ELENA LAZARIDOU

elena-lazaridouFrom the stories of George Andreadis
Stories of Orthodox Greeks who, appearing as Ottoman Muslims, kept their faith alive through two centuries of catacomb existence.

For centuries, Pontus was isolated by its 700-mile chain of towering peaks and river-fed chasms, threaded with narrow muddy tracks on which, even now, it is easy to lose one’s way in the dense forests of black pine and impen¬etrable alpine mist. As if approaching an island, visitors sailed to Pontus over the Black Sea rather than attempt the unyielding peaks from the south. Beyond the torturous summit of the Zagara pass, and several days journey by pack animals from Trebizond, the barren low-lying mining region of Kromni was an isolated refuge for crypto-Christians. Eagles and vultures, wild boar, deer, bears and wolves, all made their homes there.

Although some Greeks remained openly Christian, burdensome taxes and discrimination caused many to convert to Islam and their children today are Turkish Muslims. Another large group said, “No, we will keep our reli¬gion, but how will we survive? How can we save our lives and the honor of our daughters?” In the end, they became secret Christians.
Although denying Christ, even outwardly, is a sin for a Christian, during these times when many civic leaders, the educated, and wealthy turned to Islam, how could illiterate and primitive mountain people be held account¬able? In many cases the Eastern Christian Church accepted the solution of crypto-Christianity so as to withstand the waves of voluntary and compul¬sory Islamization that were leaving churches empty of believers.

Elena Lazaridou – The Last Greek of Trebizond

This is not widely known, but at the Exchange of Populations, not all of the Greeks left Pontus. A small number had Russian citizenship, and because Turkey did not want to stir up problems with Russia, they allowed them to stay. Most left voluntarily for Greece by 1936, when it became clear that there was no future for them in Trebizond (now Turkish Trabzon). The last old Greek woman, Elena Lazaridou, a Kromnian with Russian citizen¬ship, died in Trabzon in 1965 at age 90, and was buried by the Catholic priest of Santa Maria Church.
Eleni had a daughter, Parthenope, who, at the time of the Russian Revolution, became a fervent communist, believing that even the family property left by her father was profit gained from the “blood and sweat of simple workers.” She disappeared behind the Russian border to live a “truly socialist life,” emerging in Greece in 1958, forty years later – still a staunch communist. Discovering that her mother still lived, Parthenope traveled to Trabzon, where she spent three years trying to convince Eleni to move with her back to Greece. The old woman adamantly refused, “I was born here and I’ll die here” – and she did die there, cared for in old age by Turkish Muslim neighbors, whose children had grown up hearing Eleni’s stories of their distant Christian origins. At her death, the youngest son of the Turkish family even traveled to Thessalonica to try to convince Parthenope to claim her mother’s property but, a socialist to the end, she refused the inheritance. Parthenope spent her last years in Thessalonica, earning her daily bread cleaning onions in a meat processing workshop. She tragically ended her own life by throwing herself under the wheels of a truck.
In 1960, however, while still living with her mother in Trabzon, Parthenope wrote a moving letter to Mr. Georgios Papagavriel of Thessalonica about her visit to her Kromni home on horseback. In the sixties, all of the inhabited villages of the region were filled with Pontic-speaking Muslim Turks who warmly remembered their former Greek neighbors, and Parthenope was welcomed with Pontian food, music, and dances. Village elders offered their homes for the night, and once she even slept in the house in Kotsanton that had belonged to her great-grandfather. Although a communist, she had a warm love for her homeland. Here are parts of her letter:

All of the villagers came to see us off. It was a cold morning and in a little while it began snowing. As we were on horseback, we became very wet, but, thank God, the snow stopped as we ascended the moun¬tain and a fine warm sun began to shine that dried us out. Seeing all of the villages covered with a blanket of white snow, and those ruined churches without a priest, without pilgrims, on every hilltop, I could not stop my tears. How deeply they touch your heart and soul….

My deepest impression in Imera was when I walked through the village. The church is still standing, and when I entered I was sur¬prised to see candles burning in the sanctuary. I asked, “Who is light¬ing candles in a Christian church?” and my hosts replied, “All those who have someone ill at home come to this church, light candles, and ask God to heal the sick one.” (!) Another thing that impressed me was that on the hillside by the Monastery of St. John, everything was in ruins, but the church still stands with its marble tablet inscribed with the date of its
dedication: 1859.

Oh, my poor monastery! Where are your gardens and your great plane trees? Only the crystal-clear spring still flows near the entrance, giving water for the entire village. I went into a nearby chapel. All of the wall paintings were destroyed, only a Cross remains with the let¬ters: IX NIKA [Jesus Christ Conquers]….

The stone path brought us to the top of Saranton Hill, over which the Church of St. Theodore keeps a lonely watch. Not a single house still stands, only poor caves built by the shepherds… If you stand in front of the church, you command a fine view, a view that became impossible for me because of the tears that continually filled my eyes. From this spot, one can see the churches of Kromni, standing like proud, white castles, just as we left them at our exodus from Pontus. The church of Nanak, of Gluvena, of Loria, of Siamananton, of Manchianton, of Transfiguration, of St. Theodore of Geranton, of St. John of Frangaton! Every church, a community, an entire history, a heartfelt cry. I faced each one in turn, making the sign of the Cross and cried out the pain in my heart, as the tears streamed down my face….

From Alhazanton I went to the Church of Metamorphosis, which was built by my grandfather. Beside the church was the grave of my father’s sister, my godmother in baptism. The grave was unfenced and the school without a roof. Ruins everywhere…

Pairamanton. Our two houses there were the best in all of Kromni. Ruins. I went to the spring that was next to the house of my uncle, Kostas Sidiropoulos. With all the crying, my nose began to bleed -perhaps I am to purify my tears with blood…. At that spring there was always a bush, and I found the bush as I had left it half a century before. What memories were mixed with that bush, the most beloved place of our childhood where we played all of our games.

The next day, as if I had completed a pilgrimage, I prayed at the cemetery and left for Imera, following the same way to Gumushane (Argyroupolis).

So this is Parthenope’s letter. Her mother’s death marked the passing of the last Greek soul of Trebizond. I say “the last Greek soul,” but it is better if I say instead, “the last known Greek soul,” because no one knows who else this ocean of the Orient still hides.