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Genealogy, the New Connection to Greece

Greek America has benefitted for over a century from the work of the Greek-American ‘Topika Somatia/Regional Societies’ that function as fraternal associations made up of members who originally came from the same village, or island, or region. For over a century, these organizations have harnessed those feelings to raise funds for philanthropic causes that benefit those places of origin. They have also provided significant support for those regions such as Cyprus, Epirus, and Macedonia that become involved in international political disputes over their sovereignty or even their name.

But the venerable Topika Somatia that have attracted mainly Greek-born immigrants are being joined by a new and more dynamic form of relationship to Greece expressed by a growing interest in family history and roots by a younger generation of Greek-Americans. It is a broader trend. Americans have been obsessed with finding their origins throughout the nation’s history. Presently, genealogical research has received a huge boost with the availability of on-line, digitized and searchable ancestry data and direct-to-consumer genetic DNA testing, first made available about twenty years ago. Ancestry research is now one of the most popular hobbies in the United States and has even generated genealogy tourism, a booming segment of the tourist industry.

Greek-Americans have been a part of the recent surge in the search of family origins. In 2010, Georgia Stryker Keilman, a Greek-American from Chicago founded Hellenic Genealogy Geek (what a lovely play on words), a blog and Facebook page that currently has approximately 33,300 members. The site is constantly updated with genealogical data, much of it found in Greek archives by the group’s volunteer researchers such as the indefatigable Carol Kostakos Petranek. Originally made up of Greek-Americans, the membership now includes Greeks from all over the world as well as Greece and Cyprus. It is by far the most popular Hellenic diaspora-related Facebook page.

Ironically, not many people in Greece itself can appreciate how useful Greek-America’s newly minted interest in its ancestry can be in strengthening ties between the homeland and the Diaspora. An obsession with researching and discovering genealogy and roots is an America and a Diaspora phenomenon. If you have such concerns in Greece, in many cases your village or the island are at the very most a couple of hours away. And there will always be a few oldtimers at the ‘kafeneio’ willing to answer your questions.

But the trend is growing in the Diaspora. The Family Trees of Southern Parnon project in Australia began gathering data about persons originating from Eastern Lakonia. In the United States in 2014, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s popular PBS TV series Finding Your Roots featured a Greek-American segment with three well known Greek-Americans, actress and comedienne Tina Fey, writer David Sedaris, and television personality George Stephanopoulos. We learned that Fey’s mother’s side of the family were from Mani and Ikaria, Sedaris’ father’s side is from Lakonia, and that Stephanopoulos’ ancestors were from Kyllini and Patra in Peloponnesos.

The Finding Your Roots Greek episode’s main researcher, Gregory Kontos, who is currently studying for his doctorate in history at the University of Athens, writes that the airing of the segment brought Greece into the international genealogy arena and was the first episode in a dense series of wonderful developments that followed. One of them was that ‘MyHeritage’ the online genealogy platform that enables users to create family trees, upload photos, and search billions of records, got interested in Greece and supported the digitization of Greek records in Peloponnesos.

Another development was that Kontos, in coordination with MyHeritage, created ‘Greek Ancestry’, a private business based in Patras. Its team of professionals works full time discovering, digitizing, and indexing of a vast number of collections of Greek data. Last year Greek Ancestry and Hellenic Genealogy Greek collaborated in holding an international conference, and their second is being held on January 29th and 30th and will be accessible live and recorded on the YouTube channels of both organizations.

Apparently, most genealogy researchers are women, 4rd generation Greek-Americans (their great-grandparents were the ones to migrate). Many of them start after they have lost any solid connection to the homeland, especially when their grandparents and parents die. It is obviously a way to preserve the weakening bonds.

This moreover is a Greek-American demographic that contrasts with that of the Topika Somatia that rely mostly on elderly Greek-born Greek Americans with memories of their village or their island. I know that a few Topika Somatia have active youth groups, but others are fading. Whatever their future is, I think we should all be paying more and more attention to the new connection between the Diaspora and Greece offered by genealogy.

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