Out of the Balkans
Book Details Lives of Early 20th Century Greek Immigrants

A book review by Mary Papoutsy

Jason C. Mavrovitis
Title: Out of the Balkans
Author: Jason C. Mavrovitis
Publisher: Jason C. Mavrovitis, 808 Princeton Drive, Sonoma, CA 95476
Date: 2002 (Revised edition, February 2003)
Description: Softbound, 245 pp, illus., maps.

Availability: Book may be accessed online at the website of Preservation of American Hellenic Heritage group at: http://www.pahh.com/mavrovitis/index.html Contact author for additional information.

For anyone of Greek descent who wishes to pen a family history, this book is a must-read. Not only is it a volume about the history of Mr. Mavrovitis' family and ancestors, who spring alive from the pages in images and language reminiscent of our own parents and grandparents, but it contains a wealth of information about Greek colonies of the Diaspora and about the lives of Greek immigrants early in the twentieth century of the U.S. Rarely does a well-researched and finely written account surface, particularly with such a description of the historical milieu of our Greek ancestors. Researchers with Greek-speaking ancestors from Bulgarian Greek colonies or Macedonia, areas whose histories are filled with conflict and struggle during this last century, will find this superb text especially helpful. Because genealogical resources nationwide (in English or Greek) for research in Hellenic ancestry are so sparse, finding extensive background information about Greek-speaking peoples from northern areas of the Balkans, particularly Bulgaria, is invaluable.

More than just an informational resource, however, this book offers encouragement and guidance by detailing the steps taken during research, and the types of information gathered. Thus, the book may also serve as a general guide for investigation. Everywhere throughout this book Mr. Mavrovitis shows respect and love for his relatives and ancestors, consideration for difficult memories which have formed an integral part of his family history, as they have for every family of Hellenic descent. For no family has remained unaffected by the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the Greek Civil War, the Balkan Wars, the pogroms of Greek-speaking peoples of the Diaspora, and other tragic events, to say nothing of personal tragedies which likewise befall every family. Readers cannot help but be drawn into the drama of the momentous historical events that unfolded in the Balkans, as the characters of his much-loved ancestors come alive through his consummate skill and care.

Mavrovitis writes, as he states, to preserve the memory of his parents and grandparents for his children, nieces and nephews, a memory which would be lost in successive generations without being recorded. Many families now face the same challenging dilemma: once the memory of one's immigrant ancestor is lost, it is very difficult for a descendant to pick up and follow a genealogical thread in order to fill in the missing pieces of the ancestral puzzle. Posing enormous challenges for most younger persons of Hellenic descent are barriers of language and distance, as well as lost connections with living ancestors abroad—hurdles that must be overcome for research beyond the generation of one's immigrant ancestor. Mr. Mavrovitis' children are indeed very fortunate. The Herculean task has been completed for them—and done very admirably. But the author also candidly informs readers that he delved into this lengthy project to understand his own background and the forces which shaped his own birth and upbringing. And what forces they were! Many first-generation Greek-Americans have been similarly affected by world-changing historical events and pivotal familial experiences, events which propelled their parents and grandparents toward new lands and a new life. We do not all learn about the significance and impact of these events upon our own lives; for those of us who do not, it is a great loss.

Also by Jason C. Mavrovitis:

An Invitation from Athena

Greek History in Context

Herodotus: Management 101

The Atmeidan, or Hippodrome, in Constantinople
The book itself is logically arranged, with a preface and important introduction preceding the main text. Mavrovitis divides the account of his family into two sections, Part One and Part Two, which further subdivide into chapters. The first section covers the period of family history before his time, going back to their lives in Bulgaria and Macedonia and chronologically tracing the events leading to their immigration to and establishment in the U.S. In the second part, Mavrovitis details his own youthful impressions of his family. The fifth and largest chapter of Part Two consists largely of a verbal kaleidoscope of memories, each one sure to elicit comparative reminiscing by readers. An Epilogue, Appendix, photo gallery, and fine bibliography round out the overall structure of the book. Contextual and source information appear regularly throughout the book, as do explanatory notes for some cultural items. For instance, on page 69, Mavrovitis offers an explanatory footnote about the stone materials of brownstone homes, indicating that they were "fashionable for the homes of the urban middle class from the 1830s to the end of the 19th century" and cites an article by Rozhon as a source of information. As another example, the author places a footnote on page 162 to offer the reader supplementary information about the life of St. Basil after writing about a family Vasilopita, or New Year's Day, celebration. Footnotes are never cumbersome or awkward in this volume, but instead offer timely cultural background details and assistance to the reader without impeding the flow of the narrative.

Mavrovitis' acumen as an historical researcher is evident everywhere. The author sought out corroborative data, performed extensive analysis of conflicting information, and determined the reliability of sources. This is the true work of an historian and the process that family researchers should also follow, especially as demonstrated in Appendix A (pp. 239-242), an analysis of conflicting information about one of the family members. But such a tour de force cannot be created, of course, without a firm background in the greater historical context of the events described. Mavrovitis' solid grasp of the complex historical issues is everywhere evident. Fortunate readers benefit from this expertise: the author offers a concise, but factually packed history of the Balkans in the introduction (pp xiv-xviii) that can nicely aid the research of others.

Chapter One of Part One, "Eleni and Evangelia: Out of Thrace and the Black Sea," opens with all of the historical drama of a compelling movie plot. A young widow, her husband just trampled by fleeing crowds of Greeks before the rioting Bulgarians, was pulled from the waters with her baby by Greek fisherman. Together with these few survivors of the genocidal pogroms which burned and leveled Greek Sozopolis, they made their way through the Hellespont to the Greek mainland. And so, the story of Jason Mavrovitis begins. Artfully he shifts the scene back to ancient times and takes readers through the significant historical eras, Byzantine and Ottoman, up through the present day. This is an English account of which there are few; readers should take note, especially those tracing ancestry to Greek colonies of the Black Sea.

A young widow, her husband just trampled by fleeing crowds of Greeks before the rioting Bulgarians, was pulled from the waters with her baby by Greek fisherman. Together with these few survivors of the genocidal pogroms which burned and leveled Greek Sozopolis, they made their way through the Hellespont to the Greek mainland.

In subsequent chapters, readers follow the trials of the young widow through refugee camps in mainland Greece and immigration to the New Land. In America, Eleni's continued struggles will strike poignant chords in the hearts of readers who have heard stories from family elders about working for the railroads, in factories, or in other such difficult conditions. Through Mavrovitis' skill, we can easily imagine our own relatives similarly striving against the odds, gritty determination carrying them forward. Thus, the author lays the foundation for the establishment of his maternal line in the U.S.

American citizenship was one of the goals for many courageous immigrants, just as it was for Eleni's daughter, Lily, the author's grandmother. Mavrovitis details her repeated attempts to obtain citizenship, information learned only through FOA (Freedom of Information Act) which permits release of government files to selected persons. The importance of this data to the reconstruction of the early years of Eleni and little Lily in the U.S. cannot be overstated. The author himself declares that their life stories "would have been lost" without these records, a clear directive to other researchers to make immigration records a priority in their investigations and to take care to request copies of all extant files on the targeted individuals. From these files, he was able to follow the genealogical thread of references to "court records including depositions and testimony, references to newspaper articles, property deed, addresses in Manhattan, and indications of when other family members came to the United States."

In the second chapter Mavrovitis returns to Greece to begin tracing another line of his ancestors from Kastoria in Macedonia. This background sketch offers a wealth of assistance to readers with relatives originating from Kastoria and/or Macedonia. And what's more, they'll all be cheering the daring and bravery of the young andartis skillfully depicted here, as he managed to escape execution by hanging, and a few years later departed for the U.S., beginning a new life that would become the paternal line for Mavrovitis.

Subsequent chapters detail the early experiences of his immigrant ancestors in New York, how they found employment, learned and practiced trades, and much more. Mavrovitis vividly portrays the ethnic neighborhoods and activities of early Greek immigrants; pages 65-67, 70-71, and 85-86 may be especially helpful for other researchers or authors of family history. Also be sure to consult another brief section, Appendix B (pp. 242-3), for a nicely crafted description—even if partially fictional, as the author explains--of steerage travel on transatlantic ships; the development of similar passages for family history accounts should be the goal of every genealogical investigation. Several other pages in Mavrovitis' book nicely recount the experiences and career of furriers—pages 82-85—and should be sought out by descendants of Greeks from the Kastoria area and other parts of northern Greece. I reproduce here one short paragraph about the furriers as an example of Mavrovitis' excellent research and descriptions:

The factories, behind showrooms and bookkeepers' office space, consisted of large open bays with unfinished wood floors and nine-foot windows. Along the windows wee waist-high benches. Matchers and cutters worked there in the natural light that enabled them to judge fur color and hair height. Close by were rows of machines where operators under the watchful eye and supervision of a matcher and cutter sewed together long pieces of fur skins that had been carefully sliced by the cutter. When joined, these strips reformed the appearance of the fur and, when attached to adjoining skins, attained the shape and style of a designer's conception.

Mavrovitis' desire to recreate the everyday lives of Greek immigrants in the U.S. extends beyond the work sector. Readers will find descriptions of home remedies, "country-style" house calls by physicians, and living conditions of these hardy pioneers. I myself particularly enjoyed reading about the mustard plasters and "ventoozes" on p. 99; although these women's remedies are unfamiliar today to many young readers, they were important components of the immigrants' lives because even simple infections at the turn of the twentieth century carried with them fatal risk. Today, in contrast, pneumonia and many viral illnesses no longer claim innocent victims as regularly as they did then.

Women's lives were particularly difficult, since many of them worked and cared for their families. Daily household chores were considerably more laborious without our modern conveniences. For instance, kitchens had iceboxes instead of refrigerators, and many apartments were "cold-water" flats. There were no garbage disposals, no dishwashers, or washers and dryers. Baby food was home-made, not bought in stores. Disposable diapers were not yet available, either.

Self-sufficiency was one of the most important tenets of the newly-arrived immigrant. Families made or grew as many of their own consumable products as possible. Vegetable gardens supplied fresh produce in season and materials for canning and pickling. Mavrovitis offers a wonderful account of helping his grandfather make homemade wine each year, titled "Grapes, Wine, and Grappa" (pp. 117-119).

Among the warmest memories were those surrounding food preparation and comsumption, as one might have predicted. For delicious, home-baked dishes and sumptuous family meals were—and still are--the mainstay of many descendants' memories. Mouth-watering descriptions of family dishes like mussels and rice, and Theo Costa's "lakerda" punctuate the episodes. Mention of traditional "lambropsomo" activates olfactory senses and evokes recollections of "livani" and Holy Week services, while images of the "kadaifi" and "soutzouki" dance like sugar-plums in one's dreams. No readers will remain unaffected by these culinary recollections; this is the time for readers to pick up pens and begin recording their own memories!

Mavrovitis closes his family history with a chapter on his army days (WWII), another short one about his trip to Macedonia, and a final one on his return to the U.S. Veterans will enjoy Mr. Mavrovitis' account of his military service in Europe and his return home.

Traveling to one's ancestral village is one of the principal goals of Hellenic genealogical research. Many clues abound among the stuccoed houses. Just as Mavrovitis did, researchers should plan to visit all points of interest in the area, including churches, monasteries, offices, and coffeehouses. Many genealogical clues await the patient visitor to one's ancestral village, even if no living relatives remain there. Village elders will know much about local history and may very well remember something about the targeted family or individuals. No genealogical trip should be considered complete without a visit to the local cemetery, especially the village ossuary where remains of relics are held in labeled boxes for decades. In Greece, unlike the U.S., interment lasts only for a few years, at which point the bones of the departed are taken up from the family plot, cleaned, placed lovingly in small wooden boxes labeled with their names and death dates, and stacked in a small structure at the periphery of the cemetery.

Mavrovitis' story about visiting his Kastorian relatives—for the first time—will tug at the heart strings of every reader. Anyone who has traveled to Greece and met relatives there will recall the overwhelming feelings such a trip elicits. Tearful hugs and many kisses mark such a life-altering event. The joy of Greek elders at meeting their younger relatives is something that can never be forgotten. And for Mr. Mavrovitis, the trip to Macedonia brought his story around full-circle, hearkening back to the forbears who began their lives and odysseys there in the mountains of northern Greece. This "home-coming" of sorts is an exhortation for every person of Hellenic ancestry to research family history and to travel to the land of his or her ancestors: your heart will resound with the tones of old and beat in the rhythmic patterns of your heritage!

Out of the Balkans rates "arista." It's structure, content and indirect didactic function make it invaluable for persons investigating Hellenic ancestry and provide a template for other writers to follow. Does the author achieve his goals? Yes! The narrative account is rich, as accurate as possible, well-written, and preserves the memories of these wonderful relatives. Moreover, the book details in an attractive fashion how the author came to embrace his heritage, a feat meriting an Olympic wreath. Masterfully written, the compelling stories of Mavrovitis' family bring to life the accounts of all of our immigrant ancestors.

(Posted February 2004)

Jason C. Mavrovitis was born in Brooklyn, New York. He is an alumnus of Columbia University, and of the Executive Program at Stanford University. He also undertook doctoral studies in music, and undergraduate studies in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Mr. Mavrovitis held executive positions with Stanford University, American Savings, and the University of California, San Francisco, and has been a consultant to universities, city governments, and corporations. Earlier in his career, he was in the aerospace and electronic industries. Since his retirement, Mr. Mavrovitis has devoted his time to the study of Greek, Byzantine, and Balkan history, and classical literature. Mr. Mavrovitis and his wife Bette (née Panayota Gianopoulos - a native of Oakland, California) married in 1960 after they met and courted at the University of California, Berkeley. They live in Sonoma, California.

For more information about the author, see his biographical sketch under the Contributing Authors' section of HCS, or visit the author's website at http://www.goldenfleecepublishing.com. Professor Mavrovitis has written a number of fine articles for HCS which readers can browse or read at the URL http://www.helleniccomserve.com/archivemavrovitis.html.

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