ΤΙΜΕ ΙΝ ΑΤΗΕΝS            




A Pioneering Icarus in the Antipodes

An interview with the Greek-Australian Historian Michael Tsounis

  By Christos Nicholas Fifis

  Dr Michael Tsounis is an Adelaide Greek-Australian historian of the Greek Australian community. His 1971 Ph. D. dissertation Greek  Communities in Australia is a pioneering study of the history and struggles of the Greek Communities in Australia .

      Michael was born at Frontato, in the island of Icaria in 1926, the youngest child of a family with eight children. In 1938 he, his mother and most of the older siblings joined his father in Port Lincoln, South Australia. His father had been in Australia since 1926. He completed his matriculation, became a secondary teacher, in 1971 completed his Ph. D. and authored a number of historical studies about the Greek Australian community. He has been a prominent member of the Greek Australian Left and in the Menzies era had difficulties in attaining Australian citizenship. Since 1984 Michael spends a large part of his time at his parents’ house in Frontato, Icaria . In this interview he relates some of his migration experiences and views about the Greek Australian community.  

Michael, how do you remember your village life on your island before coming to Australia ?

I remember village life rather vividly as I have also visited Icaria many times. The village, Frantato, is in the upper, more mountainous part of the island. The Aegean Sea and parts of Chios , Samos and Turkey are quite visible on a clear day. We were subsistence farmers like most others, so that life was about working in the numerous, small terraced fields, scattered in different places and minding animals, mostly goats. Many villagers were communists and most still vote for the KKE. Poverty but also oppression forced people to emigrate. My father Petros worked in America with his three brothers but returned in 1912 and married my mother Maria Photinou in 1914. She had been in Egypt with her mother, two brothers and a sister. They had eight children, I was the youngest and was born in 1926, two months after my father had left to try his luck in South Australia , alongside several other Frantiotes.  

I don’t remember seeing my ‘Bolshevika’ mother very often. She was either working in the fields or in gaol and exile because of her political activities. It was the same with my older brothers and sisters. The local policemen were pretty cruel, especially during the Metaxas’ dictatorship. They used to beat up people and drag them to jail. One policeman shot Stamatis Salas in the arm; another took a shot at my brother Dimitri but missed. Some men and women retaliated and struck back at the policemen but had to flee the island before they were caught. The village school master was also tyrannical. He was a learned man, used the cane liberally and was often expounding the virtues of the fair Aryan race. I am sure I learned more from my oldest brother Costas who went to High School in Alexandria and from my mother who knew a lot, including ancient Greek literature.  

But life in the village was not all school, working in the fields, politics and violence. As children we played our games, made our own toys and sang and danced during village festivals and other gatherings. When working in the lowland fields during summer my twin brothers and I would often make a dash for a swim in the ‘wine dark sea’.  

We were sad and glad to leave Icaria in summertime, 1938. The family was together for a change and was ready to leave, thanks to the untiring efforts of our father. He had been unemployed for several years in the early 1930s but managed to buy a small farm on the outskirts of Port Lincoln. Dimitri had joined him in 1937 and helped build a new house which awaited us. Our grandfather wept as we kissed him goodbye and said he was glad that we were leaving the ‘accursed island’. Our grandmother who was losing her memory consoled him saying that we were not going far away and would be back soon.  

Do you remember a few things from your trip?

The trip to Australia was also memorable. We stayed in Athens for a few days and left Piraeus on a Greek ship. We stopped in Egypt for a whole week. Our mother who knew Arabic and some Italian was keen to explain why there were many beggars and so much poverty in this country. We left Port Said on the Italian ship Esquilino bound for Melbourne . We saw more poverty in Somalia which Mussolini’s forces had occupied recently and just as much in Ceylon (now Shrilanga) and India under the British. All we could do was save some bread and throw it overboard to the beggars who swam close to our ship. The ship’s uniformed Commisario told us off for teaching the beggars to be lazy!

      Our fellow passengers were very much a mixed crew: Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs, German Jews and Albanians. We mixed well with Italian children, played with them and finished up learning more Italian than English which we were supposed to be studying from a book we bought in Athens . The trip through the Indian Ocean was truly unforgettable with its giant waves, ships coming and going, flying fish, dolphins racing our ship and the frequent fountains which signaled whales. From the ship Australia looked a large, dull and quiet land. The Australians we saw in Perth , Melbourne and Adelaide where we arrived by train were also quite and went about their work without much ado, unlike Alexandria and Port Said . It was much the same in Port Lincoln where half a dozen Greeks lived –two of the, shopkeepers – and no communists.  

How did you find conditions in Australia in the first few years?

It was a happy family reunion in Port Lincoln. Only Costas and his wife were missing. They stayed behind to look after the property and our grandparents under difficult conditions. Costas served in the Greek army in Albania , then the resistence army ELAS, was tortured by a blakshirt to reveal weapons and spent some time in jail and exile after liberation and during the 1967 – 74 dictatorship alongside his many comrades. His family of six children suffered a lot. Our family reunion did not last long. There wasn’t much work on the small Port Lincoln farm for a large family. Most of my brothers and sisters began to leave in search of work. Two of my sisters went as far as Melbourne . My twin brothers settled in Adelaide as apprentices: George became a carpenter and Stephanos a mechanic which enabled him to get a job on a Greek ship in 1944. After many ordeals he settled in Gdynia , Poland , worked on Polish ships and raised a Greek family which he brought to Icaria after 1974.

      My parents also left to work on and later buy a vineyard in Mildura (Victoria), leaving the Port Lincoln farm to Dimitri and later to Roxane and her husband Angelos Kourakis. They raised a family of ten. Being the youngest I stayed at school longest, first at a Catholic school in Port Lincoln and after 1942 Anglican school in Adelaide; and then to University as a part time student. I well remember my ‘Bolshevika’ mother telling me to insist I was Greek Orthodox, not a Catholic or Anglican.  

      We all felt some racial or ethnic prejudice but it all changed with the heroic ‘NO’ to Mussolini’s ultimatum in October, 1940, when Greeks suddenly became the heroes of the moment. There was also employment during and after the war, especially in factories from which Greek and other immigrants were noticeably absent in the pre-war period. This was certainly so in Adelaide where several family members began to regroup in the 1950s. We all were married with children by this time and made sure they received an education. I met and married Mary Psaltis who was born in Adelaide . Her parents John and Theodosia Trifonidou originated in Sinope ( Turkey ), settled here in the 1920s after many ordeals. Mary worked as a stenographer but studied music and played the violin, being influenced by her uncle Pandelis Psaltis. Our three children studied music as did some of their cousins. Musicians and teachers became a family tradition while their parents retained an interest in farming, mostly in Port Lincoln and Mildura.

      All told, conditions of life kept changing rapidly after 1938 for Greek immigrants as a whole. We cannot draw too many conclusions on the way Greeks responded to these changes by looking at the activities of my somewhat migratory extended family.  

What were the conditions in the 1950s and 1960s?

The conditions of immigrant workers and their families in this period were deplorable by any standards. Most had to make do with low-paid, unskilled work and life in substandard housing accommodation, usually in the inner suburbs of cities. There were no government interpreting and translation services worthy of the name, especially in workplaces, hospitals and schools where they were badly needed. There were no such things as transcultural education and bilingual programs. In Adelaide we didn’t even have ready access to classrooms in government schools to conduct after-hours Greek learning. Many of my generation of Greek Australians did what we could as individuals. Some of us worked through organizations, especially the Greek Orthodox Community of SA (GOCSA), which grew into a large and resourceful institution through such activities. What saved the day in this period were the determination to succeed in life, the strong Greek family bonds and what we may call Greek ethnic solidarity.  

Did you participate in the activities of any organizations?  What are your views of those organizations?  

I participated in several organisations, starting with the Hellenic Club of SA in the late 1940s; then the GOCSA, the Platon Workers Association and the Icarian fraternity or brotherhood. But this participation was not on a permanent basis as my work often took me to other States – and Greece (after 1976). While in Adelaide I participated more in the GOCSA organization because it offered a wide range of activities: political issues like Greek democracy and Cyprus independence, social issues such as the rights of migrants and Aborigines, education and the arts and literature. The GOCSA had even had a ‘publishing house’. In 1990 it published ‘The Story of a Community’ in which I attempted to describe the activities and achievements of the GOCSA in its previous sixty years. In 1997 it published the book ‘In the footsteps of Art’ which contains samples of the work of 28 writers, most of them members of the COCSA Writers Guild’

      I found most members of organizations generally active and committed, tolerant of differences of opinion and free of petty politics. There have been plenty opportunities to participate in the GOCSA organizations with its many schools, its four churches and five women’s societies, its homes for the aged, several community centres and its youth and arts groups. Alongside its 185 paid employees there are hundreds of volunteer community workers. Service to human needs and democratic processes at all levels ensure considerable participation.  

You have completed your dissertation about the Greek Communities in Australia in 1971. How do you think Greek Communities have progressed or changed since then?  

My PhD dissertation was on the history of Greek Communities or settlements in Australia from the 1890s to the early 1970s. The study located over 500 community organizations of all types. Traditionally the democratic GOCs occupied a central position in the whole community or paroikia structure up until 1959 when Church policies sanctioned new GOCs or parishes in which the clergy were called upon to play a leading role. These policies curtailed the religious activities of democratic GOCs but not their secular activities, at least not in the case of the GOCSA.

      The progress of Greek communities generally need to be seen in the light of changing conditions, especially after the 1970s. It makes more sense to see Greek communities as becoming more integrated in Australian society. This is borne out by a greater presence of Greeks in public life-in local government and the parliaments, trade unions and business organizations including the mass media and the like; the increase in the rate of ‘mixed marriages’; the decrease in Greek language learners in schools at all levels and areas of education; and the fact that community organizations have difficulties in attracting members some of whom are grandparents.

      I haven’t done much work in this area in the last fifteen or so years, nor have I read many studies that have been done by others. (I have been living mostly in Icaria where I have children and grandchildren). But I did get a chance to read the rather voluminous work of George Zangalis (now before the publishers). His main position is that Greeks have been integrating all along by their struggles in the direction of a more democratic and multicultural Australia and that these struggles have been more effective in the wider society where problems are felt rather than in the confines of the community or paroikia. He examines carefully fourteen areas in which Greeks had become involved, lists the names of many hundreds of Greeks but not too many leaders of Greek community organizations.  

How do you remember a number of people you worked with or observed their leadership or participation in Greek community organizations?  

There have been ample opportunities to participate and offer leadership in democratic organsations which serve human needs, as I indicated in the case of the Adelaide – GOCSA organization. I remember many people I have worked with but mainly by their ideas or philosophy in life and by their willingness to solve problems and get things done. The needs of immigrants who settled in Adelaide from the 1950s onwards gave rise to many organizations. The majority were regional, ethnotopica fraternities. These were very active as they had to formulate programs to serve the needs of members who lived in Australia but also the needs of their homelands. There are fewer needs now, less activity and fewer leaders. Some organize activities for the elderly and pensioners but so do community-wide pensioner organizations whose number has been increasing in the last twenty or so years. Local governments and government welfare agencies are now involved in the activities of organizations. Things like participation and leadership have fluctuated considerably if we see Greek community organizations historically, as we should.  

What are your views of the migration experience?  

The question of the migration experience is very broad. Every migrant has his/ her experience which needs to be told. There is much work to be done in this area. They are essentially Australian stories, seemingly not the type that make the ABC’s ‘Australian Story’ series. I could only manage to record about forty personal recollections of pre-1940 Greek and Italian immigrants which are now archived in the Motlock Library, SA; and as many post-war immigrant stories in the GOCSA and Icarian archives.

      I have also attempted to tell the story of my extended family of a hundred and forty or so members (that is, all the descendants of my parents). But this is not a typical Greek Australian family group. Its members are too migratory and dispersed in most States and in at least five different countries to be of much significance for our purposes. I tried to tell its story in ‘An Icarus in the Antipodes ’, 1991 (now out of print).

      The study of community organizations would add to our knowledge of the whole migration experience. There are probably a thousand of such organizations and every one of them has added something new to the community and society. There is abundant material to study them from their own archives or records and from the hundred or so Greek newspapers and magazines –the first one in 1913- that George Kanarakis has located in his researches.

      We get information on community organizations from newspapers and occasionally short histories of some organizations but never enough. Newspapers rightly report their activities in between ‘success stories’ in business-rarely in trade unions and other areas in which Greeks have excelled. Nor do we read much on our history in this country in research articles. Usually the interest of researchers concenrtrate on Greek language and literature.

      All things considered, we badly need a regular bilingual journal where social scientists and other writers can report on their findings and have them discussed.  

Christos N. Fifis

School of Historical and European Studies

La Trobe University

March 2008  








By Christos N. Fifis 


A historical photo showing
Chris Bambaris, Alekos Doukas and
Dr. Michalis Tsounis,  the year 1958.

Dr. Michael Tsounis speaking at Anti-War 
March , Adelaide, 1958.

Dr. Michael Tsounis in Traditional Ikarian House Frantato, Ikaria , 2001.

Dr. Michael Tsounis and grandson Michalaki at Kakarokambo Kosikia, Ikaria .  

‘I was born dancing and
like to die that way’ 
An interview with Olga Black

‘I was born dancing and
like to die that way’ 
An interview with Olga Black



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