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Greek American Stories: Smyrna Lives

As I’ve written before, I don’t like sad stories, but, they come along, like it or not. My daughter, Ellen, invited me to see a movie that was to appear only one night, Thursday, in theatres across the country. How inconvenient! But, we went in the company of two very nice women from the neighborhood, of Assyrian birth. The movie was called, quite simply, ‘SMYRNA, MY LOVE’. The title brought to mind my maternal Yiayia, born in Limnos. Her family of five sisters and two brothers moved to Smyrna when their father had received a promotion in the postal service.

We sat expecting to see a romantic movie depicting Smyrna in her glory days. But, the story began with an elderly woman, Filio Williams, played by actress, Jane Lapotaire, whose granddaughter, Helen, resented the refugees that were swarming the shores of Lesvos as a result of Ergodan’s arrogant, treacherous plan to get rid of his problem and foist it on to Greece. Filio revealed to Helen about her own grandmother who had lost her children, husband, beautiful home, and everything they owned, fleeing and then becoming a refugee. This introduction to the movie immediately brought to mind the stories my Yiayia once told me. I always knew Yiayia Aspasia had lived in Smyrna as a young girl. Luckily, however, in 1910, she and her sister had left Smyrna for a prearranged marriage by her brother to two unknown Greek men, meeting in the Greek cathedral in New York City while the remaining three sisters were still in Smyrna.

The movie is a fascinating, yet profoundly disturbing portrait, not only because of what is already known about that horrific past but, also, what it implies about the present time when the ‘powers-that-be’ ignore, or remain conveniently silent while justice is being crucified yet again.

The acting was superb and the events were acted out with deep emotion and sensitivity. The realism was awesome! It was amazing seeing the city of Smyrna reconstructed in minute detail, in Athens’ beautiful waterfront area of Phaliro. And, the stark reality of that time was made even more realistic with the setting of the fires that destroyed the city, fires that the Turks insist the Greeks set – like they had the time.

The movie gave proper recognition to the many nationalities that suffered beside the Greeks: Jews, Armenians, Assyrian, Italians, and, even Americans. Like New York City, Smyrna was, at that time a very cosmopolitan setting. Also like New York City, making a living was within reach for many.

At the end of the movie, detailed facts were explained on how very difficult it was to create the history with accurate realism. Then, at the end of the film, two excellent singers, Alkistis Protopsaltis and Glikeria, sang a moving song dedicated to Smyrna. It appears that, even after one hundred years, Smyrna is not – and should not be – forgotten.

Yiayia’s’ three sisters, having been in one of the overcrowded row boats that had overturned, were rescued by a Japanese ship, along with many others who were taken to Piraeus. In a letter my Yiayia received after a long stretch of months, Piraeus was described. The city had awakened to see crowds of refugees lining the sidewalks, women holding young children, elderly men, young girls and boys – distraught, frightened and drained of hope. Imagine finding yourself sitting alongside numerous people on a sidewalk, in an unfamiliar place, having survived a holocaust, wondering what further trials await and, then, being unaccepted by the mainland Greeks because the refugees’ mode of living was more flamboyant.

I am unfamiliar with the politics mentioned in the movie. I can only accept my Yiayia’s stories because they came from personal fact! The movie was authentic in fact and left me with deep sympathy for the modest, middle-class sisters who found themselves in dire straits. Happily, they married good husbands, had fine children whose sons proved themselves solid Greek patriots during WWII. I’m glad my Yiayia told me what her sisters experienced. It gave me the incentive to pass down to yet another generation what had happened to our innocent ancestors in Smyrna.

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