Voices from the Past: Greek-Australian migration stories come alive

A digital archive of memories and histories

Nothing can awaken the past more powerfully than the sound of a voice.

We can now listen to Greek Australians narrate their life story and migration experience from the mid-20th Century, thanks to the extraordinary collection of oral histories and visual images that are available on the website of the State Library of New South Wales.

“The Gregorios and Stavrini Onisforou Oral History Collection” went live a few weeks ago, allowing us to connect with the past in a deeply intimate and personal way. Thirty compelling stories -and more to come- available in both English and Greek, breathe life into historical events with rich context and humanity.

The project has been many years in the making, with the first interview conducted in March 2017, George Kouvaros, the project leader and Professor at the University of NSW, told Neos Kosmos.

“It began as a collaboration between the Greek Orthodox Community of NSW and the department of Hellenic Studies at UNSW, an idea that everyone thought was certainly needed.”

Persefoni Mousmoutis, Surry Hill. c. 1964. Image reproduced with permission of Stavroula Mousmoutis/Greek-Australian Archive

Initial fundraising efforts began in 2016, with the Greek Orthodox Community of NSW contributing the first $10,000, and subsequent donations from the community raising additional funds. But the significant turning point was in 2019 when the Onisforou family donated $150,000, leading to the collection being named in honour of their parents, Gregorios and Stavrini Onisforou.

At around the same time a grant was also secured from the Australian Research Council, allowing the project to really take off, and the partnership with the State Library to be formalised.

“The State Library NSW was very supportive right from the start, which meant that it would become a project whose reach and significance would be go beyond the needs of the Greek community. It would be a resource available to everyone.”

The project attracted public interest early on, leading many to share their stories.

“It was often a very emotional experience for both the person being interviewed and the interviewer. Because these people are telling their stories at a particular time in their lives, when they know that they are reaching the final stages. All their experiences they had processed in various ways. But to talk about all that, to someone who is a relative stranger, required a lot of courage and a lot of resilience. And unsurprisingly, it brought up a range of emotions to do with experiences that had been kept pretty much in check for a long time.”

Stavroulla Onisforou holding baby Theo Onisforou, Paddington, 1957. Image reproduced with permission of Theo Onisforou/Greek-Australian Archive

“What these interviews do is they provide a real human dimension, a much more fine-grained understanding of what this generation went through. The individual dramas, things that went right, things that went wrong, the pain, as well as the joy.”

For Maria Savvidis, president of Oral Histories NSW, who joined the project in 2019, to support professional interviewing techniques and archival quality recordings, this journey has been emotional and deeply personal.

“You hear the dialect, the tone, the age, the emotion in people’s voices. It’s very emotional for me but there’s also something very comforting about it. You feel like you’re just sitting around with your yaya, listening to stories, which I think so many of us can relate to.”

Maria Savvidis, president of Oral Histories NSW. Photo: Supplied/Joy Lai

We grew up hearing stories from our older family members, Savvidis continues. “And this is that, but on a huge scale, and across the Greek mainland, the islands, Cyprus, Turkey and Egypt. So, it’s just this epic version of that personal experience that we’ve all had with our grandparents or uncles and aunties and parents.”

“Greece has such an ancient oral tradition. We’ve been passing down our history and knowledge and experience for thousands of years. It’s 2024, and it is still the best way to pass on that information. It’s immediate. It’s very personal. And everyone understands it.”

For both of them, it has been a project very close to their heart.

Professor George Kouvaros, whose books often explore the life of older generations, describes the experience of the Diaspora as unique and fundamentally different to the experience of those who remained in their homeland.

“It is one based on leaving home. It’s about having two homes and of being pulled between places. And it’s about the challenge of starting again in a place where one is foreign. Where one has to make a community again, and to endeavour to maintain a culture, but also to respond to the host culture and to change, to adapt as well.”

Melpomene Kaimasidis, Cornelius Furs workshop, Sydney, c. 1963-4. Image reproduced with permission of Melpomene Kaimasidis /Greek-Australian Archive

What struck him most was how central the women were to the process of creating a community and managing the process of adaptation, assimilation and homemaking.

“I think this might be revealing to someone from outside the community, who sees the Greek community as very much patriarchal. These interviews show how much agency these women had in determining the nature of the home-life of this generation.”

The most rewarding was giving a voice to this generation, and allowing the voice of these women, in particular, to find a place.

Being aware of this history is really important, Kouvaros continues. “Because it shifts the perspective of my generation and the generation that has come after me, from one of relative comfort and privilege, to one of struggle and of being regarded as foreign, as alien, looked upon with both a degree of suspicion and a kind of welcome as well.”

Author George Kouvaros, project leader and Professor at the University of NSW, Photo: Supplied

The history of Greek migration to Australia is undoubtedly a history that should be celebrated. But it wasn’t always viewed in these terms, Kouvaros says.

“It is founded on a history of struggle, of difficulties, misunderstandings, and resentments. And this should never be forgotten. Because if it is, we run the risk of becoming kind of blind to the struggles of migrant groups that have come after us. We become prone to a kind of chauvinism.”

Often, a lot of these people have not been represented with their own voice in history and community archives. So, this is really giving them the microphone and saying, it’s over to you, Maria Savvidis adds.

“I guess the most important thing for me, and it never changes, is that everyone has a story. And everyone’s story is important. And we’re collecting them, not just for right now, but for people far into the future, as far ahead as we can imagine, probably when none of us are here. We’re trying to preserve memory, and history, because I think we learn a lot about the present and the future once we understand where we come from.”

Yota Krili, onboard the Toscana bound for Australia, 1959. Image reproduced with permission of Yota Krili/Greek-Australian Archive

There are several more interviews still being processed. By October, 50 stories, complete with imagery, are expected to be available online, coinciding with the official launch of the archive at the State Library. This event will celebrate the project’s achievements and offer insights into the experiences of Greek migrants.

For more information and to explore the collection, visit www.greekaustralianarchive.sl.nsw.gov.au