An Amulet Of Greek Earth


REVIEW by Willard Manus

"When I began giving talks around the country, I was struck by how little Greek Americans and their children knew about the experience of their parents and grandparents and the culture they brought with them. Often what they knew was damaged by half-truths. They were as little aware as I had been when I first began looking into the immigrant past. This impelled me to write this book, because that Romiosini culture that the Greeks brought with them was remarkable. If people did not know it, they could not value its uniqueness, could not understand why we Greek Americans are who we are today."

This is how Helen Papanikolas introduces AN AMULET OF GREEK EARTH--GENERATIONS OF FOLK CULTURE. Published by Swallow Press, an imprint of Ohio University Press, the book is a wide-ranging, vivid account of the Greek immigrant experience in the USA. A major work, it is based on a lifetime of research, interviews and reading. Mostly known for her novels and short stories detailing Greek American life, Papanikolas can add the title of cultural historian to her impressive list of literary credits.

AMULET commences with a chapter that sketches the reasons for the first great emigration of Greeks to the USA: the Turkish occupation of Greece during the four hundred years of the Ottoman Empire, the imposition by the "Great Powers" of a foreign king after Greece overthrew Turkey. The economy worsened, poverty and hunger followed, and when, at the turn of the century, labor agents arrived and prowled the country promising high-paying jobs to all those willing to emigrate to the USA, hundreds of thousands of Greek people responded to the siren call.

"Families sent mostly boys and young men," writes Papanikolas. "They walked over mountains, crossed barren valleys, forded rivers, took caiques to seaports. They clutched kilimi, woven goat-hair blankets in which they wrapped their few belongings. Inside the kilimi their mothers had placed sprigs of basil or thyme for remembrance. Sewn to the underclothes was the family's meager pool of money, barely enough for steerage...Most important was an amulet around their necks, a small cloth square enclosing a pinch of Greek earth."

From that opening, Papanikolas backtracks and looks at all the historical, religious and cultural forces that had gone into the shaping of the character of those valiant sons of Greece, sailing across savage seas to fight for survival in a strange land. The author's emphasis is always on folklore--the songs, poems and customs of the Greek people, all of which contributed to their view of the world and of themselves. Thus, history is personalized and made pungently real for the reader.

Between the years 1871 and 1930, 421,091 Greeks arrived in the USA. "If they had relatives or village friends already in the country, they went to them. Often they found their kin and friends gone, looking for work themselves. Then they traveled from one town to another, one city to another, mostly on freight trains. Other immigrants arrived in a mill or factory town and remained there for the rest of their lives. Those who went on in search of work had to traverse the width of the United States more than once. For food, they melted lard in a can over hot bricks and dipped bread into it."

The American Dream was more like a nightmare for many of them. Exploitation, violence, thievery and racism dogged them--in some places in the south a Greek could be lynched for walking with a "white" woman, Through it all, the Greeks clung desperately to their religion, philotimou, music and traditions (such as the coffeehouse). Then came WW I. Though some Greeks questioned why they should fight for a country that often seemed to despise them, "a great show of patriotic fervor for their adopted country" began to manifest itself (spurred on by Greek newspapers reminding them that they were the descendants of ancient Spartan warriors).

Greeks continued to straddle two cultures after the war ended. Papanikolas provides rich examples of how, for example, the karagiozi puppet show became a hit comedy record in the USA, replete with malapropisms and topical jokes (Karagiozis asking a friend who speaks a little English to help him woo an American woman).

Papanikolas goes on to describe the advent of WW II and the end of the great immigrant era. Assimilation comes in for discussion--there are long passages on such successful Greeks as the Skouras brothers, Alexander Pantages and Jimmy Londos, the "Golden Greek" wrestler--but always within the context of the struggle to maintain old-world customs and traditions.

Papanikolas closes with these words: "How much do the progeny of the first Greek immigrants know of their people's origins? Have they been told of the prejudices, exploitation by both American and Greek agents, the hunger, joblessness, low wages, sacrifices to fulfull family responsibilities, the drive to build churches, and the obsession to retain their Romiosini culture in a foreign land? The generations have come and gone and they know but little. Memoirs abound, but only one immigrant left a diary of those years, and matriarchs and patriarchs are no longer alive. As Kazantzakis said, 'No one understands their ancestors less well than the descendants.'"

With this impressive book, Papanikolas has done what she can to right those wrongs.