The Plight of The Pontic Greeks
Most people are not aware of the group of ethnic Greeks called Pontic Greeks. They are ethnical Greeks who once lived along the shores of what is now known as the Black Sea. Greek merchants originally settled in the area over 3,000 years ago, establishing trading posts along this shoreline and eventually the outposts grew into villages, towns and cities. This area was known as Pontus. From 1914-1923 their prosperity and peaceful way of life came to a tragic end when over 353,000 Pontic Greeks perished during the Greek Genocide at the hands of the Ottomans, neo-Turks and Kemalists. Their fate was later sealed following negotiations at Lausanne and an ‘Exchange of Populations’ between Greece and Turkey, which resulted in all Orthodox Pontic Greeks being forced to uproot and repatriate to Greece.
Traditions Still Hold Strong
Although they were forced to leave their homeland, they continue to keep traditions alive in their communities and villages in Greece. The Sunday after Easter, known as St. Thomas Sunday, is a special day in Rizana, Greece. On this day in the typically quiet village, located about an hour from Thessaloniki, there is a heightened energy in the air as Pontic Greeks gather at the village cemetery. Once at the cemetery, they honor their heritage by picnicking on the graves of the deceased, a Pontic Greek tradition maintained by some descendants as a way of honoring their dead.
Some bring along folding tables and chairs, table clothes, flowers and candles and settle in between statues and marble gravestones. This day is a day of celebration for the families, not of mourning. Not a tear is shed as they greet each other smiling and exchanging the typical greeting after Easter, “Christos anesti,” or “Christ has risen.” Children run around laughing and playing as their elders chat and enjoy the company. When everything is said and done, they feast on the graves of loved ones eating traditional dishes of piroshky, tsoureki and hot Russian vodka.
Keeping to traditions and honoring the dead is an important part of Pontic culture as Stefanos Oflidis, the president of the Association of Repatriated Pontics, explains that “thousands of Greeks left Pontus and the former Soviet countries in the early 1900s. We settled in western Thessaloniki and in the following years, our dead were buried either in Evosmo or in neighboring municipal cemeteries. Due to a lack of space, three years later their bodies had to be exhumed. That’s not our idea of honoring the dead so to avoid that, we started looking for a space where our dead could be permanently buried.”
Rizana local, Lefteris Tepetidis, whose family repatriated from Kazakhstan to Greece, donated the 15 acres where the cemetery stands to the village in the 1960s. In the years that followed, relatives brought relics from the buried in Thessaloniki, built a church and tended to the cemetery.
“Most of us are ordinary people, but honoring our ancestors is very important to us. There aren’t as many relatives coming on a day like this as there used to. Many Pontics have gone to work in Germany or they can’t afford the trip from Thessaloniki. Still, the Association does arrange for a bus on that day,” says Stefanos Oflidis.