“It’s not the same here,” is a phrase that I frequently hear from Greek natives. “Genealogy research may be a priority for immigrants, but not for us.” As a third generation American and the descendant of immigrant grandparents, I was surprised and somewhat bemused to find that people in Greece regard my research as interesting, but not necessarily relevant or important. Why?
My friend, Giannis Michalakakos, a Greek native, has patiently discussed this topic with me for hours. We recognize that there is a sharp difference between the two groups: an immigrant descendant is motivated by a quest for knowledge and identity; a native Greek is motivated by curiosity and a desire to delve more deeply into local history and culture.
Giannis placed genealogy in a broader historical context. He likened it to a pyramid where history builds upon itself—broadest at the base, to singular at the pinnacle. I scribbled a rough drawing as he spoke, and came up with this.
General historians begin at the bottom of the pyramid and move up. They study the basic foundation—global or world history—then progress into regional and local histories. The focus becomes narrower until the story of the family and its individuals are reached at the top. How does each category in the pyramid relate to the one below and above? What part did a village play in the history of the country? Or a family in the history of its village? Sometimes, individual leaders may rise in power to exert influence far beyond their locality—perhaps to lead a country to military victory or become a national leader who, in turn, influences world events.
Genealogical historians, in contrast, begin at the top of the pyramid and move down. The pattern is the same regardless of ethnicity or country of origin: start with oneself, then gather information about parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and beyond. Learning about the village, and its relation to the larger region and country, usually comes as the researcher discovers the part his ancestor played within the community. At times, the researcher may study a local history to glean information about its families. The process is fluid and depends on the goals and interest of the researcher.
So, how does the pyramid relate to the differing views of genealogy by Greek natives and Immigrant descendants? To quote Giannis, “It all comes down to knowledge.”
A Greek native has knowledge about his family; therefore, his motivation may be one of curiosity, not identity. He has been raised with oral histories and can often recite his lineage back several generations. He or his parents/siblings may be living in a family home built by a great-great-grandparent. He may own land in his village of origin. He may interact regularly with second, third, and fourth cousins from both sides of his family. There is no need for genealogical research–he knows his identity. Rather, genealogy could be a tool to better understand local society, customs and history. Many small Greek villages are populated by just a few clans; thus, a study of local history necessitates knowing the genealogy of the residents as well as their traditions. Perhaps he is curious as to how his family fits into the larger historical context of the region and country. He may be motivated to learn if his ancestor received an aristea (award) for fighting in the Greek Revolution of 1821. He may be interested in studying the history of his village if it had been the headquarters of a bey (Turkish ruler) during the 1700’s. Perhaps his family started a business that provided financial security for people in his community.
Raised with strong traditions and steeped in culture, the Greek native is living his history.
In contrast, a typical third or fourth generation immigrant descendant is seeking identity. The farther removed from his immigrant ancestor, the dimmer his knowledge. He may not know the original family name as many newcomers shortened or entirely changed their names (Poulos – from Papadapoulos? Or Stathopoulos?). He may not know the exact village of origin (Arcadia? which village – there are hundreds!) He may have heard family stories whose details were lost in translation; or, perhaps, only parts of the story were passed down. His Greek language skills are waning or non-existent (despite attending Greek school as a youth).
At some point–usually in adulthood when the elders pass on–the descendant realizes that a part of him is gone. There is no parent/grandparent/great-grandparent to ground him to the ancestral land. It is now his duty to pass on family stories and traditions; but to his shock, they are unknown or unclear to him. At this point, he has been thoroughly assimilated into American, or Canadian, or Australian culture. His spouse may not be Greek, and this may have accelerated a drift away from his native religion, culture and traditions.
That’s when something new rises within–the gnawing desire to relearn who he is. The past suddenly becomes present; he feels an urgency to reconnect with his roots and to reconstruct his family lineage. If he has children, his drive to pass on the family heritage may become acute. His search for knowledge begins. Of necessity, it starts with himself–the individual at the top of the pyramid–and filters down as discussed earlier.
Although Greek natives and immigrant descendants share families, genetics and bloodlines, it is understandable why and how they differ in genealogical perspective. To the Greek native, genealogy is irrelevant to identity but essential in the study of local history and culture. To immigrant descendants with dual heritage, genealogy is essential to identity and relevant to understanding ethnic tradition and culture.
Thankfully, the roots that unite us are stronger than the perspectives that divide us.