The Faces Of the City

Life Histories in Bucharest – the 20th Centuryexcerpt "All the Greeks in the city sought to make me their son-in-law."Demostene Gramatopol, 1910-? My initial intention was to interview both Greeks belonging to the old Greek community in Bucharest, and some of those who settled here during the political emigration that followed the Greek civil war in the 40's. Due to the general amnesty in Greece the second category, otherwise quite numerous in the 50's and the 60's, thinned out so severely that I was not able to find anybody at the time when I was working on my project. Doctor Gramatopol belongs to the first category and suggestively represents a particular type of minority, despite certain idiosyncrasies with no national tinge. "What is the significance of the Greek community of which you became part?""No matter where they settled, Greeks created their own environment, a Greek environment. This is the only way they could avoid losing their nationality. And they revolved around the Orthodox Church, which was dependent on the ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople, and on the Greek school – of various levels: elementary, secondary school and full-time high school. There were only two of the kind in the country, in Bucharest and Galatzi. They even started a college in Galatzi, which the children of the natives also attended, because they taught foreign languages. It was highly valued and had professors from Greece and the Greek isles, especially from the Ionic isles. This was the community and it was supported by the contribution of the members…""Are you talking about the inter-war period?""It has always been so.""As far as you know, how long have these schools existed?""Oh… I used to go to one of them myself, but they were founded around 1890, let's say; since then… When my grandfather came to Romania…""Your grandfather was already here in 1890?""He was… and we had relatives, cousins of my father's, who attended this high school in Galatzi. It was a great honour, back then, to be able to say 'I go to the Greek college in Galatzi,' because they gave you sound education there and they also taught several foreign languages – French, Italian, German. It is through these two things that the Greeks became immune, isolated themselves from the environment and stayed Greek. Of course, many of them lost their nationality through mixed marriages, since the religion was the same… mixed marriages absorbed a large number of Greeks.""This is exactly what I was wondering about when you said the church was the centre… Since the church was Orthodox here, as well as back home, it must have been an instrument of assimilation…""Of the Greeks… yes, but they had the school to stop that. We were several siblings. My father, who had some high school education, was in love with Greek culture and he used to say: 'You have to learn Greek well, you have to be someone!' I studied here, and then he sent me to Greece to complete my education. And, I am proud to say, I speak Greek almost to perfection – God alone is perfect. But I know the language, I studied it passionately: a passion which was at once historical and philological." "The period of your coming of age, your high school years, your college years – it was in the 20's…""The 20's, yes… The Greek community was an organized entity, had a governing board, owned or rented its own headquarters, had youth associations, musical, sports associations, organized national celebrations, like they do in the Romanian communities – national feasts – the days that were of any importance to the Greeks were celebrated here as well. Independence day…""So it was a legal entity…""Legal, yes. Where there was a church, it became a legal entity…""You are talking about the church on Republicii Boulevard.""Yes. The one on the Pache… Boulevard. The Pache… Boulevard. The Republicii Boulevard… Pache Protopopescu was mayor of Bucharest, it was called the Pache Boulevard.""It's in neo-classical style.""Yes, it looks a little like the Parthenon. The columns, the Greek columns. It's a basilica.""And where was the Community House located?""First it was on Lucaci Street, in hired lodgings, then they built a house… their own house, the headquarters of the community, the offices; the high school and the boarding house were at 33 Austrului Street. There was an exchange of assets between Romania and Greece after the war, so there wouldn't be any disputes. The Greeks left these properties; the Romanian state took them, and the Romanian state gave up, if I'm not mistaken, the Romanian Consulate in Thessalonica, it was an exchange of estates.""Who were the leaders of the community at the time when you were young? Do you remember?""I do, how could I not? When I came here in '22 the leader was a banker, Andrei Lazaris. He owned the Greek-Romanian Bank. He was the leader, and there was also a Governing Board. After Lazaris there came another head or president of the community, also a landowner and banker, Vasalopol, who was related to Chrissoveloni, 'gold needle'. There was another bank in front of the National Bank. You must go, see what's inside… the style it had… he was wealthy, travelled around the world and then he said: 'Make me a building like this one!' This house was a replica of a building, an architectural monument in Florence. Chrissoveloni was a very rich man. Greeks were like this. So Vasalopol was both a landowner and a banker. Then came another banker, equally wealthy, a bit of an adventurer, but a capable man nonetheless, a certain Diavulis… he came from Russia, but he had fled Russia, went to Asia, to China, then came to Romania. With a suitcase and nothing more. He came with a suitcase and went into trade, and such was his acumen, that at some point the Romanian state owed him six billion lei. He imported tanning materials and exported – he had a license for export to mother Russia – timber. He made a fortune. He had money to burn. He told me once: 'Come with me, let's leave this country and I'll make you somebody, we'll go to Sweden.' I didn't listen to him, I thought he might do this… and he might do that… and I had small children… but I'll tell you something. Ever since I was twelve, thirteen, I began to read other kind of books than children normally read. There was this magazine called Topics and Ideas and I came across the issues on Socrates, on Plato, on Henri Poincaré, on Herzen. On the Russian anarchists – Kropotkin, Bakunin, Lenin… I have kept the collection, a nice magazine, with substance.""Despite your interest in history and even political sciences, you studied medicine. Does it by any chance have anything to do with this pragmatism typical of the Greeks?""Pragmatism… yes. My father told me: 'You will be a doctor!' That was his wish. And I liked being a doctor. I remember when I was a child, I was in elementary school, and the doctor came over to see us. I was impressed by the doctors' appearance. Back then they had… they wore hard collars, elegant suits, hats, not like these days… I liked medicine because medicine also is ab origine a Greek science… with Hippocrates and all that… I have written some thing in the field of history of medicine…""I don't know to what extent pragmatism is a Greek thing or…""Pragmatism means realism… comes from pragma, which means thing, object.""That is, in philosophical terms, a sort of cult of utility…""Yes, yes… I was pursuing two things at some point, after I graduated from high school, when they were saying to me: 'You'll go on to study either political science or medicine.' Political science would have offered me new possibilities, I could become a consul, go into diplomacy, but then someone says to me: 'And what with it? Better put a plate on your door, people will come to you, you'll make money! What's the use of being appointed by the state, being shipped to and fro…' Big mistake, because, had I gone into diplomacy or become a consular envoy, not only would I have earned much more money… I would have had the chance to see the world… you have access to lots of capitals… I would have… whatever, let bygones be bygones…""When did you begin to frequent the Greek community?""As soon as I came to Bucharest I became a student of the Greek high school, and I had to attend nationalist meetings, where we sang, we danced… as they do in any high school. So. And I have already written one chapter of The history of Greeks in Romania. I even drew a map, of the places where there were Greek communities. From west to east: Turnu Severin, Calafat, Corabia, Giurgiu, Calarashi, Oltenitza, then Tulcea, Galatzi, Braila, Constantza, Bazargic, Sulina – these were all the Greek communities.""So in fact the one in Bucharest was a sort of nucleus of all Greek communities…""A nucleus… yes, precisely, the nucleus.""But the ones in the country were autonomous, were not run from the centre…""No, no, no, they governed themselves, no one interfered. They built their own schools, brought priests from Greece, supported the schools with their own money. Each community was independent. There is one church it would be worth seeing, from the point of view of… to experience a kind of visual, aesthetic voluptuousness… the church in Braila. When I went there I was awe-struck… how shall I put it… the grandeur… the Greeks there were wealthy, they threw up their hats – 'Let's make it as high as the hats or the caps go!' It's extraordinary! Such beauty! There are a few Greeks left in Braila, they maintain the church… there is no priest, they brought one who speaks a little Greek and says mass in both languages, Romanian and Greek. But the church is a real beauty… I met some Greeks there, in Braila, some tycoons, shipping magnates, ship-owners. A Greek becomes a shipping magnate the moment he buys his first boat. The boat – a small boat, then a larger one, a barge, a small coast ship, first on the Danube and then on the Black Sea…""Until he has his own fleet…""Yes… Greeks have a passion for water. As a great thinker used to say: 'The Greeks were an amphibious people,' they like the land, but also the sea… amphibious…""The sense of belonging to the Greek community was normally so strong, was there a strong sense of identity?""Oh, yes, of course there was. The Greeks were keen on having their own church and their own school. Their children had to learn Greek and it was their own business, the children's, where they went from there. But they were… I wouldn't say maniacs, but passionate. This was patriotism back then… country, patris… and patriotism played a great role in building character. Patris and patriot. It was the 400 year period when Greece was under the Turks… 400 years! And if the Greeks as a nation didn't disappear it's because of these two things: the Orthodox faith and the Greek school.""In this respect the Turks were tolerant… in that they didn't care…""Ah, of course… not only didn't they care. But there were many Greeks in the Turks' service. For instance, at the Sublime Porte, as they used to call it, the highest dragomans and officials of the Ottoman Empire were Greeks.""All diplomacy was handled by Greeks.""All diplomacy was Greek, because the Turks were uneducated, completely illiterate, they were only interested in baksheesh, harems and sweets, they knew of nothing else, and left the Greeks to rule the country. This is why the coming of the Phanariot princes was a blessing to this country, because they won certain independence, instead of being turned into a Turkish pashalik, like Bulgaria or Serbia.""They weren't ruled by the Turks, nor was the country divided into rayahs.""But it was…""Where the community is concerned, I have noticed various trends with many minorities.""There were two major trends in Bucharest: the supporters of Venizelos and the royalists. In 1922 there was this clash between King Constantine and the prime minister, Venizelos. Venizelos was a man with great ideas, wanted to create Greece of the two continents, of the five seas. The continents were Europe and Asia Minor and the five seas were the Mediterranean Sea, the Ionic Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Marmara and the Black Sea – that's how far it spread. He was with the Entente, with England, France and Russia, while King Constantine wanted to go with…""With the Central Powers…""With the Central Powers. The disagreement between them led to the loss of this great dream… Greece had received three districts, three vilayet, as they are called, around Smyrna. Greece was big, huge – continental Greece and Asian Greece. Greeks have lived in Smyrna since times immemorial… it's Greek country. If they were to take out the name plates from the streets, the villages, the towns in Asia Minor and put the old ones back again… but there was serious argument between the two, they fell out, King Constantine was forced to abdicate, then he returned to the country and when he came back – King Constantine, that is – Venizelos left. It was a military catastrophe in Asia Minor, I was one of the supporters of Venizelos myself, I was on his side. We, schoolchildren, used to fight among us over this… Venizelos, yes, and his grand ideas…""What about the community here – were they divided?""Divided, of course… And there were two newspapers – one was royalist, the other supported Venizelos. The royalist paper was called Neos Elinismos – The New Hellenism; the other was Es Ethnos. There were two major trends, the Hellenists and the royalists.""Didn't the leftist movements catch?""No, no, no, no one knew about that back then… I was the only one who had read about the Russian anarchists, I read something about socialism in 1922-23, I was curious, but it wasn't known, not to this extent, it wasn't something…""Not even later?""No, no, no, the Greeks in Romania came to know about these trends after the start of the civil war in Greece of '46-'49. They wanted to get control of the community… they did get control; they needed the resources to support the revolutionary movement in Greece. But… they even made me secretary general, but since I didn't live up to their expectations – I wouldn't flaunt my convictions, I wouldn't help promote the revolution in '46-'49 – they kicked me out. They didn't need… It was for the better…""It really was for the better… I read somewhere about this association or something like this, Pro Grecia""The Friends of Greece. It was really more on paper than anything else; it was set up by a journalist, a certain Aristotel Sardelis… he was secretary general with the Ministry of Labour. He earned a lot, he took money from all the Greeks to bring out a newspaper, to make… but he didn't do anything, he just took the money… sly fellow…""How did the community evolve in the 30's, were the two trends still visible?""No, with the restoration in Greece the fights between royalists and the supporters of Venizelos stopped, especially since the two heads of the movements had died: both King Constantine and Venizelos. Then things calmed down on their own. Greeks are passionate when it comes to politics and they are ardent and that's why they make mistakes. You must not be ardent in politics, you have to know how to keep your boat above the waves. They steered to one direction, then to another, and they were wrong, they ruined Greece.""After you completed your education, the leadership of the youth organization was taken over by others, wasn't it?""I left the Greek Students' Association. When I graduated from medical school in '36 I was through with the Association, especially since I was ready to leave to Greece and I didn't feel like... no one had any interest any longer for this society. The school was doing well, had its own income sources, the school...""Donations, or what sort of income?""Donations and the cultural movement that was being rendered profitable and money from the community for self-sustenance... and it lacked enthusiasm on the part of the others. I did it out of enthusiasm for Greek culture. Why shouldn't Greek students have their own society? We took trips to Greece, together with Romanian students... we walked, did some things, then we stopped going, it didn't work any longer. I graduated in '36, went to Greece, I didn't like it, I came back and this is how I spent a couple of years leading up to the events of '38-'39 with Germany, and the revision of the treaties and I wasn't allowed to leave the country any more and, truth be told, I didn't feel like leaving Romania. I was born here, I had lived here all my life, if I had torn myself away... and I think that, had I left for Greece, I would have got there before the revolution began... first of all, I would have been on Greek land during the war and I would have got involved with the Greek resistance against the Germans and the Italians; they would have done away with me, it's as simple as that... but I was lucky, I fought the war in Russia, for Romania, not for Greece. Russia was a beautiful chapter. I studied the Greeks' situation in Russia, I wanted to recreate the Greek communities which the Russians had wiped out. But they resisted the idea, they said no and no... local issues...""Romanian?""No, not Romanian... occupation issues, of the German authorities... of course, if I had gone to Greece, they would have annihilated me. I was part of an underground resistance organization. I couldn't just sit on the fence, play it smart, steer clear of it, just make money and watch others kill one another for this idea: country... if I had joined any organization they would have finished me off. That's for sure. And then, when the civil war started in '46, I took part in it, with the rightists. The right! I am a socialist, I want reforms, I want progress, I want welfare for everybody, but I couldn't agree with some ideas of the Greek communists. God save anyone from the likes of them! You think you have communists here?... these people have no idea what communism means. They are pleasure-seekers. They clap their hands in the meeting room, then they go out, swear and tell jokes. It's not like that with the Greeks. They are terrible, my good sir, terrible!""Who was Markos?""Markos was a worker in the tobacco plant who proclaimed himself general. He assumed leadership of this organization – now he has returned to Greece from Tashkent. He was in exile in Tashkent for thirty years, then he came back to Greece, got himself a pension and now he's living free. Although what Markos did, in my opinion, because I'm not a rightist, was treason. Because the settlement was reached with the Serbian and the Bulgarian dissidence. And what was happening? Both the Serbians and the Bulgarians wanted Thessalonica. And so they suggested Macedonia become independent, with Thessalonica as its capital, so that at some point either Tito or Dimitrov could lay their hands on this independent Macedonia and make it Serbian or Bulgarian. When I saw what they were capable of I swore I would have nothing to do with them. Politics-wise, I am a rightist, I agree with the pre-eminence of the nation, the language, with absolute religious freedom, freedom of thought, things that are frowned upon today, but I can't help it, that's the way I am, I cannot admit of any social structure except for... you know, it's like on the olympic stadium: he who runs faster, who jumps highest, he should come in first. Here things happened the other way around, it's not the capable, the educated, that reached highest, not the well-meaning – in fact, I cannot say more, but the intentions were obvious, the things that surfaced... so you can understand better... there was no doctor's position for me in Bucharest; I had only received an appointment in Soroca, in Bessarabia. But I didn't go there; on the contrary, I went to Simeria in 1938 as radiologist. Do you know where Simeria is?""Of course. It's Piski in Hungarian, they have a dendrological park up there.""Yes, Ocksay, a beautiful park. I was there in winter. I visited the park. It belonged to this Hungarian aristocrat, who invited me over to stay in his house... yes, there was a doctor in Bucharest who had four jobs... five jobs and I didn't even have one. How could I? It was difficult, especially because I was Greek, they didn't want to give me the job... and I went up there. I was well received there. Ocksay had a beautiful manor house on his estate, in the middle of that park of his. I only remained six months in Simeria. Disagreements began and they called back for conscription... but I was well-off there, I earned well, my family was difficult to provide for. My family was like this: my grandmother, my father, my mother, three younger siblings, and I provided for them all.""But your father must have had...""He no longer had anything, poor man, he went bankrupt back in '35. He used to have a fair estate. He was about to buy a house and a property on Rahovei Street. He was 25,000 short. The domain was one million and he only had 975,000. He didn't buy it. And he went into business, bought some big trucks, for transport. A small transport firm, but he lost, mainly because repairs and thefts from the trucks... and he lost everything. When I became a doctor, I was lucky to earn enough to be able to provide for the whole family. They were my responsibility. This is a tradition with the Greeks: one member of the family cares for all the others.""An unwritten law...""Unwritten, yes... I was stuck with my parents and my siblings. A Romanian scholar, a friend of Goga's, used to say to me: Goga was the most agreeable statesman to make conversation with. He was educated and well-spoken. He wasn't fortunate in politics, he sided with the right, with A.C. Cuza and he screwed up, as you say in Romanian. He formed the national Agrarian Party – that's what it was called. There were five Jews among the leaders of the party, in spite of his declared anti-Semitism. They were no obstacle to him... I am just now working on a chapter on difference between Greek and Egyptian art. Egyptian art was dominated by the frontal perspective: that's how you are supposed to see a man! Or else in half, in bas-relief. They knew nothing of movement. That is what they lacked, and they took it over from the Greeks. The Egyptians made huge statues. Massiveness is Asian.""You said you liked Bucharest because of its good society and that you had pleasant memories.""Pleasant memories... this is my pleasant memory: I was still in my second or third year in medical school and I was the most elegant of all students. My father used to buy me smart clothes... I wore four-in-hand tie, corduroy suits... 'and you shall not borrow books and treatises from everybody. You'll buy your own!' He would give me money to buy school books. Cash! 'Go and buy your own books!' I used to lend them to other people to read, but I never borrowed any. He didn't want me to. My father – patera I used to call him, patera... Patera, pater... pater, like in church, pater, father... he would give me money to buy medical treatises. He was so proud! Such was his pride when he came to see me defend my dissertation, when I put on those beautiful robes, he cried for joy... and when I took the exam for a job at the Brancoveanu hospital, it was during the turmoil with Bessarabia... with marshal Antonescu, that's when I sat for a doctor's position and I got it. That day they gave these classes in passive defense and some officer came in and stopped the class because things had taken a dramatic turn in the country, the Romanian government had received an ultimatum to give up Bessarabia. The confirmation came in a few days, I got the position and my father came to the hospital to see me dressed in white... another reason for happiness...""The Greek community that you found in Transylvania remained united during the Soviets?""Until 1937 they had their schools, their churches and cultural, artistic societies. They did. But starting with '37, when the so-called 'liberal' constitution, Stalin's constitution, was passed, they did away with all these and they said: only Russian, and Russian schools, are allowed. They closed them down... what's curious is that when they heard I was Greek they took me home, they had me sit at their table, they shared their food with me... they were happy I had come. I baptized a child, I gave it a Greek name... I only saw two churches in Russia. One was the Greek church in Odessa, built in the same style as the Parthenon – the Greek church – and the other was in Simferopol, where they had the te Deums. At the Greek church there was this one hundred year old priest who said mass. I used to go there sometimes and attend the service. Under Stalin's regime they used to dye Easter eggs and bake pound cakes stealthily and the first time they ate and drank was during the war, under Romanian and German occupation. They took me in there as well... so Stalin, instead of granting them more rights, narrowed them even further. Then I went to another town, Bakhchisaray, where the Tartar khan lived. There is where they came from, where the orders came from for them to jump on horseback and invade Walachia. A Turkish-style building. There used to be a church there as well, a Greek church, Saint Nicholas' church. They took me with them, some twenty people dressed in rags, they took me to the ruins of the church and we had our photograph taken. I've got it somewhere, this photo. I published a short study in the Greek newspaper in Bucharest – Ethnos – which is due to come out in Greece as well, with some photographs documenting my presence among the Greeks in Crimea. The title reads: brief history of the Greeks in Crimea. Because there lived Greeks in Sevastopol, in Simferopol, in Evpatoria, in Kerci and other smaller towns: Aluka, Yalta, Livadia – they were all full of Greeks... once upon a time."

by Zoltán Rostás