on the side of the German Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1919, having lost the war, it was depleted politically, economically, and militarily. The Greek government of Eleftherios Venizelos sought to take advantage of this moment of weakness to liberate Anatolia.
A Greek military campaign was launched into Turkey in 1919. At first it was a success, but by 1922 it had turned into a fiasco. Turkish troops drove the Greek army into the Aegean Sea at the city of Smyrna in Anatolia. A fire swept through the city and up to 150,000 Greek civilians died in an inferno that burned for days and in the revenge killings carried out by the Turkish army that followed. The Greek invasion of Turkey was national adventurism that tragically ended in the loss of Greek Anatolia to Greece for perhaps forever and caused the genocide of the Greeks living there that it sought to “save” from Turkish rule.
It wasn’t until 1928 that my father could return to Greece, this time to take my mother and his son, Christos, then seven years old and whom he had not yet seen, back to America with him. My grandmother Athena, however, was afraid that if my parents took Christos with them my father would never return to Greece, so she insisted they leave the boy with her. Athena was blonde and blue-eyed, with high cheekbones, a sharp nose, and a singularly intense presence. She usually got what she wanted. When she was a young woman, her parents, through a matchmaker, arranged her engagement to a man whom she didn’t love. She refused the marriage because she loved another, so she fixed it that her love put a ladder up to her bedroom window and steal her away. For eight days, Athena and her lover lived in a cave. When they returned to the village, social convention called for them to marry. The man became by grandfather, Christos Mihos. My father was proud of his parents because in their day what they did was unheard of. He told the story to whoever would listen and laughed.
My parents reluctantly agreed with Athena’s insistence and left Christos with her, but when their ship, the SS Saturnia, reached Italy, my mother collapsed in tears realizing she’d made a mistake and wanted to turn back and get Christos.
I was born in Detroit, Michigan on January 30, 1929. My mother told me I was conceived on the ship from Greece. That’s romantic but not true. The math doesn’t add up. Seventeen months later, my brother, Yiannis, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts.
During these months that turned into years, my mother missed my older brother terribly. She talked about him so much and told stories about him so often, her “Christakis” as she referred to him, that my first spoken word was “taki.”
Shortly after I was born, the Great Depression hit. Times were hard, but a child doesn’t always realize this. I was my father’s China doll—he would do anything for me. A buggy for my doll was what I wanted more than anything else for Christmas. My father scrimped and saved until he had enough money to buy the buggy, but then a man came to him saying he could not feed his family and my father gave him the money. My father never forgave himself for that; although, he did the right thing. It was about this time that my father realized life would be better for us back in Greece. We had family there, the house in Efpalio, our vegetable garden and our fruit trees. He would stay behind in America and send what cash he could. My mother, brother Yiannis and I sailed for Greece when I was three. By 1940 my father was ready to join us in Greece, but before he could the Second World War erupted and the Nazis occupied Greece.