Recalling the Journey of the Diakakis Family: the story of Helen Pagonis

This short biography appears in “What Happened at the Pier: Recalling the Journey II”, a collection of migrant stories published by Executive Editor Lella Cariddi and Multicultural Arts Victoria, in August 2018.

My Australian-born mother, Helen Kathleen, grew up in a community of ‘displaced persons’ of Greek heritage from Asia Minor who resettled in South Melbourne in the aftermath of the First World War. Helen was born in 1930 to Constantine and Argyro Diakakis.

Argyro was born in 1887 in the regional township of Alatsata in what is now Turkey. The then-provincial capital of Smyrna is the modern-day city of Izmir. Argyro’s parents were Manuel and Anna Samara.

Following the First World War, and the subsequent Greco-Turkish War, Turkish forces, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, reoccupied Smyrna. Atatürk had previously come to prominence for his role in securing the Ottoman Turkish victory at the Battle of Gallipoli in 1916 – a defining moment in Australian and Turkish history. He went on to found the modern Republic of Turkey, serving as its first president from 1923 until his death in 1938.

On 9 September 1922 Atatürk regained control of Smyrna. Four days later a massive fire broke out, completely destroying the Greek and Armenian quarters of the city. A refugee crisis ensued, which culminated in the monumental 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey involving some two million people. Argyro was living in Cairo with her sisters at this time, so returning to her hometown was no longer an option. Following this crisis, some members of Argyro’s family migrated to Boston, and my mother, Helen, would go on to correspond with her cousin Kathryn in Boston for many years.

In 1923, Argyro reunited with her father, Manuel (my great-grandfather), on Chios, a Greek island off the Turkish coast not too far from Alatsata. Argyro cared for him there until he passed on. She then returned to Cairo to resume living with her sisters. Eventually, when all the Europeans were forced to leave Egypt in the 1950s, this arm of the family would end up shifting to Athens (I met some of them on a trip to Greece in 1990).

Living in Egypt when the forced population exchange took place, Argyro was spared the immediate traumas of those events. Altogether she spent seventeen years in Egypt. There she met and married Constantine Diakakis. Our family documents show Constantine was born in Athens in 1889. We know he had been a soldier on the Turkish front during the First World War. Together Argyro and Constantine sailed to Port Melbourne in 1924, and settled in South Melbourne.

Like many, they faced huge struggles during the depression years in Australia. For Argyro at the age of 43, and not expecting to have children, their daughter, Helen, was an unexpected arrival on 21 May 1930.

In the depths of the Great Depression people went to great lengths to find work. While Helen was still an infant, her father received word from a distant relative who lived in Geraldton asking him to go there, as there was work available for him. This vulnerable family of three, with no English, made the arduous journey to the Western Australia coast only to find disappointment, and to be stranded there without a home or work. They eventually made their way back to Melbourne in the early 1930s.

Our family documents show Helen’s parents regularised their Australian residency in January 1938. Argyro acquired British nationality and we have a Certificate of Naturalisation for Constantine.

Further into the depression years, Constantine was away from home, doing what was known as ‘sustenance work’ in regional Victoria. When he finally did find work in Melbourne, it was on night shifts. During the Second World War he fell ill with tuberculosis and was hospitalised. Helen at that stage was still under school leaving age. With the assistance of neighbours, she applied for an exemption to enable her to leave school at age 14 to work and support the family as the sole income earner.

When Constantine died on Christmas Eve 1945, after his long illness, Helen was 15. As was the custom, following her husband’s death, Argyro wore black for the rest of her life, including a traditional headscarf. Helen had limited quality time with her father and was too young to think about asking more about his background before he passed on. His death left mother and daughter without family in Australia; their only relatives were in Cairo and Boston, and correspondence was only with the relatives in Boston.

Helen as a young adult. Photo: Supplied

These circumstances brought mother and daughter closer together and the bonds became stronger with the passage of time. Argyro became over-protective, even for those times. When Helen left JH Boyd Domestic College in South Melbourne to go to work, her mother insisted that she could only go to a workplace with an all-female workforce. So she became an employee at ladies’ garments manufacturer Lucy Secor in Sturt Street, South Melbourne. There she was trained on the cornely (embroidery) machines. This was a position other young women shunned because the work was tedious, requiring a lot of practice, attention to detail and creativity.

Helen mastered the skills to operate cornely machines and was able to move on to another organisation in a role where she engaged directly with clients and was often left in charge of the workplace. This new position was with Yardley’s in Capitol House, Swanston Street, opposite the Melbourne Town Hall. This was the position that Helen held when her beau, Nicholas Pagonis, was courting her. Fortunately she had an employer that allowed her to receive his telephone calls and gave her time off for them to meet in the afternoon.

The dressmaking and needlework skills she gained gave Helen much pleasure and satisfaction over subsequent years. Later she acquired a cornely machine of her own and was able to do much of this work at home. Her mother had to sell family possessions, mainly a gold watch, chains and other things belonging to Helen’s late father, to enable her to buy this second-hand, nineteenth-century, pedal-powered machine. The items sold to pay for the machine were, of course, of great sentimental value and would have become family heirlooms. Helen became innovative in the application of her skills, and her creative cornely and other craft work became much sought-after by all that knew her.

After the First World War, South Melbourne had become an enclave of Greek-Australians from Alatsata. Helen’s mother did not always enjoy good relationships with her fellow expatriate townspeople, who considered her somewhat eccentric. Once he got to know her, my father, Nicholas, put this down to her extroverted nature and intellect. He assessed that she was above all the small talk and gossip. He reflected that she was interested in world news and current affairs, which was not appreciated by many of her gossipy compatriot neighbours.

However, Argyro was held in high esteem by other Greek people who frequently came to her for advice and counselling. Many Greek women, whose most common problem was husbands who spent their days and nights gambling in kafenia (Greek coffee clubs), owed the survival of their marriages to the sound advice they received from her.

In Cairo, Argyro had led a cultured life with her sisters and their families. She took pride in telling people about attending the opera, Verdi’s Aida, before the war. It was staged outdoors at the foot of the Great Pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo. Smyrna also had an opera house of its own; in its day the city was known as ‘the Paris of the East’.

Argyro was very accomplished at hand embroidery and crochet. Despite not being able to read English, she was able to reproduce intricate crochet placemats and embroidered clothes from pictures in women’s magazines without any instruction on the complex designs. As well as the Greek and Turkish languages, she spoke French, Italian and Arabic, which she learnt during her seventeen years living in Egypt. This cosmopolitan environment would have broadened her outlook. She attended a religious school where she was taught by nuns and where she acquired a cultural and intellectual education, as well as handicraft skills. She was a most hospitable and generous person and never took payment for any of her needle craft-work; she only gave it as gifts, often as thanks for assistance to herself and Helen.

Helen as a teenager. Photo: Supplied

Helen married Nicholas Pagonis in October 1950 and the family moved from South Melbourne to Chadstone in 1954. I was born in 1952 and named after my grandfather, Constantine. Sisters Leigh (in 1955) and Catherine (in 1958) followed. After her marriage, Helen became a full-time homemaker, raising her three children and nursing her own mother who passed away aged 72 in 1959. I was 7 years old when she died and I have clear memories of her, particularly her scary Greek folktales.

Helen was always very industrious at home, making a lot of her children’s clothes and, like her own mother, needlework and other handicraft gifts for friends and relatives. She was always very generous with her handiwork. Over time, she became heavily involved in fundraising and charitable work, at first with our Chadstone High School Mothers’ Club, and then with the wider Greek-Australian community. For over twenty years she was a leading volunteer with Fronditha Care, an organisation that provides services to elderly Greek-Australians. This included hospital visits and visiting people in residential care. She was also a significant fundraiser. For this dedicated work, Helen was awarded an Honorary Life Governorship of the Australian Greek Society for Care of the Elderly (now Fronditha Care) in November 1990.

Helen and Nicholas had a wonderful marriage and were a devoted couple. Helen lost Nicholas in 2007 when he was 83. Eleven years later at age 88, Helen passed away following a second bout of cancer.

Helen was testament to the proverb: ‘What goes around, comes around’. Though still living independently in her family home, she remained well supported; not least because of her lifelong generous spirit. She had her children and their families, including daughter-in-law Julie, sons-in-law Russell and Trevor, and grandchildren Andrew and Peter. She also had a close circle of relatives and friends (some girlfriends she had since childhood). She busied herself knitting scarves and making other handicrafts for fundraisers, but mostly to give away as gifts. Following Nicholas’ passing, Helen surprised all of us, not least herself, by the depth of her resilience.

I have drawn much of this family history from my late father Nicholas’ unpublished memoir, and discussions with family members who were generous in assisting with putting this account together. This story complements the one on Nicholas, which appeared in Volume One of the free e-book Recalling the Journey (see pages 79–83):


Originally published in Lella Cariddi’s 2018 “What Happened at the Pier: Recalling the Journey II” (pages 37-41). It is available as a free e-book here:

This story was published as part of Neos Kosmos’ call-out for extensive features focused on the Asia Minor Catastrophe to be shared for the entirety of 2022 in honour of those who were uprooted during those times.

If you have Asia Minor heritage, share your family history and heirloom photos with us by:

  • Mailing it to Neos Kosmos P.O. Box 773, Port Melbourne, Victoria 3207
  • Email your texts and images to
  • Phone Sotiris Hatzimanolis at (03) 94824433 Monday to Friday during office hours