At some stage in our lives, we have all sat in front of our parents, or grandparents, transfixed by the bittersweet tales of their lives in the village, their journeys to Australia, and their new lives as ‘new Greek Australians.’
Some of us stay connected to these stories and their origins. Some of us may tire of hearing about them time and again and roll our eyes with a knowing nod “yes, you came to this land with nothing. Yes you worked hard to be able to give us everything.” We take it for granted that these stories are volunteered. It is sometimes too late when we realise just how important it is to know the history and cherish the memories. There is no denying we owe it to our parents and ourselves to keep these memories alive.
I often wonder if the extent of nostalgia surrounding these ‘New Australians’ can ever be replicated. Leaving tiny villages to make a solo 40 day voyage to the great unknown, not knowing what their new life would be like, nor if they would ever return. Not knowing the language amd sometimes not knowing how to read and write. Working tirelessly in laborious jobs, and creating families with spouses they did not know before their wedding day. I have always been fascinated by this generation of migrants, inspired by their bravery, humbled by their sacrifice, proud of their achievements, influenced by their work ethic.
When I stumbled across the ‘Early Greek Australians’ Facebook page, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I surmised it might be a hive of people searching for names and sharing anecdotes. I was overwhelmed by what I uncovered. The page, which has over 10,000 members, is a treasure trove of black and white photos, similar to the ones that were a fixture in our parent’s/grandparent’s houses, staring back at us, people who’s stances are stoic, with eyes that convey stories of simpler times, of innocence, of the meaning of family, and often of hardship.
Before I knew it, three hours had passed. I devoured each story like an eager historian. I was amazed at how detailed the stories were, members going to great lengths to do their relative’s plight justice by including as much information as possible. In some cases, all that could be shared was a photograph, with questions to the group if they could shed any light on the people or places. They included scanned passenger lists, men working the fields, weddings, christenings, treasured family photos taken in the village.
The cases where members have been able to solve unanswered questions have been fascinating, such as providing the names of long lost co-workers at various factories, reuniting people who travelled on the same ship, filling in the blanks about factory locations, song titles, voyages on different ship liners, and how these migrants adapted to their new life.
You would be hard-pressed to find a group of people so helpful, warm and supportive. Expressing gratitude for stories shared, searching for old photos for the benefit of other members wanting to see their loved ones, united in their myriad sentiments ranging from excitement, nostalgia, καημο. Finding comfort in the experiences of others, which are either similar or exact to their own.
I noticed the founder of the page, Vicky Varitelli Danas, was prominent in the comment threads and wanted to find out more about why she created the page and her thoughts about how it has evolved.
“Black and white photographs prompted me to create the Early Greek Australians Facebook page,” she tells me. “Photographs that contain individual lifetime events that may only last for a moment but the memories go on forever. It is history unfolding before us, a history slowly fading and forgotten if not documented, so this is my small contribution to reveal our parents’ struggles for a better life for them and their children. My cornerstone to all the past and future generations.”
“I was hoping to get answers to my queries from the faces that stared back at me from old photographs, what seemed the impossible at the time, but along the way I found many members shared the same desire either to inform or learn about our parents’ struggles in this far away land and so the revelations poured into our group and along the way we have discovered a time unknown to many of us until now.”
Danas herself was one of the many that made the voyage to Australia. Born in Lesvos to parents from Polihnitos and Agiasos, in 1960 at the age of 6 months she arrived in Sydney with her mother who was only 17 years old at the time. Her father had already settled in Sydney and had saved enough money to bring them over by plane.
“Since I had no recollection of my life before arriving in Australia, growing up in the suburb of Redfern, Sydney and amongst so many Greeks was the norm for me,” says Varitellis. “I attended Greek school and Sunday school and spent my afternoons playing and running in the streets and back lanes. There were difficult times, especially at school, as we were abused and called names but nonetheless it made me strong and resilient and very proud of my Greek Heritage.”
I ask Danas for her opinion on why there is so much nostalgia. “How many of us have sat and listened to our parents and grandparents’ life journeys of a time unknown to us of a time long before us?” she asks. “I believe it comes with age or it becomes more of a longing for a home that no longer exists. A home of cherished images, significant people that have shaped our lives, places and events that have moulded us into the people we are today. Through these memories we are able to preserve the history of our past and bring it up to the present by relaying those moments for the generations to come like a fabric that holds the threads of life together.”
Today, Danas’ permanent residence is Pikermi, Athens, and she also spends time during the year on the islands of Samos and Lesvos with her family. Like so many, Vicky’s parents decided to take the family to Greece in 1976 to see their homeland. “That is when my new life started,” says Danas. “I met my husband, had 3 boys and today have 2 adorable grandchildren. I never forgot Australia, nor my 2 sisters and my mother as I frequently travel for visits but today Ellada is the only place I want to be.”