Excerpts from the Memoirs of A Greek Immigrant – Part 1 – The Village Life

Below is a collection of excerpts from essays and books discussing the lives of Greek immigrants in the US. They are assembled loosely by topic.

First up, excepts from “Uncle Jim” by  John J. Zeazeas:

Uncle Jim (James George Zeazeas) was born in the rocky -mountainous village of Kandila, Greece on March 25th, 1884. He was one of four sons and a daughter born to Giorgi Dimitri and Maria Helen Ziazias. Like other families from the village in the middle to late 1800’s, they were subsistence farmers. As did their father, and his father before them, they tended arid rock-strewn fields, and herded goats and sheep in the mountains. Farm plots (even as late as 1969 when I first visited our village) had been divided up over the centuries – hardly large enough land to support farming other than by a man, horse, and plow. These plots were far apart from each other and from home – an unproductive arrangement at best. On nearby hillsides, they also gathered what sticks and firewood they could find for cooking and heating.
In the village, water was drawn from community wells, baking done in community ovens, and women took care of the children and husband, cooked the meals, did the wash and survived as best they could. Animals were housed under the house, their body heat providing at least some warmth from below. In the winter, our family home was cold, heat only provided via a tiny fireplace in one room. Mattresses were of straw, populated by bed bugs as I’d later learn. Family members were often ill from flu-type symptoms. In a social sense, life revolved around the Greek Orthodox church, family, a few holidays, and arranged marriages. Idle time for men, when they could afford it, was spent in a coffee house or taverna. Women, unless unmarried, were not allowed in the taverna’s and I don’t recall seeing a single woman in a village coffee house at least up to the late 1960’s. Even amongst married couples, there existed a well defined class division.

Uncle Jim, attended school up to the 3rd grade. Thereafter, he worked. Boys became part of the labor pool needed to help their parents with the animals, work the fields, carry water, and
attend to other tasks at home. Their wage, if employed outside the home, was the equivalent of $.20-$.30 per day. At an early age, Uncle Jim and his younger brothers knew the eldest brother would inherit the family home and property. Somehow, they would have to find their own way in the world. The view into the future, even at a young age, was terribly bleak – a dead-end street.  To complicate life in the country and the villages, Greece was not independent. While the country emerged from 380 years of occupation by Ottomon Turks in 1832, it became a self-serving plutocracy – first under German, and then Danish rule. The foreigners who ruled Greece were absentee rulers and their priorities were in serving their own best interests; the aristocracy. Peasants were over-taxed and used as cannon fodder during wars and armed conflicts that followed.



Additional reading:

[Read more about the role that the American aphid insect played in collapsing the Greek farming industry in the late 1900s.  “Drivers of Greek Emigration – Early 20th Century – Part 1: How an American Insect Drove Greek Emigration – Greek Currant Crisis” by Spyro (Dec 2016)]

Front Cover

In 2011,  John J. Zeazeas wrote a short book about  his “Uncle Jim” who emigrated from Greece to the US in 1903. The book can still be purchased for $1 here.    Excerpts are below, with additional links added based on my ongoing research.

Part 2 – The American Dream