It is hard not to be Hellenic and proud, especially after the bicentennial anniversary of Greek Independence. With a rich history spanning over antiquity to Byzantium to the present and two hundred years of independence, there is much to dote upon. There are many greats, people and events alike, that come from Greek and Hellenic heritage. However, it is not always “the greats” or founders of democracy on which we establish our pride. Often we Hellenes are able to look back to our ancestors and feel the same immense pride we have for our civilization.
Chryssanthy Anadolis, my great-grandmother, was fifteen years old when her quaint life in a Thrakian village came to an abrupt end. In 1915, the Anatolian and Pontian Greeks along with a myriad of other ethnic and religious minorities were violently expelled from Asia Minor. Within a timeframe shorter than a year, she experienced the unimaginable. The majority of the men and boys in her family were conscripted to the Ottoman Army. The men and boys that were not conscripted were sent on death marches towards Ankara to work on dubious labor projects. The women and girls in the family had to seek asylum in Greece, but many did not leave fast enough and were murdered. Family documents, keepsakes, and heirlooms were purged because non-Turkish identity was deemed cancerous to the emerging Republic. Entire Anadolis family lines that could have existed today were erased from existence.
At fifteen, Chryssanthy had guardianship over her younger sisters, Anna and Helen, and was responsible for making sure they made it alive out of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Her mother, knowing that she would likely never see her daughters again, managed to get them to cross the border into Greece. Her brother Veniamin escaped his inscription to the Ottoman Army and successfully found asylum in “I Protévousa ton Prosfýgon”, Thessaloniki.
After reuniting, they decided it was best to immigrate to the United States due to the poor quality of life the refugees from Asia Minor and Thrace faced. Greece was not equipped to deal with a wave of refugees this large, and so informal settlements were developed to mitigate the crisis. Veniamin was able to immigrate through Ellis Island, where he became Benjamin, and settled in New York. However, Chryssanthy at the age of sixteen had to seek passage through Canada to get to the United States. Due to the immigration laws at the time, Chryssanthy and Benjamin understood that they would not all be able to enter the United States at the same time. Therefore, he acted as a sponsor to get them into New York through Canada.
Chryssanthy’s story is unique, but not the only one of this kind. Within a span of eight years, between 250 000 and 750 000 Anatolian, Pontian, and Cappadocian Greeks were massacred. In total over three million Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Arameans and Maronites were killed in the campaign waged by the Ottoman Empire to ethnically cleanse its indigenous Christian populations. The atrocities ended only when a population exchange was requested by Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos in 1922. The Population Exchange of 1923 only added to the damage caused by the massacres, as it led to over one million Anatolian, Pontian, and Cappadocian Greeks leaving their ancestral lands and fleeing to Greece. Those that survived the destruction of their ancestral villages were forced to go to a “homeland” they never knew. The Anatolian Greeks were robbed of a life that could have been.
President Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2021 provides our communities with hope. The President, in an unprecedented move, powerfully overrode the gag rule the Turkish government has over its international partners. For over a century, the land the survivors and victims of the genocide fled to did not recognize what had caused them to leave their homeland. On Saturday April 24, 2021 Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac, Aramean and Maronite Americans were able to breathe a sigh of relief as our justice was finally served. The Greek communities affected by ethnic cleansing and the Population Exchange can only hope to have a similar recognition on May 19, Pontian Genocide Rembrance Day. Our ancestors were neither antagonists nor colonizers, they were victims of a crime against humanity.
Although I am proud of the culture my family comes from, I am more grateful for the people that they were. I have immense pride in their resilience and their decision to carry on their culture in a new world. Their success in continuing to practice their culture and religion in three separate countries is a testament to the strength of the diverse Hellenic identity. Though they may not have been philosophers, “the greats”, or protagonists of myths and legends, they are what I consider to be some of the most impressive Hellenes I know.
Sofia Bazdekis is a recent graduate of the School of International Service at the American University, and is currently working as a Government Affairs Intern at In Defense of Christians.
Twitter Handle: @sbazdekis