An Unforgettable Story of Survival

Not Even My Name: From a Death March in Turkey to a New Home in America, a Young Girl's True Story of Genocide and Survival

Thea Halo
ISBN 0-312-26211-6
Picador, 321 pages

Reviewed by Nina Gatzoulis

Quite a few years back, while a high school student in Tsotyli, in the prefecture of Kozani, Greece, I heard a Pontic song. Even though I couldn't speak the dialect of the Greeks who had lived for 3000 years at the Black Sea coastal area of Turkey, it was not too difficult to grasp the meaning of the song. The theme was of a hurried journey: as they were fleeing in a hurry they saw fields and valleys. And at the end of the valley stood a huge tree. The music was beautiful, but the lyrics were an enigma to me; I couldn't understand what the song was all about.

Growing up in western Macedonia, Greece, I knew that most demotic (folk) songs contain a story. They tell of something that was historically or culturally significant at the time of the song's creation. It took me thirty years and a move to another continent before I fully understood the significance of the lyrics and the history that was connected to this song. After reading Thea Halo's Not Even my Name I realized the meaning of the beautiful Pontic song with its quick, staccato tempo.

Not Even my Name is Sano Halo's story told by her daughter Thea. It is a compelling and unforgettable story of survival, freedom and promise of a new and better life. It is an account of the Pontic genocide that took place in the early part of the century. Halo captivates her readers as she describes Themia's (Sano's) idyllic, pastoral life with her family set against the Pontic Mountains of northern Turkey: "As if drawn by a gossamer thread, my eyes turned to the east as the sun peeked its brilliant face above the mountains. My sister's hair flamed before me and golden sunlight drenched the hills. My own hand bled a golden light that soaked the fur of the calf it was leading. Even the grass confused its color; first gold then green then gold once more as it flirted with the sun"

The three thousand year history of the Pontic Greeks in Turkey slowly approaches its end. First strangers begin to appear in the fields and forests of Themia's village, hovering and keeping their distance. "They had begun to appear in our village more and more," Halo writes. "Their language was new to us and they sat around, away from the village, waiting and staring like birds of prey. It was eerie how they hung around all of a sudden, coming from nowhere and occupying our village."

Turkish soldiers appear, seizing men of the village and sending them to slave labor camps. Halo masterfully builds up these events one after the other, conveying the sense of a gathering catastrophe. The ominous events reach their peak as Turkish soldiers, in the spring of 1922, begin pounding on doors with the butts of their rifles. "You are to leave this place. You are to take with you only what you can carry", they shout, delivering the proclamation issued by General Kemal Ataturk. The Pontic Greek population is being forcibly evacuated from their village.

So the death march of the exiled people begins. Halo describes the painful and disturbing path of the banished populace, accompanied by the Turkish military. Themia's loving family and the beautiful pastoral land are juxtapoxed against a succession of brutal events, evoking in the reader a full range of human emotions. Themia watches her family and other people from her village die one after the other -- from starvation, dysentery, and tuberculosis.

The ten-year-old girl finds herself stripped of everything she had ever held dear. She is even stripped of her name: when her mother, ailing and unable to take care of her, leaves Themia with an Assyrian woman who cannot pronounce her Greek name, she is renamed "Sano." At age fifteen Sano is sold into marriage to a man much older than she was. He brings her to America, where Sano lovingly raises ten children. The innocent village girl becomes a determined twentieth century woman.

Halo's painful story calls to mind Sophoclean tragedy, in which Lahesis, Clotho and Atropos -- the ancient Moires or "Fates" -- cast arbitrary, inescapable doom. Though one might expect such tormenting experiences to fill anyone with anger and bitterness, Sano emerges without malice. She is only ten when turmoil engulfs her village. But the narrative offers glimpses of a young girl who is mature beyond her age. She is always prompt in her chores, forever helping her mother and when tragedy strikes and she sees her family perish she endures terrible pain. She does not, however, blame anyone.

Halo skillfully directs the reader's attention towads the close-knit family relations that characterized life in the small Pontic village. Themia's family was extended rather than mononuclear, providing a loving environment in which each member had a role. Not only parents and siblings, but also grandparents, aunts and uncles were important to the family's functioning. This concept of the family is one of the defining qualities of Greek tradition. Sano's strength, and her ability to endure great pain without becoming destructive and hateful, stem from the environment of her formative years. She is like the ancient Phoenix, which every thousand years immerses itself in the fire and regenerates. Sano emerges out of the heartbreaking tragedy with her capacity to love intact: she has the strength to nurture and lovingly raise ten children of her own!


Not Even my Name is a book not just for the Greek-Americans and the Greeks from Greece. This is a book for humanity. The world should know about the Pontic death march. Thea Halo wrote her mother's story to make her mother's tragedy known to everyone. And she wrote for our children as well, and for our children's children. The dreadful events are parts of history. The Pontic plight, just like the Asia Minor Catastrophe and the Greek Civil War from 1944-1947, are periods overlooked by school history books in Greece and by most Greek schools in the diaspora. History does not only include days of glory, but tragedies and defeats as well, and, yes, many errors. All of us can learn from Sano's story. One thing we learn is that people of different ethnicities can co-exist in peace if they are left alone by intrusive governments. The most important lesson this book teaches us, however, is that we can't sweep anguish and suffering under the rug and pretend these things never happened. If we do that we promote genocide and allow it to happen again and again.

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