A mother’s courage made survival of the Greek genocide possible. It is because of my grandmother Parthena Haita that my family is alive today. Her instinct to survive and keep her two remaining children safe during the 1916 invasion of the Turks into her Greek village, was all that came between them and the hundreds of thousands of people killed between May 1916 and 1919, during the Anatolian Greek genocide.
She was 26-years old and had just lost two children – a son and a daughter – to cholera. Four-year- old Theodore died during the night, and when they returned from his burial, they found 3-year old Vasiliki had also succumbed. She was buried in the bread box from which she once loved to sneak her favorite treats.
Within a month, word would come that Grandfather Demetrios Haita, who had been drafted into the Turkish army, was also lost to them. If it was a Greek life, it was expendable.
Our family’s trauma was mirrored house-to- house, throughout our village and the country. Soon the Turks would come and drive them from their home. Grandmother dragged boxes of cherished family China to the roof and threw them against the cobblestones below. She knew their family would never be back and she would deny the invaders her dowry.
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The Turkish army did come. They threw grandmother and her two children, 8-year old Panayiogis and 6-year old Sophia (my mother) out onto the streets. They only had time to grab what they could carry; a few blankets, candles, pots, pans, flour and sugar that would keep them alive in the forest, while they waited for rescue. They had only a couple of minutes to get all they would ever have from their past.
Life is like having your fists all pulled up like a boxer; you stay ready.
Sophia Dictos, Paul Dictos’ mother
My uncle tells of watching the bodies of so many Greeks and Armenians wash up on the Black Sea’s shore. After several days, a boat finally picked them up and took them across the ocean to Crimea. Over a million Greeks went to Russia during that time. It was a death sentence to be left behind.
Grandmother, Uncle Panayiogis and Sophia lived in Crimea for six years, sharing a single room in the damp basement of a home where grandmother worked as a housekeeper. They had to keep their door cracked open after they almost died from the coal stove’s carbon dioxide filling the small room.
When she got to be around 9 years old, Mama sold sunflower seeds on the street to the Russians, who had a fondness for them.
In 1921, the Greek government sent boats to bring refugees back home. But Grandmother had no passports for herself and her two children. She knew a man who had just lost his wife, and his passport still included his deceased wife’s name. She persuaded him to let her board the ship with him, as his wife.
Once they reached Greece, she never saw him again.
She instructed her children – now 14 and 12 – to climb up the ship’s garbage hole and wait for her. Her refusal to ever accept defeat had kept them alive and would now get them back to Greece. Her daughter, my mother, was watching closely and would carry that spirit forward in her own life.
In 1935, my mother married my father, Aristoklis Diktiopoulos. She was 23, he 38. In 1967, at ages 57 and 72, they and my brother Pericles, sister Irene and my fiancée Stella Panagiotou, who was 19, would immigrate to the U.S. As a young adult, I would join them a short time later. (The family members simplified their name to Dictos after arriving.)
My parents didn’t know how they would make a living here. But my mother was smart. She got a job working in a senior-care facility, and if there was one thing she knew, it was how to take care of others. She bought a house with a $50 down payment and converted it to a residential-care facility.
I came to the U.S., married Stella and moved into an upstairs room in that house. We all lived there, where my mother was running a home. That’s how you make it.
I learned everything from my mother. She told me that “Life is like having your fists all pulled up like a boxer; you stay ready.” You fall down, you get up. You start again from nothing. This is what she has given her children, what she has given me. And, I know that my children and their children are watching.
It is my hope that we will live our lives in a way that honors all those lives lost in the Greek genocide of 1916.
Paul Dictos of Fresno is the Fresno County Assessor Recorder.
Greek Day of Remembrance
Date: Friday, May 19
Time: 10 a.m. to noon
Where: Fresno City Hall, 2600 Fresno St.