Come Over Into Macedonia, H. Allen

An Old Problem in New Greece


Yocovos Kouzoudglou was slowly unhitching, from his native threshing sled, two small but well-fed horses, when we pulled up by his home one late afternoon in August, 1938. He looked up, recognized my companion, and waved a friendly greeting. It seemed that always I was assured of a sincere welcome from these peasant folk when Stephan Harlamides served as my guide. Stephan had already informed me that Yocovos was one of his most progressive farmers who eagerly applied all of the improved practices that were recommended to him; that his wife and two of his daughters were regularly enrolled in the home welfare classes.

It was easy to believe this. The little one-story four-room house was freshly whitewashed; the windows were screened. The yard was neat and a few flowers still stood upright near the front door in spite of the long, near-tropical summer. Some distance back of the house was a simple but clean-looking family latrine—one of hundreds introduced by hard-working Harlamides in the six villages of his area. In the open-front stable I saw three fine looking heifers, offspring of a little scrub of a mother and a purebred community bull—another of our leader's far-reaching activities.

After the horses were stabled and fed and the usual generalities out of the way, my friend explained that I had wanted to talk with a refugee who had come through the Smyrna disaster. Would Yocovos tell me some of his experiences? The man was glad to comply. After all, he knew me; knew my connection with the rural program which had meant so much to him and his family.

I cannot tell the story of Yocovos Kouzoudglou in his own words. It came out bit by bit, part of it as a result of my questions, all of it interpreted from Greek into English. But the long sad tale, reduced to the space of these few pages, ran something like this:

In the year 1922, Yocovos Kouzoudglou was happy, fairly prosperous, and only forty-six. With his wife and six small children he lived in the Turkish town of Baindir, about one hundred miles inland from Smyrna. Greeks constituted a very sizeable proportion of the inhabitants of this part of Turkey. Yocovos operated a successful blacksmith shop which included also the repair of steam engines. He owned a cotton mill, and he had, outside the town, fifty acres of good farm land. His home was a comfortable two-story dwelling situated on the outskirts of the village.

On the sixteenth of August, 1922, the inhabitants of Baindir heard the terrifying news that the Greek army was retreating from the interior, with Turkish soldiers close at their heels. They learned, also, that the whole Greek population, in the path of the oncoming Turks, was fleeing toward the seacoast. This horde of pursued and pursuers would be in the region of Baindir within a few days. Hurriedly the able-bodied men of the town loaded old men, women and children into wagon trains and dispatched them with all speed in the direction of Smyrna. There was no time to gather up anything except the lightest and most essential belongings. Extra clothing, home furnishings, and even treasured heirlooms—all had to be left behind.

Having made sure that the last frightened Greek was now well on his way, and bidding good-bye to their friendly Turkish neighbors (of whom, it should be recorded, there were many) Yocovos and other men of his age, started for Smyrna on horseback. As they proceeded, it was found that Turkish soldiers already occupied many of the towns through which they must pass, and so they were forced to travel with the utmost care, making frequent detours and sometimes hiding for a time to avoid certain discovery. Thus, eight days were required to cover the short distance to Smyrna.

There was no rest for the men of Baindir at the end of their long and hard journey. They must begin an immediate, frantic search for their own families. Yocovos had great difficulty in finding his folks. Masses of panic-stricken people were crowding the docks and milling the streets. Finally, however, he succeeded in locating his wife and his children in an old flour mill owned by a Greek with Italian citizenship. This good man, influenced by the blood that ran in his veins, had given shelter to about sixty of these refugees who were now crowding his not-too-large building. They all stayed in these quarters for nearly three weeks using for food the whole wheat and the flour that was stored in the place.

In the meantime, additional refugees poured into the city in ever-increasing numbers. Most of these hastened to the water front in an attempt to board the foreign ships that were now stationed in the harbor. Not all of them, however, could hope to get off. They were concentrated in such a small area, and it was impossible for so many to be transferred quickly from the docks to the boats, and so large numbers were forced to turn back to seek refuge in various parts of the city.

More Turkish soldiers arrived to augment the scattered forces already in town. Martial law was declared. Then an order came for all men between eighteen and fifty to give themselves up. All possible hiding places were thoroughly combed. When it became apparent that the flour mill, with its frightened inhabitants, would soon be discovered, the people sheltered there tried to scatter to other and more isolated places. Yocovos was captured and taken to a concentration camp, but his family somehow managed to get away and hide in a carpenter's shop owned by a Greek with an English passport. Here they stayed for another ten or twelve days. During this time there was fighting and killing and rape. The city was fired and the burning, which went on for days, added to the general chaos. The ships in the harbor could not get the people off fast enough. Docks gave way and many were drowned. Families became separated and the members forever lost to each other. Some of the captains seemed to be undecided as to just what to do. A group of American sailors finally disembarked and formed safety zones, into which many were able to flee for protection from their various places of hiding. Yocovos' family succeeded in getting into one of these havens. From there they were taken to an American battleship which transported them across the narrow Strait to the Greek island of Mytilene.

Shortly after this, Yocovos himself escaped from his detention camp and managed to board another American ship. Yocovos was lucky in more ways than one. By some strange, coincidence, he also was taken to Mytilene, instead of one of the many other Greek islands or directly to the mainland. In' Mytilene he heard of his family and not long after he found] them. A short time later, when things had quieted down a bit, they were transferred, with numbers of others, to the mainland of Greece.

Observing the turmoil that had resulted from such a sudden influx into his homeland, and being of an independent and ambitious nature, Yocovos gathered his family together and started out on his own. But although he went to several likely places, he could find little or nothing to do. And so, after several months of wandering with little to eat and no sure place to sleep, he was forced to apply to the Refugee Settlement Commission which was by then effectively functioning in various parts of the country. Yocovos and his family were forthwith sent to Crete.

In 1928, however, after five grueling years in that island, with the vitality of himself and his family sapped almost to nothing by the dread Anopheles which infested the place, he was transferred to Macedonia. Here he was reestablished in the village of Megali Vrysi and under much better conditions. He was given twenty acres of the thin Macedonian soil in a none-too-fertile section, one small wagon, and a native cow which gave a little milk while providing, at the same time, at least part of his needs for draft power. The few farm implements that he needed he could borrow from his refugee neighbors in exchange for the use of his wagon and cow. To provide for his shelter, he was given the equivalent of about forty dollars in cash and told to build his own home. Utilizing homemade mud brick and a few purchased timbers, he constructed a little two-room house with a separate stable unattached to his home.

Yocovos, by now well past sixty, felt that he had much for which to be heartily thankful. While many families were separated during the tragic days of 1922, never to be reunited, his flock, by the barest of margins, kept together. He suffered only one death in his family as a result of those difficult years. His wife still worked by his side in the fields. His children, all grown, lived near by or at home. His youngest son, already twenty-one, had completed his term in the army and had returned home to lighten the load for his father. As soon as a suitable wife could be found, the boy would marry, he said. When this was arranged, another room would be added in order that both families might share the one roof.

Yocovos concluded his vivid tale with these significant words, "Thank the Lord I am happy now; and I am most grateful for what your America has done for me."

Forced into vigorous action by this last unprecedented disaster, culminating ten years of almost continuous warfare, the little Greek nation rose up from its state of feeble convalescence like a bedridden mother of small children in the midst of a fire. As these hungry, vermin-ridden, fever-stricken, destitute people poured into the country, all available resources were drawn upon to provide for their care. Old army barracks, schools, churches, theaters, and private homes were utilized as temporary shelters. Foreign philanthropic organizations, such as the American Red Cross, Near East Relief, and the British "Save the Children Fund" combined forces with local charitable societies to assist in this emergency. The State Colonization Department, which had been organized soon after the Balkan Wars to settle returning Greeks from Bulgaria and Eastern Thrace, began functioning again in the hope of caring for these new hordes. But the problem was too vast for one small country to cope with alone; and so Greece applied to the League for assistance.

In the meantime it was necessary to come to an immediate understanding with Turkey in regard to certain complicated problems that had grown out of this tragic affair. There were, for instance, from one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand Greeks still residing (or hiding) in Turkey, and there were properties worth millions left behind by the refugees in various parts of that country. It was agreed that a treaty, covering the most vital points at issue, should be drawn up as early as possible. But this treaty, at best, would necessitate long delays and the hurdling of many formalities before it could be achieved, and the needs of the moment were pressing. To circumvent this difficulty the negotiating parties finally decided that a preliminary "memorandum of agreement" could be formulated, anticipating the major points of the proposed treaty.

Thus it was that the "Convention of Lausanne" was signed on January 10, 1923, just four months after the so-called Smyrna Disaster, and six months prior to the similar for more formal "Treaty of Lausanne." Greece was now enabled to proceed. Turkey agreed to facilitate the transfer to Greece of the Orthodox subjects still residing in her country, and to the withdrawal from Greece of all Turkish people. Exempted from the provisions of this "exchange" were Turks living in Western Thrace and Greeks residing in Constantinople since October 30, 1918, or before. It was further agreed that the properties left by the "exchangeables" should be appraised and the sums involved applied toward the expense of resettlement, but this item in the agreement was never fully carried out for reasons too involved to summarize here.

Greece paid dearly for the few points which she was able to gain for herself. No longer was she in any position to drive a close bargain. She was forced to turn back to Turkey all of Eastern Thrace and a small district in Western Thrace, together with the islands of Imbros and Tenedos—twenty thousand square miles of precious territory—at a time when space was one of the prime needs of the moment.

The number of Greeks who fled from Turkey in 1922 has never been accurately estimated. It is considered to have been slightly under one million. Something over one hundred thousand came out under the provisions of the Convention of Lausanne. Another three hundred thousand (including several thousand Armenians and White Russians) had filtered into the country from Bulgaria, Eastern Thrace, and the Caucasus immediately after the Balkan Wars and during the First World War. The pressure caused by this horde of one and one-third millions of souls was only slightly eased by the three hundred thousand Turks who were withdrawn from the country.

On February 2, 1923, the League authorized its Finance Committee to study the question of assistance for Greece. After a thorough investigation, it was agreed that a commission should be created for the purpose of settling the Greek refugees. Such a body, designated as the Refugee Settlement Commission, was duly formed. It began functioning in November, 1923, and consisted of four members; two appointed by the Greek Government with the approval of the League, one appointed by the League Council, and a fourth, the Chairman, "to be appointed in such a manner as the Council may from time to time decide."

The Commission functioned regularly until January, 1931. During that period a wonderful work was performed. Chief consideration was given to the problem of settling the rural immigrants. The funds advanced by the League for this extensive program were guaranteed through land and other properties transferred to the Commission by the Greek government. This action also helped to make available much of the space that was required for settling these new people. Such lands were secured as the result of State and Federal properties handed over by the government, farms left by the Turks, and by expropriating church properties, community holdings, and large estates. All of these, however, proved to be quite inadequate for the needs; and so the possibility of draining extensive swamps, lakes, and flooded areas was considered. In 1925 the Foundation Company of New York undertook the job of reclaiming large tracts of land in the Salonica Plain. In 1929, a similar contract was awarded to another American engineering concern, The Monks Ulen Company, to reclaim additional areas in the Strymon Valley, and the Philippi Plain. These reclamation works eventually added about eight hundred thousand acres to the one million, five hundred thousand originally provided by the government from the sources first mentioned.

As quickly as possible, these new citizens of Greece were placed out on the land with a few seeds, the most necessary tools, and one or two animals for draft purposes. Sometimes crop failures or the loss of farm animals made it necessary to repeat the original assistance two or three times; but eventually most of these people won from the elements the hard-fought battle for an existence in their new environment. Some, of course, drifted from the farms to the cities. There they hoped to find better living, but they discovered instead only squalor and poverty in miserable refugee camps.

The housing of these thousands presented a gigantic problem, exhausting immediately all available shelter. Scores of villages were increased greatly in size by the addition of new quarters, while hundreds of new settlements were established on sites especially selected for this purpose. Sometimes, with the grant of a few dollars, a family was left to construct its own home. In the great majority of cases, however, the dwellings were erected by engineers who faced a task of almost herculean proportions. As one of several means of speeding this urgent housing program, frames, cut to the proper dimensions, were imported from Germany.

It is not surprising that serious mistakes were sometimes made in the hurry and confusion of the emergency, and that a certain amount of political graft was inevitable. On the whole, however, the wonder is that the job was so efficiently done. Occasionally, in the rush of resettlement, insufficient attention was given to the question of water or the proximity of a projected village to a malarial center. But adequate water was frequently hard to discover, and malaria, which was nearly everywhere common, was merely a question of degree. A serious attempt was made to settle the rural refugees in areas where they would find types of farming somewhat familiar to those to which they had been accustomed before. Nor were old neighborhood ties entirely forgotten. Whenever possible, the new centers were populated with Greeks having a common origin back in Turkey.

Altogether, the Commission established 446,560 individuals, representing 113,216 families in 1,951 new settlements. And apart from this program, the Greek Government rehabilitated another 250,000 individuals, representing 66,920 families. In addition to all of this, there was the less important (from the standpoint of numbers) but no less vital problem of the urban immigrants.

The Refugee Settlement Commission considered it a part of its responsibility to finance any project that had to do either directly or indirectly with the rehabilitation of its charges. As a result, hospitals were built, clinics established, dispensaries provided, agricultural stations constructed, schools erected and, of course, much land reclaimed.

One significant result of this influx was the effect that it had upon the racial content of this area. It made Macedonia truly Greek. When this province became Hellenic territory, following the Balkan Wars, the Greek element comprised only 42.6 per cent of the total population. By 1926, following the "exchange," and the early years of the settlement program, the Greek ratio had risen to 88.8 per cent.

Here in this changing world was an unusual opportunity for a thorough-going program in rural reconstruction. An heroic feat had been performed in settling these thousands of newcomers and in providing them with the elemental means of subsistence. Nor was this task yet complete. Such basic problems as land allotment, adequate shelter, water supplies, and reclamation projects continued to occupy the undivided attention of the Greek Government for many years, even after the departure of the League Commission. But in addition to all of this, there was need for helping these people really to adjust themselves to their new environment and to become accustomed to the soil, the climate, the crops and the homes which were now a part of their lives. Here was a field in which it might well be said, "The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few." This was, in fact, the cry of Paul's Macedonia in the late 1920's.

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]