“Για 40 μερες βλεπαμε μονο τον ουρανο και τα αστρα”
“In 1947, Greece was in the middle of a Civil War. Soldiers had come to my village Gomati, in Halkidiki, and told us we all had to leave. As our region is mountainous, the resistance fighters had plenty of hiding spots to set up camp and it was not safe for us to stay. All the men and women went into hiding to avoid being taken. My father and brother went to Mount Athos, along with so many other men. My older sister was sent to Thessaloniki, and my mum went to a neighbouring village so she could be close to me and my younger siblings.
I was sent to a house in Ierisso, a 2 hour walk from Gomati. I was 10 years old and had my 4-year-old sister and 8-month-old baby brother in my care for the next 3 years. During this time, I did not see my family or friends, I only saw my mum, who came to visit us whenever she could, mainly on weekends.
Although I was a child myself I did not feel frightened. It was a big responsibility looking after a toddler and a baby. I was like a mother to them for those 3 years and my baby brother called me ‘mama’. It was a dangerous time, I remember whenever we needed to go to the toilet outside, we would crawl on our hands and knees watching bullets speed through the air in front of us. Resistance fighters would often knock on the door looking for food, and asking for information about the soldiers. I would tell them I did not know anything, and had nothing to give.
Despite living through World War II and the Civil War in the same decade, we were happy kids and life in the village was simple, but there was often not enough food, and no jobs. Looking back on that time now, it amazes me that we were so calm and content. We had tremendous inner strength in the face of adversity.
I came to Australia in 1959 for work, and to marry George Zacharakis, who had migrated in 1955. His brother had approached me in the village and had arranged the ‘proxy.’ I knew who George was, having noticed him at the local panigiri (festival) years earlier, but he had only seen a photo of me. After we became engaged, he wrapped up some beautiful pieces of jewellery in a big winter coat he realised he’d never need in the Australian climate, and sent them to me in the village. I recently asked him what made him buy the jewellery and he said he had been dazzled by the way the gemstones sparkled in the shop window. In 2014, 55 years after George had sent the jewellery to me by ship, my oldest granddaughter asked to wear the light blue necklace and earrings as her ‘something blue’ for her wedding day.
I had no idea the trip to Australia would take 40 days. For that time all we could see were the stars and the sky. I travelled on the ‘Toscana’, which was an Italian ship. I didn’t know anyone but we were all in the same boat – literally and figuratively speaking. We stayed in our rooms the whole time, and ate mainly jams and breads as we had heard rumours the meat was horse meat and the chicken was seagull.
I’ll never forget seeing Sydney for the first time. We docked at night and I saw a big city in front of me, all its lights glowing spectacularly. It was such a beautiful sight, and one that is forever imprinted in my memory. George was expecting me the next day, so some people from the ship kindly gave me a lift to my new home. Needless to say, George was shocked to see me arrive at his doorstep just as he was about to sit and eat dinner.
We lived in Redfern, along with so many other Greeks. Wherever you went, you could knock on the door and ask “any job?” and you would get one. It was definitely the lucky country. There were churches we could go to, there were other Greeks we could talk to, there were lots of shops and we all had jobs.
On Sundays we’d all get together and go to Kurnell for a barbeque, or visit each other’s houses, or go to ‘ χορους’ on a Saturday night. We all looked after each other and supported each other, because we were all we had. I remember a song we used to sing, about our weekly routine – ‘Το Σαββατο το γλενταμε, την Κυριακη visitor παμε. Ξημερωνει και η Δευτερα, γεια σου bossi καλημερα.’ We worked hard, but knew how to enjoy ourselves. My only real issue was the language barrier, it was a struggle not speaking English, but people were nice to me and helped me get by.
I missed my parents and siblings very much. A couple of years after I arrived, we arranged for my brother, sister and brother-in-law to come and live with us and helped them find jobs. Most of the Greeks brought relatives to Australia in the 1960s because there was so much opportunity. Australia needed workers, as every neighbourhood had factories. After a few years, my sister ended up going back to Greece with her husband and daughters, but my brother and brother-in-law stayed.
We were only ever meant to come to Australia for 3 years to work, save money, and then return. Our parents would write to us asking us to go back to Greece. In 1972, George and I, along with our 2 children decided to try and set up a life for ourselves in Greece and settled in Thessaloniki. We lasted 4 months, before moving back to Australia. There were still no jobs, we couldn’t find a way to make ends meet, so in actual fact, we migrated to Australia twice.
All the ‘New Australians’ worked very hard. We would always ask “any overtime?” and were involved in so many significant jobs, for example George was part of the excavation team working on the Opera House and also Channel 10 television station. I worked at lots of different places, including making mattresses, clothes alterations, and even the Darrell Lea chocolate factory. My kids loved me working there because the boss would give all the workers a free box of chocolate to take home every Friday afternoon.
I have 4 grandchildren and a great granddaughter and they all speak Greek. It was very important to me for them to know about their heritage, to speak the language, to go to Greek school and Sunday School, to understand their background and culture. When they were growing up, I would regale them with tales of my childhood in Greece. Instead of bedtime stories they would always ask for my stories, especially the funny ones like when I ended up throwing most of the makaronia (pasta) I had cooked for my family on the brick wall to see if it would stick (meaning it was ready), and they’d fall asleep laughing and smiling. Although I speak to them in Greek, I do like to sometimes practise my English with them, like saying “I love you.” They like to tease me about being able to read the subtitles when watching SBS, or trying to read the English newspapers. They always ask me how is it possible that after only going to school for 3 years as a child, and having no English lessons in Australia, I am able to read English. I tell them I have no idea, over the years, I just learnt!
When talking about ‘πατριδα’ (homeland), I say that Greece was my first πατριδα, and Australia is my πατριδα now. Whatever I didn’t have in Greece, Australia gave me. Whatever I had to go without in Greece, I found in Australia.”
Pagona Zacharakis, Sydney, Australia