Giagia’s Journey

A Photo Journal of the life of  

Penelope Benardos Conomos

By Alexa Conomos

Part 5 - November 18, 2016 


In 1935, my grandparents began to settle into their new life in the bustling town of New Kensington, Pennsylvania after emigrating from Greece. What a strange new world my grandmother "Giagia" discovered - one where people traveled by car, train and boat and in which her donkey 'Keecho' would have no place. So like other immigrants, Giagia and Papou struggled to adapt and relied on their faith, religion and incredible work ethic to survive the Great Depression. Papou toiled at 'The Busy Bee' restaurant. Giagia maintained home and hearth, struggling to learn English from neighbors as she cared for now toddler Chrysanthy. 


New Kensington's Alcoa Plant - which was the major employer for many folks who lived there during WWII and the following years

It was a supremely lonely and uncertain time, but she found guidance and solace from other immigrants at their local Greek Orthodox Church. But the biggest comfort of all -- the blessing of another beautiful baby girl. My grandparents joyfully baptized her Damiani, naming her after Giagia's beloved mother. Such an honor perhaps eased the pain of leaving her behind in Kythera. 

But when baby Damiani turned 8 months old, something was terribly wrong. A metabolic or digestive problem made eating and drinking almost impossible. They desperately sought the help of several doctors, even traveling to a more advanced hospital in Pittsburgh. Feeling helpless and afraid, Giagia struggled to plead with doctors who spoke a language she didn't understand. But ultimately no cure could be found in that day. Baby Damiani would depart on May 8th, 1936, leaving my grandparents devastated. 


Grief-stricken, my Papou would lovingly craft the gravestone himself. And over the years, his future son - my father - would return to that New Kensington cemetery again and again to restore that decaying little gravestone. To this day, my Giagia still can't talk about baby Damiani. But she possessively cherishes a fading baptismal certificate -- a testament that a mother's devotion is eternal. Dearest Damiani ~ ever cherished, forever loved. As the Greeks always say - may her memory be eternal. And it truly is.


John Conomos stands by his daughters grave


Alexis and Penelope

Part 6 - November 19, 2016 

In late 1936, hope bloomed once again in my grandparents' little Pennsylvania home. Giagia gave birth to another baby girl. And in another show of respect to her dear mother, they named her 'Anastasia' - after Giagia's oldest sister who died as a baby back in Greece. Though their grief was still fresh from losing their own baby Damiani, Anastasia brought much needed solace and joy. That joy multiplied in 1938 with the arrival of my dad, Anastasios John Conomos. They named him after my Papou's father in tribute, but would call him "Tasso" from then on. 

So with the family circle now complete, life fell into a routine that still often challenged the immigrant family. Nearing the end of the Great Depression, Papou still labored around the clock at 'The Busy Bee' diner. Giagia saw to the children, especially little Tasso who hobbled around the house in leg braces. And ultimately, she relied on the pluck she'd honed in that tiny Greek village to see them through. 

Always enterprising, she once encountered an alley cat toting a fish in its mouth, presumably swiped from a diner nearby. Well in no time, she wrangled the fish from the cat, threw it on the stove and then served it for dinner!! At their little home, Greek Orthodox icons - a spiritual guiding light - adorned their walls. American newspapers - a practical learning tool - covered their table. Perhaps together they symbolized Giagia's greater intent - to create a blend of both American and Greek culture, of new and old country for her family. 

Anastasios John Conomos - Tasso

First Ward Elementary School, Kensington, Pennsylvania
Where the Conomos Children Received their Education

And so while she cooked Mediterranean dishes, she spoke both Greek and broken English at home. And she used every trip to church, the market or a neighbor's home to study American culture, then share her insights with the children. But all the while, her heart ached for Greece and the beloved mother and siblings she'd left behind. Yet as always, "such is the life" and so she took on her next challenge -- sending the first of her children to American public school. 

When it came my father's turn to enter 1st grade at 'Third Ward School', he would recall Giagia's zeal for education. In her trademark Greek accent, she proudly told his teacher, "This is my son Tasso. You can spank him anytime." Ever determined, Giagia would see her children receive the kind of education she never completed in Greece. And that one day little Chrysanthy, Anne and Tasso would journey to a big school called "college" where boundless opportunities surely awaited. 

But before that dream could come to fruition, the family would face a new threat. Trouble was brewing overseas. World War II had reached the shores of Giagia's beloved Greece. And with dread, Giagia realized the fate of her dear mother and siblings would become one of frightening uncertainty.

Giagia, present day, with two of her great grandsons in her 1966 Dodge Dart. 
She had to renew her drivers license when she turned 100 -- and passed!

Part 7 - November 20, 2016 

The German army raising their flag on the Acropolis in Athens--a painfully 
symbolic statement that Greece was now under Axis occupation, 1941

The spring of 1941 marked the start of a challenging new period for my grandparents. Fortunately on the homefront, little Chrysanthy and Anastasia were transitioning well to American School; 3-year-old old Tasso was adjusting to wearing leg braces to correct his bone growth. But the threat of war loomed over the country Giagia now called home. And even worse, the atrocities of World War II soon arrived on the shores of her beloved Greece. 

The German artillery shelling the Metaxas Line, a chain of 
fortifications constructed along the line of the Greco-Bulgarian 
border, designed to protect Greece in case of invasion. 1941

With the Axis invasion and subsequent occupation no one could leave Greece. And no mail could move in or out. So my grandparents scoured every American newspaper. And the English words Giagia was learning to decipher painted a frightening picture. 

My grandparents would scour newspapers for any news of their loved ones in Greece. What they read described a frightening new reality for the families they'd left behind. It would be four long years before they would learn if Giagia's mother and siblings were dead or alive.

Enemy forces were committing unspeakable atrocities against Greeks on the mainland - killing them in hangings, massacres and through systematic starvation. Although Greek civilians formed one of the most effective resistance movements in Occupied Europe, uprisings were met with swift and brutal reprisals. For a single German soldier killed, scores of Greek civilians would be murdered. 

The German soldiers entered Athens in 1941. They systematically starved Greeks and killed them in massacres and hangings. It wouldn't be long before they turned their focus to the Greek people's Jewish countrymen. 1941

The Allies fought to end the occupation, but their extensive bombings also destroyed once beautiful port cities. And while it was a valiant fight to the end, Crete ultimately fell to the enemy forces as well. Conditions would grow even more dire as the Axis powers turned their focus to the Jewish population in Greece. They began mass deportations, sending the Jews of Thessaloniki and Thrace in packed box cars to distant German death camps. 

This sign written in both German and Greek erected in the village of Kandanos in Crete. The German portion of the sign reads: "Kandanos was destroyed in retaliation for the bestial ambush murder of a paratrooper platoon and a half-platoon of military engineers by armed men and women." It was further proof that any uprisings were dealt with brutally, 1941

An especially haunting portrait of the Axis occupation. A young woman sobs during the deportation of the Jews of Ioannina on March 25, 1944. Almost all of the Jews deported were murdered on or shortly after April 11th of that year when the train carrying them reached Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

Another especially painful picture shows the registration of male 
Jews by Nazis at the center of Thessaloniki, July 1942

Many Greeks tried to help their fellow Jewish countrymen hide or run, but ultimately Greece fell into an even deeper sense of despair. Separated by thousands of miles, Giagia and Papou despaired for any word of the family they'd left behind. Suddenly the fate of Giagia's beloved mother in Kythera and siblings in Athens became one of depressing, terrifying uncertainty.

Penelope Part 1

 Su   © KSOCA 2012