NEW YORK – Alexander Billinis, inspired by his family history and by the endeavor of the Eastern Mediterranean Business Cultural Alliance (EMBCA) to place a memorial in Manhattan in honor of the more than 2000 Hellenic seamen who sacrificed their lives during WWII, is leading the research effort that will tell their noble though all-but-forgotten story.
Many elements in the history of the diaspora have been relatively neglected and are in danger of permanent burial as first the protagonists and then their children and grandchildren pass away.
The story the Greek merchant seaman, once the paradigmatic tale of the passage to America, is especially dim and fuzzy. Often enough, those men transitioned as quickly as possible into work that would enable them to start families and businesses.
Few Greek-Americans have memories of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ days as sailors – let alone their heroic sacrifices. However, like the Buddhist proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” stories eventually find their tellers, and Billinis is devoted to this one.
Currently an instructor and graduate student at Clemson University, he was working on a digital history project when he had the idea of studying the Greek merchant mariners in the Battle of the Atlantic. He credits part of the reason he chose this topic to frequent talks with Lou Katsos, president of EMBCA, who is spearheading the drive to build the memorial.
The story has become the subject of Billinis’ Master’s thesis and he plans to write a book about his grandfather’s life, “which I think is representative of a lot of these Greek everymen who battled the waves and the U-boats, many of whom played the ultimate price.”
What he called the “maritime shift” in his interests “is in large part because of my family background – most is from Hydra, an island rich in nautical history…and on my paternal side pretty much all the men had been at sea.”
Billinis’ grandfather Alexandros Billinis was one of the sailors who was killed in the Atlantic, and his father and uncle served in the Greek navy and merchant marine. His mother’s family migrated after the Balkan Wars to Salt Lake City, where he grew up.
His educational background in European Studies and law provided him the skills and discipline to unearth one of the missing links in Greek history, and his shift to journalism and writing when living in Serbia prepared him well to convey his findings.
Billinis passionately believes, “It’s a history that now merits a professional review and remembrance,” and that can be facilitated by digital history technology, which refers both to the ability to conduct the research and to have the results available via digital searching, on the internet and through digital publishing.
“There is an increasing ability to use keyword searches and pattern techniques, that are used to search huge volumes of documents to find interesting information and trends that only a computer working at billions of bytes per second can do. It is also well suited to a vast and spread out diaspora; it’s a great way to collaborate.”
Asked how members of the Community can help, he first noted that the endeavor will not be limited to one initiative. “My particular program at this time, which entails a website and a story map, can be accessed at www.alexbillinis.com where you can share your own family story about the Battle of the Atlantic.”
He appeals to the heroes’ relatives: “If you have pictures, if you know some of the dates they travelled on, there is a database and an interactive map on the website that shows every ship that went down, and I’m trying to populate all these events with stories.”
“Photos and stories are welcome…the more we have, the more complete the picture. This is an ongoing process; Compiling everything will take a long time, but if people have stories, I encourage them to help us create this repository of information, which will produce massive community benefits.”
Time is of the essence for talking with the elderly. People should speak to and record their parents, grandparents, and other relatives in the United States and in Greece and ask for photos and other material.
Billinis himself has participated in the oral history efforts at Chicago’s National Hellenic Museum. For this project, he noted that, “the more it’s discussed, the more ideas will germinate,” and he suggested that parishes nationwide led by priests and others could be the heart of a comprehensive oral history effort.
But the core value expressed by the project is honoring the Community’s heroic departed, nationally and locally, perhaps on the Feast of St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors or on Oxi day.
“It should not be forgotten in the context of celebrating Oxi Day that Greek merchant seamen were saying their Oxi since September 1939, many dying violently at the hands of German and Italians forces,” he said. “Honor is due.”