By Dr. Alexander Kitroeff
I am very honored to be speaking at this awards ceremony –addressing the students and their parents here is especially meaningful for me because I too experienced a commencement at the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies.
I began my teaching career here twenty-six years ago thanks to Harry Psomiades.
I know that all of you are dealing currently with the dreaded question: “Oh you are graduating! Congratulations – what’s next?”
Now some of you may be in the position to provide an answer, others can come up with an answer of sorts, and some of you will have to speak of promising prospects still under consideration.
Whatever your answer to the dreaded question, I am here to tell you its fine because there is no hurry.
There is time, plenty of time for you to embark on a career choice.
And you will soon find out that one’s professional career almost never proceeds along a straight line, indeed there will be many unexpected twists and turns and choices you will have to make.
Often enough, either option can lead to success, so embrace the variety of paths open to you – as Yogi Berra said, when you come to a fork in the road, take it.
Indeed, your learning will continue long after you leave Queens College.
Life is a constant process of learning – as the poet T.S. Eliot wrote:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
It is all about the journey, as Constantine Cavafy told us in one of the greatest poems written in the Greek languages.
Cavafy, a Greek who lived in Alexandria in Egypt used images derived from Classical history in this case Homer’s Odyssey to reflect on the modern world and its ironies.
These are just a few of the lines in his poem Ithaka.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
For the journey you are embarking upon, there is no better moral compass than the legacy of the founder of the Center, Harry Psomiades whom lost last August.
Just a few weeks ago, in Athens, Harry’s smiling face flashed across the screen in the Benaki Museum auditorium – he was appearing on camera in the premiere of a documentary on the Greco-Turkish Exchange of populations of 1923.
The exchange of populations, a strategy designed to ensure peace between two neighboring countries that had been at war, sent the Psomiades family away from their native Pontus region, in the Black Sea region of Turkey over to Greece as refugees.
They eventually made their way across the Atlantic to Massachusetts where Harry was born – he went on to Boston College and then to Columbia University where he received a PhD and later on became a Professor of Political Science, before across the East River to Queens College.
Harry Psomiades’ appearance in the documentary – which will be shown here in the United States later this year – encapsulated three of his qualities that should guide you graduates through your own journey:
A deep sense humanity
A strong attachment to identity
High standards of scholarship
Psomiades certainly had a strong Pontian-Greek identity. When I first visited him here at Queens College in the early 1980s, he showed me the offices that housed the Center for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies prior to their move to Jefferson Hall and he told me proudly that the local Pontian federation had built the wood paneling.
Here I was, visiting from Greece, it was one of my earliest visits to one of these American institutions of higher education that I had heard so much about when I was doing my studies in England, and this man was showing me woodwork done by Pontian Greeks.
In his appearance in the documentary he was speaking about a visit some years ago to his ancestral village in the Pontus where his family had lived including his grandfather who had met his death in the hands of Turkish nationalists.
Harry met some old men there, Turks, who he said jokingly looked a little bit like him. They could not figure out who exactly his father was because they remembered many Psomiades (actually Ekmektzoglou which was the original name in Turkish) with the same first name, so then Harry, assuming physical features might help jog their memory told them Ekmetzoglou Buyouk Burun – Ekmektzoglou with the big nose and this got an immediate response from the locals: Ahh, Ekmektzoglou Buyouk Burun they said and they all embraced him.
Now we are talking about a scholar who has studied the history of the Pontian Greeks in great detail and knew very well how much they suffered during the rise of nationalism in the region back in the early C20th.
And yet, he bore no grudge, carried no malice nor did he blame the entire Turkish people for what the nationalists had perpetrated generations ago and was embracing them and talking about the good times.
Harry Psomiades was not only able to combine his identity with a deep-rooted sense of humanity; he was also able to balance it with his scholarship. His work has focused on two areas which speak to his own background.
The first is Greek-Turkish relations in the twentieth century and especially the period of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century which spawned a series of events that brought the end of a three-thousand-long presence of Greeks in Anatolia, present-day Turkey, amid a great deal of destruction and human suffering.
His works include The Eastern Question: the last Phase a study in Greek-Turkish Diplomacy, Foreign Interference in Greece Politics: a historical perspective, both of which I have used in my classes with great success.
The other area is the history of the Greek-American community which I will refer to in a minute.
In dealing with Greco-Turkish relations at a time of extreme nationalist tensions, Harry Psomiades always managed to maintain a scholarly objectivity without avoiding issues such as ethnic cleansing.
He never brushed over those type of subjects, quite the opposite, but he never let them disrupt his sober academic analysis..
His prose never slips into sentimentalism, negative stereotyping or shrill nationalistic propaganda.
Even when he is talking about deportations and massacres, his voice is restrained, he lets the facts speak for themselves.
During the rise of Turkish nationalism, thousands of Greeks and Armenians were forcibly drafted into what were euphemistically known as labor battalions by the Ottoman authorities.
A lot could be said about them, and you can read Elias Venezis’ personal memoir “Number 31328” that conjures up the nightmarish experience. Psomiades does so briefly, economically, but no less succinctly: “The average life expectancy in the labor battalions [in 1923] was two months” he notes, citing a British diplomatic report.
This succinct sentence appears in his last book, that examines the contribution of the Norwegian humanist Fritjof Nansen, who, as the League of Nations’ first High Commissioner for Refugees and in collaboration with Eleftherios Venizelos contributed to saving thousands of Greek lives with the Greco-Turkish Exchange of Populations of 1923 and the first steps in the relief of the 1.5 million refugees.
In what is his final scholarly contribution, Harry Psomiades chose to highlight the plight of the Greek refugees and their sufferings by producing a documented, dispassionate study focused on the role of self-interested politics and extreme nationalism rather than an account suffused with lurid details and caricature images of a bloodthirsty “terrible Turk.”
I leave it up to you to reflect on how best the memory of all those victims can be preserved most effectively and be communicated to the widest possible audience.
Harry Psomiades’ legacy in terms of identity and scholarship extends far beyond his studies and consists as we all know for the reason we are all gathered here this evening: the creation of the Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at Queens College.
It was in 1974 when Psomiades took one of those unexpected decisions I told you you will be facing in the near future.
He surprised many of his colleagues by deciding to leave the comfortable security of Ivy League Columbia University and venture into a much less fashionable area of academe.
The reason for this was his commitment to scholarship and identity because Queens College offered a hospitable environment in which he could establish a Center that would promote the study of Byzantine and Modern Greek culture.
It was a bold and risky endeavor. At the time, the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, Archbishop Iakovos cautioned Psomiades about that move.
Iakovos was familiar with the character of the Greek American community, including its elite, its sense of status and prestige and was rightly concerned about whether Harry could rely on their support.
The truth is that all modern Greek programs in the United States have yet to see the support they deserved from the most privileged stratum of our community.
Historically some Greek Americans have felt more comfortable identifying with and promoting Ancient Greece and its Classical civilization because it is more prestigious and easier to celebrate than Modern Greece, even though that small country has achieved so much but has a complicated past and present.
Iakovos was right, as he usually was, but nonetheless Harry Psomiades was ultimately justified in his bold move.
Like a modern Odysseus managed to overcame huge obstacles and with the help of dedicated administrators such as his right hand-person Effie Lekas and a small group of supporters who believed in him, he arrived at his Ithaka:
He established a flourishing Center for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies which bears his imprimatur in several important ways –
His commitment to scholarship created an academic community which has trained and nurtured thousands of students and provides a home and a testing ground to many young faculty members.
It also led to Psomiades’ collaboration with Pella Publishing that led to the production a series of sixteen academic books and edited volumes that cover a range of Greek studies topics – there is no other modern Greek studies center in the US that has its own publication series, to which we should also add the Journal of Modern Hellenism Psomiades started in collaboration with Hellenic College in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Psomiades’ commitment to identity meant that the Center became a pioneer in developing and supporting the study of the Greek American experience. Psomiades also understood the historical context of the rise of ethnic studies in the United States and its debt to the civil rights movement of the African-American community. Promotion of ethnicity in his mind was a defense of discrimination of all kinds in this country. It is significant that in his office he had a picture of Archbishop Iakovos marching next to the reverend Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama.
Finally, another unique aspect of the Center was and still is its commitment not only to the academic aspects of studying the Greek American community but also helping young Greek Americans especially those less privileged to have access to higher education.
There were many ways Psomiades worked hard to provide all manner of support to the center’s students that were in need. One of the smaller ways he did so was to provide lunch for the students who happened to be in the Center at the lunch hour. It was done discreetly, as for example by telling everyone that the local pizza shop had a minimum delivery of a couple of large pies.
This wonderful combination of humanity, identity and scholarship along with the Center for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies is the legacy Harry Psomiades has left us with.
Keep that in mind as you embark on your own journey of creativity and discovery. You will, at some point in the future, arrive at your Ithakas.
If by that time you have managed to preserve and hopefully promote that legacy in your own worlds, then the arrival at your destination a moment of clarity that the journey has been worthwhile and a place to reflect on the wisdom you have gained.
As Cavafy writes at the conclusion of his poem,
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
*** The First Harry S. Psomiades memorial lecture, at the graduation of class 20112, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Center at Queens College, May 24 2012.