A poignant road to a new world

The crowds of Pakistanis waiting outside their embassy in Kolonaki has become a frequent scene in the neighborhood. As Greece has recently become a destination for thousands of immigrants, scenes like this have become routine. But it was not that long ago – at least when considered in the far-reaching context of history – that Greece was not a country of immigrants but of emigrants. Poverty and the hope for a better future had sent thousands of Greeks abroad. The United States became a «land of promise» and from 1890-1920 more than 400,000 Greeks disembarked on Ellis Island after weeks-long difficult voyages on large ocean liners. Many had no money with them except for the $25 minimum required for their official acceptance into the country. From this first wave of emigrants to the years of the Great Depression to the promising 1950s, when the second big influx of Greek migrants came, the story of Greek emigration is a moving saga that involved hardship and nostalgia. It was an often confusing road for immigrants, who had to forge a new identity and struggle to find success and recognition in their new land. It is a rich story wonderfully told and revealed by film director Maria Iliou in collaboration with historian Alexander Kitroeff in «The Journey: The Greek American Dream,» a just-completed documentary that recently made its debut at the Benaki Museum and the Hellenic American Union (HAU). The documentary is based on newly discovered visual material that Iliou gathered from archives throughout the United States during her three years of research. An exhibition which opened yesterday at the Benaki presents the 100 photographs that were used in the documentary. (Both the exhibition and the screening of the film have been organized in collaboration with HAU and Proteas – a non-profit, Athens-based organization that collects and studies material related to the story of Hellenism – which have collaborated with the Benaki for the exhibition and the screening of the documentary.) Curated by Iliou and Kitroeff, the exhibition has a cinematic flow and is based on the documentary’s chronological structure. An unusual image showing a man dressed in the traditional fustanella costume, carrying a bundle and crossing the bridge of the Corinth Canal, marks the symbolic start of «The Journey.» The images of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island are filled with hope but are also a foreboding of hardship. For Reverend Vassilios, whose disappointed-looking portrait is among the pictures, hope was shattered when he was denied entry because he did not have the minimum $25 required for entry. Those who made it through the checkpoint lived in poverty in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and turned to the so-called padroni (agents) to find jobs. They gave the padroni a portion of their wages. They worked as shoeshiners (a vocation in demand at the time) or street vendors and dreamed of becoming store owners. They were employed in the cotton mills of New England or the mines of Utah and Colorado or they became sponge divers in Florida. Many of them went to Chicago, the city with the largest Greek-American population until World War II. Unacceptable working conditions led to labor strikes. The Cretan Louis Tikas, a leader in one of the strikes, was shot in a riot. These initial images of violence and suffering soon give way to pictures that suggest better living conditions. Having conquered the new land’s basic obstacles, the Greek Americans turned to building a community and consolidating a strong identity. The establishment of the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 made that concern a necessity. The Greeks responded by founding both the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) and the Greek American Progressive Association (GAPA). Greek Americans also had their own heroes and leading members, who ranged from the champion wrestler Christoforos Theofilou to the renowned doctor and medical research Georgios Papanikolaou (who invented the Pap smear for early detection of cervical cancer). Both images, from the 1930s, are in the exhibit. Yet it was not until the late 1940s that the first photograph that hints at a socially and economically successful Greek-American community appears. It is the photo of an annual dinner dance held at the Waldorf Astoria by the Hellenic American Chamber of Commerce. The portraits of Archbishop Athinagoras and esteemed Greek-American personalities testify to a thriving community. Among those portrayed are John Brademas, the first Greek American to become a member of the House of Representatives in 1959, maestro Dimitris Mitropoulos (who conducted the New York Symphony Orchestra in the 1950s), the diva Maria Callas (who debuted at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1956) and film director Elia Kazan. The final picture of the exhibition looks very much like the exhibition’s very first. It is an early 20th century portrait of a Greek boy dressed in the traditional fustanella, alluding to the Greek-American community’s growing interest in studying their cultural past. It is the symbolic ending of a long journey that is an important part of the history of Greece and the awareness of what it means to be Greek. Maria Iliou’s film is significant for reminding us of that journey, which is still a reality for so many other immigrants in the world. «The Journey,» at the main building of the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbari, 210.367.1000-7) to Feb 25. Screening of the documentary at the museum’s amphitheater Wed-Mon at 2 p.m. and 3.30 p.m. Additional hours for Thursdays (5.30, 7.00, 8.30 and 10.00 p.m. Some exceptions for particular dates apply). Sundays at 11 a.m. and 12.30 p.m. At the Hellenic American Union (22 Massalias) every Tuesday February 6-25 at 10 p.m. Documentary mined a favorite theme While browsing photo and film archives in New York City, where Iliou had traveled on Fulbright scholarship to do research on her film «A Friendship in Smyrna,» she came across undiscovered material on the history of Greek emigration and decided to make a documentary on the subject. The story of the Greek diaspora has been a favorite theme in Iliou’s work, evident in work such as the atmospheric «Alexandria,» Iliou’s 2002 film. For «Journey,» she collaborated with Alexander Kitroeff, a professor of history at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and a specialist in the history of the Greek diaspora. Besides Kitroeff, other narrators who appear in the film include US Senator Paul Sarbanes, author George Pelecanos, poet Olga Broumas, Ellis Island archive director George Tselos, film critic Dan Georgakas, researcher Gus Chatzidimitriou, and professors Martha Klironomos and Artemis Leontis, who teach Modern Greek studies at universities in San Francisco and Ohio respectively.

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