By Maro Vasiliadou.
“The Hour of Greece,” an exhibition which opens at the Hellenic-American Union on Thursday, celebrates a private collection that was inspired by events in the collector’s private life and a major chapter of world history. Coinciding with the October 28 “Ochi Day” anniversary of Greece’s entry into World War II, it also sheds light on the jubilation felt across the Atlantic at Greece’s victory against the Italians in the early days of the war and significant American efforts to help the country get back on its feet after the German occupation.
Curated by art historian Louiza Karapidaki, the exhibition of more than 300 objects was put together in cooperation with the Hellenic American University/Hellenic American College, Greek America Foundation and the General State Archives of Greece, as well as with the contribution of Haverford College Professor Alexander Kitroeff. Thanks to this support and expertise, the exhibition of rare archival material is not only well founded historically, but also has an emotional element as it highlights the acts of solidarity and friendship that have bound Greece and America for the past 80 years. This human factor, a family story, is what prompted Greek American Gregory Pappas to start his collection of WWII memorabilia.
“It began about 20 years ago, when I discovered an official document among my father’s personal papers: It was a letter addressed to my grandmother, thanking her for her contribution in helping save Australian and New Zealand soldiers from the Germans on Crete, which is where my family hails from,” explains Pappas.
Inspired by the letter and other family stories, but also by his own dual identity as a man with Greek roots and as an American, he began researching the relationship between the two countries in World War II. Over the years, he collected newspapers and magazines, as well as other fascinating items he would find at auctions, as well as in antique shops, junk stores and other private collections across the US. His impressive collection now comprises a wide variety of material, and is being put on display for the first time in Greece. It has also been augmented with exhibits from the collection of the General State Archives of Greece, much of which is also being shown to the public for the first time.
“Did you know that Frank Sinatra’s first concert at Madison Square Garden was organized to raise funds for the war effort in Greece?” asks Pappas, who has traveled to Athens to attend the show’s opening.
Such fascinating trivia and many more unknown facts form the core of the exhibition’s narrative, which is arranged into themes and in chronological order. It starts, in fact, with Ioannis Metaxas’ diary opened on the page for October 28, 1940 – the date of Greece’s entry into the war after its prime minister refused to capitulate to the Italians.
“Greece’s entry into World War II on October 28, 1940 stands out as one of the finest hours in the country’s 20th-century history. That date was also a major turning point in the relations between Greece and the United States and the status of the Greek immigrants in America. It brought about a newfound, stronger appreciation of both modern Greece and the Greek Americans on the part of the American public and its government. The news that the Greek people were enthusiastically going to war against Fascist Italy was greeted with great enthusiasm in the United States,” writes Kitroeff in his introduction to the exhibition’s excellent Greek-English catalogue.
“The events that followed October 28, 1940 also brought about a radical transformation of the Greek-American community. In 1940 there were about 350,000 Greek Americans in the United States as well as several more thousands who had not been recorded in the national census taken that year. During the two previous decades, the Greek Americans had faced intense pressures to assimilate and become citizens of the United States,” adds the historian.
The Greek-American community also played a pivotal role in the solidarity effort, with Spyros Skouras, head of film production giant 20th Century Fox, in the vanguard with the creation of the Greek War Relief Association. The GWRA organized awareness-raising campaigns, radio marathons and donation drives by enlisting the help of such A-listers as Bob Hope, Shirley Temple, Bing Crosby and Clark Gable.
“The Hour of Greece” runs through December 20 at the Hellenic American Union (22 Massalias, Kolonaki, tel 210.368.0052, www.hau.gr). The inauguration takes place at 7 p.m.