submitted by Joshua Kepreotis on 31.01.2015
My name is Emanuel Casimatis and I was born in Pitsinianika, Kythera on the 21st of April 1918. My mother gave birth to me in the family home where the midwife, a Mrs Semitekolos, assisted in the birth. I have certain memories from my childhood such as walking to and from school barefoot in a large group of fellow students from the area. Back in those days we only had one pair of shoes which we saved for wearing to Church on Sundays; which we attended every week without question. The Church was named The Rising of the Holy Cross and was located in Pitsinianika. I would go to the eryo and put the diakahi/stoli on and help the priest with the liturgy. The school I went to was also in our village. There were two schools there and one was called the Makesakia. It was about 1.5km from the town, right in the middle of the surrounding villages; Pitsinianika, Drimona, Kalokairines and Kalisperianika. Originally there were separate schools for girls and boys, although eventually it became Co-Ed whilst I was at school.
My parents were Gerasimos and Anizina Casimatis. The villagers would call us kids ‘Gerasimakia’, but the whole clan was called ‘Trohali’. They were both born in Kythera. I came from a big family of five brothers and six sisters, in which I was the tenth child, although there were also two who passed away early. In fact one of them passed away during the Spanish Flu of 1917-18, which killed half of Tsirigo towards the end of the First World War. I can recall the story of a family in Avlemona, Adronikos (Houlios) that experienced the tragedy of having six of their seven kids die as a result of this epidemic that swept through the island. I actually served in the army with the sole survivor and he only passed away recently.
My childhood was quite pleasant. I was dux at my school, and they offered me a future there in Kythera. However, I had my heart set on joining my brothers here in Australia whom I had not yet met. The high school teacher even came to the house and told my father that he wanted me to continue my studies, offering us all the books for free as an incentive. When my father asked me, I told him that I wanted to migrate to Australia. Back in those days at school there were 120 kids at school. You had 10 subjects and each subject the student was marked out of 10. Well, in my final year I received a score of 97.5/100, I lost 2.5 points in Ancient History, and my fellow student who came second received a mark of 70/100. So I was a very good student who knew at that time that to migrate to Australia would be the best option. My best friend at that young age was a chap by the name of Jack Calligeros; he was the brother of Father Efthimios. Jack also migrated to Australia and we stayed very close.
The family home in Pitsinianika had three bedrooms, which was quite large for a normal sized family, but not capable of housing eleven children. The thing is that because there was a 28 year difference between the first and last child, there would be no more than four or five of us in the house at the same time. My brother Mick, for instance, was living in Australia for a full five years before I was born. He came out by himself, before the First World War which would have been extremely difficult for him. His first job was to sell fish from house to house, without knowing the language. Our generation all came out in this manner. We had no money and couldn’t speak a word of English but we had two great attributes; we were willing to learn and willing to work and that got us through it. We had a very happy home. We were a very close family. Keep in mind five brothers living here together and in all our lives we never had one single fight.
When I was younger my father went to America for four years and came back with five thousand dollars with which he used to buy property down near Avlemona, called Modi, as well as some property at Kaladi, right on top of the beach, which I’m not going to sell. I’m going to leave it for the kids to do whatever they like. My brother said to me on his deathbed to not sell before I died and I will honour that. My father was very ergatikos and he also used to like hunting a lot.
There were quite a few of his generation who made the same voyage to America from our village; however they did not intend on staying there permanently. They went over with the intention of making enough money to provide for their families and then they would return. It was indeed hard for my mother to raise the children alone, however just about every other woman in Pitsinianika went through the same difficulty. There was also a Kytherian family from Pitsinianika, named Casimatis (Paxnouthi), who took over the entire road-making industry in Crete and every year they would get Kytherians to work as foremen; my brothers would go there for three months at a time.
I was lucky because my brother-in-law had a big factory in Pitsinianika that produced the olive oil and he had a utility-type vehicle that we used every now and again as transport. However, the majority of the time, I would walk around the island, or travel by donkey, to get to our desired destinations. We would walk from Pitsinianika to Limnaria, which was behind Myrtidiotissa. We would get up early in the morning, during summer, and walk there, have a swim, and then walk back. We used to get six or seven boys, all stupid like me and come back 12 o’clock in the middle of the day. We would go barefooted over the mountains and on stone for two hours there and two hours back. We were ignorant to anything else and so it was not a difficult thing to achieve mentally. Compare that to the fact that it would take us two and a half hours to get to Paliopoli by donkey.
We would have big celebrations for Easter and Christmas. Easter Sunday we used to go to Church for the midnight and midday services, and after the service we would dance in the platia outside the Church. Celebrating Name Days in the village was also a big event. We would get a band together and go visit the people whose Name Day it was. We also had dances to raise money for the soccer team to buy the gear from Athens. We were lucky at first because a guy by the name of Jack Casimatis, who came back from Queensland (Karamala) in 1929, bought all the football gear and even a flag for the team ‘Athliticos Ominros Pitsinianikon’. We were the only town in Meso Dimon who had anything like that. We used to play against Potamo and then they eventually combined the two teams and played against Neapoli. Conveniently, the soccer field was directly opposite our house. It was so close that my family had the privilege of keeping the ball that we all played with. I remember my mother would often call out on a number occasions for us to come inside; “Manoli ela mesa, to fayi einai etimo” to which I would reply, “Mana, pezo football akoma.” My brother Andrew also played in the team.
I never went to high school in Kythera because I knew I wanted to come to Australia. My brother Mick wrote to my father and said that he wanted me to learn a trade before coming to Australia. My father didn’t want any of us to leave but I believe he knew we couldn’t stay there and have a prosperous life. We didn’t enjoy our early life in Kythera, as it was very hard and we could see that there was no future for us there. My father’s job was subsistence farming. That was all there was on the island. I helped out for a while, but then my older brother Theo opened up a shoe making shop in Kythera and I decided to work with him, which is where I learnt the shoe making trade. That is why I ultimately decided to buy a shoe store here in Australia; because it is what I knew well and I felt Australia lacked quality in the industry.
When I came to Australia, I went to Temora with my brothers and we were more or less isolated there. However, we got in contact with many Kytherians after being drafted into the army. We didn’t like conscription much but it turned out to be quite a good thing, as we met a lot of friends and became more open-minded about life in Australia. Together we experienced a lot of good times in the army, particularly on our days off, as we went all over Sydney and met a number of people I would not have otherwise become acquainted with. In Temora, we were separated from society (and girls). We danced in Kythera but I learnt to dance properly in Sydney, in the army. I was taught a lot there, we had dances sometimes three times a week. I now look back on my experience of serving the country fondly, largely based on the fact that we were not sent offshore to fight.
I was 23 when I was drafted into the army. They would try to find out how educated we were and how much we had picked up the language. A man by the name of Andrew Fatseas was sent to test us on our English literacy. He asked me how capable I was of speaking English to which I answered confidently, “Mr Fatseas you read the Herald and I’ll translate.” He was astonished and he then got me to teach the smaller classes. I wasn’t happy to be drafted into the army because you never knew where you would be sent to. It could have been to New Guinea where a lot of our mates contracted diseases and died.
Both my wife Matina and I picked up malaria when we were younger in Kythera. There were stagnant waters in Paliopoli and there was an innocuous mosquito which transmitted the parasite that caused malaria. We both got it around 10-11 years old. They used to give us kini to remedy the pain, which was really bitter and I would throw it away. Matina’s father wrote a letter to the health department in Greece and they came and put a layer of petrol over it and eradicated the disease.
In the army when they saw that you were not naturalized they would put you in the employment companies. In other words, you were trained with guns and everything but we did not go overseas. Our main job was to work, I worked for 18 months in an ammunition depot to load up the trains that went to New Guinea. I remember in the winter of 43’, the snow would fall like a blanket and at 12 o’clock midnight we were still loading ammunition; this was one of my hardest jobs I ever had to do. They would camouflage the whole place because it would be dangerous if located by the enemy. They would put up signs like ‘John the Butcher’ to throw the enemy off. I met a lot of lifelong friends in the army from all over Greece; and the world. 30 years ago I used to go down to the Hellenic house and meet with 30 to 40 ex-army blokes and now I go nearly every Wednesday and there are only two of us left; we are an endangered species (Emmanuel says with a smile). My father died in 1943 and I never saw him again. I was in the army at the time and I heard about it through the Red Cross close to 2 years after he had passed.
While Greece remained neutral we were considered friendly aliens and luckily Greece chose the side of allies, as it meant that life was easier for us. If not, we would have been like the Italians and Germans who were interned. They even gave us a Greek day which we celebrated as a holiday in the army. I remember there was a lot of media attention on Metaxas’ death to come out of England. He was very well respected and that meant a lot to me at the time. I can remember specifically when the BBC announced ‘We regret to announce the death of General Metaxas, Prime Minister of Greece. The King’s disappointment is expressed here in London that General Metaxas died before he has seen the fruit of his great efforts.’ ‘General Metaxas made history not only for Greece, not only for Europe, but for the whole world.’ I will never forget these announcements, as it felt like we were considered an important part of this world.
I knew from when I was a kid that I wanted to migrate to Australia because I wanted to meet my brothers for the first time. I came out on the Orama, a voyage that took 28 days. Interestingly, the Orama was one of the first boats sunk in the Atlantic in the first six months of WWII, because a lot of those ocean liners were transformed into troop ships. There were a lot of Kytherians on the ship when I came out; Spiro, Jack Petrohilos, Kourmoulis from Fatsadika whose father was a priest, to name a few. There were about 20 Kytherians and 60 Greeks in total. We stayed in Portside for two weeks waiting for the ocean liner to come pick us up and then we set out for Australia. On the way we went via the Suez Canal and then we stopped at Colombo, Ceylon and passed through the Caucasus Islands, before stopping off at all the ports in Australia. I got off in Sydney and had many people waiting for me. By fluke a brother-in-law of my brother Mick, was on the same boat and we did not know until we both got off the boat and realized the connection. I was very lucky because I had extremely good brothers. When I first got to Sydney I immediately loved it. I noticed straight away the nice new buildings, how well dressed the people were and how happy they were. It was an eye opener, a paradise, the complete opposite to what I could remember of Kythera. I didn’t feel homesick at all, as my older brothers looked after me like I was their son.
My brothers had the White Horse café at Temora and then they bought another café at Young where I got involved in a local rugby league team. Young was the ‘cherry capital’ of the world and it was a bigger town than Temora. In all places I felt very welcome right from the start and didn’t experience much racism at all. I felt that you had to mix with the locals like you were one of them and after that they considered you as one of the boys. Not once in the two years of playing football did the boys call me a ‘dago’. Till this day I get upset when I think of the captain, a chap by the name of George Coleman, who died in the Second World War and every time I see our team photo I feel sorry for him. At Young, my brothers had the Monterey Café which I worked in and then once they sold that, Theo and I bought a small café at Area Park, which is where I was drafted into the army. After my stint in the army, I bought a café at West Wyalong where I only stayed for ten months because I did not like it much at all; there was none of that exciting social life that I had become accustomed to. I then came down to Sydney and met up with an old friend who worked with us at Temora, Peter Coroneos, and we bought a fruit shop in the best position of Chatswood, right opposite the train station, with two theatres on either side. We turned it into a milk bar and coffee lounge and named it Oasis Milk Bar. I believe it was the best milk bar on the north shore. It was a very contemporary milk bar. We served only light refreshments; like sandwiches, toasts, no steaks or fish or chips. We were that busy that at dinner time they would queue outside to get a table. I doubled my initial outlay from that shop.
I stayed there for five and a half years but I eventually suffered from illness and the doctor said I needed to get an easier job because working seven days a week was too much, even though it was terrific business. So my brother Andrew came up from Bega and we bought the Peter Pan Cake Shop in Crows Nest. We had problems with our staff who would get drunk and burn the cakes etc. We then sold that business and I was left with a tough decision on what I was to do. So I moved down to Kingsgrove and opened up the shoe shop in 1954. All I knew was shoes. You see it was unheard of, for a Kytherian to open up such a business. Everyone thought I was going to go broke and yet I remained confident in myself. Eventually all the Kytherians ended up coming to buy shoes from us. The shop was located just down from the station, on the same side as the milk bar of my good friends, John and Maria Vardas. I still remember our first landlord at the time, Mr Mashman. He was a terrific person and we used to joke a lot together. My shoe shop was unique in that I would measure the shoe specifically to one’s foot and take time to create it precisely for the individual customer. I knew quite a lot about the leather and materials. It was all made locally. I bought the house here in Kingsgrove in 1967. Originally it was an old house and when the kids got a bit older I pulled it all down and built the house we are living in now.
In 40 years of working and owning the shoe shop in Kingsgrove I never heard any customer say a racist word to me. I will give you an idea of how welcome I felt in this country, and suburb. In the Rotary club down at Kingsgrove, there were 40 members and we had elections for the board, I came third; they were not racist and for years the guys would push me to become president. I would however answer that I couldn’t because I never went to an English school. Errol Johnson, who was the Prime Minister of Kingsgrove North Public School even offered to do all my work if I became president. So you see I assimilated into Australian life quite easily; I was extremely happy from the first day I came here.
I have been back to Kythera three times since I left as a kid. My first time was for my mother’s funeral in 1973. She had come out for five years from 53’-58’ and after she died I went back with three other brothers. We then went in 86’ and 96’. The last two times were far more pleasant because the first time was so distressful. The place was very different to what I remembered from my youth. By that time the island had all that we had here in Australia. Kythera is a beautiful place but I believe you have to take a piece of Australia with you when you go back. I never wanted to go back to live, only for a holiday and to see my family. And now the only place I like to go away to escape from the city life is Ettalong, where I have a house and I go fishing; one of my greatest pastimes. My hobbies include any sport and fishing. I have managed to encourage my wife Matina to become involved in these hobbies as well. She probably enjoys fishing even more than I do. I have to convince her to go home sometimes because she wants to stay there all night and fish. One night a hook went through her finger and I wanted to take her to the doctor but she insisted on finishing the fishing. Matina found me in 1953; I was living in Chatswood at the time and we have been happily married every since. I am also the proud father of three kids; Anna, Gerald and Steven and also a proud Pappou of seven beautiful grandchildren I got involved in the Kytherian Brotherhood as I had met all the people on the committee while I was in the army and they invited me to come on board. However I declined because I felt I was too young. We also used to go to the picnics and dances as a family and therefore I knew it was inevitable that I was eventually going to get on the committee. I didn’t want to become president but the previous committee had some troubles and so we had an Annual General Meeting where there were 300 people in attendance and only one person, by the name of Jack Tzannes, wanted to be on the committee. Con Gavrilis called me in the office at Kythera House and said “Manuel you are the only one who can save the Kytherian Brotherhood”, he said to me. “If you don’t go on, the Kytherian Brotherhood is gone.” I thought long and hard about it and decided that I couldn’t say no because it meant too much to too many people. They owed too much money and the bank was threatening to sell Kythera House if they didn’t cut down the debt. So I went inside the meeting and said I would go on the committee but I wanted eleven strong men to come with me and when I said that, fifteen put up their hands up straight away.
When I eventually saw the books and saw the financial position of the Brotherhood, I thought to myself that I was stupid for taking on this job. I then met with the manager of the Bank of NSW, Mr Gray. When we had lunch together, the first thing I said was, “Mr. Gray I am used my bank managers coming to my offices not me going to other places.” He replied “Manuel you owe so much money that you have to reduce that deficit or I will have to put the building up for sale.” I said “Mr. Gray you have 1500 Kytherians banking at your bank and if you do that I will make sure that every one of those will withdraw their money from you. Please just give us time”. He agreed and said that we had three months to reduce the deficit from $117 000 to below $100 000. So we had the Kytherian Ball coming up and until that Ball we would normally lose money on the function. I decided to change things in order to achieve a profit and said to my committee that we are all volunteers here and each one of us had to pay to go to the Ball. The only exception would be the Proxeno and Bishop; there would no longer be any free loaders. Then I got Peter Vlandis and Lucky Poulos and asked them to fill out the Ball program with advertisements and each page would jump in price from $150 to $300. Instead of losing on the Ball we made a profit of $15 000. But we still need another $3000 or so, therefore I got Spiro Vlandis and we agreed to put in half each, so we could get under the mark. Then after that we had to sell one floor, make strata and pay off the debt. We sold the floor to Ahepa. The only bad thing about that was I thought we would make strata in 6 months but it took us two years.
Also I went with Nick (Glass) Poteris around the south of Sydney to ask for donations from all the Kytherians. We needed to pay off this loan so we asked for $1000 from everyone to save the building. We got a hundred people to lend us the money free of interest for five years. Everyone agreed and so we paid the debt off immediately. This was completed in 1983. After that I resigned from my position as president and a young George Vardas took over from me. There was so much work involved and I had the shoe shop business to look after. I was also writing the Kytherian newspaper and would sometimes it felt like I was making sixty calls a day. It really was too much. I was happy because I aided in saving the Brotherhood. I did my duty and it was time for new blood to come in and freshen things up. I didn’t want to interfere and you know what they say ‘nothing is as past as a past president.’
It remained a big part of our family with my daughter taking over the presidency of the Younger Set committee. We would often have the whole committee over at my house as if they were family. It was very important for me to continue this in my children’s lives and maintain the Kytherian heritage. It gave us a hell of a lot of good times and kept us all together: beautiful picnics, tavli competitions, poker competitions. The difference is these days the younger generation has connections with a lot of different societies, whereas back then we only had the Kytherians. It unified us and we were nostalgic to go and see all our old friends. It was something that we wanted to pass on to our kids. It was a common want that we wanted our kids to marry at least Greek, if not Kytherian. Society is certainly different these days.
I knew I wanted to be a parent from the moment I was born. I always wanted to have kids. Matina and I got married at Ayia Triatha which was one of the only two Greek Orthodox Churches in Sydney, the other being Ayia Sophia. The Kytherians predominantly went to Ayia Triatha and the Castolorizians went to Ayia Sophia. Our parents and my older brothers were very strict on us as kids. My father was of the philosophy that if I did anything wrong at school and the teacher hit me; he would make sure they hit me twice as hard next time. As they were strict on us we chose to be equally disciplined as parents. I tried to maintain these Greek traditions for my kids, whilst eliminating the values that no longer applied to this generation. I adapted to new customs, as I believe some of those traditions and values, were far too strict for this present age. It was alright back then to apply them but not these days.
I remained in close contact with almost all of my old friends from Kythera right up until the end, with those who have died. It’s hard to write to the others now because I have a disease called Macular Degeneration which has distorted my eyesight. I also had prostate cancer fifteen years ago. I was lucky at that time that Michael Aroney was still alive and a good mate of mine. Michael was the president of all the surgeons in NSW, and he got three of the biggest urologists to work on it and shrink it till I was in remission. Knock on wood I am still here.
The main highlight for me in my life, as it is in most people’s lives, is one’s family. I am proud of my family, proud of the friends I have and proud of my achievements. Helping out the Kytherian Brotherhood at the stage it was in and donating money to charities and stuff like that are also good memories and feel-good experiences for me. My most tragic event in my life was when my mother died. No matter how old you are when your mother dies you lose part of your soul, not just part of yourself. She died of old age at 96. The doctor said you can beat the disease but you can’t beat the age.
I would sum up my life as a bad start and a good finish. That’s why I am scared for the new generation because they have had a terrific start and I hope it ends that way. I am scared for society today in general to be honest. I never saw a drug in my life, nowadays it is so prevalent. Now the family network and old school family structure is slowly dissolving. I believe society is losing direction and it is hard to accept, from my point of view.
I would like to be remembered simply as Manuel Casimatis. At Rotary, (a great highlight of my life), even if the prime minister went in today she would be called Julia. If I was called Mr Casimatis we would be fined straight away; we were all equal and called by our first names. There is a saying that I hope I have emulated. ‘A man’s life’s worthiness is measured not by the money or property he leaves behind, but by the family he leaves behind.’ You have to teach your kids to do the right thing. In Rotary we had a law; anybody could get to Rotary provided they were the best in their area. We were taught nothing else but to help people and be a good provider for your family. If you did your job well you were entitled to become a Rotarian. I think that it definitely made me a better person.
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This oral history was taken in 2011 by Joshua Kepreotis and final edit in 2014.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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