A Letter to My Son by Peter Nicolelis



By Peter Nicolelis

published in The National Herald
September 19, 2020

The National Herald has given HellenicGenealogyGeek.com permission to post articles that are of interest to our group.


Subject: 1983/Wreck of the Titanic found 

Chris,  How are you? 

You probably know about the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage crossing the Atlantic, but, have I told you that papou was also crossing the Atlantic at the same time, on April 15, 1912? 

The differences being that papou’s voyage was the final episode of his arduous but successful escape from Turkey. 

He had just turned twenty years old and as a Christian youth in Turkey, he would have been conscripted into a Turkish army labor battalion. Typically, if that were to have happened, he would probably not have been heard from again.

Papou had learned about the labor camps and was determined that was not going to be his fate. He began planning his escape years earlier. He got a job working for his brother-in-law, Stamati Marmarellis, in his bakaliko in Pergamos. He often spoke to me about having to load and unload bags of flour weighing 100 OKA, the Ottoman system of weight measure at the time. 

The unit weight of an ‘OKA’ was somewhat heavier than a metric kilo, which weighs 2. 2 pounds. 

Papou saved his earnings and he finalized his plan to leave his hometown of Pergamos. The decision to escape was easy. That was simply a question of having a life or experiencing a slow miserable death as a recruit in a Turkish labor battalion, probably stuck somewhere in the easternmost parts of Turkey or even possibly in Syria, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire.

The difficult part of the decision to escape was to overcome the dangers and arduous physical difficulties of getting to the active international seaport of Smyrna and then getting passage on a ship leaving Turkey. 

Before leaving home, papou had taken time to inquire about the trip to Smyrna from Pergamos – distance of approximately 40 or 50 miles. He made a point of speaking to the older, more educated men he befriended at the local kafenio. Over time, he learned about the military roadblocks posted on the main road to Smyrna. All wagons, carriages, and riders on mules or horseback were stopped, searched and interrogated. 

He made notes of the roadblock locations and learned ways that they could be safely avoided. The Turks were on the lookout for the numerous young men seeking access to the Smyrna seaport escape route. 

The other difference between the Titanic and papou’s crossing was that the Titanic sailed on the north Atlantic route – whereas papou’s ship, the Athanai, was on the south Atlantic route setting sail from Kalamata, passing through the Mediterranean Sea, and then passing the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Atlantic Ocean. 

The Athanai did receive SOS wireless distress messages from the Titanic but because of the distance between the two ships, it was determined that the Athanai could not reach the scene of the accident in time to successfully participate in the rescue effort of the Titanic passengers. 

Thoughts of distressed passengers floating in the frigid waters of the north Atlantic permeated into everyone's thoughts. 

News of the Titanic’s iceberg collision and quick sinking spread through the Athanai passengers in steerage. Many rushed to the main deck to gather along the ships’ starboard railing. They peered out into the darkness of the evening. There was nothing to see in that eerie blackness, but they were ready to sound an alarm if a rogue iceberg was sighted. 

Two days later, on April 18th, the Athanai steamed into New York harbor. The first sighting of the Statue of Liberty was inspirational. There was a huge resounding cheer. Many were tearful as they made the sign of the cross. All thoughts now focused on their safe arrival and to their future lives in America. 

Getting back to papou’s escape: 

He did make it to Smyrna. He arrived late in the evening of April 14. He was hungry. He had finished the dried ‘soutzouki’ and the string of dried figs that had sustained him for the three days since leaving Pergamos. He needed to eat but most importantly, he needed to keep alert to the constant danger of being captured and that he had to hold on to the rest of his money for passage on his escape ship. 

When he arrived at the port he walked aimlessly through the deserted harbor streets hoping to find a solution to his dilemma: his need to eat. 

And then, eureka. 

He spotted a lighted, open, patsa parlor with patrons. He walked into a long, narrow store with plain paper-covered tables on the left and a long walkway on the right. There, at the end, was a long white marble service counter which spanned across the entire width of the store. Once up close, he saw a large, round opening in the countertop with a built-in, copper cauldron hanging from it over the burning jets. 

My father described the food service in great detail. It was the first time he was going to eat food not prepared at home. 

The cauldron was full of whole lamb organs: the lungs, the liver, the stomach, the kidneys, the spleen, the intestines, and the lamb’s head. The broth was boiling. The organs became visible as they each broke through the surface of the broth which was covered with the floating, congealed fat from the organ meat. 

Papou could not believe what he was about to order and be served. It looked so primitive. 

He approached this counter, stopped in front of the open cauldron and without speaking a word, lest he reveal his Greek accent, gestured for a bowl of pasta. 

The cook reached for a soup bowl, set it to the side and prepared to arrange for a portion of patsa. That began the process. 

The cook would spear one organ after the other with a long fork, cut several slices of each organ and place the pieces into the waiting soup bowl. He then pushed aside the floating, congealed fat and added a ladle full of clear broth into the soup bowl. There were sauces on this counter top that could be added. One consisted of finely chopped garlic mixed with vinegar and the other was a mixture of red cayenne pepper or paprika mixed with olive oil. 

Papou took his soup bowl, loaded it with both sauces, took some bread and then a knife, fork, and spoon. He then turned and looked for an empty table to sit and eat his food. It was to become a very basic, inexpensive, but very memorable meal. One that filled his stomach. 

Papou spoke about the pleasure of having something warm to eat. But he had to remain alert to the risk of sitting in an enclosed area with only one way out. 

As he began eating his patsa, he would look up between mouthfuls. He noticed that one of the patrons was watching him continuously. There was nothing unusual about the man but papou did catch a glimpse of something bright hanging from around the man's neck. He wondered, could that have been a gold chain? Could the chain be holding a cross? Could that be his baptismal cross? Could he be a Greek? Then, he had a wake-up call. He admonished himself to wake up, to get real – he was being unrealistic. He was simplifying his danger; he was reaching for an easy way out. 

Papou finished his soup quickly and when he looked up again, to his surprise and disappointment, that person was gone. He had left the store. As papou was leaving the store his mind snapped back to reality. What if that person was not a Greek and he was a Turkish policeman? What if he was waiting for him outside in some dark hallway? At that moment he had another wake-up call... 

“So what if he is waiting for me. I’m not going to throw up my arms and turn myself over to him. He did not look to me like he was heavier than a 100 OKA bag of flour.” He prepared himself for a physical challenge and he felt fully confident of the outcome of that possibility. 

As it turned out, the man in the patsa shop was a Greek. He was waiting for papou. He had realized that papou was a Greek from his behavior in the store. He also figured that he was not a local Greek but a desperate person that needed to leave Turkey. That's what this Greek lad was doing in the Smyrna harbor at this time of night. 

The stranger called out to papou in Greek from the darkness. They each approached, they met and then they both proceeded to introduce themselves. 

Then - a miracle of miracles. The stranger was a seaman and his boat was an island freighter which was anchored in the harbor. It was scheduled to leave for Kalamata in the morning. He was planning to return to his freighter that evening and he offered to take papou, who he would introduce as his ‘cousin’ to his captain once they got on board – and explain that his cousin needed to get to Kalamata so that he could make a sailing for America. 

Papou could not believe his luck and good fortune. He praised the Lord. Someone had been looking over him. 

The two ran quickly to where the sailor had tied his small row boat. He rowed and pulled up alongside the small island freighter on which he worked. 

Papou had successfully escaped from Turkey. He was now on his way to Kalamata, Greece. In Kalamata he found passage on the Greek steam ship Athanai, bound for America.