For those of us who are first generation Greek-Americans, whose parents came across in airplanes for the most part, it is often fascinating to hear about the early Greek immigrants who came to America in search of a better life. Today, we take for granted the vast distances that separate us from the homeland, but in the late 19th century and early 20th century, there was a real chance the immigrant would never return home and never again see the beloved shores of Greece. This was especially true for early Greek immigrants to the western United States. The Greek-American community faced unique challenges, and the cultural experience often revolved around the church. The history and culture of the Greeks of Utah, for example, tells us a great deal about the character and extraordinary spirit of the people who traveled so far to work in mines and on railroads often in terrible conditions, but managed to preserve the rich heritage and traditions of Greece.
Author Helen Z. Papanikolas wrote several books of fiction and non-fiction about the immigrant experience in Utah and the western US. Born Helen Zeese in the mining community of Cameron in Carbon County, UT, to Greek immigrant parents George and Emily Zeese (originally Yiorgis and Emilia Zisimopoulos). In 1933, the family moved to Salt Lake City where they opened a chain of grocery stores. She attended the University of Utah and edited the campus literary magazine Pen. After graduating with a B.A. in 1939, she married Nick E. Papanikolas and the couple had two children, Zeese, also a writer, and Thalia. Papanikolas was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Utah in 1984. With her husband, she established scholarship programs for minority students at the University of Utah and the College of Eastern Utah. Among her nonfiction books, Toil and Rage in a New Land: The Greek Immigrants of Utah was published in 1970, The Peoples of Utah in 1976 and An Amulet of Greek Earth: Generations of Immigrant Folk Culture in 2002. Papanikolas was a founder and first president of The Peoples of Utah Institute. While she was president, she located and identified artifacts associated with ethnic life, produced a major museum exhibit, and sponsored lectures and other programs. Her efforts led to the establishment of the Hellenic Cultural Museum in Salt Lake City. Her novel The Time of the Little Black Bird, won the Utah Book Award for Fiction in 2000. Papanikolas died in November 2004.
Among her fiction, Papanikolas published the short story collections Small Bird, Tell Me: Stories of Greek Immigrants in 1994 and The Apple Falls from the Apple Tree in 2002 whose title is taken from an old Greek proverb and addresses the new generation’s struggle with the remnants of Greek customs. Although the characters live far from the old Greek towns, the rivalries, envy of the successful, and hubris are evident as they respond to experiences including intermarriage, old age, and loss. The stories delve into accommodation, to the straddling of two cultures, and assimilation, and though they are about the Greek-American experience, the themes are universal.
Helen Z. Papanikolas’ books are available online.