By Gregory Kontos
A few weeks ago, on October 28th, like every year, Greece celebrated the “OXI” day. This year, however, caught me and my family by surprise! Attention: the following story has (surprisingly) nothing to do with COVID-19.
On October 28th 1940, Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas said “OXI” (NO), refusing to submit to Benito Mussolini’s expansionist agenda in the context of the Second World War. Greece’s “OXI” brought the country to war with Italy.
The Greco-Italian War (1940-1941) lasted a few months and Greeks were victorious. Not only did we fight off the Italian army, but we also pushed them well back into Albania, temporarily liberating the Greek-populated land of Northern Epirus (in South Albania). On December 6th 1940, the Greek Army entered the city of Agioi Saranta (Sarandë), and a few days later, on the 8th of August, it occupied Argyrokastro (Gjirokastër).
The war was victorious for Greece, yet it was certainly a challenging feat. A hard winter found the Greek soldiers fighting in the mountains of Epirus – resulting in the death of about 15,000 of them. In those challenging times, many local Epirote Greeks supported the Greek Army by hook or by crook. My great-grandfather, Pantos Gkounelas of the village of Tsouka (Cuka), was one of them. He would sabotage the Italians by stealing equipment and supplies, which he would then pass on to the Greek Army. Indeed, a few times he was caught by the authorities, but alas, he did not give up. However, in the summer of 1941, by which time the Germans had also invaded Greece, Pantos was turned in by an Albanian man and was arrested. On August 10th, he was imprisoned by the Italians in Patra. Two years he spent in this prison, and he was finally released on October 18th, 1943. His release certificate is the only written evidence of this whole story, coupled with oral family history of course.
After his release, Pantos settled in Corfu, where my grandmother was born. He later went to Perdika, Epirus, where he was given land through the Marshall Plan. That being said, Pantos never returned to his village, Tsouka, again and consequently lost all contact with his brothers, sisters and cousins. Unfortunately, attempts to reconnect with them through the Red Cross all failed.
Seventy-nine years later, on October 28th, 2020, I proudly shared my great-grandfather’s release certificate on the well known Hellenic Genealogy Geek Facebook group. A few days later, I received the following message from a Facebook friend, whom I deeply thank: “I know your family here in Australia. Stavros Gunellas came here from Albania about 15 years ago. He is your great-grandfather’s nephew”.
Words are not enough to describe my surprise, enthusiasm and emotion upon reading that message. A few minutes later I was “Facebook friends” with Stavros Gunellas and his son, Stelios, and immediately set a date and time to videocall. When that call took place, I could not help but smile. First off, my uncle and cousin looked very much like my great-grandfather. Secondly, they were as excited as I was for this talk, and thirdly, they shared tons of information about the Gkounelas family. Because their family had remained in Northern Epirus after WWII, they knew of all the family members who had left Tsouka to migrate elsewhere. At the same time, having lived in Tsouka themselves they were very familiar with the names and places – demonstrating that history is perhaps better preserved where it’s born. As the discussion went on, all the pieces of the puzzle started to come together. My uncle knew stories that had not survived in my branch of the family, yet they confirmed others that we knew as well. As there is not enough room to narrate all of them in a single article, I will briefly mention what I found particularly interesting.
My yiayia had once told me something that her yiayia (or my great-great-grandmother) had once told her: “You should be proud of your ancestry, because the Gkounelas family originates from the Tzavellas family of Souli”. The Tzavellas family was perhaps the most prominent Epirote family that partook in the 1821 Revolution, but also in the fights against Ali Pasha of Ioannina. The exact connection is unknown. Interestingly, however, and without any prior mention from me, this same statement from my yiayia was the very first thing my uncle Stavros said when we started talking! “You should now, he said, that the Gkounelas family comes from Souli and is a branch of the Tzavellas family”. Indeed, he went on, adding more chapters to the story: “After they left Souli, they settled in Karalimpei (today known as Fanari) in Northern Epirus. This is where the family house (“goulas”) was. The family was wealthy and noble. They had a bee hive by their house, and every time they had guests, they would treat them with fresh honey. Only later, around the 1920s, did the family move from Karalimpei to Tsouka. But the “goulas” in Karalimpei still exists!”
About an hour later the videocall ended. I had already filled two pages with notes and had created little family trees. Quite frankly, I had heard so much wonderful information at that point that I do not think I could have absorbed more. I was truly beyond excited to have reconnected with these relatives. It revealed that their family had also tried to reconnect with my great-grandfather, but in vein. It took 79 years, a Facebook post and a willing mediator for us to find each other! Of course, at the same time, this family reconnection allowed me to not only discover a long lost branch of my family tree, but also reconnect with a specific part of my Greek ancestry, my Northern Epirus ancestry, that I am particularly proud of.