NEW YORK – A light that has burned long and bright has gone out, but will not be forgotten. Sano Themia Halo (1909-2014), the last survivor of the Pontinan Genocide in Ottoman Turkey, who was immortalized by her daughter Thea Halo in her memoire, Not Even My Name, passed away on Monday, April 28, 2014.
She died peacefully at home in her sleep just two weeks shy of her 105th birthday.
Although Halo came from a place in the world that was too small to be depicted on a map, through Not Even My Name, she became known to Pontic Greeks world-wide, as the Yia Yia (grandmother) of all Pontians. To her family and friends she was a warm, sensitive, often humorous, and caring mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.
The only known survivor of her family, Halo’s extraordinary memory brought to life the details of how the Pontic Greeks lived in mountain villages of the Black Sea region of Turkey in the early 20th Century, and her community’s devastating death march to exile in 1920. To help her survive, her mother left 10-year-old Themia, with a woman who promised to care for her, in a small hamlet in southern Turkey. After her mother’s death, young Themia was treated as a slave. With the loss of her family, community, and finally her name, changed to Sano by her cruel keeper, Sano ran away to Diyarbakir at age 12. There, an Armenian family took her in. When they fled to Aleppo, Syria to avoid further massacres, they took young Sano with them as their daughter.
Sano’s future husband, Abraham, an Assyrian who had also fled Turkey and emigrated to the U.S. in 1905, had returned to Aleppo in 1925 to visit exiled cousins and to find a bride. To give Sano a chance at a free life in America, at just 15 years old, her Armenian family arranged Sano’s marriage to 45-year-old Abraham. On their marriage and arrival in New York City, Sano became mother to Farage, Abraham’s 10-year-old son from a previous marriage. Sano and Abraham raised 10 children of their own.
When asked if she wanted restitution from the Turkish government for the loss of her family and her home, Halo responded that she wanted an apology. “We had everything to live for and they sent us to die on the roads,” she said.
In 2002, Halo was given the New York Governor’s Award for Excellence in Honor of Women’s History Month, Honoring Women of Courage and Vision, for making known to the American public for the first time, the history and tragic fate of the Pontic Greeks, a people who had made Asia Minor their home for almost 3,000 years, until their massacre, death marches to exile, and finally the Exchange of Populations in 1923 pursuant to the Treaty of Lausanne.
Although a resident of New York City since her arrival in 1925, neither Halo, nor most of the country, was aware that over 40,000 Pontic Greeks made their homes in Astoria, L.I., with further Pontian communities in Connecticut, Chicago, Canada and elsewhere.
In 2009, for her 100th Birthday, Greece awarded Halo and her daughter, Thea, honorary Greek citizenship. “Now everyone will know I am Greek,” Halo said, referring to a U.S. passport that depicted her place of origin as Turkey, without identifying her as a Greek.
In 1989, she made a pilgrimage with her daughter, Thea, back to Turkey to find her home. “Everyone treated me like family,” she said of the Turks they met along the way.” Although Halo’s story of loss of family, home, country, and finally even her language and her name was so tragic, she never held any animosity towards the Turkish people. She said they had lived side by side in peace. “They are people like any other people. They want to raise their families and prosper. You must place the blame where blame belongs,” she said, “with the Turkish government. Ataturk. He was the one. Not the only one. But he was the one.”
The Ottoman genocide of over three million of their Christian citizens: Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians under the Young Turk and Kemalist regimes from 1913-1923 took the lives of 353,000 of the 700,000 Pontic Greeks, and a further 700,000 Greeks of Ottoman Turkey. It also took the lives of 275,000 Assyrians, more than half their population, and 1.5 million Armenians.
Halo had long opined, “If I could only write, I’d tell the world what happened.” Although her daughter Thea had made her career as a painter, after their trip to Turkey, Thea decided to be her mother’s voice. “Not Even My Name” was published by Picador, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, in 2000. Sano Halo is also featured in a number of documentaries, and has received numerous other honors and awards in the U.S., Canada, and in Greece. The Sano Themia Halo Pontian Heritage Foundation was established by her daughter Thea with the intention of building a living museum in Greece to help future generations know how the Pontic Greeks lived in the Pontic Mountains along the Black Sea.
In 1976 Halo moved to Monroe, NY where she spent the last 37 years of her life. Above all, Halo was devoted to her family. She often said, “My family is my life.” She is survived by seven of her ten children, plus her many grand- and great-grandchildren.