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Guest Viewpoints

A Quest for Closure

November 26, 2020
By Peter Nicolelis

My father, Nicholas Hatzi-Nicolelis, was born in Pergamos in 1882. It was a time when Turkey was governed by the Ottomans. Under their mandates, all Christian males were required to serve in the Turkish army upon reaching age 20. Rather than risk providing training and weapons to the recruited Christian youths, the Turks assigned them to their infamous labor battalions. As such, the Christian youths were packed into boxcars and railroaded into the easternmost provinces of Turkey. These men were forced to work on labor gangs as manual laborers. They were brutally treated and few, if any, survived to tell their story. The reputation of the labor camps had become common knowledge to the Christian inhabitants and each young man who would become subject to this forced conscription made plans to leave Turkey. 

In 1912, it was time for my father to activate his exit strategy. He had begun his planning years earlier. He thought long and hard about his decision to leave his elderly parents and his unmarried younger sister. For him, it was a matter of life and death. Life, if he was able to elude the police and escaped from Turkey or death, if he was caught and put into the Turkish Army labor battalion. His family encouraged him to make every effort to escape.  

Niko realized that he needed to earn some money to cover his travel expenses. He took a job working for his brother-in-law, Evstatios Marmarelis, in his Bakaliko. He had told me that the most difficult part of his job was loading, unloading and delivering many bags of flour – each bag weighing 50 OKA. OKA was the Ottoman system of weight measure. An Ottoman OKA had the equivalent weight of 2.8 English pounds, each bag weighed 140 lbs.  

In addition to earning and saving money, he connected and conferred with the older and more experienced men that he befriended at the local Kafeneio. He was able to learn about the hazards of the police patrols and of the roadblock locations that had been set up along the network of roads between Pergamos and the harbor of Smyrna. With this invaluable information he was able to begin the most dangerous part of his escape with confidence. 

Over the years, there were many occasions when my father had asked if we could visit Pergamos together without ever really sharing his reasons for wanting to take the trip. He kept his emotional pathos to himself as to why he longed to do so. It was not until years later, after repeated requests, that I came to realize how important it was for him to find his paternal home and to learn whatever he could about his family. At that point my father was 83 years old. He longed to find closure regarding the fate of the family he left behind so that he could find a new life and freedom for himself. This trip had to be taken; I had to honor his wish. It was a matter of ‘philotimo’ and it was up to me to arrange to take this journey with him.  

I first consulted my father's internist. His medical advice was that my father should not take such a long, arduous trip. He stated that in consideration of his age, the health of his heart, and the emotional stress he would likely experience. The consequences could be devastating. I knew this would be very upsetting news but I had no alternative but to be honest with him. His reaction to the doctor's advice was an emphatic “Sto diavolo na pai o yiatros … Tha pame” – which translates to “The doctor can go to the devil … We're going.” 

It was very clear that my father needed to find closure.  

The die was cast – my father, my son Christopher, and I prepared for our Odyssey. 

I arranged for a flight to Turkey with a layover in Athens where we would later connect with a flight to Smyrna. The layover was so that my father could visit his compatriots at the Pergamian Association – ‘Silogo’ – office located near Omonia Square in Athens. 

Upon arrival in Athens, we checked into a hotel. Then the following day, we searched and found the Silogo. Through The Years, my father had made donations to the organization and they were quite pleased to greet their compatriot, from America. While my father was being debriefed about the current political climate in other news of significance relative to the former ethnic Greek population in Pergamos, I walked around the large Hall. I studied the photographs and other exhibits that were on display. 

Then, to my surprise and delight, I had a significant Eureka moment. 

I came upon a hand-drawn map of the current city of Pergamos. This map had been developed by members of the society. Their map committee had painstakingly collected information from interviews with other former residents and also from other members that had visited Pergamos in order to gather significant data to undertake their mapmaking project. They surveyed, measured, and photographed the buildings and homes. They also sketched and measured the configuration of the network of roads and side streets – the ‘sokakia’.  

The map was annotated with very useful specific information, such as the locations of the ethnic and religious neighborhoods, the Jewish, the Armenian, the Muslim, and the Greek. In addition, they were able to pinpoint the location of individual family homes, and most importantly for us, the names and locations of the former Greek churches. 

As I studied the information on this map, I realized that the success of our trip hinged on obtaining a print of this map. With it, we had a good chance of accomplishing our mission. 

Prior to leaving for our trip, I had completed as much research as I possibly could in an era before the PC and the internet. I had little to go by. I did not even have an address or a street name to locate my father's paternal home. In my father's time in Ottoman Turkey, a system of street names and building addresses did not exist in Pergamos.  

After a lengthy discussion with my father, we realized that he remembered one most important piece of information that would help to find his home even without an address. He casually remarked that his home was near a church where he, as a young boy, played in its courtyard. We realized that bit of information would be the key to finding his paternal home. 

The church he remembered was ‘Zothohou Pighi’, the Life Giving Spring (Well).  Sure enough, there, on the map and annotated on the legend, were the coordinates for the location of the church. I became very excited about my discovery and wanted to share this with my father who was still deep in conversation with the Silogo members. At the first opportunity, I asked if I could possibly have a print of the Pergamos map. The ranking member graciously pulled a copy from a drawer and handed it to me. 

The next day we took a taxi to the airport for our flight for Smyrna. We arrived and checked in at the Intercontinental Hotel. I selected this large hotel since I thought it would be the best place to be if my father needed medical attention. Fortunately, that occasion never presented itself. 

The following morning, we took a taxi to the bus depot. There was no terminal building. It was a large, noisy, dusty, unpaved area teeming with people. I found a quiet, shaded area and asked my son Chris to stay close to his Pappou while I looked for the bus marked for ‘Bergama’. I found the bus, bought tickets, and we boarded, 

Two hours later, we arrived in Pergamos. We were the only foreigners on the bus and we stood out among the other passengers – my father especially, since he was wearing a dark wool suit with a vest, shirt, tie, and a wide brimmed rice straw hat that I had purchased for him in New York. I later learned that rice straw hats of this type were typically worn by Greek men in Pergamos. 

From what I could tell, the bus dropped us off in the center of the town when we arrived. As we stood there thinking about our next move, I was approached by a neatly dressed Turk who was the local taxi driver. I remember thinking to myself “what a lucky break. I will just unfold the map and point to the exact location we want to be taken: to the Church ‘Zothohou Pighi.’” I tried to make the taxi driver understand but it was difficult since I spoke no Turkish. However, I thought that by pointing to the location on the map, the driver could orientate himself and take us right there. Up until then, my father, Chris, and I had agreed that we would speak only English. We thought it would be safer if we were identified as Americans. We soon realized that my father had to start speaking in Turkish in order to make ourselves better understood.  

My father then took over and explained everything as I had in Turkish. He tried and tried but the driver showed no signs of recognition or understanding. Then, suddenly, the driver beckoned us to follow him to his taxi. We boarded and were driven to an area slightly out of town. We stopped at the location of the red brick ruins of the Pergamos Church of the Apocalypse – one of the seven churches noted by St. John in the Book of the Revelation.

The driver walked to the security guard house. He knocked. There was an inaudible response but a moment later, the door swung open and a short older man with a graying beard appeared. The two Turks talked and then our driver beckoned for my father to join them. The driver introduced my father who extended his hand and greeted the security guard in Turkish. My father explained our mission and then unfolded our map and proceeded to explain where we wanted to be taken. The guard studied the map and then gave some instructions to our driver. 

We got back into the taxi and were driven to an area that I remembered from my earlier map study was noted as the Greek neighborhood. The driver stopped the taxi and we got out. 

Our excitement piqued with anticipation that we had arrived at our destination. As we exited the taxi, Chris and I focused on my father's reaction. We waited anxiously for him to give us some immediate sign of recognition. We did not consider that my father had left Pergamos over sixty years ago and he needed time to orientate himself. 

My father turned and looked in all directions but he did not have a Eureka moment. Instead, he looked disappointed that he saw nothing that was familiar. We had no option but to continue walking up the road and simply keep looking. 

As we walked, both our driver and my father would stop and question townsmen passing by whether they knew the location of the old Greek church building that once existed in this area. Unfortunately, none of the local residents knew the location of the church or knew anything about the building. Strangely, rather than go back to looking after their own business, the men that were stopped decided to follow behind us. 

At first, I was puzzled as to what was happening. Why were these locals following us? Was it their small-town curiosity or did my father impress them as a Greek returning to recover the family's treasure that was left behind when they fled to safety during the 1922 ethnic cleansing disaster? I suspect they must have heard stories about the events from their elders or by word of mouth. They could have seen this as a possibility to participate in the discovery and get a share of the booty. Not a pleasant thought, but something that was out of our control. 

We had no option but to continue walking and hope that my father would recognize something. At one point, we became aware of the sound of children playing and as we continued walking, the sound seemed to get louder. Then we could see children playing in a yard. It was the same courtyard my father had played in – it was a courtyard of Zothohou Pighi. My father lit up and smiled. We all began smiling and then laughing. We knew we were finally on the right track. My father recognized the remnants of what was Zothohou Church. The building was no longer the imposing structure it had been. It had been altered to serve as a school, but the building itself and its relationship to the yard remained unchanged. We all realized we were now only a stone's throw away from my father's paternal home. 

We were filled with nervous excitement. We knew we were close, very close. My father looking even more intensely at each building, each doorway, each iron railing, each detail that would be a recognizable feature. As we rounded one corner, he stopped cold in his tracks, his arms flared out and he shouted for everyone to hear, “EDO EIMASTE,” (“We’re here”). 

My father's focus was on a ‘vrisi’, the spring of water which poured continuously from a pipe protruding from a masonry wall. The water poured into a hollowed-out marble block that functioned as a basin. The basin was built into the wall and cantilevered out about 18 inches from the wall. 

He turned to look over his left shoulder to verify his discovery. There they were, the two large, heavy wooden doors which he had often described to me. The entry doors opened into the court part of the family compound. The double doors were so wide and the header above so high that he and his father did not have to unload their heavily loaded camel in order for it to pass through and into the compound. My father had found his home at last. This was the special Eureka moment we wanted for him. 

My father then asked the driver to get the attention of the residents. To explain who we were and to ask if it was possible, to visit the house. The driver did as my father requested. He knocked on the heavy doors. A young man came to the Courtyard doors and he explained that both his parents were at work but we were welcome to come in. We followed him into the courtyard and then into the red brick, two-story house. We stepped into the foyer and I looked into each of the bordering rooms as I walked past. There did not appear to be any furnishings, no wall decoration, no rugs, no curtains, nothing. We started walking up a flight of stairs when, to my amazement, the group of locals that were following us entered right behind us as if we were one big family. 

Our driver found and brought a wooden, rush seated chair which he placed at the top of the stairs for my father to sit. He sat with his straw-hat still on his head while some of the men squatted around him and others stood on the stairs focused on my father. He was the center of attraction. He then began relating to the man his life story in Pergamon and how he began a new life in America. The scene was so special and poignant but unfortunately, I did not think to take that photograph. It was an opportunity lost. The men listened intently at my father's odyssey. It must have been very interesting to them since most of them were probably not even born in 1912 when his story began.  

Once he realized he had their attention, he began asking them questions. Did any of them know anything about his family that had once lived in this house? Did anyone know what had become of them? One of the men said he remembered a woman who lives in this house and went on to describe her. He thought he saw a family resemblance to my father. My father asked if she had a family. The Turk responded that she was childless. Nobody knew what had become of her. One of the other men said that he knew of a Greek lady that lived in town and gave us directions to her home. We did not know what to expect but we knew we had to find this woman. 

We got back into the taxi and drove to her home.  We knocked on the outer wooden door in the masonry wall which surrounded the modest structure. A woman came to the door and we explained that we were from America and that we would like to visit. We were invited in and my father looked closely at the woman hoping to possibly find some family resemblance to either of his two sisters he had last seen sixty years ago. He did not see any resemblance and there was no recognition from the woman either. 

The house reminded me of the government-provided refugee housing my aunt Ephigenia lived in Pangrati, Athens. It was typical of the housing provided by the government for the Greek refugees that had escaped from the 1922 Catastrophe in Asia Minor. The interior was divided into two areas delineated by a single partition. 

My father and I sat on a divan with the lady and tried to engage her in a conversation in Greek but she did not respond. I thought about that later and imagined it was because we were not alone. We were with our Turkish driver who she did not know or trust. We felt that she feared that by revealing any information, it could result in a negative, possibly a life-threatening reaction from a local townsman at some point in the future. 

At one point, she got up and went into the back room. She returned with a brass ‘briki’ and continued walking out into the courtyard where she made coffee for her guests. While we were drinking our coffee, she got up again and returned with a postcard which she handed to me. It was postmarked New York City and it had the image of the Empire State Building. I turned the card over and there was a message written in English. It read, “Dear Fatima, we came to visit but you are not home.”  It was signed, “Your uncle Parasko Condaxis.” We were stunned at the coincidence. Parasko Condaxis was an old friend of my father’s. He knew him as a young man in Pergamos. Our family had also visited Parasko at his home in Old Town, Staten Island. Fatma was a young Greek girl that somehow survived the 1922 disaster in Asia Minor, and the population exchange that followed in 1923 and 1924. She stayed behind and made a life for herself living in Turkey. 

Finding Fatma was sheer luck. We imagine that Fatma knew of other Greek girls that had remained behind in Pergamos. Our hopes were high that she knew something about my father's younger, unmarried sister, Stamatia. As much as we tried, Fatma revealed nothing. This was a major disappointment for my father. We all thought we had made a miraculous connection but then the connection disintegrated. The reality of having gotten so close and then failing was painful. 

We took the taxi back to the bus depot in Pergamos bound for Smyrna. We went back to our room at the hotel and freshened up. It had been a long exciting day for us all. We had dinner, reviewed our day's experience and made plans to visit the Acropolis of Pergamos the following morning. 

The next morning, we took the bus to Pergamos and connected with another bus that brought us to the large tourist parking lot at a level below the Acropolis promontory. We walked up a serious incline to a level on the Acropolis where we can view the ancient marble temples. When we reached the top, we looked and found a large marble block which made an excellent rest station for us. The setting also offered a full view of the activity in the parking lot. We watched as other tourists struggled up the inclined road. 

Then there was an incident which dramatized my father's awesome pride of his Hellenic heritage. 

As we rested, a busload of French tourists pulled into the parking lot with flags flying. One of the tourists struggled up the incline very slowly and walked very close to where my father was sitting. My father instinctively reached out and took hold of the Frenchman's forearm and asked him in English, “do you realize where you are? Let me tell you about ancient Pergamos.” That was an unscripted precious moment. While he continued holding the Frenchman's arm, my father went on to explain that Pergamos was one of the largest Hellenic kingdoms of the Middle East. He went on to tell the Frenchman about King Attalos of Pergamos who had studied in Athens and who later gifted the city with the stoa in gratitude for having been privileged to study there – the stoa that bears his name.

After that precious incident, we Begin our tour of the Acropolis. We marveled at the sight of the theater that accommodated an audience of 10,000. We then followed signs to the site of the Altar of Zeus. We found the foundation of the altar and we use those stones as our next rest stop.  

I took that opportunity to remind my father of the dated New York Times, Sunday Magazine, travel clipping he had shown me some years ago. The clipping told the story of the altar of Zeus and described that the entire altar had been dismantled, crated block by marble block, and uprooted from the Acropolis in Pergamos. It was then shipped to Berlin and reassembled by stonemasons imported from Italy. The article went on to explain that the altar was currently on display in the Pergamum Museum in Berlin, Germany. I went on to explain that as a young boy, I vowed that one day I would visit the Pergamum Museum to view that magnificent antiquity in real time. 

In 1964, I was able to take a Pan Am flight into the then divided city of Berlin. I took a short, elevated subway ride through West Berlin to a point close to the East Berlin border. I cleared through Checkpoint Charlie and entered East Berlin. I found and entered the Pergamum Museum. It was an awesome, magnificent site. Imagine the dimensions of the exhibit hall that contained the altar structure. It was 117 feet wide and 109 feet in depth. I walked up the 66 feet wide stairs to the sacrificial altar and studied the magnificent sculpted figures. It was an arm's length viewing of the beautiful artistry. 

My father was delighted that I took this occasion to retell my story about my learning about the altar from him and that I had followed up by visiting the Pergamum Museum in Berlin. We completed our tour of the Acropolis and took a taxi back to town, had lunch, and made our way back to our hotel in Smyrna. 

In retrospect, I believe that my father found closure by undertaking this odyssey to Pergamos. It was not the closure he had hoped to find, but it was comforting for him that he tried. He had an extraordinary trip. We found and he was able to visit his fraternal home with his son and grandson who now had a window into his early life. He met and spoke with a survivor of the catastrophe and visited the antiquities on the Acropolis of Pergamos – an acropolis he believed to be equal to, if not grander, than the Acropolis in Athens. We found the site of the Altar of Zeus and we rested on the foundation stones of that antiquity. He was very pleased and impressed that I had remembered the New York Times clipping he had shown me years earlier. He thought it remarkable that I had flown to Berlin to visit the Pergamum Museum and that I marveled at the sighting of the entire magnificent antiquity. 

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