Truths Beyond the Aegean: The Gatzolis family of Gioulbaxe

Uncovering my ancestral history as a 3rd generation Greek Australian and 4th generation Mikrasiatissa.

Along the south-eastern coast of the Aegean Sea is the ancient region of Smyrna, where Hellenism flourished since the times of Homer. In its surrounding seaside towns is a small village once known as Gioulbaxe, placed between the mountains and the sea.

The geography of this land made Smyrna a cosmopolitan port city in its prime as the naval entrance into Europe. Its destruction marked the Catastrophe of Asia Minor and changed the face of Greece and its people forever, influencing the generations of migration that followed and the Greek culture as we know it today.During my time researching my ancestral history, I discovered that my paternal grandfather’s family were originally from Asia Minor, like many of the people from the villages in Halkidiki. My grandfather Constantinos Coumaros, an avid writer himself (Coumaros, 2022 ), encouraged my research and gave me a handwritten book of memoirs that his maternal uncle wrote and sent to him in the late 1980s. This artefact was instrumental in my investigative journey and bonded my connection to the Greek language and history with its revealing truths of my family’s origins throughout the timeline of Greek history. The writer of the book was Ioannis Andreas Gatzolis, and he was born in the village of Gioulbaxe of the Smyrna province in Asia Minor alongside my great-grandparents, Pantelis Emmanouil Coumaros and Stamatia Coumaros (née Gatzolis), Ioannis’ older sister.

Ioannis was an educated man. He became the first teacher at the school in my grandparents’ village of Nea Gonia in Halkidiki and was proactive in the foundation of education in the nearby towns as well, like Rodokipos and Nea Sillata where he later settled. In his memoirs he documents countless stories and personal accounts from the Greeks who fled Gioulbaxe in the days leading up to the Catastrophe of Smyrna in 1922. He also records the landscape, everyday life, and work of the land, including details such as the direction of the roads, the materials of the buildings, the patterns of the climate and nature, the lifestyle of the people and their occupations. Ioannis even documents our family history as far back as during the Battle of Samos, in the ruthless years of the Greek War of Independence beginning in 1821, where an ancestor was caught up in the conflict with her two sons and managed to escape back to Smyrna.

As for the Gatzolis family in Gioulbaxe, they lived a comfortable life as ship merchants despite the political instability of the time. They were Greeks of Asia Minor, which meant that they spoke multiple languages, their children received a cosmopolitan education and they embraced delicacies inspired by neighbouring cultures without compromising their own. But their fate was ultimately sealed when Turkish soldiers began invading the surrounding Greek populated villages of Smyrna in the autumn of 1922.

The Gatzolis family in Gioulbaxe. Ioannis Gatzolis with his parents and siblings From left to right pictured mother Anna, Ioannis, sister Eleni, father Andreas and brother Manolis.

Greeks in the region had already begun to flee in the weeks prior to the cataclysm that was the Great Fire of Smyrna. Those that were hopeful, like the Gatzolis family, stayed behind, underestimating the tragedy that would follow. Ioannis writes that the Turkish soldiers assumed occupancy in his home of Gioulbaxe on the 1st of September 1922 by calling on all the Greek villagers to surrender their weapons. With the assumption that complying to Turkish orders would guarantee their safety, the Greeks turned in their riffles leaving themselves defenceless in their own land. Little did they know that their sincere intentions of peace were being used against them.

Once the last bullet had been surrendered, the Turkish soldiers without haste ordered the local men to repair the bridge that connected the exit road from Gioulbaxe to Tsesme, a smaller port town nearby that was a naval route to mainland Greece. That was the moment when the Greeks of Gioulbaxe understood their mistakes for not fleeing in the weeks earlier, for those that went to work on the bridge returned a few days later beaten and robbed. Some after witnessing this fled immediately into the nearby mountains, with only the clothes of their backs. Most, like Ioannis’ younger brother Manolis, fled at dusk over the following days. And few village leaders, like Ioannis’ father Andreas, stayed in Gioulbaxe in attempt to seek a resolution diplomatically with the Turkish soldiers.

With a courageous spirit and sound reason, Andreas alongside other village leaders arranged with the Turkish soldiers to offer them protection from any rebellious rouge Greeks attempting to attack the Turks, in exchange for the safety of the remaining Greeks in Gioulbaxe. And so, 22 young Greek village men were armed to guard the Turkish soldiers from any unexpected attacks, offering them food and shelter in their own homes. Even invading forces could not break the custom of Greek hospitality.

The next day however, the Turkish soldiers revealed their suspicious nature and claimed that this arrangement would not work in Gioulbaxe because it was foreign land to them. Rather they insisted that the Greek villagers needed to come with them to the nearby Turkish village to ensure their safety. With hesitancy but desperation, the Greeks believed them. It was not until later when the Greeks of Gioulbaxe finally acknowledged their fate as they realised that they were really being marched towards the port in the town of Vourla for deportation, or worse, execution.

As they approached the water, the Greeks of Gioulbaxe were confronted with a violent scene; the screams of women and children being separated from the men echoing the valley, a lingering smoke smouldering the air, rifles being loaded in all directions. Amongst the chaos, they then realised that their own 22 young men who guarded the Turkish soldiers were not trailing behind them. The Greeks of Gioulbaxe were only to learn the truth of their comrades’ fates days later from other survivors. That very same day, after they had all been deceptively evacuated from their own homes, the Turkish soldiers did not spare the 22 young Greek men from Gioulbaxe who had offered them protection. Some claimed that they were burned alive in the village bakery ovens, for the smell of burning flesh clouded the road to the horrifying scene at Vourla on that dark day.

In one chilling chapter Ioannis recounts the personal experience of his younger brother Manolis Gatzolis, who had fled Gioulbaxe with over 100 other villagers on foot in attempt to escape at their own will.

The Gatzolis family. From left to right: My great grandmother Stamatia Coumaros (nee Gatzolis) with her parents and siblings, Eleni, Maria, Theodora, Andreas and Manolis. Photo: Supplied

Manolis’ story begins on the 4th of September 1922. With the help of a local sheepherder named Heraklis who knew the land as the guide, and a philhellene Englishman named Victor as the appointed leader, the group of just over 100 women, children, and men from Gioulbaxe navigated a 40km journey through the mountainous terrain of the Smyrna province. They travelled towards the port of Tsesme, hiding from capture, with only the clothes on their back and the land for survival. Wherever they came across a farm, they ate, and wherever they came across a stream, they drank. Manolis describes how the men in the group stole a goat and slaughtered it to share amongst everyone for food. They ate it flavourless, without salt, he poignantly remembers.

Along their path they encountered other rouge villagers from Gioulbaxe who then joined their group. In the reality of war, they also found villagers on their path that had not survived. Manolis recalls having to walk over their lifeless bodies, as the women held in their tears from exhaustion and the men said prayers for their fallen brothers. During their second or third day as now refugees in their own land, a woman in the group overcome by defeat tied a handkerchief around her own neck and attempted to strangle herself. But the men did not let her die. That night, Manolis remembers his younger sister Eleni crying herself to sleep. They had been separated from their parents and other siblings and didn’t know if they were alive or dead.

The next morning the leader Victor woke the group and told everyone to be silent. There were Turkish soldiers passing by with Greek hostages. They had bells tied around their necks and were forced to shout out Greek names to try and deceive anyone hiding to reveal themselves and surrender. Manolis recalls hiding under the Koumaria trees, careful not to breath a sound. Then they heard a round of gunshots. Everyone became worried and anxious that they may be discovered, so when night fell the group continued their trail under the moonlight, hungry and with an indescribable thirst.

At dawn they finally reached the bottom of the mountain and could see out onto the port of Tsesme, hidden behind the trees. Manolis recalls seeing captured Greeks at the port being put into lines, separating the men towards the sea and the women and children towards the land. One of the men cried while he was being pulled away from embracing his woman and child, saying “forgive me and may God forgive you”, accepting his imminent end while other Turkish soldiers were preparing a machine gun. A pair of brothers from Manolis’ group saw this and immediately ran out towards the sea, revealing themselves from the trees, shouting “our country will take revenge on you for the dishonesty you are doing to us!”. But a loud bang and gust threw them dead before they could reach the water. From the horror that followed only 18 or 20 Greeks at the port escaped out of 350. Manolis’ and his group managed to stay hidden, witnessing the atrocity from afar but with no less pain. When the Turks had finally left, the group of villagers from Gioulbaxe decided to redirect their course south and find another port for their escape. Their stomachs were no longer aching of hunger, but rather of the stench of death.

They continued their journey for days, travelling only by night to avoid the patrol of Turkish soldiers, surviving on whatever rotten food scraps they could find and share amongst 100 others. Manolis declares in his account that no one would believe the burning thirst and relentless hunt from the Turks if they did not experience it. Finally in the early hours of one eerily silent morning they found a shelter amongst the rubble of a damaged church. Manolis remembers having the first unbroken sleep in a week. Not even the pungent smell of his unwashed body could deprive him of rest.

The spirit of that church stayed with them the next day when they finally reached the port of Alatsata, in the south of Tsesme. It was here that they made their long-awaited escape, using whatever boats they could find. Their intention was to sail to Samos, however the strong north winds channelled them to head to the nearby island of Chios. Manolis’ experience ends with a moving observation of the sombre black smoke seething from across the bay as they left their doomed homeland for the last time, unknowingly witnessing first-hand the Great Fire of Smyrna that marked the ultimate cataclysm of Asia Minor.

Tragically after all that he endured Manolis did not live past the age of 21, sadly dying from malaria in the refugee camp at Nea Propontida on the western coast of Halkidiki along with his younger sister Eleni who was only 16, and their mother Anna. He was survived by his father Andreas Gatzolis, and his siblings Ioannis, Theodora and Stamatia, my great-grandmother.

On the 100th anniversary of this catastrophic event in modern Greek history we remember the lost homelands of our ancestors and the tragedy that they endured, which has shaped our identity as Greeks of the diaspora today. And more importantly, in the words of Ioannis Gatzolis “we learn about the Greece that existed beyond the Aegean”.