GR US

Michalis Veziris: The Final Chapter

Αssociated Press

(AP Photo/J. David Ake)

This is the final chapter of the story of our fictional character, Michalis Veziris, through the pages of his private journal.

With the Asia Minor issue resolved, 1924 was my 4th year in America. I experienced so much emotional pain over the past 15 months, losing my entire family in the Smyrna fire and the death of my brother, George. Despite the difficulties, life must continue.

Over the next few years, our restaurant boomed and I found myself in the fortunate position of buying two more restaurants in downtown New York. The money was flowing in like rivers of gold. No wonder why they call America the land of dreams. Anything is possible, if you are prepared to work for it.

I employed 70 staff in my three restaurants who came from various ethnic backgrounds: Italians, Armenians, French, Greeks, and Americans. Some of them had limited knowledge of English and I was able to speak to them in their native tongues. I learned French, Italian, and some Armenian when I attended the famous Evangelical School in Smyrna.

I took a keen interest in my employees’ welfare and their families and also paid them good wages. My office door was always open for them to come and discuss their concerns with me. My employees were enthusiastic on the job, treated the customers with courtesy and respect and always had a smile on their faces. A happy face ensured more business.

I decided to take my first trip to Greece in March 1929. I wanted to visit the Parthenon and the ancient sites around Athens. I was also curious to see how our Asia Minor refugees had settled into their new environment. I had three good managers to look after things during my absence.

I sailed from New York on March 12, 1929 onboard the SS Alexander for Piraeus via Marseilles, France. It took 8 days to cross the Atlantic. We experienced terrible weather with strong winds and high seas. I thought our ship would sink to the bottom of the Atlantic with its entire crew and passengers. The weather in the Mediterranean was delightful, however, with calm seas compared with the Atlantic.

I finally arrived in Piraeus on March 20 and told the taxi driver to take me to the Hotel Grand Bretagne in Athens. This hotel would be my central point during my stay in Athens. I visited the Parthenon, which is perched on top of a hill overlooking Athens. I imagined myself being transported back to the time of Pericles and watching him address the Athenian Assembly. The one thing that struck me about Athens was the construction of new neighbourhoods, factories and roads to accommodate its expanding population resulting from the Asia Minor Disaster. The refugees were hardworking, industrious, and eager to do well in Greece. They could never return to their ancestral homeland because of the exchange of population agreement between us and Turkey.

A number of carpet factories had been established in Attiki producing beautiful carpets and rugs which were exported overseas. These factories were profitable due to the availability of cheap local labour. Wages were low, making it difficult for families to meet their daily expenses. If you worked fulltime that helped to some extent but employment as a casual worker was terrible. For the latter, work was irregular.

One day I ran into some Smyrniotes in Nea Smyrni who remembered me. They were so happy to see me after all those years living in America. A few of them remembered my parents with fondness which brought tears to my eyes. Stefanos Manos and Christos Papadoukas were close friends of my father. Both of them had been involved in the import/export business in Smyrna. They invited me to their houses for dinner and we shared memories of a bygone era. They recounted the wonderful days living in Smyrna enjoying comfortable and rich social lives. Manos told me that some of his neighbours had owned businesses, farms, and others were doctors, lawyers, bankers, merchants, and accountants. The Smyrna fire was something that many of them did not wish to discuss with me. The memories were too painful for them. They had lost everything and never received compensation for the destruction of their properties.

Before going to Thessaloniki, I visited Mt Olympus, the home of the Greek Gods and Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic Games. These two places are magical, taking one back to another time and place. I thought Zeus would send one of his thunderbolts down from Mt Olympus.

I spent a couple of months in Thessaloniki and also took the opportunity to visit some of the towns and villages in Macedonia and Western Thrace. To my surprise, I found new agricultural settlements and tobacco planters from Pontos settled in the Kavalla region. The refugees had increased agricultural production, repaired disused houses left behind by the Turks and Bulgarians, and constructed new dwellings in the northern regions of Greece. Thessaloniki, like Athens, had experienced a large influx of refugees from Asia Minor too. In my opinion, refugees living in rural communities fared better than those in the large towns and cities.

I visited Crete to learn more about Venizelos. The Cretans told me he was their national hero and hung pictures of him in their houses. I am proud to call myself a Venizelist. Of course, Venizelos was in power doing a good job for Greece. However, his enemies still lurked in the shadows.

I decided on the spur of the moment to visit Smyrna to see what it looked like after the 1922 fire. I stayed there for a week after entering Turkey on my American passport. Smyrna had also suffered great damage during the earthquake of April 1928, and the Turks were doing their utmost to repair the damage to their city. I walked along the quay trying to imagine the suffering of our people during those black days of September 1922. My family must have suffered terrible deaths in that ordeal.

The stock market crash on Wall Street in October 1929 hastened my return to America. Upon my return in late December, I had to evaluate my business viability. I closed 2 of my restaurants and fired staff whom I could no longer afford to employ. It was the hardest decision I ever made, letting go of such loyal and dedicated staff. My decision impacted their families as well. My choice was either survival or shut down.

I kept our original restaurant in Astoria open with 15 employees reducing prices and cutting wages to remain afloat. People didn't have enough money to purchase the bare essentials of life. There were homeless people who came looking to do any kind of work or asking for any leftover food. Employment was out of the question but we did provide free food to the homeless. That was the least I could do.

I survived this difficult economic time and business started picking up just before the start of World War 2. After the war, my economic position improved and once again I was making lots of money. After 40 years, I sold all my businesses and retired to Miami, Florida in 1960.

Overall, America has been kind to me and has given me the opportunity to become a successful businessman. I survived the economic depression of the 1930s and rebuilt my financial and economic fortune. The greatest pain of all was losing my parents in 1922 and never having gotten the chance to say a final goodbye.