submitted by Joshua Kepreotis on 31.01.2015
My name is Andrew Gerald Casimatis and I was born in the month of October, 1920 in Pitsinianika, Kythera, inside the same family house that we still have today. I have a twin sister and her name is Sophia, however I am still unsure as to the exact date of our birthday. You see in those days there were no facilities for documenting the exact dates of birth and the distance between the village at Pitsinianika and the office in Karvounades was quite far; which made it difficult to access. Communication was not so easy back then. We would have to walk around the island to get to places in the winter cold. I eventually went to get my birth certificate, because I wasn’t sure, and my mother told me that it was in late October, around Ayio Dimitriou. I went to the council office to ask but they had my birth date down for December which is a month and a half difference. I actually still don’t know to this day which date is the right one. My twin sister has the 16th of October and I had that as well but some army hospital changed it to the 26th of October. I then went to a solicitor to alter it back but he told me it was too expensive and to leave it (Andrew said with a smile). So we basically celebrate on different days because none of it is exact, no one knew; not the council and not my family.
My parents were Gerasimos and Anizina. My father was very hard working. He went to America and worked in the steel works in Detroit for two years. He came back to Kythera with some money and bought a great big piece of seaside land in the east of Kythera at Paliopoli and also land on top of Kaladi overlooking the beach. It was lovely there even in winter time when we would go to escape the cold. It was totally different to the north side of Kythera (a different world), because Pitsinianika was very cold and windy; it was like a holiday for us even though it was in truth not that far away. He was able to feed the family of 11 (living) children; however the average number living at our house at any one time was seven, as the older ones had moved out before I was born. For example my eldest brother Mick had left in 1915 to come out to Australia. My father was very self- sufficient and was able to provide for the whole family quite well. Those days you couldn’t buy much, a bit of sugar and tea and some honey from neighbours.
My mother would buy some cloth to sew all the clothes. We would use wool from the sheep which was made into Klosti and from the linen we would make sedonia for collecting the olives. Everything was self-produced. We made half the products we used on the land down at Paliopoli. We would produce a lot of wheat mixed with barley and use the animals to crush it and blow it in the wind and then take it to the mill; everything was produced locally. My father managed to cultivate the entire land we owned. All year round my parents worked extremely hard, I owe them a lot, as they were wonderful people who worked for their children. They would have to leave the older child home to look after the younger children while they worked in the horafia to survive. They would sometimes even have to take the babies with them whilst working and they used the kounia to hang us on the tree while everyone in the family worked. That’s how it was in those days. You were young and you could get through it.
When we needed medical assistance at the house the doctor would be called and he would often take a day with the horse to come from Hora and sometimes he would fail to come out altogether. Back then it would have been Dr Raptakis and then Dr Kaloutsis. Until Dr Fatseas came on board, there was not much security on the island concerning the medical department. For instance, when I was younger I had rheumatic fever and nobody told me about it. If I had voiced this to the army here in Australia that I had had that disease, then I am sure I would have been exempt from conscription; but I was never informed. There was a sister nurse that came down from Athens and she had rheumatic fever. Whether she gave it to me when I was younger I am not quite sure, but I suspect that is how I contracted it. It wasn’t until the cardiologist at Royal North Shore asked me if I had ever been sick when I was younger, with symptoms of delirium, that I answered yes and he then solved the problem. He diagnosed me correctly. You see, rheumatic fever leaves a fault in the heart and my aortic valve was damaged from that time. I was in hospital for three months, in which time they changed the aortic valve. Dr Ross was a young doctor who had just started and at that time it was common practice for them to put mechanical valves as a replacement. He advised me that we should use a calf tissue valve, instead of a mechanical one. It has lasted so far for 28 years, as the operation was done in ‘82. And has outlasted all the other valves. Doctors are still quite astonished that it has remained functional for this long. I overheard the cardiologists before the operation talking amongst themselves and they said that if you have bacteria in the blood then tissue valve is much better for restoring the full function, so when they asked me for my decision I went with the biological one. Dr Ross still asks me today why I chose the biological one over the mechanical version, and he tells me jokingly that if I had taken the mechanical version, with the warfarin usage that went with it, I would have been dead long ago.
Back to the family tree; my mother’s parents were originally from Venice and they migrated to Crete and eventually came down to Kythera. You see the name Casimatis originated from Venice because the Venetians occupied Kythera for 300 years so there was some connection. There was also a high school in Venice that Kytherians would go to. My eldest brother Mick went through all forms of education and was able to speak Italian when he came out. He was very intelligent and eventually brought the five brothers out to Australia and helped everybody a lot. In chronological order my family was Kalliopi, Mick, Diamanda, Jack, Theodoro, Eleni, Panayiotitsa, Manuel, me, my twin Sophia and Maria. 11 out of 13 survived, which was a good ratio for back in those days. I have real fond memories of my mother. She was wonderful and looked after us greatly. Our paratsoukli was ‘Trohalos’, because my great uncle was a priest (Archimandriti), however he was not married and had no children himself. He bought a lot of land that he gave to his three nephews. He owned land from Pitsinianika, all the way to Milopotamo, which is what they call ‘Marathea’ and all the way down to Keramouto; this he gave to the three brothers, including my father. The name came from the fact we had all that land but there were many rocks and stones that had to be cleared and put in one area which was called ‘Trohalea'. Every year you would have to go and pick up the stones and clear the land.
My father wanted to educate me and so I went to school. There was a mix up with one of my mates who double-crossed me. He was treacherous and because of him I didn’t go to high school. The high school teacher was a koumbaro to us and he came to the house to convince my father to get me to come. This mate was lurking around the house and waited for the teacher to leave and called me out to talk. He told me that he wasn’t going to high school. The school was far away, in Hora, and we would have had to walk all the way there and back, so I believed him. I thought against going because I wanted someone whom I knew to go with. I never told my father why, I just told my parents that I wasn’t going. He accepted my decision but didn’t like it, as I was his last son left and he wanted to keep me on the island as a teacher. Having said that, the war broke out in 39’ and so my education would have been interrupted. Who knows whether or not I would have finished. You never know where the army would have sent me if I had stayed. All my friends went to Albania to serve in Pindos and Gramos and had to navigate their way through mountains with snow up to your knees. My friends came back sick with frostbite etc, or did not come back at all and so I thank God for how things turned out.
The journey to Australia took 30 days from Port Said to Sydney. It was a big boat with all the facilities like a swimming pool and other interesting things I had not seen before. The language barrier meant it was hard to communicate with some passengers, however there were 22 Kytherians on the boat so that was great. We played cards and had a good time together. There were Tzannes’ from Livadi, Samios’ were also present and my Nono’s two daughters were on the boat as well as a lot of other Kytherians that kept us entertained. The hardest thing was to leave my father on his own with no boys. There were two sisters left in the house and they worked so hard. He wanted me to stay but I couldn’t. And to add to that the war was about to break out. We would have the radio on constantly listening to what would happen with the war. You could see it coming. If I stayed longer I would have been stuck there for a long time. I came out two months before the war broke, just before the line closed. My father later died of cancer after the war, which meant I never got to see him again after I left Kythera and that was hard for me. We brought my mother out and she stayed five years but she wanted to go back. She passed away in 73’ and we went back for the funeral which was the first time I had been back to Kythera.
I came out to Australia on the 23rd of June 1939. My eldest brother Mick picked me up and took me to Temora where they had a shop. Mick had sent the papers and authorized my migration. Because I didn’t know the language, I helped my older brother Theodori in the kitchen, cleaning potatoes and those sorts of things. At that time, my other older brother Jack had a shop in Young which was a very good business like ours. He had Manuel with him. So there were two brothers in Young and three in Temora. But Jack all of a sudden decided to sell the shop in Young and so there ended up being four brothers in Temora, a few too many for one shop. Therefore Manuel and Theo brought a shop in Ariah Park. Mick eventually sold, so I went to Ariah Park with Manuel and Theo to help them out. After a while Mick decided to get back into the market and he bought a shop in West Wyalong and contacted me to come and work with him to establish the place. I eventually wasn’t needed so I was sent back to Temora to work in another kitchen for other people. However, I became frustrated because I couldn’t socialize and learn the language. Working in the kitchen meant that I wasn’t in touch with the people. I wanted to be at the front counter. So I sent a message around that I wanted to go to a bigger place and I received a letter from Mr. Paschalis and Mr. Calligeros, who had a big shop in Wollongong.
The war broke out when the Japanese struck and I was then conscripted. The Greek Government gave permission to English speaking countries to conscript all Greeks. Luckily we were the allies but the Italians and Germans were placed in concentration camps here. I received a call to present myself at the area office for examinations and then they sent me to the showground in Sydney for extensive tests, vaccinations and injections. They gave me clothes and boots and told me to go to a camp in Mascot. We got the word around to fellow Greeks, advising our mates that when it was time to take an oath to be careful to not accept being naturalized. It was understood that the Prime Minister of Australia gave the order that we were to be conscripted in the defence of Australia on our soil and not overseas. So one would have to volunteer to be sent overseas for combat. By us refusing that Oath of Naturalization we only had to defend Australia here, at home and thankfully, were not forced to fight overseas. So that’s why they took us on the understanding that we defend Australia and that’s all. We stayed as non-naturalised, Greek citizens. They sent us to ammunition or supply camps to work for the war. It was very dangerous work and we had to be careful because we were working with live ammunition and explosives. We would have to fill the shells with detonators. The fuse was kept separate until the last moment before we put it on the train. That was the real danger.
I remember in one of the camps there was a soccer game, and I considered myself a handy soccer player. We had a team back in Pitsinianika where we would play near my house. So when I saw the game in the army I immediately went down to play. The nationalities would often collect together. I was playing with my brother Manuel in our team and we would set up goals together. The other team decided to knock me off, they fractured my leg straight after I scored a goal. I was only in hospital two days and then in convalescence for three months. But what you suffer there is unbelievable. We were still made to work but the soldiers would pick on me because I was on crutches at the time and I would often cry. In the army we would need to be up at 5am for inspection. We had to be shaved, shoes polished, properly dressed. It was the hardest time I ever had there. Eventually I got used to it, although soon after I contracted the measles and they sent me down to Little Bay to be contained in isolation while I recovered. There were wounded soldiers coming in all the time from the front. After a month or two we had to go to training because they had to get strong and go back to war. The thing that amazed me was the exercises they made you do for fixed bayonet training. Two soldiers would demonstrate for us. They were so quick with the weapon. After the exhibition they would get volunteers to do it, they saw me with the injured leg and walking stick so luckily they didn’t get me to do it. Later, we would have to practice it ourselves. When the Kokoda War was on, they pulled the young boys from Victoria with only two months training and sent them to Kokoda. It was slaughter. The Japanese were in the front line training for years and had a lot of experience. The poor Victorians had hardly any training and it was heartbreaking to watch. They stood no chance.
After three months of rehabilitation, I went back to camp at Mungaroo, where we were continuously loading ammunition on the trains for the war. Not long after I started, the winter came and there was snow and rain whilst we worked. They were very difficult conditions. I got sick and they thought I had TB and so they sent me to hospital. After five days they saw that I was still alive so I was to return. It was exhausting. We then went to Bogan Gate which had a completely different climate; it was a heat wave there. All the dust polluted the water and you were never clean. You had to put up with it and we got through it. In all honesty I still felt a sense of racism in the army. There were a lot of fights between the Greeks and others; the soldiers would pick on us. We had a good fighter named Koutzoukos from Castellorizo, who was often mischievous and would leave camp. One day he left while I was working on the gate and when he came back they took him to the camp and the sergeant tried to tie him up. Koutzoukos punched him. The soldier called out “guards, guards, guards”, but because he was my friend I didn’t help the soldier. I was lucky not to be charged by the army. I couldn’t go against my mate and the sergeant was in the wrong. They picked on us and got us to do the harder work. Even in the country town of Temora I felt it. If we were walking in the street we couldn’t speak Greek publicly because we would be called dagos.
We all got struck down with disease in the army about once a week. The pans they would cook our food in were rusty, so the lines to the toilets were quite long. My leg was injured and I had the crutches, so I couldn’t be going in and out of the toilets all day. I would be waiting a long time, while standing up, so I would just sit and wait in the toilet for ages until I finished completely. They would call out and I wouldn’t move because I knew in half an hour I would have to go back again. I must have stayed there all night.
On a happier note, dancing was one of my highlights. We had a lot of dances in Kythera and in the army we used to go down to Luna Park for dancing; they had big parties in the army.
After the war I went to Bega to buy a shop there, which meant I had to work quite hard for a while to gather enough money to make this a reality (Andrew said as he looked towards his family and home). I bought a cafe in March of 47’, situated in the main street of Bega. It was called the Neon Café and I owned it with my partner a Mr. Petrochilos. During the holiday season you couldn’t rest for a moment. There was another Greek there who had a shop further down by the name of Castrisos and we would work together. We would have all the fruit on display at the front window. Back in those days an inspector would demand that we had tickets on every item sold. Well this was unreasonable, as the fruit would come in very early Tuesday morning from Sydney. I would go buy the fruit and then put it in the window, but of course I had no time to put the tickets on. He booked both mine and Castrisos’ shop. I stayed there five years and then decided it was time to come down to Sydney. I bought a cake shop with my brother Manuel called ‘Peter Pan’; I was living upstairs and I couldn’t sleep because there was so much noise and so I was not too keen to stay very long. We did a lot of birthdays and celebrations. It was a good business but hard work. We were too busy to socialize there and we worked hard to establish a new business that we knew nothing about. We would sell three thousand loafs of bread a week. It was there in Crows Nest that I thought to myself the years were passing by so I better get married soon. (To the laughter of his wife and grandchildren) I
married Irene in 1952. Our families were close and knew each other quite well. It was more or less proxenia even though we did know each other before hand. We sold the business in Crows Nest and I was looking for a new venture. I would go around the suburbs and ask the agents about any businesses for sale.
There was a chemist shop in Chester Hill, which I bought and then made alterations to transform it into a milk bar. In those years they were more milk bars than restaurants. We had my first born, Sandra, while we were working there. We also had some problems with louts who wanted to take advantage of us ethnics, so I got together a couple of Greek boys I knew and we would fight them and kick them out. They wanted to steal and not pay for things. They didn’t know that I had army training so we sorted them out. There was a lot of trouble in those years with those types of people. We just survived through it. Working in the shop was seven days a week work and became unbearable after a while. We sold after five years, came to this house in 65’ and decided to retire.
The Kytherian Brotherhood was big even back then and we were quite involved. They would have picnics at Randwick Racecourse. In fact, my daughter Sandra met her husband Peter at one of those events. We would go to Kythera House, in the city, for Easter and Christmas. We would put our names down and at Christmas the kids would get presents. My brother Manuel was president for a while and he asked me to come onto the committee but I had to decline because it was too far away. We would take the girls (Sandra, Matina and Anna) once a week so that they could learn Greek dancing. We would go to see the debutantes at the Trocadero, on George Street. For the dances we would go to the Paddington Town Hall; it was beautiful there. We used to have a lot of Kytherian weddings back then. In those days we would catch the buses and trains everywhere as we didn’t have a car until much later. Back in Kythera, all the transport was conducted by walking around and, if you were lucky, on donkey. We had a lot of animals in Pitsinianika such as goats etc. There was an old oil factory there which my brother-in-law owned and once a year they worked day and night for about four weeks to crush the olives which they brought. In fact the whole town of Pitsinianika was very busy during that time. We used to get the olives from as far away as Frilingianika. Every afternoon we played football. The field was outside the school next to our house which was a two storey house on the corner.
We would go in the morning to get water from the well and then go work the field, which was always separate from the house. My father built the house that we lived in with one of his brothers Theodoros, who died early from TB and so the house was left to my father. You would have to make the kameni to create the asvesti and you had to build it up, burn it for three days and three nights and then collect wood to burn. He then mixed it with sand and you had the mortar to build. My father was very handy with these kinds of things.
People wonder why we never went back to Kythera after migrating. Well I couldn’t return to Kythera to live even if I wanted to because the war broke out and it became impossible. Then when I eventually went back for the first time, I noticed things were terrible. Most of the people I could remember had left and gone to Athens. A lot of people had gone hungry during the war and left when they could. I could remember my mother telling me that the neighbours would go around asking for food; people were starving. It would not have been a pleasant time to live on the island. After the ‘73 trip, for my mother’s funeral, we went back for holidays in ‘88 and then again in the 90’s.
Whilst I lived in Australia I would be in continuous correspondence with my mother. They always wanted us to go back. My mother was receiving cheques from everyone who had left and when we went back in ‘73 we found all the cheques and war money (Greek/German) still in her drawer. (His wife Irene interjected- “I will say this...she was a wonderful woman. When she came out to Australia she was so nice to us all and I never heard her say one bad thing about anything or anyone. Wonderful lady”).
I had quite a few hobbies in life. For instance at Easter time I would get together with mates and make fire crackers. We would get gun powder and mix it with coal and line it in the newspaper and make three or four divisions in the side. It kept us busy for a couple of weeks. Stuff like that. We would also hunt, which my father loved. He owned five or six guns. Kythera was filled with kiniyous and we hunted many quail down by the water. It was nothing for him to come back with 30 or so quail when he went hunting. Football gave us a break from work and also offered us the opportunity to form a team bond. Going to Potamo on a Sunday for the markets was a great pleasure; as was shooting, walking and going to the Caffenio. My early life in Kythera was not all bad, just a lot of hard work for a young kid to cope with.
Sometimes we would spend months in Paliopoli at our holiday house and therefore we would often spend our summer days swimming there. But when we were at our house in Pitsinianika we would go for a swim at Limnaria, which was the little harbour near Myrtidia. We would leave with friends from the village and go down there. It is where we learnt to swim. One of our friends couldn’t swim but he had floaties on so he decided to go up on the rocks and jump in the sea where he lost them. I couldn’t jump in and save him because it was near the rocks, so I ran down and spoke to him and gave him courage. I instructed him how to float and he managed to survive. Haralambo Calligeros was his name and I am very proud of that achievement and remember it vividly. There was a group of six or seven of us and we also used to go around the towns and at Christmas with the Bouzoukia and Violin to play; they would give us eggs or money, making it big business for us.
The hardest times involved the different jobs I did in Kythera where you would be working all day in the searing sun. We also had a lot of difficult work in the army too. In general, we had a lot of hard work in our lives. I had to make a serious choice once I finished public school because my father wanted me to stay and continue my apprenticeships.
I am pleased with my life because I have survived. I was left for dead at the Royal North Shore Hospital, being unconscious for 11 days. I also experienced difficulties while I was in the army. I had a lot of fear of being sent overseas without training like the boys who went to Kokoda, although I am lucky they won’t call me up now (he says with a cheeky grin). I had to calculate my way through life and I’m happy how things turned out in the end. My greatest fear was the war. I was lucky enough to get a new doctor at the Royal North Shore, Dr Epps, who finally diagnosed me with Rheumatic Fever when no one else had figured it out.
The highlight of my life is my family; my three children, nine grandchildren and wife Irene, the responsibilities of every law abiding citizen.
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This oral history was taken in 2011 by Joshua Kepreotis and final edit in 2014.
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