THE PONTIC GREEK FAMILY HISTORY OF SAM TOPALIDIS*
By Sam Topalidis (2013)
My family's Pontic Greek history documents oral history passed down to me primarily from my mother Kiriaki (Papazoglou) Topalidis and details from documents like death certificates. It also contains some historical information in the Notes section to place my family's history in historical context.
My father, Georgos Topalidis, was born in 1918 in the Black Sea town of Platana in what the Greeks call the Pontos, the northeast portion of Turkey adjacent the Black Sea. Platana renamed Akçaabat (pronounced Akchaabat) by the Turks is 14 km west of Trabzon (see Figure 1 and note 1).
Dad's parents, Elias and Irene Topalidis came from Platana. The surname Topalidis was apparently more common in Platana than other areas of the Pontos. For a living, Elias made quilts but he was also a farm labourer. Dad's mother, Irene Payalidou (born 1887), was Elias's second wife. Dad had an older half-brother Anastasios (born 1907), an older half-sister, an older sister Sophia, and two older brothers Lefteri and Sotiri.
Figure 1. Black Sea (King 1996, p. xvii.)
Irene's father, Polihronis Payalidis and her mother (name unknown), both died while Irene was still young (Figure 2).
Dad's family left Platana in February 1918 with the evacuating Russian army during World War I. They were transported 430 km north-west to Novorossiysk in southern Russia on the Black Sea (Figure 1). Tragically, dad's father Elias, his brothers, Lefteri and Sotiri and his sister Sophia all died of typhus there in early 1920, ages unknown. Dad named his three sons, Elias, Lefteri and Sotiri.
Before the Bolsheviks captured Novorossiysk in March 1920, dad's surviving family left the town and settled on a tobacco farm in the village of Portch (330 km to the southeast), near the Black Sea town of Sohoumi in Abkhazia in the Caucasus (note 2). No wonder dad took up smoking at a young age! Portch, which had a Greek Orthodox church, was near the village of dad's mother's sister.
Life for my father's family was tough as they were poor. Dad completed high school and became a school teacher in the village of Yiashtoha, 30 minutes away by foot from Portch. Yiashtoha was the village of his future wife, Kiriaki.
Dad lived in Russia/Caucasus for 21 years. With the purges under Stalin and the fear of death, dad's mother, dad, his half-brother and half-sister left for Greece (note 3). They arrived in Piraeus, Greece in August 1939 where they were directed to settle in Larisa in Thessaly.
Dad's family arrived in Larisa within a week of mum's family's arrival there. My parents married 12 months later. Dad operated a shoemaker shop and in his spare time he played the kemenche (Pontic lyra) at social functions. Amazingly, dad first met his aunt Elengo Topalidou and her three children in Larisa. It appears his aunt had also left the Sohoumi region in 1939. Although Elengo and dad's uncle (name unknown and who had died before 1937) had lived near dad's village of Portch, dad was not aware of their existence.
In April 1941, during the German invasion of Greece in World War II Larisa was bombed. Many of the inhabitants, including my parents, walked out of the town. My parents and my mother's family moved to nearby Kooloori where they lived for nearly a year before returning to Larisa (note 4). (More details following.) Irene died of a stroke in 1964 in Larisa aged 77 years.
My mother, Kiriaki Papazoglou was born in 1922 in the village of Yiashtoha, 3 km north of the Black Sea town of Sohoumi in Abkhazia in the Caucasus (Figure 1). Mum had three older brothers, Kostas, Nikos and Lefteri all born in the village of Zilmera near Trabzon in the Pontos and two younger brothers, Mitsos and Panayiotis born in Yiashtoha.
Mum's father, Yanis Papazoglou, was born in 1881 in the village of Zilmera (Plate 1 and note 5) in the hills less than 10 km south southwest of Trabzon in Turkey. Both Greek and Turkish families lived in Zilmera. Mum's mother, Anastasia Papadopoulou, was born in 1882 in the village of Tzoul (note 6), 8 km south of Trabzon. They both died in Larisa, Greece; Yanis in 1942, during the German occupation and Anastasia in 1967.
Mum's father's parents were Athena and Konstantinos Papazoglou (Figure 2). Konstantinos, was probably also born in the village of Zilmera. Athena was born in either Zilmera or nearby. They were both born before 1864 and they had both died between 1909 and 1918.
Mum's mother's parents were Rothopy and Konstantinos Papadopoulos (Figure 2). They lived in the village of Tzoul near Zilmera. Both Rothopy and Konstantinos were 14 years old when they married. Rothopy died in Katerini in Greece around 1947 aged at least 88 years old. Konstantinos died around 1933 in Yiashtoha near Sohoumi.
Mum's mother, Anastasia, was 15 years old when she married 16 year old Yanis in 1897. My grandparents owned hazelnut groves in Zilmera (Plate 1). Yanis was drafted into the Ottoman army in 1912 during the First Balkan War, but escaped within a few weeks and became a fugitive for four years (note 7). He came out of hiding when the Russians entered Trabzon in World War I. For the latter part of those four years he joined the Pontic Greek guerrillas (Andartes). For a period, Yanis' older brother Georgos was also an Andarte.
Between 1912 and April 1916 Yanis hid from the Turks in neighbouring villages, where he was not known, in caves and in the surrounding mountains. Occasionally, Yanis came home, bathed and hid in the bottom level of the family home out of sight of his three sons.
Plate 1. Hazelnut trees in Zilmera (October 2003)
Russians arrive in Trabzon 1916
On a day in April 1916, Anastasia was surprised to hear the sound of ship sirens in Zilmera coming from Trabzon. The local church bells were also ringing. She climbed a nearby hill and indeed saw several ships off Trabzon. (These were Russian navy ships.) Anastasia told her husband, who was hiding in the lower level of the house, she would ask the Greek priest at the Zilmera church what was going on.
The priest told her that the Russian army had entered Trabzon. (The Russian army captured Trabzon on 18 April 1916 during World War I.) Soon after, Yanis' aunty Elengo, who lived in Trabzon, told Yanis that the Russians were looking for people to help them build fortifications. So Yanis, who was a builder by profession, went to Trabzon to work for the Russians.
According to Mintslov (1923) (Mintslov was a Russian officer in Trabzon from 1916 to 1917); Greeks were paid to work for the Russians on the fortifications of Trabzon in April 1916. However, two months later, due to the lack of willing workers, (even though they were offered good pay) all able-bodied Greeks were conscripted to work for the Russians. Prior to February 1918 when the Russians finally left Trabzon, Yanis also helped the Russians demolish fortifications and remove the armaments from the hills overlooking the harbour.
Prior to mid-February 1918, Anastasia's younger brother, also called Yanis, came to immediately evacuate Anastasia from Zilmera because the Turks were burning Greek houses and they were moving towards Trabzon. (This was the encroaching Ottoman army.)
Most of the Christians in her village had already left for Trabzon. Anastasia's parents, brothers and sister from Tzoul were on route to Trabzon. Anastasia put her three sons (aged between 3 and 9 years of age) in baskets on one donkey with provisions on another donkey and then she walked with her brother to her husband's aunt's house in Trabzon. It would have taken up to two hours to reach the house. On the way to Trabzon they saw the smoke from fires in the distance.
Anastasia left her children with her husband's aunt Elengo, and then she went back alone to Zilmera with the two donkeys to retrieve more goods like quilts. When she returned to Zilmera she released her cows, broke her large antique mirror and her marble-top table. She then poured kerosene over her provisions like corn and beans so they could not be taken by the Turks. She then wanted to torch the house but a Pontic Greek man from Zilmera or a nearby village wouldn't allow her. (This man was warning people to leave immediately as the Turks were coming.)
Anastasia took the family rifle off the wall, slung it over her arm, strapped on the ammunition belt then she and this man took the donkeys loaded with goods down to Trabzon. He said he should hold the rifle as only men have firearms. My grandmother refused and was proud to say she knew how to fire the rifle and reload it.
When Yanis returned to his aunt's house from his daily work for the Russians he found his three sons present. Elengo told him that Anastasia had brought them and returned to Zilmera to get more provisions. Yanis thought she would be killed by the encroaching Turks. Fortunately she returned unharmed. The Russians had enticed Yanis to bring his family and nearly every member of the Papazoglou and Papadopoulos clans to the Caucasus.
Before April 1916, Yanis' brother Georgos killed a Turkish official/officer which I believe was in retaliation for the Turks killing his father. As a result of killing this Turk, Georgos fled Trabzon for the Caucasus.
Before my grandparents left Trabzon in February 1918, Georgos sent his cousin's son from Sohoumi in the Caucasus, to tell Yanis to bring Georgos' wife and his two daughters with him to the Caucasus. The families boarded a Russian ship at the port just before 17 February 1918. There was snow and it was bitterly cold forcing people to huddle to keep warm.
Once the families boarded the Russian ship there was Ottoman army cannon fire in Trabzon which lasted five days and nights. This forced the passengers below deck. The Russians returned the Turkish fire and five days later the ship sailed to the nearby Caucasus.
Because there were so many Pontic people wishing to escape, Yanis' and his brother's families huddled on a barge (exposed to the elements) towed behind one of the ships. They sailed to nearby Batum but the authorities there told the Russians to go to Sohoumi, because the Turks were close by. (This was a wise decision.) They disembarked in Sohoumi, 270 km from Trabzon. Yanis' brother Georgos was soon re-united with his wife and youngest daughter. Tragically his eldest daughter had died of exposure on the trip.
Life in Sohoumi, Caucasus
On arrival in Sohoumi in February 1918 the Papazoglou clan decided for security reasons to change their family name to Papadopoulos. When they arrived many people died from influenza. My grandparents rented a house in the village of Yiashtoha, 3 km to the north because mum's mother's rich older cousin, nicknamed ‘Pootkuchi', owned a large tobacco farm there. Yiashtoha had few Pontic Greeks and no churches of any denomination. Very soon they bought a farm where mum was born in 1922.
In 1925, the family bought a large tobacco farm in a hilly area in Yiashtoha. Fortunately, my mother's family lived a life where food was always on the table, even during the great famine of 1932.
In October 1938, mum's father, Yanis, travelled to the Greek Embassy in Moscow to gain passports for his family to escape to Greece. They wanted to emigrate because life was too difficult under Stalin's regime. So, in July 1939, after Yanis sold the family farm, the family took a Russian ship from Sohoumi to Odessa, where they waited a week for a Greek ship to take them to Greece.
Polyxene, Anastasia's sister, didn't emigrate. In 1949, she and her daughter Hrisoula were forcibly relocated to Kazakhstan. Hrisoula returned to Greece around 1969.
Life in Greece
Mum's family arrived in Piraeus, Greece in August 1939 and settled in Larisa within a week of my father's family arrival in Larisa. My parents married in 1940.
The Germans invaded Greece in April 1941. The organisation EPON (the youth group of the EAM Greek resistance organisation) occasionally brought food to mum's parents as her youngest brother Panayiotis was a member of EPON and her other younger brother Mitsos was a Greek resistance fighter (an Andarte).
My older brothers, Elias and Lefteri were born in 1943 and 1947 respectively. Life in Greece was a real struggle. After the harsh German occupation (1941-44) during World War II and the subsequent Greek Civil War (1944-49), Greece was in a very poor state. Many Greeks saw the opportunity of leaving ‘Greek soil' and take-up the offer from developing countries like Australia and start a new life.
My parents knew their families left their homeland (the Pontos) in order to save themselves only to move to the Caucasus to grow up under the harsh Stalin era, then moving to Greece only to live through the German invasion during World War II and then the Greek Civil War. They saw Australia as hopefully the end of their journey. And we complain that our lives are hard! Our ancestors did it tough.
Dad submitted his papers and in 1953 the family sailed for remote Australia where they had no relatives or friends. Most migrants signed a contract which bound them for two years to work in a job allocated by the Australian Government (Keating 1997). Dad's contract stated if he left Australia before two years had elapsed; he would need to pay the Australian Government ₤25 sterling together with ₤25 sterling for each adult member of his family.
Arrival in Australia
When they arrived in Australia in 1953, they disembarked at Port Melbourne and were loaded onto a train for the eight hour trip north to the migrant reception and training centre at Bonegilla near Wodonga in northern Victoria. Bonegilla offered only ‘basic' accommodation!
The family moved very soon from Bonegilla to the Greta Migrant Camp near Maitland, in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. The accommodation at Greta also comprised barrack-style corrugated-iron huts. Dad was directed to work on the construction of Glenbawn Dam a few hours away at Scone in the upper Hunter Valley. He worked at Scone from 1953 to 1958. Because of his previous experience, his work involved detonating explosives. Where did he gain this experience with explosives?
At Scone, dad met a wealthy Greek called Theo Coroneos who operated the Scone picture theatre. Theo was a good Samaritan. In 1954, Theo Coroneos and Panayiotis Stratigos (who co-owned the Niagara Milk Bar) loaned dad ₤750 to buy a house (a ‘renovator's delight').
In late 1954, mum and my brothers moved from Greta to Scone. Dad then rented one of the rooms in the new house to a Greek family. In 1956, the British movie The Shiralee was filmed in Scone. Many locals, including my brother Terry, were extras in the film. I was born in 1957 and dad gave up smoking. When the work at Glenbawn Dam was coming to a close, Theo advised dad to move to Newcastle. Taking this advice, dad sold the house, (he had already paid off the loan) and travelled to Newcastle where he paid a deposit for a house.
In August 1958, we moved into our house at Newcastle, New South Wales. It was not a ‘renovator's delight'. In late 1958 when I was christened at the St Demetrios Greek church in Hamilton, Newcastle, the church had not ‘split' from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia and New Zealand. This ‘split' did not occur till 1960. In 1963 my eldest brother Elias died and three years later my parents were naturalized as Australian Citizens.
Once in Australia, dad never wanted to return to Greece, even for a holiday. Mum only visited Greece after dad died, 36 years after she left Greece.
In our youth, my brother Terry (Lefteri) and I represented Newcastle in hockey for many years. After completing high school and graduating from Newcastle University with an honours degree I moved to Canberra to complete a post graduate science degree. For the past 14 years I have been researching and writing Pontic history and culture.
This summary of my family's Pontic Greek history will hopefully spur people, not just Greeks, to share their own researched family history with others. All our stories need to be told, before they are indeed forgotten, temeteron.
Note 1: In 1914, Platana had 345 Christian families (Turks were not counted), two churches and two schools (Chrysanthos 1933). In 1916, during the Russian occupation when some people had not returned to Platana, Mintslov (1916) recorded that the town had 2,122 inhabitants (Turks and Greeks).
Note 2: There was an exodus of people from Novorossiysk before the end of March 1920 due to the fear that the Bolsheviks were about to enter the town. When the Bolshevik cavalry entered Novorossiysk in late March they blazed the town. Bradley (1975) stated that Novorossiysk became the evacuation base for the volunteer (White) armies. (The anti-Communist forces were called ‘Whites'.) On 27 March 1920 Novorossiysk fell to the Greens and then to the Red Army.
Note 3: By 1939 most of the Pontic Greeks left Russia for Greece wishing to avoid Stalin's persecutions (Papadopoulos 1983). Conditions in 1936-37 were particularly harsh with many writers, scientists and other intellectuals purged in Georgia (Rosen 1991).
Note 4: The Germans imposed a harsh occupation regime, plundering the country's agricultural resources, industry and required Greece to pay for the costs of the occupation. A consequence of these policies was the devastating famine of the winter of 1941-42, which claimed some 100,000 victims. Life remained very harsh and the struggle for existence was exacerbated by astronomical levels of inflation (Clogg 1992).
Note 5: In 1901, Zilmera had 45 houses with one school, one teacher and 30 students (Lazaridis 1988). In 1914, Zilmera had 60 Christian families, a school and a church (Chrysanthos 1933). The eminent Emeritus Professor Anthony Bryer (OBE) advised me in an email that the old caravan route passed through Zilmera on the way to and from Trabzon. This route was replaced from the late 19th century by the road following the Degirmendere (Degirmen River).
When I visited Zilmera (renamed Subaşi and pronounced Subashi), in 2003, the area for kilometres around was covered with hazelnut groves and a little pasturage (Plate 4.1). Unfortunately, I didn't see any old houses that survived from my grandparent's day.
Note 6: Tzoul (Τζουλ) was located very close to two other villages, Mounta (Μούντα) and Anifa (Άνιφα) and they used the same school and church. In 1901, the three villages combined had 60 houses (Lazaridis 1988). In 1914, Chrysanthos (1933) stated that Mounta had 40 families. In late 1916, Mintslov (1916) recorded Anifa had 242 inhabitants.
All three villages are located on a western path off the main road that follows the Degirmen River that flows into the Black sea on the eastern edge of Trabzon. Mounta and Anifa are about 8 km by the conventional path from Trabzon. According to the monumental work of Bryer and Winfield (1985) Anifa, now called Akoluk had a church there (Ayios Basileios) which was ruined in 1960.
Note 7: From 1912, Yanis was ‘on the run' from the Ottoman Turks. The Turks were trying to conscript men to fight the Greeks during the Balkan Wars, i.e. October 1912 - May 1913 and June - August 1913. However, from 1915 Christians were not allowed to bear arms in the Ottoman army instead they were forced to join the dreaded labour battalions attached to the army.
*This document is an updated summary of part of my book, A Pontic Greek history.
Bradley, JFN 1975, Civil war in Russia 1917-1920, Batsford Ltd, London.
Bryer, A and Winfield, D 1985, The Byzantine monuments and topography of the Pontos, vol. I & II, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library & Collection, Harvard University, Washington D.C.
Chrysanthos, 1933, ‘H Eκκλησια Τραπεζουντος', (in Greek), [The church of Trabzon] Archeion Pontou [Archives of Pontos], vol. iv-v, Athens.
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Lazaridis, D 1988, Στατιστικοι πινακες της εκπαιδεύσεως των Eλληνων στον Ποντο 1821 - 1922 (in Greek), Archeion Pontou [Archives of Pontos], supplement no. 16, Epitropi Pontiakon Meleton, [The Committee for Pontic Studies] Athens.
Mintslov, SR 1916, Statisticheskie ocherki Trapezondskogo ukreplennogo raiona, (in Russian), [Statistical report of Trabzon region], Trabzon, translated for me by Russell McCaskie.
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Papadopoulos, S 1983, Events and cultural characteristics regarding the Pontian-Greeks and their descendants, unpublished PhD thesis, New York University, NY.
Rosen, R 1991, The Georgian republic, Odyssey, Hong Kong.
Topalidis, S 2007, A Pontic Greek history, Canberra, Australia.