Connecting islands through history, war and migration: oral history project
New Zealand's last surviving veteran of the Second World War's Battle of Crete died last year aged 104. Brant Robinson was one of the lucky ones to have survived that battle on the fateful day of May 20, 1941, when hundreds of Kiwis were killed, and many taken prisoners of war. Those who failed to be evacuated went hiding with the help of locals until they could get out from the south coast facing the Libyan Sea to north Africa. The devastating effects of this catastrophic event were many, leading a group of young women from the island of Crete to migrate a few years later to Aotearoa.
Both my grandfathers received a formal certificate of recognition for their services to the Allied forces in the aftermath of that battle that led to the fall of the island to the Nazi forces and their subsequent brutal occupation. The locals put their lives and their families in danger by helping them to hide, sharing the little food they had, and finding ways to help them escape. I remember my maternal grandmother Eleutheria reminiscing about how many times she cursed her husband for taking the little cheese, milk and bread she had put aside for her kids to feed the “Anglous”, the “ksenous”, the foreign soldiers up in the mountain caves. Even today, and after more than 80 years, when you travel through Crete, if you mention you are from New Zealand, you will be warmly welcomed in memory of those who lost their lives in fighting for their island.
When I first arrived in Auckland, I was invited to visit the Greek community on the Battle of Crete’s commemoration day. I was warmly welcomed as a fresh arrival and after many introductions, I started noticing that most of the women I talked to had come from Crete, and Chania, the western province of the island. Why are so many of you here? I remember asking them. I had assumed chain migration was a natural explanation. My research training came in handy, as I dived into archival research and discovered the war connection and much more.
The Allied forces had divided the island into different defence zones, and as it turned out, the Kiwis were asked to defend Chania. And that’s where the connection gets deeper. Those soldiers who escaped with the help of the locals never forgot their selfless acts of resistance and support. Some left handwritten notes behind with their contact information in NZ in the hope that one day they would be able to return the help. It did not take long as a few years later, their Association petitioned the NZ migration services to help some of these families living in impoverished post-war Crete by offering their daughters the opportunity to come to NZ. NZ.
The couple that played an important role in setting up this visa scheme was Ned and Katina Nathan. A wounded Māori Battalion soldier and a young Cretan woman who had fallen in love when the young infantryman was sheltered by her family in the aftermath of the battle. Ned brought Katina to New Zealand, settling in the northland. Their son Manos Nathan, a well-known NZ artist whose work is held in collections of the British Museum, Te Papa and Berlin, has always proudly talked of his strong Māori and Cretan heritage. His parents’ war time love story was captured in a book by Patricia Grace.
So, that’s how 267 young women from the island of Crete came to NZ between 1962 and 1964 as part of a New Zealand government scheme to provide domestic staff for hotels and hospitals. Who were these young women, why did they take this life changing decision and how did they persuade their families to allow them to leave on their own? What impact did freedom from their traditional societal norms and cultural differences have upon these unchaperoned women and how did it change their lives? These questions provided an exploration map to the multiple migration experiences of these women that formed the core of a project funded initially by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, which also compared the migration experience between those women who chose to settle in Aotearoa, and those who chose to either returned back to Crete or chose to migrate for the second time to Australia.
What became very evident was the devastating impact that World War II had upon the Cretan population, particularly on the west coast in the mountainous regions behind Chania. This was largely due to the punishment meted out by the Nazi retaliating against the support the local Cretan population gave to the British, Australian and New Zealand forces engaged in the struggle. The Cretans paid dearly for their support and fathers and brothers were rounded up systematically and shot or imprisoned in unbearable conditions for long periods, and dwellings and personal possessions were destroyed leaving women and children scrabbling for food and basic necessities.
The grind of daily life which had little relief for many of these women who did not know much childhood pleasure, constantly helping the family in daily survival led to many of the women who decided to emigrate long for a better way of life. Many of them resented never enjoying the fruits of their labour or control on how it was spent as money went to male members of the family to dispense with. Many were influenced by the stories coming from the Greek diaspora and their adventurous spirit was aroused as they rejected the lives proscribed for female womanhood in their local environments.
In preparation for the work in NZ, these women received basic instruction in special training centres in Greece prior to their departure including basic language and domestic skills. Most of them arrived in groups but dispersed upon their arrival to different work placements and often experienced isolation because of their poor language skills.
These young women were taking a big risk, moving to a country they knew very little about with very small Greek communities to provide them with support. This was in contrast to many post-war Greek Australian migrant women who often migrated with their families to a country with well-established Greek communities, which helped to lessen the social and cultural dislocation experienced through the process of migration and settlement.
These female workers who came to New Zealand were employed on a contract basis for two years, in different parts of the country. On completion of their contract, some moved to small established Greek communities, especially in Wellington and Auckland. This scheme resulted in a significant period of ‘chain’ migration consisting of fiancés, close relatives, often assisted by these young women. Some of these women chose later to migrate for the second time to Australia to join other relatives, for better prospects or to be part of the much larger Greek communities there. By the 80s, a large number of these women returned to Greece and Crete. But many are still here 60 years later with Kiwi children and grandchildren.
The abruptness of the migration experience, severing with all that is familiar and going into the unknown was a traumatic experience no matter how much the women desired to leave. And things were never the same. Community was disrupted and attempts to reclaim this were successful as the new immigrants clung together and recreated familiar rituals and celebrations. The Cretan women interviewed for this project spoke well of how they were treated by New Zealanders. In those early days, the Kiwi soldiers’ association kept an eye on them, offering support where they could. In one case, they hired a community hall and organized all that was needed to celebrate the weddings of three of these young women. Yet the toll the Migration experience had upon them, and their children is quite profound.
The stories of these women are lasting through time, and relevant to today’s ethnically diverse makeup of Tāmaki Makaurau and Aotearoa. With the support of Auckland Council’s Creative Communities NZ program, the stories of this women are now curated and shared in a digital platform in a way that captures the impact such experiences as migration have upon the emotional and social landscape of the individuals involved and their chosen communities here in NZ. The platform allows future generations of this community and other migrant communities to access these stories in a relatable and engaging manner.
The special bond between NZ and Crete is still visible today. Wellington has a sister city relationship with Chania (Hania) on Crete and the street in Wellington on which the Greek Orthodox Cathedral sits is named Hania.
On a personal note, as I was writing this piece, I was reminded that my mother is of the same generation, island and circumstances of these migrant women from Crete. She could have been one of them, as indeed some of her siblings did migrate to northern Europe around that time following the great post-war migration exodus. I can’t help thinking that if she did, I wouldn’t be here in Aotearoa today. Yet here I am, a migrant woman of another generation and circumstances. My migration afforded me a greater level of choice, unlike these women who felt they had limited options. I came speaking fluently English, a doctorate from a British institution and an established international career. So, I cannot compare our migration experiences, even more so that neither Crete nor indeed Aotearoa are the same places they were after the war. But part of me knows and deeply relates to their need to belong and the effort and commitment it takes to learn having multiple homes and navigating split loyalties.
Despite my privileged background, I am still a recipient of micro-aggression and unconscious bias. My accent seems to get in the way, despite my fluency. “Where does your accent come from” as a question is not problematic per se, people are naturally curious but when that question appears in their eyes straightaway and comes out as the first or second or third question in a conversation, then it becomes limiting, because, although our accents carry many worlds, we are more than our accent. And please remember that you are not the first to ask, we answer this question all the time and it’s wearing.
The digital project was launched in the Greek Community Hall in Auckland in November 2023.
Acknowledgements: with special thanks to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, Unitec – Te Pukenga and Auckland Council Creative Communities NZ for their generous funding that made this project possible. If you want to visit the digital storytelling platform, see here: https://cretannzwomen.nz/