Finding My Roots (Part I)

Two weeks ago, I took a week-long trip to southern New Jersey and Philadelphia to try and discover more about my ancestral roots. This is the first of a series of articles detailing that process for you, the good parts, the bad, the easy and the difficult. I hope that reading it may help you on your own genealogical path.

Like many parents, mine regaled me with stories of their pasts and their families’ history. My mother’s parents both came from the same Greek island, Chios (“he-oh-ss”, which lies just off the Turkish coast). While they both immigrated to the United States in the early 1900’s, they did not know each other until they met in New York City. They were introduced by family friends. At the time, the Greek immigrant community, like many other immigrant communities, was rather insular and the fact that my maternal grandparents came from the same island but met in the USA should surprise no one.

My mother knew all four of her grandparents, but only one of them well. This was her mother’s mother, and she was the image of a proper lady of the late 1800’s. When I say my mother knew her well, that means her grandmother lived in the same apartment as her parents and three sisters, but she didn’t know her in the 21st-century sense of the word. My great-grandmother was very much of the school that “children should be seen and not heard”, and “adult” topics (such as money, family, politics or religion – sex was not even a consideration) were hardly for adults you didn’t know well, much less their children. Great-grandma was a disciplinarian that no one liked, to be honest. So, my mother’s knowledge of her family history was limited to two generations, maybe three.

The other reason my mother did not know much, and why it is hard to find records, is war. Since the early 1800’s (never mind before), Greece has seen its war of independence, wars with its Balkan neighbors, World War I, war with Turkey in the aftermath of that war, World War II, and a civil war. In the process, many of the records that did exist were destroyed or lost. Until relatively recently, the depository of most important records (birth, baptism, marriage, death) was kept rather irregularly by the Greek Orthodox Church, and many of these were targets in wartime.

Finding records about anyone on Chios is doubly difficult. Some of you may be familiar with the famous painting by famous French artist Eugene Delacroix, “The Massacre at Chios” (1824), commemorating the victims of the Turkish re-occupation of the island during the Greek War of Independence. To make a long story short, the Chiotes (“he-oh-tees” as the islanders are known) rather reluctantly threw in their lots with the independence movement and suffered retribution at the hands of the Turks. The pre-invasion population was an estimated 100,000. When the Turks were through, there were 20,000, the rest having been killed or taken into slavery. Many of the structures on Chios were torched especially churches. Needless to say, many records were destroyed, and many memories lost.

Though a portion of Greece won its independence as a result of the war in the 1820’s, a sizable portion of the country, both mainland, and islands remained part of the Ottoman Empire. Chios, just under three and a half miles from the Turkish mainland, remained under Turkish control until the demise of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I. Any other records that did exist, for example, tax records (and the Greeks are notoriously proud of their skill at tax evasion), likely resided in Turkey, if at all.

All that to say that my recent trip to research my family history focused on my father’s side! Hopefully, I will someday have both the time and money to travel to Greece to do the research that might turn up some heretofore unknown branch of my maternal ancestry. Until here I come to New Jersey!! In the next article of this series, I will tell you a bit about that side of my family and the goals I had for my trip.

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