Despina Kerassitis at the Benakio Orphanage, Egypt.
The following testimony relating to Despina Kerassitis (née Koufoglou) was submitted via our online questionnaire by her grand-daughter. Despina Kerassitis was born in İzmir on the 25th of November 1917 and died in Melbourne on the 27th of December 1999.
1. From which region of the Ottoman Empire were your ancestors from?:
My maternal grandmother was from İzmir (formerly Smyrna).
2. How did their life change when the Neo-Turks and/or the Kemalists came to power? :
In 1922, they had to flee Turkey after Turks began slaughtering people. She was around 6 at the time. Her mother Eleni, had to dress her like an old lady so that she wouldn't be raped or murdered. She and her three brothers ended up in Alexandria, Egypt. Their mother Eleni was unable to care for them. Eleni had a wealthy second cousin in Egypt who didn't have children of her own, but for some reason she didn't want the four children and they were sent to orphanages. My grandmother was sent to the Benakio Orphanage and her brothers Michael, John and Dimitrios were sent to the Kaniskerio orphanage.
Left: Despina in her nursing outfit, c. 1933. Right: Wedding photo of Despina and her husband Lascaris ( or Vlassis as he was better known as) Kerassitis. Married 22nd September 1940, Egypt.
3. Were they deported during the genocide? If so, when, where to, and describe their experience:
4. Were they held in a concentration camp or labor camp? If so, where was it located and describe the conditions :
Not that I know of.
Left: Despina and her husband Vlassis in uniform with their son Diamond. Photo: 13th June 1943, Alexandria, Egypt. Right: Despina's mother Eleni and her new husband John Koumides with their son Nicholas.
5. Did they lose family and friends? If so, how did they cope?:
Yes, my maternal great grandfather Stavros Koufoglou was beheaded by the Turks. I don't have further information about this
6. Did anyone within Turkey including Turks try to help them during the genocide? :
I doubt it.
Despina with her mother Eleni and Eleni's son Nicholas Koumidies.
7. How did they cope emotionally with their genocide experience? Did it affect the remainder of their life? :
She never spoke of the atrocities and that is why the information I have is limited. My grandmother said that her life was poor at the time and this made her very unhappy. At the orphanage they ate lentils every day but on Thursdays and Sundays they ate meat. At 10am and 4pm each day they would line up for a piece of bread. On the first Sunday of the month parents and guardians would visit with lollies and chocolates. There were about 150 girls at the orphanage.
When she finished primary school she did one year of domestic training. She was 13 at the time. One of Alexandria's well known surgeons visited her school and told the girls about a career in nursing. My grandmother expressed an interest and before long she was at a Jewish community hospital roomed with an Armenian girl who spoke very good Greek. They weren't paid, but were given food and board in exchange for nursing studies/duties. They worked from 7am till 7pm and sometimes received baskshish(tips) from patients they looked after.
My grandmother eventually left the hospital and looked for other work. She heard about an obstetrician and midwife clinic and applied for the job and was accepted. She worked there for 5 years. She was very happy there and money was good. On her days off she spent time at her mother's house. She was very close to her mother.
Despina, Vlassis and their children from left, Anthony, Diamond and Marianna, c. late 1940’s. Egypt.
8. Did the denial of the genocide by the perpetrator (the successor state of Turkey) affect their ability to form closure?:
I’m sure it did.
9. How did they feel about Turkey after the genocide? :
Not highly. My grandmother's brother John Koufoglou changed his name to Koufopoulos because he didn't like his Turkish sounding surname.
Additional comment: My grandmother's husband Vlassis was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1915. He had 4 siblings. It's believed Vlassis’ father Diamond Kerassitis was born in Constantinople and his mother Anna Sarris in Kastellorizo. It's unclear how they ended up in Egypt although it's believed it was under similar circumstances to Despina's.
Despina with her mother Eleni, stepfather John Koumides and stepbrother Nicholas (bottom right). It's assumed that the other 3 men are Despina's brothers, John, Dimitri and Michalis.