Stella Bares and John Petris told Alex Staines how a century of migration, political and economic turmoil, religion, warfare and romance has forged a unique bond between Greeks and New Zealand. The majority of the 5000 New Zealand Greeks live in Wellington.
On the coldest day of 2011 in Wellington I met Stella Bares, QSO, five-term president of Wellington’s close-knit Greek Orthodox community, outside their beautiful Byzantine Evangelismos Cathedral (Cathedral of the Annunciation) in Hania Street. Hania, a city on the island of Crete, is a sister city to Wellington.
The original church consisted of a US army barracks building donated by the New Zealand government. Inside, icons depict saints, angels, Jesus and Mary. In accord with the cathedral’s name, the Virgin Mary features in the icons and especially in a stunning tableau on the domed ceiling above the Sanctuary, the most sacred part of the church. Prominent representations of the Virgin have scaled-down counterparts for children to worship. Many of the icons tell a story – they were meant for an age without Google or books. Almost everything is donated: the Archbishop’s chair for example, an ornately carved throne next to where the chanters sit (here, hymns are chanted rather than sung).
After visiting the charming cathedral, we retreated into the warmth of the community centre office where the smell of baking announced the arrival of a tray of delicious Greek food: cheese pie, shortbread and baklava. “Greeks love food and company and singing,” Stella said, her vitality seeming to fill up the room. “I came to New Zealand from Romania in 1951 with my parents in a transport ship. I was six months old.” Stella was part of a wave of Greek-Romanian refugees fleeing post-war economic conditions in eastern Europe, including the civil war in Greece in 1950. These people were generally well-educated urbanites who had not been able to successfully re-establish themselves in Greece.
“When they got out of Romania in 1947 and went to Greece, my parents were only allowed to take a suitcase and 20 photographs,” Stella said.
“I was born in Greece. It was my father’s dream to go to America, but when I was old enough to travel, America and Canada had closed and nobody wanted to go to Brazil. Then there was Australia and New Zealand, unheard-of places. We were very fortunate to come to New Zealand. We’ve never had a thought of going back.
“Although it’s really difficult straddling two cultures. Our heart is Greek. One of the things I like about America is how they can be staunchly American, yet retain and acknowledge their cultural roots. People will say ‘I’m Irish-American’, or ‘I’m Greek-American’. Here, it tends to be that you’re either a Greek or a New Zealander.”
The very first Greek immigrants in New Zealand arrived in the late 19th century to work in the goldfields. The 1874 census reveals that there were 41 Greek people in New Zealand: 40 men and one woman.
“The original Greeks were from peasant stock – they didn’t come to live. They came to make money and go back. Once the first Greeks married and had children and grandchildren, it was too late to go back. Now some families are into the fourth and fifth generation and some children can’t even speak Greek,” Stella said.
In the early part of the 20th century, fishing people from the Greek islands and Akarnania arrived and settled mainly in Wellington. By 1939, Wellington had become the focus of Greek settlement in New Zealand. Many were permanent settlers and helped other members of their families to emigrate – a process known as “chain” migration. They came from the Greek islands and Akarnania, and also Crete, Cyprus and Macedonia.
“People leave their homeland for different reasons. For my parents, it was necessity. For the Greeks who came out earlier, it was to make a better life – make some money and go back,” Stella said.
The period following the Second World War saw the greatest number of Greeks arriving in New Zealand, seeking a better life, including over 1000 Greek-Romanians and a government-assisted draft of female Greek domestic workers.
Since the 1970s there has been very little migration of Greek people to New Zealand. “Nobody wanted to come out after that because conditions in Greece became so favourable, in direct contrast to the turmoil in Europe through the first part of the century,” Stella said.
There are currently around 5000 people of Greek descent in New Zealand, concentrated in Wellington, with smaller groups in Auckland and Christchurch.
Many Greeks have a strong work ethic. Stella’s father worked three jobs in the early days. Now he’s 91 and he still works.
“My father-in-law opened one of the first coffee bars in Courtenay Place. Before that he had a fish and chip shop in Kelburn. This was during the depression in the 1930s.
“Look where we are now – most of our children go to university. We’ve got there by hard work and honesty. Family is everything to us.
From that inner peace comes everything else,” Stella said.
An enduring legacy
The Battle of Crete was one of the most bloody and dramatic battles of the Second World War. The Allies were outnumbered and overpowered by the massive German airborne attack. Fighting began when the Germans landed on Crete on 20 May 1941 and ended 12 days later with the evacuation of 16,000 Allied soldiers from the south coast of the island. 671 New Zealanders were killed and more than 2000 taken prisoner out of a force of 7700.
During – and after – the battle, New Zealand soldiers and the island’s civilians established a bond that has not only persisted, but strengthened.
“New Zealanders were in the Battle of Crete, many died there, and very close relationships were formed with the Crete people. After the battle was lost, they were stuck behind in the mountains and woods,” John Petris, who is of Cretan descent, said.
John helped organise a two-week trip in May 2011 called “An Enduring Legacy” and was in the party of New Zealanders that travelled to Greece and Crete to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the battle.
“A group of 55 of us left New Zealand, led by former Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast, and went to Athens for several days where there was a meeting with the president of Greece. Wreaths were laid at the national war cemetery at Phaleron. Then we travelled by boat to Crete. There was a dawn wreath-laying ceremony on the 20th of May – the day the battle commenced – at the main war cemetery at Souda Bay, where around 600 New Zealanders are buried. This was followed by the official flag ceremony in the ancient port fortress of Chania. The big service for New Zealand was at sunset in Galatas, where 70 years earlier Colonel Kippenberger led a charge through the streets. The most emotional part of the trip for me was visiting my mother’s village, Sklavapoula.”
In all, there were around 300 New Zealanders at the commemorations, including eight surviving New Zealand veterans, all in their 90s.
Crete is becoming the Gallipoli of the Second Word War. The story didn’t end when the Battle for Crete was lost. The New Zealanders connected with the people of Crete in a way that they hadn’t with the Egyptians, for example.
“My mother and father are part of the Crete story, which is a subset of the Greek story,” John said.
“My mother’s family on Crete in the village of Sklavapoula looked after two New Zealanders, and one, Ned Nathan was from the Maori Battalion. Ned was wounded and my uncle was a doctor. Then they sheltered him. They hid him in caves and brought food to him, at great personal risk. Many people were shot by the Germans.
“Ned and my aunt Katina Toraki fell in love. He was captured by the Germans eventually and imprisoned in Stalag VIIIb in Germany, but after the war he returned to Crete. They married and came back to New Zealand,” John said.
Ned and Katina have been immortalised by prominent author Patricia Grace in her book Ned & Katina – a True Love Story (Penguin Books, 2009).
“Then my aunt Katina, who was a teacher, sponsored my mother to come here. My mother Esther was a nurse,” John said. “I grew up in Mt Victoria. In the ’50s and ’60s it was a little Greece. My father bought a shop in Courtenay Place. It was like a steak and oyster saloon.
“Families have got smaller. My mother was one of eight kids, now people have one or two. Lifestyles and economic situations have changed.
“My role has been to promote the connection between Crete and New Zealand through the commemorations, the stories and the friendships,” John said. “Those bonds are formed forever.”
Story reproduced with the permission of NZME. Educational Media