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Thursday, April 14, 2005 03:53 am

The gifts of the Greeks

art1984
Members of the Order of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, all Greek immigrants, held their 1942 convention at Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Hotel.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY

In the summer of 1942, the District Convention of the Order of AHEPA (the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association) was held for three days at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel in downtown Springfield. The executive officers of the convention and their wives welcomed chapter members from around the state of Illinois to meet, enjoy each other’s company, and, in the words of convention chairman Alex Karon, “promote and encourage loyalty to the United States of America, allegiance to its flag, the support of its Constitution, obedience to its laws, and reverence for its history and traditions.”

Every man in the picture that accompanies today’s column was a Greek immigrant, according to Karon’s daughter, Nancy Drake, of Springfield. Theirs were the classic tales of European immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They had emigrated as boys or young men; taken menial jobs in restaurants, cleaners, and shoeshine parlors; and, through thrift, hard work, and mutual aid, claimed ownership of their businesses and a piece of the American dream. Some of their names were anglicized (for instance, Karon was originally Karahouziti). Her father’s welcoming words were not just empty rhetoric, Drake says. It was a creed that Springfield’s original Greek-American community lived by.

“They loved America, and they loved Springfield. Dad, Gus Xamis, the Kerasoteses, they all sold a lot of war bonds. Gus’ son, Anthony, gave his life in the service of our country. Most of them owned restaurants, and they all closed on a different day of the week to save electricity and conserve supplies. With them, it was God, country, and family. That’s the way we were raised. I went with my mother to get her citizenship papers. We were so proud.”

Drake also says their fraternal organization was a mutual-aid society in the strictest definition of the term: “If one guy was short on something or sick or needed anything, another guy was right there to pick him up. I learned a lot about values from that group.”

Although the immigrant Greeks were loyal to America, they were vastly proud of their heritage and kept alive many of their cultural practices, such as the concept of koumbaro, Drake says. (Koumbaro is a special spiritual relationship between individuals that transcends ordinary friendship in its honor and trust.)

Tina (Bartsokas) Ekstrom, now a retired art teacher living in New York City, echoes Drake in her memories of their parents’ Old World ways. She, too, was part of the first generation of American children of the group. Her father and mother, Tom and Elsie Bartsokas, operated the Coney Island Restaurant on Monroe Street. Tom Bartsokas sailed from Greece to the United States in 1910, when he was only 19. He shined shoes at a hotel in Chicago, joined the Army and learned how to be a barber, and worked at a steel mill in Gary, Ind., until he saved enough money to buy into a restaurant with a friend in Springfield.

Ekstrom says that the Springfield Greeks “were a proud group who would celebrate name days [the feast days of the saints after whom they were named] instead of birthdays. Women would spend days preparing food. Children would eat in one area, women in another, and men in theirs. The foods were fantastic . . . meats, pastas, rice, and spanikopitas.” Ekstrom, who worked at the Coney Island on weekends, says, “I don’t know of any children who went into the restaurant business. Parents didn’t encourage it as it was very hard work.”

Drake can also attest to that. Her father owned the gone-but-not-forgotten Sugar Bowl Restaurant at State Street and South Grand Avenue, and she began working there at about the time today’s picture was taken, in 1942. “We were taught how to wash, sweep, how to waitress and carry things to the curb,” she says. “Later on, I was the only carhop in town with a college degree.”

Unlike Drake, whose parents were both Greek, Ekstrom’s mother was German. Her family story underscores the difficult and chaotic state of world affairs during the war years.

“Then, it was delicate,” she says, “and troubling.”

Ekstrom’s aunt and uncle in Germany, apparently fearing Russian occupation, committed suicide near the end of the war. Her uncle, Arthur Heinrich, her mother’s brother, opposed war in the 1930s but, like, many young German men, ended up in the army.

Here on the homefront, Ekstrom’s parents were active in war-relief efforts, sending packages of foodstuffs and clothing overseas.

“The Greeks were very generous. They are noted for that. They prepared hundreds of packages for needy families in Greece,” Ekstrom says. “My mother was head of the Red Cross knitting club. She knitted clothing for servicemen every night for years.” Her mother used thick needles and heavy wool to knit sweaters, Ekstrom recalls, and could finish one in three days.

Zack Ritsos, AHEPA’s district governor in 1942, welcomed the conventioneers with these determined and inspiring words in the official program of events:

“This convention will call for serious thoughts, not only for the continued success of our fraternity but for the success of our great democracy in its present conflict to subdue the barbarous forces that have descended on humanity to crush freedom and liberty. . . . Greece will fight on with the American nation, with the British Commonwealth; she will fight on from Africa; from her islands; from every corner of the earth, to the last man, woman and child rather than permit Hitler to dominate the world and torture mankind.”

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