“My parents, and their parents before them, were Greek. They were ‘Greeks of the Diaspora’ for four generations. Before that, the maternal side of my family had its roots in ‘Constantinopoli’ (modern-day Istanbul). They were forced to watch the desecration of Aghia Sofia by the Ottoman Turks, to endure the renaming of their city, but they continued living there. It was their home. In their hearts, whatever the city was called, it was still Greek.”—Helen Noakes
by Helen Noakes
SAN FRANCISCO California—(Weekly Hubris)—12/1/2014—My parents, and their parents before them, were Greek. They were Greeks of the Diaspora for four generations. Before that, the maternal side of my family had its roots in Constantinopoli (modern-day Istanbul). They were forced to watch the desecration of Aghia Sofia by the Ottoman Turks, to endure the renaming of their city, but they continued living there. It was their home. In their hearts, whatever the city was called, it was still Greek. My paternal family, from Central Macedonia, was subject to Ottoman rule as well.
For quite some time, Greeks were forbidden to practice their Orthodox faith, to learn their language, but they found ways around these obstacles.
My paternal grandparents were long dead before I was born. My maternal grandparents seemed to consider it their mission to lavish sufficient attention on me to fill that gap. My grandfather, Achileas, spoke of the Aegean, his eyes sparkling with joyous memory and tears. He told me of dolphins on whose backs he rode to safety in turbulent, Meltemi-churned waters—a magical story which I wanted to hear over and over again, his version of a fairy tale meant to impress the enchantment of our fatherland on me at an early age.
He was a marvelous swimmer. His love of the sea killed him when, in his 80s, frail and with a heart condition, he dove into the waves one summer day. We were spending an afternoon at the seashore. I remember watching him stare at the water with such palpable yearning before he gave in to his longing and, with unexpected speed, dashed into the water and disappeared under its surface. His straw hat, which he forgot to remove, floated towards shore. My father dove in after him and carried my unconscious grandfather onto the beach. Two weeks later, Achileas died. I was four, and even though I was told that my Papou was in heaven, I was inconsolable.
“Where,” I demanded, “were the dolphins? Why didn’t they save him?”
My grandmother, Eleni, after whom I was named, distracted me with stories: Greek myths, Russian fairy tales, the history of my family. She read Greek and Russian, my grandmother, and taught me to speak those languages when I began to talk. She taught me a Greek children’s song, loosely translated:
My little moon so bright
Shine so I might walk
To go to school
To learn my lessons
Letters and learning
Those matters of God
Φεγγαράκι μου λαμπρό,
Φέγγε μου να περπατώ,
Να πηγαίνω στο σχολειό
Να μαθαίνω γράμματα,
Του Θεού τα πράματα.
I always wondered why the children were going to school at night. My grandmother never explained. Many years later, I found out about the Krifa Scholia, secret schools, set up by the Greek Orthodox Church, and operating under cover of darkness. At those schools, children were taught Greek and religion. The song finally made sense.
Some think these schools never existed. I was skeptical until, in 1981, I climbed a sheer cliff in Kithera to a cave that had been set up as a secret church. The guide who took me there said that there was once a narrow donkey path that led to the cave and that this was also a church where a Krifo Scholio operated.
On one wall of the cave, the faded remains of a painted iconostasis (a wall of icons separating the nave of an Orthodox church from the sanctuary) may be seen. Looking at this strangely beautiful place, realizing the efforts made to keep it secret, I decided that perhaps these schools actually did exist. My attempt to photograph the space was unsuccessful. The cave’s darkness made short work of my meager flashbulb’s powers, and further illuminating the already fragile paintings might have been destructive. So I relegated the images to memory: The Archangel Michael, solemn and stern, Archangel Gabriel, pensive and gentle, their robes half-eaten by moisture and age, still exert power and beauty.
My father would tell me of the Kleftes on his side of the family, one of whom was so crafty and lethal that the Turks dubbed him the son of the devil. The Kleftes were freedom fighters skilled in guerrilla warfare. Many died; this one didn’t. He joined Kolokotronis, witnessed the final victory over the Turks, and died a very old man. How much of the story is true and how much legend, I don’t know, but my father had photos of an austere looking man with a fierce mustache and an even fiercer gaze, standing proudly with pistols tucked into the belt of his vraka (baggy black breeches) and a musket at his side. “This,” my father would say, “is your Klefte uncle, Konstantinos. He was one of the amartoli (the immortals).”
Many on the maternal side of my family died in the 1920s Turkish massacre of Greeks and Armenian civilians.
In light of these stories, these deaths, I often wonder how our family managed to survive. I wonder, too, at their immense courage to go on, to continue living, to have children, faithfully keeping all religious and secular holidays, teaching children their native language and traditions.
With my grandmother, the telling of our family history seemed to be a mission. She told the stories beautifully, with pathos and reverence. At times, when she spoke of six of her brothers slaughtered by the Bolsheviks, her voice would quaver, her eyes fill with tears. But she would raise her chin and continue. “In their honor, we must go on, tell their stories, never forget,” she would say. “We owe them that much.”
So, my first tour of Greece in 1979, which began as an academic venture, soon turned into a life-altering odyssey. Now, 35 years later, I am finally reopening the journals I kept during that journey and have decided to write about the experience. I’m far from finished, but want to share a passage. This article serves as prologue. Tune in a month from now for a segment from The Art of Living Dangerously.