Greek Immigrants Return to Form a Nation After Defending Homeland in Balkan Wars

Balkan War Reeenactor and Historian Peter Giakoumis with a cannon used in the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913. Credit: Peter Giakoumis

In a live-streamed presentation for the historical society of Schenectady New York on Thursday evening, Peter S. Giakoumis, author of the book “The Forgotten Heroes of the Balkan Wars: Greek-Americans and Philhellenes 1912-1913” presented a little-known aspect of the American saga, telling the story of Greek-Americans who fought in great numbers in the Balkan Wars.

The retired Captain in the New York National Guard and veteran law enforcement officer told his enraptured audience about the lives of the first Greek immigrants to the Schenectady area, how they thrived in the booming Industrial Age and set down roots in their new homeland, only to be pulled back to the Old Country when the Balkan Wars raged in Greece in 1912-1913.

Since many of the Greek immigrants of that time had already served in the Greek military before they left for the Americas, they were reservists who were obligated to serve if their native country needed them. But many others, already enjoying the fruits of their labors in the US, felt such a strong obligation to their motherland that they returned to Greece as volunteers to fight valiantly in the Wars.

Giakoumis stated that, incredibly, as many as one-third of all the men in the Greek Army during the Balkan Wars were Americanized Greeks who had left everything they had built in their new homeland to sail in steamships across the Atlantic to fight.

Most of the Greek immigrant males in the Schenectady area, numbering approximately 150, along with others who joined them from all around the country, even as far as the West Coast, took part in most of the battles of the Wars, including most notably perhaps at Ioannina. The majority of the American immigrants ended up joining the New York Regiment.

Greek men boarding the ship Madonna to return home and fight in the 1912 Balkan War. Credit: Library of Congress

Giakoumis said that by 1911, on the eve of hostilities, there were hundreds of thousands of Greek immigrants in the United States. All in all, according to the Greek Department of Defense, a total of 57,000 Greek-Americans would fight in the Wars, including those who had become American citizens, who nevertheless strongly felt what the author called their “sense of duty and honor to their homeland.”

Poster for support of the Balkan War effort. Credit: Catherine Tsounis/Greek Reporter

Some of the fervor was thanks to the efforts of a new organization called the Pan-Hellenic Union, which strove to unify Greeks in their new homeland while reminding them of their duty to the home of their ancestors.

The author states in his presentation that he had been amazed at the amount of funds that were raised for the War effort from all over the United States. Fundraising events, usually organized by Greek immigrant women, sprang up all over the country before the men left for Greece. “Four million dollars ($9 million in U.S. currency today) was donated for the Balkan wars, according to Giakoumis’ calculations.

The author relates that he had also been astonished during his research for the book to find actual newspaper stories and photographs of these men, many of them appearing in the Schenectady Gazette. Perhaps most amazingly, one of these Greek-American fighting men, Thomas Kansas (whose real surname was unfortunately Americanized and has been lost to history) actually contributed his own dispatches from his travels to the newspaper as he made his way to the front.

Kansas, who with his brother later went on to become a pillar of Schenectady’s Greek community, bringing an Orthodox priest to the city and helping found the first Greek Orthodox Church there, wrote in the October 23, 1912 edition of the Gazette how he watched Greek-Americans from all over the continent pour onto the wharves in New York City before boarding steamships bound for Greece.

The Greek-Americans, primed for a fight after reading dispatches from Europe about the increasing tensions in the Balkans, ended up forming an absolutely integral part of the Greek fighting forces in the Wars. Some of them even brought a 48-star American flag with them onto Balkan War battlefields and fought in United States uniforms.

With a total of 41,367 men who were either wounded, killed in action or went missing in action, the Wars took a heavy toll on the Greek side. However, by the end of the Second Balkan War, the Kingdom of Greece had nearly doubled in size, encompassing the great city of Thessaloniki and the rest of Macedonia, Epirus, Crete and the Aegean islands.

Giakoumis states that these Americanized Greeks were seen as “The backbone of the Greek Army,” so much so that one of the first officers to enter Thessaloniki after final hostilities ended was a Greek-American officer. But their heroics didn’t end on the battlefield.

These men returned once again, after hostilities had ended, to their adopted homeland to carve out a new niche for themselves and their community in the booming America of the pre-World War I years.

The return of those veterans went on ultimately to cement the success of Schenectady’s still-vibrant Greek-American community, making an indelible impact on the city which endures to this day.

Some surnames of the men who served and returned include not only Kansas but Stamos, Korgis and Kondovassis, names which are still common in the area.

Giakoumis, who usually gives his presentation wearing a recreated 1912 Greek army uniform, explained that “The veterans took it upon themselves to re-form the community they had left, and founded the first Greek-Orthodox church” in Schenectady. “And this,” he says “is a template of what went on in every city and town in North America” with these tough Greek immigrants after their return.

They returned to work at their businesses or started up new ones, and founded schools and AHEPA chapters, which helped others acclimatize to American culture; but most importantly, many times they brought back with them brides from the old country, who helped them create a new generation.

Giakoumis is also the Vice President of Byzantine Crown Productions, a history-based production company which promotes the accurate portrayal of Hellenic culture. He holds a master’s degree in international relations, and is the author of various works, which also include “The Balkan Wars of 1912-1913” and “Pioneer Greek Americans” (2017).

Along with his ongoing research into Greek-Americans and the Balkan Wars, he also serves as a living history practitioner with the Greek Warriors. Giakoumis states that his next project will be a work of historical fiction which will portray figures of that time, showing how they lived through all the triumphs and trials of the Wars and rebuilding their lives in their adopted country.