The Ionian Islands as a ‘station’ of the refugee flows

Pontian Greek Refugees in Corfu (1923). The Center for Asia Minor Studies Archive, Athens Greece.

Crying for your belongings, your stuff, your godsent gifts, Abandoned, devastated, creatures, birds Wherein Love ploughed, now Death is reaping Lost is the homeland, lost is the nest.

K. Palamas, Το τραγούδι των προσφύγων [The Song of the Refugees], 1922

The history of the Ionian Islands is coloured by migration, by the assimilation and the adoption of foreign cultural elements, which gradually shaped modern ‘Ionian culture’

The Ionian region is a meeting point between the East and the West and for this reason, it has welcomed thousands of people over the centuries. Since the 13th century, families from the Italian peninsula, Provence, and the Balkan peninsula have moved to Corfu. Among them were the first Jews and the first Romani people traced in some of these geographical areas.

During the Venetian occupation of the Ionian Islands (1386-1797), there was a mass relocation of populations from the Venetian territory. Some of them were Greek-speaking populations, who fled to the Ionian region to be protected from the Ottoman invasion of the eastern Venetian possessions. A typical example is the case of the Cretan refugees in the 17th century, whose arrival altered significantly the islands’ culture and arts. New populations came as well, often encouraged by the state, from the Venetian mainland and the Dalmatian coast, in order to settle the - until then - sparsely populated Ionian Islands.

The "Stoning of Saint Stephen" by the iconographer Michael Damaskinos (1530/35-1592/93). The icon was probably transferred to Corfu by Cretan refugees during the years of the Cretan War (1645-1669). Gallery of the Municipality of Central Corfu and the Diapontia Islands, Corfu Greece.

In the early 19th century, the gradual loss of the continental possessions of the Ionian Islands led to the relocation of a number of people from Epirus to them. The most typical example is the settlement of refugees from Souli and Parga in several suburbs of Corfu town. A few years later, numerous economic migrants from Malta settled on the islands, as well as many Italian political refugees, expelled from their cities by the Austrian authorities for their patriotic action. These people contributed to the urban planning, building, and institutional development of the islands in the years of the Ionian State (1814-1864), and they also strengthened the local Catholic Christian element.

Engraving (225 mm x 14 cm) by an unknown artist from the edition of the London Illustrated News depicting Souliotes watching a cricket match at Spianada with Corfiots. The Corfu Reading Society Archive, Corfu Greece.

Later, during World War I in 1916, Corfu emerged as the ‘island of salvation’, as it has remained in the memory of the Serbian people, as approximately 150 thousand Serbian soldiers and civilians found refuge there, after Serbia was defeated in 1915 by the Bulgarian army. Despite its shortcomings, the mobilisation of the state managed to cover the immediate needs of the thousands of Serbs for healthcare and accommodation.

"In contrast to the bare mountains and snow we passed in Albania, we suddenly found ourselves in Corfu, in the eternal vegetation of olive trees and cypresses. Ripe oranges and lemons hung on the trees, dusty cacti stood by the road. Next to the well-dressed and clean Greeks, our own soldiers, dirty and with torn clothes, made a great contrast. In the shops there were various foods and the white bread that surprised us as if it was a real miracle. we had not seen it for a long time and it was in the ovens in large quantities. All this seemed like a beautiful dream and the island of Corfu like a real paradise on Earth."
Milan M. Stojadinović, Ni rat ni pakt: Jugoslavija i među dva rata, Buenos Aires (El Economista) 1963. [Quote Translation Jasmina Tomašević]

In the same period, Corfu welcomed refugees from Eastern Thrace and Northern Epirus. More specifically, until 1919, approximately 510 people had found refuge from Eastern Thrace on the island. Their accommodation needs led to the requisition of property. The majority of these refugees had returned to their homelands until 1923 or returned with the 1923 Convention for the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations.

Refugees transportation from Kallipoli (June 1915). Spyros Gaoutsis Collection.

"First we went to Corfu... We spent seven years there during the first persecution. That was in 1914. And then they took us back home again... We went and saw our houses, our vineyards, our fields; What a mess! (...) And then, there was another persecution in Asia Minor. We were persecuted again - and because we knew Corfu - we were sent straight there..."
Elpiniki Karagiorgi-Arvanitidou, a refugee from Panidos, Eastern Thrace, Thessaloniki 1996, The Historical Archive of Refugee Hellenism (HARH).
Θεσσαλονίκη 1996, Ιστορικό Αρχείο Προσφυγικού Ελληνισμού (ΙΑΠΕ).

Refugees who were already in Mytilene seem to have come to Corfu in October 1921, following a request by the Municipality of Corfu to send 300 refugees as farmworkers.

Newspaper Eleftheros Logos, n. 1218 (10/10/1921). Digital Collection of the Public Central Library of Mytilene, Lesvos Greece.

Thousands of Greeks were forcibly displaced from their homelands, following the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 in Asia Minor. Their peaceful lives and their harmonious coexistence with the Turks – highlighted in several testimonies – were suddenly overturned.

Ευστράτιος Σπανούδης, πρόσφυγας από την Μάδυτο Αν. Θράκης, Θεσσαλονίκη
1999, Ιστορικό Αρχείο Προσφυγικού Ελληνισμού (ΙΑΠΕ).

The Samoulidis family in Tripoli, Pontus. Pantelis Samoulidis Private Collection.
Iordanis Daniilides at a young age at Asian Minor. Iordanis Mpatzoglou Private Collection.

The collapse of the Asia Minor front and the violent counterattack of Kemal’s forces cost the lives of thousands of Greeks and left an indelible mark on the people who managed to survive and come to Greece as refugees.

¨He told me the following incident, which happened during the massacre in Istanbul, a cherished memory, because he cried every time he mentioned it. He was out on the street, he said, and his mother was making something...The Turks appeared out of nowhere, he couldn't remember how and where. Just a mob running around, hither and thither. (...) And suddenly, the Turks started slaughtering. "Within seconds (he told me) without anyone being able to react. My mother didn't even try to make a sound, she couldn't even yell, she couldn't gather us... they slaughtered her. She, my sister (he said) and I, all we could manage, at least unconsciously, as self-defense that is...there was a horse, a cart and I got behind the wheel of the cart. And so in the tumult, I got away! (...) ...I wanted to get out, to see my mother, I could see her blood running and I was afraid because I didn't know if it was the time to get out. People were running, crying, screaming, yelling...and I saw behind me... (he said, I'm telling you now and I'm touched) I saw my uncle (...) my father's brother and he grabbed me (...) at first out of fear I didn't understand [who it was] who was grabbing me, it could have been a Turk. And he put me under his arms (...) and he and his wife started running, running, running... to take us down, to find boats, to jump. (...) And I was trying (he said) to turn my head (...) while he had me under his arm to see what was going on (...) is my mother moving...? My sister? And I could see (he said) a 'pool of blood', spreading more and more instead of 'a small stain'...".(He said) "That's all I remember!".
Maria-Eleni Andreadaki, third generation descendant (Istanbul),
Athens 2022, The Corfu Reading Society Archive.

The Ionian Islands, despite being on the opposite end of the Greek territory, received a large number of refugees.

"From Samsoun we boarded an American merchant ship and came to Istanbul. At Haydar Pasha a Greek ship, an old ship, 'St. Nicholas' I think, was approaching. We came to Greece on that ship. First we docked in Lefkada. There, because we had lice, we were quarantined. They took us to a small island called Vasiliki. There they forced us to disembark."
Testimony of Pantelis Ioannidis, refugee from Uruborlu, Konya, Nice 1961, The Centre for Asia Minor Studies Archive.
Νίκαια 1961, Αρχείο Κέντρου Μικρασιατικό Σπουδών .

Corfu became one of the main hosting places for refugees, at the end of 1922. The Governement’s choice of Corfu as a place of temporary settlement for a significant number of refugees - by the standards of the Island - was not accidental. Corfu had a port that could accommodate the large ships carrying the refugees. Moreover, there were places available for temporary accommodation, such as the barracks and other buildings of the Old Fortress. At the same time, the small islands of Vidos and Lazarreto, which were at a very short distance from Corfu town, could serve as quarantine and isolation sites.

It can be argued that such a political decision could be associated to some extent with the danger of the Italian propaganda. In 1919, the fleet of the Italian allies departed from Corfu, along with the respective French and British fleet, forces that had participated in the military occupation of Corfu during World War I. However, at the time, the local authorities, and especially the Prefecture of Corfu, seemed to be concerned about the increased activity of the Italian consulate and the Italian schools operating on the island, and in its reports, both to the Police and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it refers to “the danger of distorting the ethnic character of the island”.

Report of the Member of Parliament of Corfu, Linos Kogevinas (15/09/1928). Eleftherios Venizelos Archive 112-107-Benaki Museum, The National Research Foundation “Eleftherios K. Venizelos”, Chania Greece.
Decimated And scared They came, half-naked And bleeding And others naked.

Methodios Kontostanos, Πρόσφυγες [Refugees], 1922

The refugees arrived at the island, either individually, a little before or even after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922, or mainly in groups.

Χρήστος Φωκάς, Κέρκυρα 20/08/2021, Αρχείο Αναγνωστικής Εταιρίας Κερκύρας.

"My grandfather went to Istanbul with my grandmother to buy fabrics for his shop. The Atatürk riots had already begun there, his soldiers had entered the street, they were throwing marbles, as Grandma said, at the hotel, they had injured people, they were destroying the shops of foreigners who were on the street... Grandfather came from the merchant and told her to get up and leave because he said to me, I don't remember his name now, which Turk it was, he said "George, pack up, take your family with you because things are getting worse". "
Sophia Linardou - Karagiannopoulou, second generation descendant (Chanakkale),
Corfu 2022, The Corfu Reading Society Archive.

The group missions of refugees to Corfu began in October 1922. According to the register of the Prefecture, the local authorities were informed on the impending arrival of the refugees by the Ministry for Healthcare.

G.S.A., Corfu Archives, Corfu Prefecture Archives, f.296/2 "Protocol no.6719-11116 (1922) - 1-4742 (1923)".
"On 5 December 1922, we arrived in Corfu men and women, the customs house filled with people."
Excerpt from the unpublished diary of Efstathios Halvatzis, a refugee from Sparta in Asia Minor. Eirianna Argyrou Private Collection.

Ευρυδίκη Γουναρίδου – Κιτούτση, πρόσφυγας από το Ικόνιο Μ. Ασίας, Αθήνα 1975
(Κέρκυρα 2022), Ιδιωτικό Αρχείο Οικογένειας Κατσαούνου.

Crammed in ships, often not knowing their final destination, the refugees left their homelands. The descriptions of the journey depict the tragic conditions they faced.

Refugee missions to Corfu continued through 1923, but also after the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne and the compulsory exchange of populations. The exchange in 1924 brought to Corfu mainly refugees from Cappadocia and Cilicia. Among them was Monk Arsenios (Saint Arsenios the Cappadocian), who led the people from Farasa to the island. Saint Paisios of the Greek Orthodox Church, still a baby, was one of them.

Newspaper O Proskopos tou Ioniou, (18 October 1924). Τhe Corfu Reading Society Archive.
Greek refugee's booklet with personal information. Archive of the Centre for the Study and Promotion of Asia Minor Culture of the Municipality of N. Ionia (KE.MI.PO), Athens Greece.
"What Arsenios was already saying, before they even started, that when we go to Greece they will take us to an island... I think it's worth to use his own words "When we go to Yunistan our village will be scattered everywhere". That is the message. Yes, that! ... Corfu for the Farasians means "Hatziefentis", that is, going to the Holy Land!"
Despina Vitouni, third generation descendant (Farasa, Cappadocia),
Athens 2022, The Corfu Reading Society Archive

A committee had been set up in October 1922 for the reception and accommodation of the refugees arriving in Corfu. The Municipality of Corfu, along with the presidents of the communities, undertook to register these thousands of people. At the same time, registrations by the healthcare committees seem to have been carried out. These name lists of refugees were sent monthly to the Ministry for Healthcare.

"When we arrived in Corfu, the Committee came to choose from the best families, so to speak... and they chose one who could speak both Greek and Turkish. ... So when they came and chose me, they put me aside. And one of them came and said to me "Why are you here, my child?" I said "I don't know why they put me here! They separated me and they're going to take me to a good...". "Listen to me my child (he said) you had better listen to me and go with your own people!" he said and he left. Another one came in the meantime bringing others, one or two more... "Why (he said) my child, are you here? I said "We were chosen by the Commission. They will take us to a good place!". "You'd better (he said), since they chose you (he said) it is good, sit here and wait!" Now what should I do? Who should I listen to? But, God rest her soul, my grandmother always said "The Greeks are dishonest!" And I still remember her words. So, when the one told me to sit down and the other told me to leave... I remembered my grandmother too, I wasted no time... well, I left my stuff. I didn't care for my stuff. And then, well, they were putting all the refugees in rows of two to take them to the Fortress... I dropped everything and run and lined up with the others! ...I got in the line. So the committee came and they couldn't find me. Tasis Anemogiannis, God rest his soul, said "She got scared and left!" ...and so he stood there by the line. So I had nothing in my hands, and I remember him grabbing me by the left arm and saying, "Where are you going, child?" I said, "I'm going with my own people. Am I the only one from a good family?" I said. "But they have chosen, my child! (he said) You were the first. Look, they have chosen." And they had chosen Makridis' aunt too."
Evridiki Gounaridou-Kitoutsi, refugee from Konya, Asia Minor,
Athens 1975, Private Archive of the Katsaounos Family.

Upon their arrival in Corfu, many refugees found themselves alone and cut off from their families with whom they had been separated during the flight. In addition to the hardship they were facing, they had to seek their relatives, to reunite with them, and to begin their struggle for survival. Searching their relatives was not easy. Some refugees continued for years through the Hellenic Red Cross seeking their people.

Excerpt from the unpublished diary of Efstathios Halvatzis, a refugee from Sparta in Asia Minor. Eirianna Argyrou Private Collection.

During the first, turbulent period of 1922-1924, Corfu welcomed and cared for thousands of refugees. Admittedly, that was more than this small Ionian island could host. However, despite the significant shortcomings it faced, it managed to carry out the enormous work of installing and integrating those that, in the end, made the choice to restart their life there. However, even those who left kept Corfu in their hearts forever.

And you came there and sat

In its castles in front,

From the earth where you sprang

Uprooted cruelly indeed,

And she opened her arms,

Nausicaa herself,

And you felt in her hug

Truly rested, in deep…

Markesia Tzimopoulou

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