April 1, 2022
By Peter Nicolelis

My father had his twentieth birthday in 1912. Under the Ottoman rule of that era, all Christian males reaching age 20 were subject to mandatory conscription to serve in the Turkish army labor battalions.

It was common knowledge in the Christian communities of Asia Minor that a tour of duty in a Turkish labor battalion was a one-way ticket to an early, unmarked burial in a remote, eastern province of Turkey. The men were routinely beaten, were undernourished, overworked – and shot dead if they chanced to fall from exhaustion.

He had several in-depth discussions on the subject of his pending mandatory conscription with his parents. They discussed the hardship the family would experience by his absence. However, the family was more concerned with the risk of his captivity, internment, and about his very life. If he remained at home, the Ottoman authorities knew of his existence and had easy access to him. The family voiced their encouragement, along with their blessings, for him to leave home to avoid the mandatory conscription. His father went on to suggest that Niko not only distance himself from Pergamos but that he follow through with a commitment to escape from Turkey for his freedom and for a new life. Possibly to America to join his older brother Xenophone who had escaped from Turkey four years earlier.

It was a difficult decision for young Niko to make, but in the final analysis he realized the logic of his father, Ephthemious’ wisdom. It was the only option which offered him the opportunity for a life. A life in the new world.

Niko began his planning. He made vague inquiries at the kafenio he frequented. From the information he gathered from the traveling patrons he had befriended at the kafenio, he concluded that the best escape route was for him to get to the Smyrna harbor and to find passage on a departing freighter leaving Turkey.

But first, he had to deal with the awesome task of getting to Smyrna – some 73 miles (122 kms) road miles away. There was a public bus route between the two cities but he ruled out that option, the reason being that the police patrols would surely stop, board, and question every passenger looking for young Christian men on the run, bound for Smyrna. He decided that his only remaining option was to hike to Smyrna. Niko ran some calculations in his head. He began by estimating that he could cover four miles in an hour and that he could walk at that rate for at least 6 hours per day, thereby covering 24 miles per day – so he could cover the 73 miles in three days.

Of course his assumptions were based on ideal conditions. When he considered the time he would lose by stopping to hide to avoid being seen by the military patrols that continually monitored the paved roadway approaches to Smyrna, he doubled his estimate to six days.

But he had his doubts. He was not confident that he could get to Smyrna safely by following the paved roadways. There was just too much exposure. He would be much too visible to the police patrols.

He paused to consider other options. He concluded that the risks of walking 73 miles of exposed paved roadway to Smyrna were too great and he came up with his Plan B.

His objective remained unchanged, but his route would be different. He would take cross-country foot paths to Smyrna. It would be a longer, more arduous but safer route. There would be greater opportunity for cover and the likelihood that the police would patrol the unpaved cross-country footpaths was very remote. He estimated that the cross-country route would probably take at least two weeks of hard hiking to get to Smyrna. He now felt confident that the cross-country route would be a much safer option.

Niko miraculously completed his long hike from Pergamos to the harbor of Smyrna. He scouted the harbor, found and boarded a Greek island freighter bound for Kalamata, Peloponnesos. In Kalamata he bought steerage passage to America on the steam ship Athanae. His ship crossed the Atlantic in April 1912 on the south-Atlantic route. Days apart from the sailing of the Cunard super liner Titanic, also bound for New York, on the north Atlantic crossing.

The Athanae arrived safely whereas the Titanic, unfortunately, never made it to New York.


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