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History > General History > How Italians became Greeks

History > General History

submitted by Peter Bouras on 02.08.2005

How Italians became Greeks

In the lead up to WWII and throughout World War II, Greek shopkeepers, many of them Kytherians spent a great deal of time and energy convincing other Australians that they were not the enemy - Italians.

In Melbourne Weekend, (Publisher The Age (1985)) whilst relating the history of Carlisle Street, Melbourne, Rebecca Batties and Annette Young note that the opposite also happened - that Italian shopkeepers tried to pass themselves off as Greeks, in order to avoid negative anti-Italian sentiment.

History of Carlisle Street

"On any Friday afternoon in that part of Carlisle St between Westbury and Chapel Streets, owners of Volvos and bruised Valiants compete with crowded trains and hassled pedestrians for space in front of the many food shops that give this street its identity.

We are happy to report that the Valiants and ladies with shopping jeeps and pets triumph, and Carlisle St, Balaclava, retains its essentially unpretentious community atmosphere. But the street is no longer a well-kept secret among the locals.

Like its patrons the street thrives on food. It is likely there are more food shops per metre than at any other local shopping centre. Ironically, apart from one or two takeaways, hardly a restaurant can be found among the greengrocers, bakeries, cake shops, butchers and supermarkets.

Compared to Fitzroy and Acland streets, this important stretch of shops has largely been ignored by outsiders. But its simplicity and rich attraction to people from all backgrounds has given it the character to survive. Any traces of Anglo-Saxon have long been overshadowed by the mixture of middle European, Greek, Italian, Indian and Middle Eastern influences.

The street, however, was named in the 1850s after the British aristocrat, the seventh Earl of Carlisle. From that point, the history of the street is something of a mystery. Little is known of its development from a swamp to an odd assortment of clustered shops. The only remnant of that early period is the railway bridge across the street which remains intact. The local historical society admits it doesn’t know much about the history of the street. The only clue it has found as to what it was like in the past century is an 1862 photograph of the street looking westwards from the railway bridge.

After 1933, the street, which had been mainly residential, underwent a change with the influx of German Jewish refugees who were subsequently followed by a constant stream of fellow eastern Europeans.

The street had, as well, a number of Italian shopkeepers who had migrated to Australia before the war. During the war, the Italians put up signs in their shop windows announcing that they were Greek in an effort to quell any anti-Italian prejudice which may have been prevalent among their Australian customers.

Now kosher shops are dotted up and down the street and the slow-walking orthodox Jews with their large fur hats and black coats wander amid frenzied shoppers, giving the street an exotic quality.

If there is any physical deficiency in the street now, it is that the pavements are too narrow to carry the volume of pedestrians. People stop in the middle of the walkway to admire babies, pat a well-groomed dog, solve a world problem in one conversation or prescribe a cure for an old neighbour’s ailment."

Rebecca Batties
Annette Young

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