“We never thought to ask about where our parents came from. Of course, we knew we were Pontians. Refugees from the Black Sea. We spoke a different language. But our parents never stopped to talk about where they came from.”

My mother’s eyes opened wide and stared hard at the space between us. It was her eighty-sixth birthday. It suddenly struck her that it was strange that this question had never come to her before.

We were sitting by the kitchen chimney in Melbourne. The food for the dinner was on the table. My brother and the rest of the family had not yet arrived. With a nervous twitch she flicked the Bic lighter and sucked hard on a cigarette.

Then she dredged up some memories.

“I loved my grandmother. Even more than my mother. She was a beautiful woman. Smooth creamy complexion, and not a single grey hair. Everyone in her village of Koromilia was sophisticated.”

She paused. “They dressed like teachers!” Took another puff. “Her name was Irene.”

What was your grandfather’s name?

“Panayioti. He was rather short, stooped and had straight silver hair.”

“In Koromilia almost everyone were horiani – from the same village.”

“That is obvious Mum. After all they all lived in the same village,” I said.

“No. I mean that they were horiani because they came from the same village in the Pontus. In the village of Mesopatamia where I grew up there was a mixture of people from different parts of the Pontus and others that were locals. On my maternal side everyone was from a village called Kalika.”

But I thought your family were from Zilmera?

“That is on my father’s side. These villages were close to the centre of Trabzon. The people were more refined. They dressed well and did not talk to each other as if they were shouting at donkeys. Yambozina’s family were from the mountain. Rough and crude.”

How often would you see your grandmother?

“I would go a lot. The horse would take me up the hill. Once I arrived, I would give her a little slap on the rump, and she would make her way home. During the second world war I would often stay in her house.

One day bombs were falling. The Germans had a huge canon on one side of the mountain, and they were pounding the communists and the andartes – the partizans.

We were terrified and hid in an old wooden wardrobe.

In the semi-darkness she told me a story about her sister’s daughter. My grandmother Irene’s sister was even more beautiful than her. But she died very young leaving behind a daughter.”

Prof. Nikos Papastergiadis’ mother Eleni, looking out of a porthole on a ship landing in Melbourne. Photo: Supplied

All the men of that village were seasonal labourers in the Caucasus. They would return home at the end of the season, make another baby, and work their own fields. Irene’s brother-in-law would cross the Black Sea and work in the Ukrainian wheat fields or the Russian tobacco plantations. Whenever he left, he said to my grandmother:

“Ta matia sou kai tin kori mou – your eyes and my daughter.”

In other words, never take your eyes off her.

“One day Pasha Ali caught a glimpse of the young girl in the fields. He licked his lips and headed in her direction.”

“She sensed danger and ran to the house. It was empty. The old man followed. She opened the trap door and slid down into the stable. She could hear him walking above and snuck away to the other side of the village.”

That evening she reported everything to Irene and Panayioti. They immediately gathered up her things and arranged for her to go to Constantinople.

Panayioti had a brother in Constantinople. He sold carpets in the Grand Bazaar. There were thousands of shops in that bazaar. It was like a city within the city. However, Yiorgo had a huge moustache, wore a fez, and when he laughed everyone joined in.

The journey from Trabzon to Constantinople was by camel and boat. It was long and cold. But once, she arrived it was easy to find Uncle Yiorgo. He was also very rich.

Pasha Ali came back to the house. Irene told him that the girl had been summoned by a relative to the City to help in their house. Ali was seething. Irene was quivering. She knew he could do as he pleased.

“Pasha mou! We could not imagine that a man of your age and high status would be interested in such a young and poor girl. You are like a father to her.”

Panayioti decided to appeal to Ali’s filotimo – honour.

“Pasha mou! We could not imagine that a man of your age and high status would be interested in such a young and poor girl. You are like a father to her.”

Pasha Ali was boxed in between the air of pride and the sniff of lust. He grunted and left his half-finished raki on the table.

In Koromilia the bombs had stopped. My mother was still hugging her grandmother. Holding on tight to the hem of her dress with one hand, and gently tugging her earlobe with the other.

They slowly opened the door of the wardrobe. Dust and dirt had formed an arc around the earthen floor of the fireplace. A bomb had whistled down the chimney, thumped into the pit, but didn’t detonate.

Who made that bomb in Dortmund? Was it a rare slip of German attention, or the canny sabotage of a Polish prisoner of war?

Over 250,000 Pontian Greeks were massacred in the ethnic cleansing under Turkish authorities. Photo: Greek Genocide Resource Center Facebook Page

I gasped and looked at my mother stubbing her cigarette and wondering about the silky smoke that was wending up the chimney and dissolving in the Melbourne air. She then recalled more details about the story of her grandmother’s niece.

“When she arrived in Constantinople her uncle was thrilled at the sight of his beautiful niece. He had her dressed by the seamstress used by his wife. He made inquiries. Bought gifts for officials and laughed louder than usual. However, even with his wealth he could not secure the necessary permits for her to live in the City. Yiorgo prepared a lavish dowry and sent her to Greece.

The young woman found herself in Koromilia and betrothed to a musician who played the Pontian lyra. She gave birth to two sons and her husband played at wedding, drank a great deal, and seduced widows.

When her son approached adulthood, he followed his father and caught him in bed with another widow. Furious and ashamed he beat the father and smashed the furniture in the widow’s house. He then fled to the mountains to avoid prosecution.

“Do you mean that the scumbag father had the temerity to go to the cops?” I asked.

“Yes. He was shameless. However, the son fled, because in those days, the rule was that if you were not arrested within three days, then the police could not imprison you.”

“The young man returned a week later. Explained himself to a judge and was allowed to go home to his mother. The lyra playing father died a lonely drunk.”

I was a confused.

“So, this young woman found her way from the village near Trabzon to Constantinople, and eventually to Koromilia in the Northwest of Macedonia?

“Isn’t Koromilia the same village where the rest of her family settled after the ethnic cleansing of the Greek Orthodox peoples in Turkey and Muslims in Greece?”

“Yes” replied my mother.

I felt as if I was facing an unsorted Rubik’s cube. “How did that happen? Was it just a coincidence?”

“I have no idea,” she said and lit another cigarette.

“None of my grandparents ever spoke that much about the past and no-one ever thought to ask.”

Prof. Nikos Papastergiadis is the Director of the Research Unit in Public Cultures, based at The University of Melbourne. He is a Professor in the School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne.