Kaisariani: portrait of a refugee quarter in the 1930's
Extracts from Interviews, Compilation,
- Yannis and Maria met again
- A corner shack with a window
- Our life in the shacks
- A herring for the four of us
- We would all help each other out
- I never really enjoyed schooling
I was born in Kaisariani in 1928. My parents were from Asia Minor. My mother came to Greece in 1922 with the refugees, alone, without any other relatives, just with fellow villagers. She left her village of Bayindir, and went to Smyrna. She would describe to me how she hid from house to house, until the fire[i]...
My father remained in Asia Minor as a prisoner, and arrived in Greece a year later, with the exchange of populations[ii]. In the beginning my mother, just as all the other refugees, lived in storehouses and schools. Later on they were given tents in Kaisariani. There is a photo at the municipal hall in Kaisariani showing those tents. That was the first stage of the refugee settlement.
When my father arrived from Asia Minor by ship at Piraeus started asking around where women from the village of Bayindir could be found. He chanced upon a woman from Bayindir, a fellow villager of my mother's, who knew where she now lived. She showed him the way to Kaisariani. You can imagine how moved they both were, Yannis and Maria, when they met again. My father dressed in rags and covered in lice. My mother had not known if he was alive or not. She told me she used to go and see a medium, to ask if he was still alive, and the medium would tell her not to worry, because she could see him feeding camels. And it was true, he had been given the job of feeding camels in the Turkish army.
So finally my father arrived. My mother told me that they constructed a bed of empty barrels and planks of wood to sleep on in their tent. Meanwhile a church had also been constructed in the neighbourhood, the church of St Nikolaos. You could say my father was religious. He really liked the church and church music. Since our tent was close to St Nikolaos, he would go every Sunday and follow the service. Sometimes he would stay on in the afternoons and follow the weddings and the baptisms that would take place....
One Sunday afternoon a wedding was taking place. My father, since he didn’t go to cafes and he didn’t drink also, he was following the ceremonies in the church more as a pass time. My mother remained in the tent, since she was pregnant with my sister at the time. She waited for Yangos[iii] to return, but there was no sign of him even at ten, eleven, twelve or one in the morning. The church was empty and closed. The poor lady became anxious. 'What happened to Yangos? Where can Yangos have gone?' She did not know what to do. She stayed awake all night waiting for Yangos. Early in the morning he arrived.
- 'Where have you been?' she asked all concerned.
- 'Don't say a word' he said 'Whilst I was in the church, I heard that they are sharing out the shacks, so I left the wedding and rushed over there. I entered one of them and stayed in it so that no one would take it from me.'
And the poor man had stayed till the morning. I do not know if they gave it to him or if he took it on his own accord, but luckily it was on a corner and it had a little window looking onto an alley and was bright and airy. That is how Yangos got the shack. In the morning he had asked a neighbour to watch out so that no one else would take it, and had run swiftly to tell Maria and to fetch their belongings.
In Asia Minor my father used to sew decorative borders onto waistcoats, that was his job. When he arrived here he had no work, so my mother bought two baskets and filled one with lemons and the other with eggs. But he was ashamed to go out and sell them and would break down in tears. My mother was dynamic and she would tell him:
- 'What's going on here? Am only I going to work? You are a grown man, go out and sell the stuff'.
He was had little choice. He took the baskets and set off around the neighbourhoods. He sold everything and returned satisfied, refilled the baskets and set off again. In the beginning that is what he did. Later on he became a road sweeper in the Municipality of Athens. He used sweep the pavement on Aiolou street. But every so often the mayor would change (my father would mention mayor Kotzias and another name). So when Kotzias would lose his post and the other one would come in, my father would also lose his job. I do not know if Kotzias was the one giving him work, or maybe the other man. As a result, he did not have steady work. Many times he would stay at home, and my unfortunate mother would have to work to help out. My sister used to go and help a neighbour who was a seamstress, so as to learn the job. We had an aunty in Nea Ionia[iv] who was also a seamstress and my sister would go there as well to learn by her side, but in the end she never managed to work as a seamstress.
My father was a Venizelist[v]. He used to say that 'even if they drown me in the sea I will stick out my finger and shout Venizelos's name'. All the people from Asia Minor were supporters of Venizelos, for better or for worst I do not know; only history can tell. Kaisariani was of course a left wing neighbourhood. If I had remained in Kaisariani, maybe I would not be alive now. I left young, at the age of thirteen, in 1941. If I had remained I would definitely have got involved with the resistance and maybe I would not exist now. I would have got it from somewhere...
My sister was born in the shack and so was I with the help of a midwife, as was always the case back in Asia Minor. There were no hospitals available or maternity clinics, only midwives helping women to deliver.
My memories from a very young age are of living in a shack. And not just us, but a great portion of the refugees from Asian Minor who were settled in Kaisariani, especially in the lower part of the neighbourhood, all lived in shacks. Each family got a shack, irrespective of how many members it had. One single room. I admit I don't remember quite how big it was. Four by four metres? Maybe three by four. I do not know, I was just a child. But I do remember it was just one single room.
The shacks were set in a row. If I remember correctly, there was ours, then aunty Elenitsa's next to it, then Mrs Vangelio's, after that Mrs Maria's, Mrs Archondoula's and then Mrs Olympia's. So there were six shacks on one side and six on the other. The shacks were separated from each other on the back side by a partition of wooden planks. So if someone snored in the shack behind yours, or the neighbour diagonally attached, we would hear it. And indeed any other sounds they may be making.
I remember that directly behind us lived a family. A daughter, a son and their mother, who it seems was having an affair with a gendarme. There was plenty of gossip about it. The daughter was young, around sixteen or seventeen and quite chubby, and they all used to live in the same room, the mother, the lover and the daughter. The son left home at some point. As a small child I would hear all the gossip, without really understanding what it all meant.
Next to our shack my father had constructed a small kitchen out of old oil cans. He had opened out the old cans and constructed a small kitchen, so that mother could cook there and we also used to use it as a dining area. She also kept a tub there, and every Saturday she would wash us, as if she was doing laundry, my father, my sister and myself. She also had a large barrel in the kitchen, where she would collect rain water. Because the rain water was better for washing our hair and even the laundry came out better.
There was a family in our neighbourhood with eight children. The wife was called Costandia, and we used to call her Costandia the 'oil lady' (they used to make up nicknames), because she turned the little kitchen that her husband constructed into a small grocery, where she would sell oil. Imagine the space! In that small room, eight children and the two parents and the kitchen doubling as a store.
Many times we would put up in our little kitchen fellows or people from Asia Minor who didn't dare return to their houses further up because the police were after them, or there were road blocks and the like. Purely politically motivated, because they were communists. These people lived higher up in our neighbourhood, also in shacks, and would go to work as normal. But before returning home they would be warned, 'don't go up, there is a road block', so they would find somewhere lower down to spend the night, many times at our place. And because of the gendarme who used to stay right behind our shack my unfortunate father would tremble with fear. He used to tell me:
- 'Beware! Don't go out in the neighbourhood in the morning and tell the other children that uncle such and such stayed over the night.'
What I mean is that you could hear everything the way the shacks were built, and information would spread by word of mouth.
The shacks formed a rectangle, and there were narrow entrances through which only a bicycle or a donkey or at most a small cart could fit. But cars could not enter. In the middle of each rectangle there was a communal latrine, which was also separated in two, one side for women and one for men. Of course people were also obliged to use potties at night and the next morning all the women of the neighbourhood would march out to empty them in the latrines. There was a common drain were all the waste would collect, and the special disposal truck of the municipality of Kaisariani would often delay coming to empty it, so it would fill up and overflow and smell.
There was no running water in our shacks of course. There were communal municipal taps on some corners, which were cemented around. I remember we used to go and get water. My poor mother would work to help out my father and would be away all day. Since the water only ran at certain hours of the day, let’s say from ten o'clock to noon or from one o'clock to three, everyone (but primarily the women) would rush out to fill their canisters. We would use old oil cans which had a piece of rounded wood fixed across the middle for a handle, or buckets. Since my mother was away at work and my sister was a seamstress's apprentice and was not home, I would usually have to carry water for my whole family. I can remember the scene when we used to queue up. The women would get up early and go and place their cans in a queue, one behind the other. When the water would come, we would go to the tap and of course sometimes someone would try to queue barge. Then fights would break out with the canister being brought down on each others heads. There was also an Armenian woman whom we had nicknamed 'the burned onion', because she would come with her canister and plead with us to let her get water, with the excuse that she had left onions cooking on the fire and they would soon burn.
Until 1940 – 41, when the German occupation started and I left home, but even as late as 1944 when my whole old neighbourhood got burned, I never heard that they had put running water in the houses. The same must have applied for the other neighbourhoods above ours, which we used to call the 'built ones', since above a certain point, although they were still refugee houses, they were built with adobe bricks. Some were single storied and some double storied. They still exist even today, but I am afraid that soon they will knock them down to build apartment blocks. Even now I often pass by or go and visit them. I am always deeply moved. And those 'built ones' as we called them had a similar system to ours: very small rooms and outside tiny kitchens that you have to bend down to enter. I wonder how these people fit in them. So I am afraid that those people too had no comforts.
Further up from us there was a ravine which has now been covered over. That was the Armenian quarter. There was an Armenian church, with an Armenian priest, and in it the Armenians ran their school. And we were total brats. When we would go by, we would tease the Armenian children. I remember the Armenian priest, who used to come and visit a family which lived close to us. I don't remember exactly when, but at some point the Armenians all left as a group and went to Russia. At least that is what I heard. Close to the ravine there was also a small factory where the Armenians made rugs, and as I would pass the ravine on my way to school, there would be green and red dies spilled everywhere.
You can imagine how much poverty there was. I remember that many times at home there was nothing to eat for dinner. We would buy a preserved herring from the grocer's and my father would light a newspaper to cook it. The four of us would share it. We would eat one herring and because it was salty, we would drink lots of water, our bellies would swell and we would go to sleep.
Clothes? I remember that we would get shoes once a year, when we could afford it.
In winter our shack would leak, because we were at the lower level. Opposite us there were other shacks, not even built houses, but since those people were a bit better off, they put tiles to stop the water getting in. Whilst the rest of us were given a roll of tar paper each by the municipality every autumn. The men would lay it out on the roofs and nail it down with wooden laths, but when the wind was very strong it would tear them apart and the rain would come in. My poor mother would take all the cauldrons, pots and pans and put them wherever the water dripped. I remember that many times it even dripped on the bed my sister and I slept on. Mother would role up the mattress, preventing it from getting wet and mouldy, put it to the side and get us on top of it. We spent some nights completely sleepless on the mattress. That was a constant problem, until the shack finally burned down.
You can imagine how much damp there was in the shack. To try and heat it, my mother would buy charcoal dust from old Mr Alekos. The dregs of simple charcoal, not coke. She would also buy lime and kneed them together into small lumps like little loafs of bread. She would then put them out in the sun to dry, and once dried, would store them in cans until winter, when she would burn them in the stove. My mother also owned a brazier. It was a small metal barrel which my father had secured with bricks to use as a brazier. That is where my mother cooked and boiled water for the laundry. She would do the laundry in a trough. She also had a basket in which she would put the laundry, cover it with a special cloth on which she would place ash, and then poor water through.
For lighting we had petrol lamps. Our better one was of bronze and my mother would get me to polish it with lemon and ash. In the kitchen we had the likes of those glass round ones.
Naturally our neighbours were all from Asia Minor. Despite the sadness and pain they had over losing their possessions, their homes and their homeland, these people slowly found work here and did not lack in spirit.
They would go to the taverns that sprang up around there, drink a little wine or ouzo and sing. They were hearty people. If there was a wedding for example, they would all help out. The men would wear table cloths around their waists and help out as waiters, laying tables in the yard. Or if a woman was going to give birth, all the women of the neighbourhood would rush to help her deliver, wash her clothes, cook for her and wash her dishes. And if there was a funeral, again everyone would help. It was not like it is today, where you live in an apartment block and don't know who lives above you, bellow you or next to you. There people knew each other in the neighbourhood and would all help each other out.
There were all sorts of characters there in our community. First and foremost I remember the pesvandis. Pesvandis must be a Turkish word... So this night’s watchman used to wear khaki breeches, like the Cretans do, and tall black boots as the people from Vourla[vi] do (there was another neighbour from Vourla and he also used to wear them). He would do his rounds three times during the night, once around eleven o'clock, once around one in the morning and once around three. He would neither talk, nor shout. He would simply carry a hefty rounded wooden staff and wherever he had spotted rocks on the ground, he would knock them making a resounding sound two or three times to scare away any thieves.
This man, the pesvandis, would use his staff first of all to warn any thieves to leave because he was approaching and also, I imagine, to use as a defensive or even offensive weapon. He would make his rounds at noon on Sunday and we would give a drachma each. That was his reward.
The only 'thief' I remember was 'Psahoulas'[vii]. Because it was very hot inside the shacks during the summer, most people would sleep outside. They would lay their bedding on a small ledge outside their homes if they had one or on small cots, or on the ground. Or they would sleep with the doors and windows of their shacks wide open. So this unfortunate sod 'Psahoulas' would not steal anything. He would go wherever there was a woman or a young lady, put his hand under the sheets and grab a leg or a thigh. And people would say 'Psahoulas made his appearance again tonight'.
Another character was the town crier. What today has become the science of advertisement, which floods our ears from the radio and television, back then was a blind man who would walk around with his walking stick, led by a small boy. I remember him well. He would go to the corners of the blocks in the neighbourhoods and advertise, and was, I guess, paid by the person he advertised. There was a well known butcher’s store in Kaisariani, Stravaridi's butcher store, and the town crier would yell, especially on Saturdays since that is when people would go to shop.
- 'Today at Stravaridi's butcher store you will find veal for thirty drachmas and lamb for...!' or 'A small child has been lost, if anyone finds it he should bring it to the police station!'
Meat was not something that we or the others had the financial means to eat as people eat it today. We would buy meat once a week, so Sunday was a big day for us. On Sunday we would put on our best clothes, my father would shave to go to church and our whole mood would change. Whilst on week days we would eat pulses, rice with leaks, rice with spinach, herring cooked on newspaper, salad, various soups or salted cod. Those were the dishes that I remember. Of course in the summer there were egg plants, okras, all those. But not as they are cooked today all mixed together. Egg plants separately, okras separately. One dish in each pot.
As for sweets, my mother used to make fruit preserves. She didn't use to make baklava, ravani and the likes. In the summer she would take grapes and make grape sweet. Or she would take watermelon or the peel of bitter oranges, roll them up and make what she called 'karoulaki'[viii]. My mother also used to do another thing, she would take long thin egg plants, cut them down in the middle, remove the inside and thread them into bunches. She would also thread okras. Then she would hang them out to dry and keep them for winter, when she would boil them. We also made trahana[ix] and tomato paste. Women would buy tomatoes and lay them out on trays on the easily accessible roofs of the shacks. In the summer the whole neighbourhood smelled of sour tomatoes. They would also make fide[x]. They would mix dough from flour and use the 'kalbouria' as we used to call sieves. My mother would also make tsakistes olives[xi], with olives she would buy from the street market. There was a street market in Pangrati[xii] and the women used to go there and carry stuff back. In fact it was one of my great pleasures being taken to the street market, I really used to enjoy it. She also used to make pickled anchovies.
The women also used to knit of course, the so called 'pitsini'. Aunty Elenitsa would always be making little round crochet patches and then join them up. My mother had little [crochet] curtains on the windows. On the ground we had kourelou[xiii] rugs.
In the beginning I went to school in one of the shacks, just as the church was also in a shack, instead of the massive building it is now. Later on Venizelo's school[ivx] was built up in Kaisariani and I attended there for the rest of my schooling.
I can not remember, and I could not distinguish since I was a small child, if the other children were from various parts of Greece. It seems evident that they must have all been the children of refugees. As I said, in our neighbourhood we also had Armenians. Later on, I do not know how and why, we also had a lady called Mrs Stella 'the Mytilinian'. She was from [the island of] Mytilene, and since she was not from Asia Minor we used to point her out, and whenever we referred to her we would say 'the son of Stella the Mytilinian did this...'
We used to study with the light of the petrol lamp. But I must admit that I never really enjoyed my schooling. At home there was nothing more than the New Testament and the newspaper my father would read. My parents would get me to read out to them The Apocalypse of John, but I could not understand what it said. My mother was completely illiterate. I taught her how to sign her name. My father had completed elementary school at Bayindir, so he could read the newspaper with ease. But we had no books at home, except for the school books. For us the term 'educated' referred to the children that were attending high school.
There were about thirty children in my class. Our teacher was Mrs Soso, who had a limp. We also had the 'Pupils Vestiary', and every year they would come and hand out to poorer pupils a blue school smock which would fasten at the back and a pair of leather shoes. That was the case until I finished primary school. There was a time when they also gave us rations, so we would take a napkin and a plate with us. Our school building housed three different elementary schools and I was in the third one. Opposite there was a sports ground and children would play soccer or play on the swings and slides.
I remember a lady we would call 'the American'. She would hand out condensed sweet milk to the women for their children, before the [German] occupation of course. She used to congregate the mothers in a classroom and instruct them concerning their children. The mothers would attend once a week...
[i] The great fire of Smyrna, which destroyed the city following the withdrawal of the Greek army after the defeat in September 1922. back
[ii] The compulsory large scale exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in 1923, following the war between the two countries in 1922. back
[iii] Yangos: diminutive for Giannis. back
[iv] Nea Ionia: another area of Athens where refugees settled. back
[v] Venizelist: supporter of the republican Greek statesman Eleftherios Venizelos. back
[vi] Vourla: town in Asia Minor. back
[vii] Psahoulas: slang nickname meaning searcher or fondler. back
[viii] Karoulaki: little spool. back
[ix] Trahana: wheat mixed with milk and then dried in the sun. back
[x] Fide: fine wheat noodles. back
[xi] Tsakistes: olives split open before being preserved. back
[xii] Pangrati: old Athenian neighbourhood close to Kaisariani. back
[xiii] Kurelu: rugs made by weaving together strips of spare fabric. back
[xiv] Venizelo's school: by implication the school built in Kaisariani during the last intermittent premiership (1928-1933) of the Greek statesman Eleftherios Venizelos. back