The title of this project, I Used To Be Greek, is a light-hearted jab at ethnic identity — specifically the identity embroidered by my immigrant grandparents. All four grandparents quietly slipped into a generic Greek-American immigrant identity for the sake of easing the assimilation ordeal, distancing themselves from their true eastern, Muslim homeland in Asia Minor, present day Turkey.
The purpose of this project is to investigate family origins of my ancestors. Following the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), they were permanently expelled from their homeland as of October 29, 1923 when the Treaty of Lausanne established the new nation of Turkey. The terms of this Treaty involved the mutual expulsion on the basis of religious identity of almost all Greek Orthodox Christians from Turkey and the removal of all Greek Muslims from Greece. With the founding of modern Turkey, one and half million Anatolian Greeks were given two weeks to leave what had been their homeland for millennia. Documentation of our family through the generations vanished in the rushed finality of this expulsion.
Traversing an obscured family history demands some bravery. Do we really want to disturb cherished family lore and dig up traumatic memories? Why do some, like my brother and I defer to our curiosity, grasping for tangible evidence — hoping for greater clarity about the content of our familial heritage?
The acclaimed Greek author, Nikos Kazantzakis, described life as an abyss between womb and tomb, a vast blank that demands of each human soul, great courage and bravery to traverse.
A few days after reading Kazantzakis’ words about life and death, I was helping retrieve 100 plastic pots from around 100 fledgling longleaf pines on our Florida forestland. The gray morning drizzled cold rain as I hoisted on my snake chaps to protect me in case of rattler bites. As we approached the area where the little trees grew amongst wild grasses, my husband, a native of the Florida environment, launched into the herbaceous puzzle. Stiff with fear I followed under the dismal sky slowly, eyeing each inch of ground, stepping only when I saw nothing moving. Then, I thought of Kazantzakis’ words — what was I afraid of — death? the other side of the abyss? My job now was to be brave as I walked into the diversity of plant life.
Thank you Nikos Kazantzakis — this formula for living is a good one. Bravery is useful — in the dark forest, where I am thinking of snakebites and in this research into our family’s veiled past. Although our particular family comes with this particular past, we are like so many American families past and present, whose existence depends on brave immigrants remaking themselves in America, burying their traumas in tangled narratives of survival and success.
We hope that our family’s search will engage other descendants of the Greek Asia-Minor diaspora in sharing their family’s recollections. Please help build an archive of Asia Minor Greek diaspora stories that will promote greater understanding of this essential part of the Greek-American experience.