By Catherine Tsounis
2015 Syrian refugees are flooding Greece and Europe. Why aren’t there any Middle Eastern Christians? They were eliminated recently by ISIS, the Armenian genocide in 1915, first expulsion of Asia Minor Greeks in 1914 and the final Asia Minor Catastrophe 1922. The role of the Western Powers is explained in detail by Christos Papoutsis landmark book, “Ships of Mercy” that changed history. 1922 Mytilene (Lesvos) was attempting to save an enormous refugee wave from Aivali and Asia Minor coast. A statue to the Micrasiatic Mother surrounded by her three children stands in the harbor.
The refugees of a hundred years ago were Ionian Greeks, who spoke Greek and were Greek Orthodox. The Northeast Aegean islands are in the midst of a catastrophic refugee crisis that will change the face of Europe. The Republican Presidential Campaign Debate on Wednesday night echoed the idea that we should not have caused the breakdown of established governments that is destroying civilians.
Aphrodite Xidas, a retired paralegal compiled a unique book on her parents from Asia Minor. She shared her scholarship with us at Physical Therapist Kosta Koutsoubis office in Flushing New York. “No one ever expressed interest in my book before,” said Aphrodite. Her book has passports, naturalization documents, visa, photos and original legal documents of the era. This will valuable to present historians.
“My father George Varsam (Valsamides) was born in a village outside of Prousa (Bursa) called Kouvouklion in 1901,” she said. “In 1922-3, there was an exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece. Many settled around Serres. My father never did not go to Greece, but came to the U.S. from France in 1920.”
In George Varsam’s own words, written by Aphrodite and her sister Sophia Rallis, he says he came “from the family Barsamoglou. In Greece it is Balsamidou…my parents were Hatzi Anastasi and Hatzi Sophia. We were 6 children 4 boys and 2 girls: George, Nicholas, Anastasis, Garofalia, Theodore and Malamo who was lost during the catastrophe in Asia Minor in 1922…I came to America in 1921 and got my citizenship papers in 1926. The judge was an American who spoke Greek very well. He said to me that I didn’t need the “oglou” part of my name and shortened it to Varsam. I got married in 1929 end of November. We lived in the Bronx. God gave us three children, Aphrodite, Fotos and Sofia…we bought a house in Astoria in 1945.”
Fotine S. Nicholas wrote an outstanding biography called “Land Where MY Fathers Died” that chronicles the fate of Kouvouklia, Prousa. “Kouvouklia was situated fifteen kilometers from Prousa (Boursa), the former capital of the Ottoman Empire, whose province has been considered one of the choicest areas of Asia Minor as far back as Byzantine times,” she said. She describes the 1922 slaughter, resettlement in Greece. She concluded, “Farewell traditions that are over a thousand years old.”
Aphrodite’s mother, Paraskevi Macrides and her sister Panagiota were the daughters of John and Fotica Macrides from Aristsou in Kolpo Nikomidias near Constantinople…the came to Ellis Island on July 14, 1920 aboard the ship Patris. A visa dated June 4, 1920 from the British High Commission from Constantinople, June 4, 1920, states” Paraskevi Macridis is a Greek Ottoman on route to the United States of America through the Allied Military Authorities and given a visa”. The naturalization papers states he was from the Republic of Turkey. Many of us cannot get dual Greek citizenship, because of such official documents.
They recreated life in their Greek village through , family ties, their church of St. Constantine in Brooklyn in the 1920’s and the Micrasiatic Association of America, Aphrodite’s 1929 photos of her parents, the Micrasiatic dance and Association officers are priceless. A letter about a raffle from the Federation of Micrasiatic and Thracian Societies of the United States and Canada, March 1, 1961, shows they had memberships in Chicago, according to Anthony J. Miller. It is now nearly one hundred years. Family documents such as Aphrodite Varsam Xidas are invaluable, showing a Greek society from Western Anatolia holding on to the culture in the United States.
“Humanity has no ethnic favorites or political affiliations,” Roger Jennings, grandson of Asa K. Jennings, who saved the Greeks of Smyrna and the hero of Christos Papoutsy’s book, said. Mr. Jennings explained in an email that “One of the best books written about Smyrna is by an Australian heart doctor Dr. Con Aroney. His family left in Sept. 1922. He tells the story of life before the tragedy and their escape. The book is not sold in the U.S., but Dr. Aroney says he hopes to have Amazon carry it. The book title is “Flames on the Water Tears in the Sea.”
“I don’t recall if I told you, but I traveled around Greece and Turkey interviewing people on camera about what they know about Smyrna,” Mr. Jennings explained. “All were totally ignorant, including a professor of history in Athens. I was shocked. The only person who knew the facts was Admiral “Dannys” Theofanides of the Greek Navy. He has since died. I spent a wonderful day with him. Even the people who run the 1922 Refugee Museum on Lesbos knew little. I had a wonderful visit with them. They were most gracious… are too generous.” He is publishing a book in the spring 2016 based on Mr. Asa Jennings official documents.
A poor Greece offered solace to destitute Greeks of Western Anatolia one hundred years ago. Today, The Greek government is attempting to save Syrians destroyed by their own country and the interference of the Major Powers in their countries. Greece is meeting this humanitarian crisis with compassion. On the 93rd Anniversary of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, we must remember the ancient Christian communities that were betrayed by their government, because of interference by the Allied Powers.