A Migration Tale

What with the recent immigration-related government shutdown, and the ongoing debate about the infamous “wall”, I’ve been giving quite a lot of thought lately to “human migration” (as opposed to the more specific “immigration”). I give you my vow up front that this is not a politically themed post, but a family story, and I hope that you find it as thrilling as I do when I consider the details. A lot of my family’s adventures are straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, but this particular story is more along the lines of the movie “Casablanca”.

Do you remember that movie? It was an unforgettable blend of fact and fiction, offering a glimpse into one of tragic side-effects of war. The bones of the story are true; World War II had caused one of the largest mass migrations in modern history, and Casablanca was a potential embarkation point out of war-torn Europe. For many, America was their destination, with its promise of safety and freedom. Everyone wanted to get out of Casablanca, but without proper identification, they were stuck there indefinitely. The United States had immigration quotas back then just as they do now, and unless one was a citizen, access to America was difficult. Therefore, the displaced people in Casablanca  “waited and hoped” for a breakthrough and a chance to leave.

But this is not a story about Casablanca, it’s a story about two teenagers who were desperate to leave the country of Greece in 1938. One of them is the man who raised me, Apostolos “Paul” Alexakis, and the other was his older brother Vasilios “Bill” Alexakis. They were 16 and 18, respectively, in 1938. And they were traveling alone.

I guess a legitimate question, looking at it from outside of the family circle, would be, “why?” Actually, there are a whole host of legitimate questions, most of which start with the question “why?”

The question of “why were they there in the first place?” is a complicated one to answer. It was basically the result of the 1920’s equivalent of a nasty custody battle. In 1924, when my dad was two and Bill was four, their parents divorced. Their father sent them (along with a chaperone) across the Atlantic via steamship, to live with extended family in Thessaly, Greece. The boys were raised by their paternal grandparents and a host of uncles and aunts, in what was more or less The Middle of Nowhere. They grew up raising sheep and goats, while boys their age in the USA were reading comic books and watching silent movies. I often wonder how different Paul would have been, had he been raised with his parents in New Hampshire. But that is another story for another day.

The answer to “why were they leaving?” is probably the easiest to answer – Europe in the late 1930s was about to be ripped apart by communists, socialists, and Nazis, to name just a few of the political factions fighting each other during that time. I can easily imagine without too much of a stretch that they may have experienced death and brutality within their own community and perhaps directly within their family. I’m pretty sure that they were experiencing near-starvation; some paperwork that my dad filled out in 1941 has him listed as 5’ 8” and weighing only 128 pounds.

I do wonder how they first conceived the idea, these two not-quite-adult boys, to leave the country that they had lived in for most of their lives, and to try to get to a destination halfway across the globe, by themselves. A place where they may have had relations, but they certainly had no close friends or acquaintances. I’m not even sure if they spoke English at that point. So just when and how did they make the decision to leave?

My gut tells me that something drastic happened, that there was a violent social change going on in their immediate surroundings, but I don’t know that for certain. I wonder if Apostolos and Vasilios put their heads together one night over a campfire, and considered their options, and recalled that they were actually citizens of the United States, or if a family member took them aside and made the suggestion? I will never know the answer to that one. But for some reason they found themselves in a very “Casablanca-like” situation, desperately needing to be anywhere other than where they were at that moment in time.

After my dad passed, my mother found a few of my dad’s things that I’d never seen before. (He was the quintessential pack-rat and never threw anything away, unless under compulsion.) One of the items that made its way to me was this old passport. A gift from the past. I hold it in my hands, and can almost feel the young Apostolos and Vasilios asking me to tell their story. The passport offers me a few clues that I didn’t have before, and so I try to piece the story together.

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Somehow, on May 2, 1938, the boys had made their way to the American Consulate in Athens, and had been able to prove their American citizenship. Again, I wonder how? Did they have assistance from family members in the United States? Had their father provided their guardian with birth certificates when he put them on that steamship back in 1924? I have no idea, but in Athens in May, 1938, with the rest of Europe in turmoil, they were able to get exactly one passport. The passport was issued to Vasilios, and Apostolos was listed as an accompanying minor.

From where I sit, 80 or so years later, that eagle stamped on the first page of the document is laden with symbolism. I wonder how they felt when they first saw it? Were they able yet to feel pride for a country that they didn’t remember? Maybe not quite yet, although a few short years later both brothers would enlist in separate branches of the American military, with the implication (to me) being that they were willing to die for their newfound country.

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But back to Athens. Once they had possession of the passport, Vasilios had held this very precious document in his own hands, and perhaps had shoved it into a pocket in his coat, guarding it against prying fingers. Here was their ticket out, and I’m thinking that it was a hot commodity, a legitimate document allowing entry into the United States. Something tells me that Vasilios, as the older brother, would not have trusted his younger brother with it. There are creases in the cover, and ink stains on the pages. I wonder, as I look at the stains and creases, how each of them came to be there.

The various messages on page 7 of the passport remind me that the world was about to erupt into war. A stamp from the Department of State in Washington D.C. reminds travelers who are traveling in “disturbed areas of the world” that they should stay in touch with the nearest American diplomatic or consulate office. Another stamp notifies travelers that the document does not allow access to Spain, which was in the middle of a civil war and was a confusing place to be at the time. A final stamp warns that the document is not valid for travel to any foreign country in connection with service in military or naval forces.

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The passport tells that although Vasilios was two years older than his brother, he was three inches shorter. Actually, the brothers were about as opposite as two brothers can be. Vasilios was fair-haired and blue-eyed, while Apostolos was taller, with dark hair and hazel eyes. I don’t like the look in my dad’s eyes in this photo. He seemed haunted and hungry, and maybe even sad and confused. Vasilios had the confident look of an older brother who was trying to be the leader and protector. He looks like he is ready for a fight. (An interesting sidenote is that Vasilios is said to have a “scar on his scalp line”. My dad’s stories about his brother’s childhood adventures were legendary, and I wonder which one of these adventures dealt Bill this blow to his head.)

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As I studied the details of the various stamps on the passport, slowly the steps of their journey fit together.

Sometime after obtaining their passport on May 2nd, they booked second-class passage on a boat leaving from the Greek port of Patras, which cost them 49.50 (in drachma? ).

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From Patras they headed to Naples, Italy. More questions. Why Naples? Why a boat and not a train? Who paid for their trip? Perhaps Vasilios earned the money for their passage; the passport lists his occupation as an “assistant cook”. (Bill would later serve as a cook in the U.S. Air Force. A set of pots and pans once owned by Bill was one of my dad’s treasured possessions.)

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On May 17th the boys departed Naples on the SS Conte di Savoia, the “queen of the Italian merchant fleet”. (You can find them towards the bottom of the document.)

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Eight days later on May 25th, they arrived in Manhattan. I found an amazing video on YouTube showing the inaugural voyage of the SS Conte di Savoia in 1932. I challenge you to watch as it pulls into New York Harbor without imagining two scared, young teenagers walking down that gangplank in 1938, with all of their worldly possession in perhaps one bag.

The ship’s manifest lists their final destination as 413 Merrimack Street, Manchester, New Hampshire. Through the magic of Google Maps Street View, I was able to see what the house recently looked like. I’m not sure who lived there in 1938, or if it’s changed much, but I was happy to see that the current owners were flying the American flag.

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And so I will leave you to ponder this small story of human migration. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my intention is not to come down on one side or the other of the immigration debate; it’s just that recent events have had me thinking a lot about family history, and our part in the broader events that were about to unfold in Europe over the next decade. According to Time magazine,

“All told, by some estimates, a total of about 60 million Europeans became refugees during the entire World War II period. According to the United Nations, a million people had yet to find a place to settle by 1951, more than five years after the fighting stopped.”

Refugee camps existed in Europe throughout the 1940s and into the early 1950s.

Vasilios and Apostolos were fortunate enough to have another option.

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