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History: The Trials and Tribulations of Panayiotis and Giannis Seitanidis

May 11, 2020
By Stavros Stavridis

An Australian Pontian friend of mine, Peter Seitanidis heard that I am a historian specializing in the history of Asia Minor covering the years 1919-23. He contacted me wanting to tell me the stories of his grandfather and great uncle. Peter stated that his elderly father recounted the family story of escape, survival, and deportation from Pontos. His ancestors were originally from the city of Kerasounta (Giresun) on the Black Sea coast. The family story passed down to Peter has gaps that can be filled from other sources. Finding specific information about Kerasounta hasn't been easy but I pieced it together from scattered information.

Before delving into Peter's account, I will provide a brief social, economic and political background of Kerasounta during the tumultuous period of 1914-23. The Ottoman Census of 1913 showed that the city had 30,000 residents made up as follows: 17,000 Greeks (3500 families), 7,000 Turks, 3,000 Armenians, and 3,000 of various other ethnic backgrounds. There were seven Greek villages located outside Kerasounta, a predominately a Greek town based on the figures of the Ottoman census.

The Greeks lived in the following neighborhoods: Kokkari, Saitas, Limeni, Tsinarlar, Begiouk Bachtse, Tsironi, Geni Gkiol, Ipsilon, and Fanari of the city. Each neighborhood had its own church, for example, St. Nicholas, Holy Trinity, St. George, St. John, Prophet Elias, and the Transfiguration of the Savior – the Greek Orthodox faith was an important element in the Pontian Greek identity.

Kerasounta was an important port for the import/export trade in the Black Sea and beyond. Trade was conducted by the Greek shipping companies of Kakoulidis, Pissani, Sourmeli, Pavlidis, Andreadis, Palasof, and Tsiliggiri. The chief exports were hazelnuts, animal hides, beans, beans, and timber. Kerasounta was famous for its hazelnuts which were exported to Marseilles (France).

The Ottoman Bank, Bank of Athens, and Georgiou Pissani Bank had branches in Kerasounta. The banks were central to the economic life of the town, providing credit to the shipping firms and exporters/importers to help their business activities.

In the political realm, the Mayor Topal Osman (1920-23) was a cruel, despicable, and fiendish individual who terrorized the local Greeks with his band of cut-throat chettes. Here are two examples of his vicious behavior towards the Greeks: He ordered the tearing down of a whole row of buildings in the Greek quarter of the city on the pretext of widening the street; he had purchased the land for his private economic gain. He also drove the Greeks out of their rented businesses and handed them over to the Turks.

In August 1920, the financial condition of Kerasounta residents was terrible as they faced repressive taxation, the threat of famine, and confiscation of property. Some found it difficult to pay taxes and ended up losing everything. Others sold personal items to pay the exorbitant taxes to keep their possessions.

Topal Osman and his chettes raided, burned, plundered, and killed Greeks in the villages of Pontos. The young males were killed and young women were carried off to Turkish harems, including young children. The remainder of the population was deported into the Anatolian interior, never to be seen again.

I will now outline Peter Seitanidis’ account the stories of his grandfather, Panayiotis, and his grand uncle, Giannis, who were brothers. There was also an uncle and a cousin of Peter's grandfather and grand uncle who were all taken from Kerasounta and marched into the mountains by a single Turkish gendarme. It seems strange that a single gendarme would be assigned to guard four individuals. They could easily have disarmed the guard if they wanted to.

Along their journey, they stopped to rest in an abandoned church. Giannis realized very quickly that they needed to escape fearing that they would never be reunited with their families again. However, the gendarme told them that they would be held in a detention center until the Turkish authorities decided what to do with them

During their stopover, they discussed the idea of disarming the gendarme to make their escape. Moreover, they were prepared to use violence if needed.

Panayiotis was a deeply religious man who disagreed in using violence against the Turkish gendarme. He regarded it as an anti-Christian and sinful to kill another human being.

Peter's grandfather got frostbite on his toes which is not surprising. There are eyewitness accounts where deportees walked shoelessly and wearing rags as clothes. Many perished along the way before reaching their internment camp. It is not surprising that Panayiotis ended up with frostbite and luckily survived to tell his story to Peter's father.

The brothers escaped eventually from their detention center from a location far removed from their own village. Peter was never told the location of the detention center, but one can safely assume it was far away from the Black Sea coast, away from the prying eyes of missionaries and journalists.

After their escape, Panayiotis stopped at a monastery run by Greeks. The nuns removed two of his toes; without this intervention gangrene would have resulted in the loss of his leg. He walked with a slight limp for the rest of his life. We aren't told the actual location of the monastery and by some miraculous divine intervention it was not targeted by the Kemalists.

The mother superior (igoumennisa) told Panayiotis that he was to marry her niece, Sofia who turned out to be Peter's grandmother. Peter was never told of the circumstances behind his grandfather's marriage to Sofia. We can only guess that the igoumennisa was trying to save her niece from being carried off by the Turks.

There were married in a Greek church in Kerasounta just before the Asia Minor catastrophe in September 1922. It seems strange that they were permitted to marry in a city ruled by Topal Osman. One would think that they would have been either killed or deported into the Anatolian interior.

Sofia's younger sister, Eleni remained behind, separated from her family by the Turks and never seen again. She could have been a beautiful woman who ended up in a harem and most likely converted to Islam to escape any reprisals. It would be interesting to learn if Sofia made inquiries with the Greek Red Cross and other relief agencies as to the whereabouts of her sister in Asia Minor.

The head nun went to Greece as part of the compulsory Greek-Turkish exchange of populations in 1923. She ended up in a nunnery outside of Athens. One day, Peter's grandfather met the head nun in Athens as they were related by marriage. Peter couldn't add any more to his family history.

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