Memories of home, of childhood, of life events and life losses are human universals. They belong to the scenario beautifully described in the myth of the Garden of Eden, the Fall, and the expulsion from Eden – as well as rendered in the rich, painterly iconography of this story. One might say that this story serves as one of the archetypal scenarios framing our thinking.
With this in mind, how are we to conceive of experiences and memories of losing a home, family, country, culture through war and forced displacement? A pressing question, for there are so many groups in this predicament all over the world now. Arguably, the real losses and trauma suffered by those forcibly and traumatically expelled fracture the symbolizing processes, reducing the facility to employ them in creating meaning in everyday life. As a result, these experiences may acquire a different mental status, require different resources and be put to different uses by our conscious and unconscious minds.
Frequently, memories of such losses remain hidden, out of reach of linguistic elaboration for years – or even generations, as seen in families of holocaust survivors.
Sometimes, memories of the home lost, as well as of the traumatic circumstances of the expulsion, have been used as building blocks to construct or reinforce a sense of identity and community. This is illustrated in Alice James’ perceptive article, “Memories of Anatolia: generating Greek refugee identity.”
James studied the construction of the refugee identity of the Greeks of Anatolia who fled Mikra Asia, the western part of Anatolia in 1922. Up to that time, more than a million, perhaps a million and a half of Christian Ottoman Greeks had lived there, in Greek settlements going back millennia. However, after a disastrous series of wars in the Balkans and between Ottoman Turkey and Greece in particular which resulted in the catastrophic defeat of the Greeks, the surviving Christians of Anatolia were forced to flee from their homes. Many perished. Most of the survivors fled to Greece where they settled – though a significant number went to other countries and even other continents.
For those who settled in Greece, the country became their new home, even if they spoke little or no Greek. They encountered acts of kindness and generosity as well as negligence, and animosity. As a result, many of those who had survived the war and persecution in Anatolia, died. James refers to a League of Nations source that quotes mortality rates among the new arrivals reaching 45% at one point. Survivors grouped together and developed ways of coping with the losses they had suffered and the difficulties they encountered in their new country.
Concentrating on the refugees of Chios, the largest island closest to Smyrna, James quotes a refugee describing their situation, “like the leaves from the trees when the wind takes them away and they blow right and left without knowing where they are going.”
James notes that “The refugees were no longer attached to their land, and only by producing a group identity could they feel grounded.” This identity was produced through processes that helped translate the experiences and generate a distinct identity as Mikrasiates; all these processes helped recall and often show concretely the difference between the earlier wealth of the life in Anatolia that was lost, and the deprivation that followed the expulsion and refugeedom.
Efforts concentrated on continuing or preserving traditions and customs. Chief amongst these were those associated with the Greek Christian-Orthodox religion, which had been a pillar of their identity under the Ottoman rule. Christian Orthodoxy, with its emphasis on ritual and custom (such as celebrating Saints’ days, associated with the name days of those sharing Saint’s name), provided a continuity between the past, present and future generations.
Referring to Hirschon’s study of a refugee community in the Kokkinia district of Athens, near Piraeus, James points out the importance of memory for identity formation. Museums and collections or archives of memorabilia, photographs, and film were used by the Greeks from Anatolia to generate an image of themselves in Greece, as a distinct group, the Mikrasiates. By holding on to personal and cultural belongings and heritage, such as the Byzantine heritage, photographs, song, music and other memory devices, the story of the refugees’ lives, traditions as well as their loss is not forgotten, but incorporated in the process of identity formation, and bestowed upon future generations.
Beyond the communities studied by James and Hirschon, it would be interesting to think about how identity formation works in situations in which such uses of memory are discouraged, or non-existent: for example, the situation of those Greeks who fled, in the aftermath of the Civil War, to communist countries vis-à-vis those who managed to stay behind; the situation of the Muslims of Crete who went to nation-building Turkey after the treaty of Lausanne as compared to those Muslims who stayed on in Northern Greece, and others. It would also be of interest to think about other factors and processes involved in generating refugee identity, and their interaction with memory.
Please feel free to add your comments, impressions, views on these themes in the comments box below.
PS Some of these themes of loss, strategies of survival, and the vicissitudes of identity formation, I touch upon in my forthcoming novel “Alexandrias 40: Under the Lemon Tree.”