Local academic and author Niki Karavassilis has dedicated the last 20 years to bringing to life stories of the past.
Since her retirement in 1995, she has written eight books, largely focused on her Greek heritage.
She has detailed her family’s experience coming to America after the Greek Civil War in the late 1940’s and the abduction of almost 22,000 children to the Soviet Union around the same time.
But in her book “The Whispering Voices of Smyrna,” Karavassilis decided to tackle a topic discussed in countless Greek homes but not often publicized: the Greek genocide at the hands of the Ottoman government in the late 1910’s.
The persecution of Christian Greeks, Armenians and Syrians left almost 1.7 million Greeks dead, according to Karavassilis. The genocide culminated in a fire that largely destroyed Smyrna, a major city in Asia Minor, and the decimation or fleeing of most of the Greek population in Turkey.
On Sunday afternoon, Karavassilis will shed light on this topic at a lecture at St. Barbara’s Greek Orthodox Church following their 10 a.m. morning service.
Proceeds from the talk and sales of her books will be donated to Sarasota County’s summer hunger program.
“It should be remembered, so it should not be repeated again,” Karavassilis said.
“A lot of innocent people lost their lives for nothing.”
Karavasilis’ talk will focus largely on the stories of Greeks who were able to flee Smyrna under the Ottoman Empire.
She had only begun to delve into the research for her book when she stumbled onto an unexpected group of survivors.
Karavassilis spends part of the year at her home in Rafina, Greece, a suburb of Athens.
One Sunday morning in the early 2000’s, she was sitting alone in a local cafe when an older Greek man approached her.
“He started telling me about his story,” Karavassilis said.
“He lived in Smyrna and was from a very affluent family — the father was sent to the desert, and they never saw him again.
And one of his sisters was very pretty; the Turkish soldiers took her away, and we don’t know what happened to her.”
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Soon after their conversation, people in the village started coming up to “the American lady writing about the Greek genocide.”
The stories of those people — as well as Karavassilis’ own research — became her book, which she wrote in 2006.
One account that stood out to her was of a father separated from his wife, son and daughter.
Eventually, the father returned to Turkey, where he set out to look for his family. In his search, he was directed to the office of a young professor who was part of the Turkish army.
That fateful meeting changed both of their lives.
As he implored the professor to help him find his son, he paused. Although he was unsure whether he could reveal his identity, since he was working for the Turkish government, the son did so.
“The man said, ‘Do you know where my Nick is?’” Karavasilis said.
“They embraced, and the professor said, ‘Dad, I am Nick.’”
The church’s head priest, Father John Bociu, called Karavasilis a “resource in the community” and echoed her sentiments about the importance of remembering history.
“We need to pay attention and hear these things,” Bociu said.
“Ethnic cleansing and this kind of oppression that is ethnic-based or faith-based has not stopped — we do have to pay attention to what’s been going on around the world because history will repeat if we don’t pay attention.”