OXI and the Greek-Am. War Relief

CHICAGO- In the early hours of October 28, 1940, Emanuele Grazzi, Italian ambassador to Greece, presented Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas with an ultimatum allowing Axis forces to enter Greek territory and occupy certain unspecified strategic locations, or face war. Metaxas is reported to have answered in a single word, no or in Greek oxi. As a consequence, around 5:30 AM, Italian troops, stationed in southern Albania, invaded Greece. Thus began the Italo-Greek War which lasted from October 28, 1940 to April 23, 1941. Greeces valiant counteroffensive was the first successful land campaign against the Axis Powers. The Greek peoples spontaneous all-out resistance to the Italian invasion was loudly hailed around the world. It was only with the intervention of German forces on April 6, 1941 that the combined Axis armies, including those from Bulgaria, were able to defeat and occupy Greece. By and large this is the encapsulated version of Greeces entry into the Second World War.{53759}{53758}
The history of Greeks living in America during World War II is another chapter in this much wider story. Recently the humanitarian efforts of Greeks outside of Greece has seen academic attention. Edited volumes such as Eugene Rossides, Greece’s Pivotal Role in World War II (Washington, D.C.: American Hellenic Institute Foundation, 2002) and Richard Cloggs, Bearing Gifts to Greeks: Humanitarian Aid to Greece in the 1940s (New York: Macmillan, 2008) are finally bringing these highly effective humanitarian efforts into the general discourse on modern Greek history.
Events following the Italian invasion moved at such a breakneck speed and in such rapid succession they seem, to the modern reader, inevitable. This contemporary reading of events completely ignores the underlying and largely underreported complexities Greeks in North America faced. To be sure other ethnic groups were involved with war work. Yet it is an undisputed fact that even before Americas entrance into the war Greeks excelled in direct public action and in their influence on politicians at all levels of government. Remember that the Greek-Americans worked effectively not only with the United States government but also the International Red Cross, various Allied governments principally but not exclusively Great Britain and representatives of the Axis Powers.
A short list of events follows. On October 28, Greek newspapers across America carried the news of the invasion. By November 7, Archbishop Athenagoras had rallied a wide array of Greek-American leaders and organizations to New York City. At that gathering the Greek War Relief Association (GWRA) was formed, as a non-political purely humanitarian organization, with Spyro Skouras as its principal director. The GWRA leadership quickly made it a policy to enlist non-Greek public personalities to hold positions within the organization.
By November 15, 350 Greek Orthodox churches and over 2,000 Greek-American fraternal organizations including AHEPA and GAPA were part of the GWRA. By April 1941, GWRA had established an office in Athens and had cabled some $3,800,000 to their representatives. By May, $4 million in food and supplies had been raised. In various AHEPA sources, 1942 is given as the year that the United States Treasury Department named this organization as an official Issuing Agent for U.S. War Bonds, an honor it is said was achieved by no other organization. AHEPA undoubtedly was a force in the GWRA, but evidence to that organization’s unique role is not readily available from sources outside the Greek-American community.
The contributions of Greeks in North America, to the society at large, are not usually known beyond the boundaries of our community. Truth be told, they are not really known within our community, either. Complicating this situation is the historical circumstances in which GWRA was formed and in which its members around the country labored. {53757}{53756}
Between World War I and the Second World War, nativist sentiment arguably was such that the rights of Catholics, Jews, African Americans and all foreign-born individuals were ignored, and those groups were often the subject of prejudice and even physical attack. Accordingly, it follows logically that the circumstances the average Greek in North America was required to overcome during the Second World War were, to say the least, underreported.
Italian troops attacked Greece on October 28, 1940. Consider, here in its entirety, an editorial that appeared in the December 2, 1940 edition of Time magazine, entitled Sons of Greece.
Ever since Poet Homer gave the lowdown on Ulysses, wily has been the word for Greeks. The Greek syndicates of gamblers; the late Sir Basil Zaharoff, merchant of death; tens of thousands of Greek traders in fruits, tobaccos, steamships have carried on the Ulysses tradition of wandering, guile, and gain. Last week, with their mother country menaced, Greeks all over the world went in their own ways to her support. In the U.S., one of them was a millionaire oil operator of Louisiana and points west. {53755}{53754}
“Possessor of a 65-year exclusive franchise to find and exploit Greeces petroleum resources, he turned over to Premier General John Metaxas $100,000 worth of tools, trucks, pipeline, drill rigs, explosives and a 38-ton tank with which he and his men had been working in the Peloponnesus. His name William Helis of New Orleans.
The Helis family belongs in the Arcadia, high in the mountain district which not even the terrible Turk ever conquered and from which come some of Greeces ablest highland fighters. William Helis grandfather was mayor of their town for 32 years. Young William went to America after finishing secondary school, did odd jobs in New York and Milwaukee. In 1908 he married a Philadelphia girl of Dutch descent, who bore him three daughters and a son. He set up a coffee and spice business in Kansas City, Mo., became a top sergeant in the National Guard in World War I. Then he hunted for oil in Texas–and found it, near Wichita Falls. he found more in Oklahoma and California. In Louisiana he struck it rich because he found plenty of oil around new Iberia but also Robert Maestri, cagey political boss of New Orleans.
“Now his mother Greece is up against it, Oilman Helis fortune is at her disposal. He is director of the southern activities of the Greek War Relief Association, Inc., which has offices at No. 730 Fifth Ave., Manhattan and of which Harold Sterling Vanderbilt is national honorary chairman. Mr. Vanderbilt, no Greek, is in there for humanitarian reasons but he and Mr. Helis, the Greek boy who made good, have something in common: Mr. Helis has a 107-ft. yacht, the William Helis II, and Mr. Vanderbilt is the U.S.s most famed yachtsman.
“Spyros Skouras, chain cinema tycoon, is national president of the Greek War Relief Association, Inc. which hopes to raise $10,000,000.
It is virtually impossible to miss the racism in that editorial. Why all the attention to Helis is more difficult to assess. Clearly, the unnamed had innuendo and hate to spew. But it is not the only incidence of this nature nor even the only time Helis name was used in this manner. While much is made, and rightly so, of the wartime efforts efforts of say Steve Vasilakos, the peanut vendor and champion war bond salesman, we never hear of the nearly ten year legal battle against John Maragon. Or the continuing unsubstantiated slanders against William Helis one finds in the wartime press. Or other such public assaults and slanders.
What has happened to those dozens of World War II books published by the GWRA and others filled with editorial cartoons, articles on modern Greece and political claims for post-war Greece?
The Italian attack on Greece and the Nazi blitzkrieg into Greece that soon followed did not offer the occasion for many photographs of those events to reach the outside world. Editorial cartoons of little Greece battling the Axis war machine were published around the world. Gathered together in those wartime volumes Greeks in North America and Britain offered their take on world events. These volumes were once handed out to contributors at GWRA events and politicians.
A reprinting of some of these now rare volumes would be useful If AHEPA or the GWRA was given a unique role in World War II then add that fact through an essay by a noted academic and sell or give these volumes away at the next Hellenic Festival.
No one else will be Greek for us and as the general historical record stands the contributions of our community are all but forgotten.