Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Papou sends his sons abroad

This blog evolved from my daughter’s request to have me tell some of the family stories. It actually was supposed to be a video memoir, which I didn’t warm to. This is about my Papou, in Asia Minor just before the catastrophe of 1922-23.

I was named after him Grigorios Polichronis Birbilakis, Greg Birbil seems a very poor translation, I should go back to the original, it is impressive as hell.

Back to Asia Minor.

It seems that the Greek men were drafted into the Turkish army; they were Turks so they were draft able, being Greeks though they ended up in the work battalions, which was the equivalent of a death sentence.

My Grandfather ( Papou) having some money, being a prosperous fisherman, would send his sons, my father and my uncles abroad, to avoid being drafted, not unlike going to Canada during the Viet Nam war. Pop was sent to the States to avoid the draft; he was in America when the catastrophe happened. My Uncle Stephano was sent to England, and when he returned to Greece after the population exchange, he was forever known as the Englishman, (o Englesos).

My Mother’s family did the same; her oldest brother was killed while in one of those dreaded work battalions in the Turkish army, after that, all her other brothers were sent abroad. My mother’s family ended up in France because one of her brothers was in Marseilles, avoiding the draft. His name was Cariofilis Alexandridis, he filled out a French form wrongly and was forever known as Alex Cariofilis…so was my Mom’s family in France, and their last name disappeared in the morass of French government bullshit.

My Father was in the States at the time of the catastrophe, I can only imagine what he went through, no info, not really knowing what was going on…no CNN, no Internet, he must have felt so alone. He never spoke to me about it, I never asked and now it is too late.

My Grandfather and the people from the village apparently landed in Edipso on the island of Evia, their first stop in Greece…an old lady in Nea Michaniona told me they arrived on the last day of August and were allowed to use the hotels until the spring, then they had to leave and find someplace to settle. My Papou and some of his family as well as some others decided to stay, they built houses and to this day I have cousins there. The rest of the villagers went to Nea Michaniona, outside of Salonika.

I really have to go there again to get more info, although I was told that the steamship that brought them to Edipso, had one caique, fishing boat, on board, it belonged to my Grandfather. There is also a photo I seem to remember that I saw at a cousin’s house, it is the funeral of Papou, and he is on his caique so people can pay their respect.

I have to get a copy of that photo.

I have to also get more information, once you start you realize how little you know and how complicated it is to get the additional information; the oral sources are about to or have died out.

I should have asked more and listened more when I was a kid.


  1. Fascinating. And I guess most people are not so interested in their family history until they're older and it's too late. Plus even when you think you know something, it may have to be further questioned. My sister and I discovered from a letter found after our mother died that a story we'd both believed about our father's younger years was entirely untrue ... and now there's no-one to ask about what really happened.

  2. This is wonderful, Greg. Maybe you can't see it but I definitely see your face in the face of your Papou. You are lucky you have these old photos. They are priceless.

    Keep searching and find more. Keep writing about family ancestors. Keep looking and you will be greatly rewarded in what you find. BRAVO

  3. Brilliant image of Papou's Caiki on the steamship, and then of him on it at his funeral for people to pay their respects. Very moving. It would be great if you can find that picture- either way I shall have to paint it. I know theres more to come in this series...

  4. At last! The story's beginning to take shape. Thank you, Dad...

  5. A good start, Gregorios ... totally agree with your last statement-talking about my family recently I said that I would love to have some of that history they took with them, but unfortunately we were too young to appreciate what they had to say then and they are gone now that we can appreciate it...
    Keep up the good work.

  6. Greg, I just spoke with my father and it seems that we are related. I recognized the name Birbilakis....he has mentioned it over the years as that being his grandfathers name. I think your father or grandfather and my grandfather were first cousins. The picture of your grandfather looks familiar to me and I wonder if one of my aunts or my father has it somewhere. I would love to connect with you to try to pull together more of my family tree. i was born in Boston and still live in Eastern Massachusetts. You can find me on Facebook, if your on it, under that name.
    Christine Hrissanthou Wilson