submitted by Joshua Kepreotis on 20.10.2020
Interviewed by Joshua Kepreotis
Sitting in his office in Livadi, wearing his signature suit and tie, Manolis Cassimatis – affectionately known as ‘Lakis’ – is the former Prefect of Kythira. He has a Gough Whitlam poster hanging on the wall opposite his desk and an Australian flag outside his building. Lakis sits forward and recounts his life of politics, one centred on human connection and a values first approach. Amongst this I discovered the brain of a historian and a man giving with his time.
JK: Let us begin with where were you born?
Manolis Cassimatis: I was born in Kythira in 1944. February of that year. They were difficult years. In 44’ Hellas was still experiencing war. It didn’t finish for Hellas in 1945 as it did for the rest of Europe. The war for Hellas finished around August of 1949 because we had the civil war as well. It cost Hellas a lot. It is a black chapter in our history, which no one wants to be repeated. It was a titanic fight to see which side Hellas would end up on; will we stay on the side of the west, fighting for freedom and democracy, or join the Eastern Communist Bloc. Watching countries be reorganised like Albania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria. We saw a divided Germany, East and West, by a wall. Two different systems, same country. One side starved, the other prospered. We worried about our country. The Hellenes fought to stay free.
As you can imagine in Kythira, these were tough years for everybody. I saw the only option I had for that time, as I am a free person, to leave abroad and make a better life for myself. My family were in a slightly better position than others, in that my father was able to send us to high school and my sister to university. 1950 in Hellas to send a female to university was very progressive of him. We were also extremely lucky to have a mother as we did, who was very smart and loving. She taught us to have open minds and hearts.
I knew sending a child to university in those days was an economic burden on the family and so saw my own future in Australia. My mother told me they would get the money together to send me to university too. I told her I had a dream to go to Australia, to build a house, get a car, eat good food and wear nice clothes. I wanted to experience great things in life. I believed Australia could give me that. From a young age I knew this. And it did.
As was the system of immigration in Australia, I needed to pass a few things. Towards the end of high school I got my papers. I was passed by doctors in Athens and received a letter of recommendation from the Prefect. From the local Prefect I needed a certificate of good character. I also had to pass an interview by the Consul General of Australia in Athens. I was asked what I wanted to do when I went to Australia.
JK: Who was the Prefect who wrote the recommendation for you?
Manolis: It was the president of the shire of Kondolianika. An uncle of mine, Petros Cassimatis. He wrote that I was a lawful citizen and of good character. So, on the 2nd of July 1962, I had a ticket with the ship, Patris, to go to Australia. In those days the planes didn’t do these trips, only large boats. The trip took 27 days and I had a very good time. For us who had come from Kythira we were not used to the things we saw in the boat. The nice lounges, dancing, games, good food. We considered it super luxurious. There were 1200 immigrants on-board. Greeks from all over Hellas and only four Kytherians. Us Kytherians stayed in the same cabin 220 B deck.
JK: You remember it still? Manolis’ memory for such details is amazing. He remembers the street name and number of every house he lived and shop he worked in.
Manolis: Of course. I shared the cabin with George Tzannes, Adonis Magiros, Condeleon from Viaradika, and me. Our first stop was in Port Said, Egypt, before the Suez Canal. I noticed the heat and dust, the pollution in the street and the poverty. We left there and went through the Red Sea and next stopped at the port of Aden, which was part of Saudi Arabia and now Yemen. There was this blanket of haze in the air as it was beyond hot and humid. We got out and there were loud noises of people selling things. I heard a language I didn’t understand. We went to the duty free shops. We didn’t have much money, but I got a little bit together and bought a record player that played 45 discs.
I saw how life was in Port Said and then Aden, and I was thinking to myself, where am I going? Even though things in Kythira were simple, we had it better off than those living in those two places. We then got to the Indian Ocean and it took a full 12 days to pass through. You don’t see land anywhere. All you can see is the large horizon that encircles you. We finally landed in Perth and disembarked and realised this was why we had left. Everything was green, beautiful houses, clean streets, people dressed nicely. Our second last stop was Melbourne. I will never forget the cold the night we arrived. The next day we travelled around Melbourne for a bit and went to the MCG. We went to the home of Captain Cook next to the Yarra River. Melbourne is a beautiful city with tall buildings.
JK: Had you been to Athens before this trip and seen a city?
Manolis: I had, but it wasn’t the same as Melbourne and Sydney in the size of the buildings.
JK: What was arriving in Sydney like?
Manolis: When we left on the 2nd of July from Athens, they had told us we would arrive in Sydney on the 29th of July 8:20am. We were all awake from 6am and dressed in our best suits, or whatever good clothes we had. We knew people would be waiting for us. I stepped outside on the deck and thought I would be able to see Sydney, being two hours away. I saw only rocks. I was waiting and waiting and then finally I saw The Heads, but no houses. Where is this city? I thought. At some point around 8am we turned in from The Heads and there the Sydney Harbour Bridge came into my view, with the sun hitting it.
It was truly amazing. At last we were there. We got into Circular Quay and relatives were awaiting us. There were also men and women who had been arranged to be married and were meeting for the first time. I had two uncles who took me straight to the home of my Uncle Jack in Maroubra. There I saw a television for the first time. I was wowed. I stayed there for about a week in Maroubra. They took me around Sydney. They took me to the zoo to see the animals. I remember being so thankful that I had arrived in a place so organised and beautiful. I was very enthusiastic for the work ahead and thankful for the decision I made to migrate.
I had my brother Petros there as well, who lived and worked in Armidale. I visited him and stayed for 10 days. We went hunting together. I also met other family there. It was amazing. A guy from Mytilene who was heading to Sydney took me in a Ford Zephyr. My uncles had found me work in Wollongong. It was a café and restaurant like many of the Greeks worked in. I took the coal train from Sydney to Wollongong on the 15th of August 1962, της Παναγίας. I went with Uncle Jack to Wollongong and by the time we arrived our clothes were dirty with the dust from coal. When they threw the coal into the furnace for it to drive the fumes came through the carriage windows. I was 18. We got to the shop at 11am and it was open. My uncles were trustees of the will of the man who owned it.
I worked it with a boss. The wife of the owner sat there my first day and said to me, ‘you poor thing, in the kitchens you will rot as it has happened to all the others.’ Αχ κακόμοιρο, στης κουζίνες θα σαπίσεις και εσύ οπός σαπίσανε όλοι άλλη και η μπαμπάδες σου.’ That was my welcome to the work. I didn’t allow it to affect me. I had come to Australia to work hard and make a good life, so I didn’t think much of it. Now, I look back at how harsh her words were.
My boss was quite hard on me, but we worked a good business. I didn’t know English and was new to this work. I must have made many mistakes as I was yelled at a lot. I would wait for letters from my family in Hellas, and the mailman knew it was from me because the envelope was in blue and white. He would call out that the pretty Hellene envelope had arrived. I was emotional to receive a letter from my family. My boss held it for me to read the next day at home so it would not interrupt with work. It was difficult, but I had patience and I wanted to learn. He was a good operator and I learnt a lot from him.
Someone in Wollongong must have seen I wasn’t doing okay and told my uncle without me knowing. They saw I was losing weight and not doing well. To this day, 60 years later, I still do not know who it was. Someone who was looking out for me. My uncle Jack came one day and told me to return with him to Sydney where they had found me work and I would stay at his house. I had been in Wollongong for three months. I told him I would stay where I was. I said the shop sold fish, was a café, a delicatessen, and a milk bar. It was my university and I wished to learn it all. I wanted to be at the front to learn English. So, I insisted on staying.
I lived in a house on 12 Beatson Street Wollongong with my manager. The trustees decided to sell the café at some point. My uncle offered me an opportunity to rent the shop after it was sold with two Greek boys from Sydney. He included in the sale a deal to keep us working for 6 months so we could make some money and then move on. It was a good shop, 500-660 pounds per week; which were great takings for then. We sold steak and eggs, sandwiches, and milkshakes. We were very busy.
I said to my uncle, I had only been here 8 months what do I know about running this business? With the little English I had. He told me the other boys knew, so I agreed. They had a bit of experience working in the steelworks and part-time in a shop in Newcastle, but not much more. I turned to my uncle and he said to me you know what to do. You will swim. They were great boys. I enjoyed working with them, but they didn’t know much about running a café and so I did it. It was a great learning experience. We kept the business going as it was. I left when the shop was sold and got a job at a second café in Wollongong, Central Cafe. I worked for beautiful people there. They had me as a son and trusted me completely. They gave me a raise immediately. I worked many hours, like all the Hellenes.
JK: How long did you stay there?
Manolis: I stayed until the 5th of February 1965. I started the day Kennedy was assassinated, November 22 1963. After working there for 16 months I learnt that a shop in Glen Innes was up for sale. Two brothers owned it and one was selling his half. I took a loan from the bank for 12 500 pounds and 2000 pounds from my partner, to go with the money I had saved. My uncle Charlie vouched for me and went as guarantor to get me the loan. Together with Andreas Lourantos we worked the Paragon Café in Glen Innes; we are koumbaroi now and he also lives in Kythira. We had an excellent partnership. 1st of March I bought the café.
That same time I asked around in Glen Innes if a Labor Party existed. They pointed me to the place and I asked who the president was. Charlie Greenway was the president of the Glen Innes branch of the Labor Party. Eric Potter was vice-president. They both said for me to come and join the party and made me a member in April 65’. I was 22 years of age. A few months later they asked if I wanted to become secretary of the party. I told them the job of the secretary was to take down the minutes of meetings and my English was not good enough for that. It had improved, but not to that level. Ron Graffton, who was the previous secretary, said he would help me.
I became the secretary of the party in January of 1966. Glen Innes is in the seat of New England, which has never been held by Labor. It has always been a Country Party seat. Even until today. The member of New England was Ian Sinclair, Deputy Leader of the Country Party. We knew from the beginning we could not win but we had to fight and produce a good candidate. A lot of friends and family were worried that because of my political affiliations it may affect my business. My café was in a Country Party seat and I would lose business. I disagreed and I did not lose business. In fact, I made friends with many of them until today.
JK: What made you want to sign up for politics so new in Australia?
Manolis: I was always politically orientated. Even from Kythira. My family was also politically affiliated, and we were always central. Not left nor right. When I went to high school, I used to love reading newspapers. I would take Το Βημα to school to read – it is a central newspaper. The teacher of my school in Hora had told me that it was forbidden to have a newspaper at school; which was the law at the time in 1952. Hellas ruled that whoever was not on the right was a communist. They forbade any information that wasn’t conservative. The teacher found the newspaper in my bag and told me to see him in his office. I went there and he was hitting his hand saying ‘I said, Cassimatis, that newspapers were forbidden.’ I was a big mouth from then and responded that had it been Η Καθημερινή (right-wing paper) he would have allowed it. I was suspended from school for four days.
I was secretary of the Glen Innes branch continuously for 16 years, from 1966-1982. Many times I suggested a new secretary should take over, but each year when we had to vote, they kept me in. I started there when it had 18 members and we reached 80 by the time I left. I recruited people from my business, my doctor, from my social life. I had that in my personality. In 1968 I became an Australia citizen. I had become secretary of the Labor Party of Glen Innes without having been an Australian citizen.
JK: How did you feel becoming an Australian citizen?
Manolis: I felt wonderful. There was a nice ceremony at Town Hall. I still have the cufflinks the Mayor, Eric Potter, gave me. They are very valuable to me. By 1969 I was voted in as the delegate to a Sydney conference of the Labor Party representing the Tenterfield electorate. To become a delegate I had to be one of two to be voted in amongst the branches of Inverell, Warialda, Tenterfield and Glen Innes. In 1976 it was the uranium debate in Australia. Australia had the largest uranium deposits up in the Northern Territory. Mining and exportation of uranium was the issue. I was against it. Half of the Labor Party and all of the union movement were in favour, as there were jobs to be had and money to be made. The 1976 conference was to vote yes or no as to whether we export or leave it in the ground. The conference decided to take the final vote at the 1977 conference awaiting the Fox Report.
I announced that I wanted to be a delegate to the conference. They learned it at head office of the Labor Party, at 9 Sussex Street. The president was John Ducker, who was aligned to the right-wing of the Labor party and in favour of mining and exporting the uranium. In this issue I was aligned with the left-wing of the party. Head office tried to stack the conference to have the majority vote yes for mining and exportation. They tried to prevent as many delegates who were not in favour from coming to the conference. There was a preparation vote. I was up against a candidate from Tamworth and another from Inverell. Those two candidates had exchanged preferences as one and two, which meant for me to be elected I had to have the number one votes.
All the surrounding branches gathered in Glen Innes one Sunday in June 1977. I saw I could not play around and relied on the imagination of Gough Whitlam. Whitlam had said ‘crash through or crash.’ I stood up and announced myself and that I would vote for the uranium to remain in the ground. The reason I gave was that they were trying to export the uranium from Australia to give them to countries who did not have the technology to contain the power of that dangerous metal. And I said I was not going to decide the lives of our children. That is why I wanted to play it safe for the time being and vote against it. I wanted them to know. Crash through or crash. Clean business.
The minute I saw the returning officer’s face, who I knew was in favour of mining, I knew I was elected. He came out to announce the winners in the order of the election. He had to announce me as I was elected first. I was elected delegate to the conference.
JK: How old were you?
Manolis: Around 34.
JK: In your new country and now going down to Sydney to discuss an important issue about uranium. What was that like?
Manolis: I went to the conference on the Queen’s Birthday at town hall. It used to begin Wednesday where you would go to the head office to pick up the agenda and your credentials, and your number. Thursday to Sunday is the conference, with each member delegate talking about all the proposed laws that would happen when the Labor Party came to power. As I go to pick up my credentials there was an officer there who called me aside. He had been involved with drumming up support against me in Glen Innes. At the time the Labor Party was looking for the so-called ethnic senators. To give the endorsement for the legislative council of NSW or for the federal senators. It was a time for ethnic senators. The only member of the Labor Party who had the credentials to be a senator, and who was an immigrant, was me. They gave me an impression that at the next state council meeting I was going to be nominated to the state council as a senator of NSW. As an MLC (member of legislative council). It was not anything official. I think they may have said that to many others, not only me.
I had become a member of the committee of Immigration and Affairs of the Labor Party. So I was proposed unofficially to become an MLC. The officer pulled me in a room and said to me, after all we saw you have been elected delegate to the conference. I will put it bluntly to you, are you going to vote for mining and exportation of uranium, or not? And in case you want to vote to block it, we the administrative committee of the party will end having anything to do with you. It meant I could forget about becoming an MLC. My response was to say, ‘I will vote to keep the uranium in the ground, where it was, and where I was prepared to vote some of the proposals on your side of the party, now I would vote all the way down the ticket against you. And the uranium will stay in the ground.’
Manolis slammed his fist down on the desk emphatically, as passionate about the issue today as he was in 1977. Values first.
The uranium debate started the next day on Friday and went into Saturday. That Friday afternoon it came across the news that the Diablo Canyon reactor in Long Island, America, exploded. Radioactive waste was emitted. We seized the opportunity to say at the conference not even the Americans know how to contain this, how do we expect others to? I remember there was a doctor delegate I met who had been in favour of the mining and exportation and he changed his mind, citing he had children and he could not do it to them.
There were 44 seats in the town hall to each square. I was sitting with the delegates of the Australian Municipal Workers Union and when asked to vote mine was the only hand raised in the entire section against it. The no vote won by a majority of eight votes. The officer made them recount it three times. He had a dossier to write the names of those who he had warned to not vote no, and I called out for him to put my name down too. We won. I celebrated with a group of likeminded people. I believe uranium stayed in the ground for many years. I left Australia before it happened.
JK: How long were you in Australia?
Manolis: 22 years. It was a great time. I even had a lot of my friends in Glen Innes from the Labor Party and Country Party. Some of them came to Kythira to see me. Close friends. I helped one of their daughters with her HSC paper on immigration and she came in the top 10 of NSW. She interviewed me for 4 hours on immigration. She came in tickled pink to the shop saying she had topped NSW. My friend Bruce Baker’s daughter asked me to help her with a paper on government and she too topped the state for her HSC. Ian Sinclair, friend of the Baker family, leader of the Country Party, came to the shop one day and said he learnt I was pretty good with the government affairs of this country. We laughed.
In 1972 I returned to Kythira to see my parents after being away for 10 years. It was during that trip that I met my wife Katie. We married and left to return to Australia. Katie took to Australia so well. She learnt the language quickly. I wanted her to learn to drive and she did easily. She was well liked in the community of Glen Innes. When our first child Koula was born there, we received 120 cards and 70 gifts. We also had our second child there, Annetta. They are beautiful memories of mine.
We had a great relationship with the people of Glen Innes and that is why I love that place and it is in my heart and soul. Australia took us in without knowing its language, without money, without a trade, and we were able to do very well for ourselves. It is my second home, but I consider it as important to me as Hellas. I love them both. We worked hard in those years together and had our family. We purchased properties in Brisbane and Glen Innes, while keeping the business going.
I had a difficult time in Australia during the Vietnam War. It came out in 1966 that men of a certain age could be conscripted, irrespective of whether they were born in Australia or not. I was of that age and by myself there. But I knew if I was conscripted, I would not go as I did not believe in the cause for the war. I would have fought in any war to defend Australia from any danger. I felt obliged to do so. However, I believed the war the Americans started in Vietnam had nothing to do with Australia, nothing to do with the security of Australia. I would be an objector. Better in the gaols in Australia than the jungles of Vietnam, killing innocent humans who had done nothing to me or to Australia.
JK: As the great Muhammad Ali also said.
Manolis: Yes, exactly. I think I was marked from then because of my objections, because later during my time in Australia I faced bureaucratic problems in wanting a loan to buy shops in Maroochydore. I had a proven income to service the loan, and never defaulted on any loan or bounced any cheques (unthinkable for me). I counted my bank statements daily. I had a perfect record with the Commonwealth Bank. I found 7 shops selling for $285 000 and wanted a loan of $180 000. I was well within my rights to get it. That bank said no, the next said no. The bank people agreed it was ridiculous I was being denied, but they could not do anything about it as the powers at be knocked the loan back. I was prepared to pay a higher interest rate to the AGC. They said no as well. I was turned away by all banks. I believe it had to do with my political affiliations to the Labor Party and perhaps my objection to the Vietnam War. What do you think?
JK: That, and perhaps also because you were Greek. There was a ceiling for how high you could go.
Manolis: Yes, maybe that too. Either one or the other, or both. We left Australia in 1983 with my wife and two children to come to Kythira. Not with the intention of staying, but to see our family and build a house here so we could come back to. My father was sick as well, so we returned and put the kids in school while we built our house and be close to family. And we stayed. We built our house which we live in in Skoulianika, which is an exact replica of our house in Glen Innes. Katie and I wanted it that way. The curtains in both houses are the same. The plants are in the same spot.
In 1985 the president of the shire of Mitata, Nick Athousis, suggested I run for president for the Εγχωρίου Περιουσίας Κυθήρων & Αντικυθήρων to administer the Crown Land of Kythira. I always liked politics, however I had no idea about that work. He believed I could do the job. I became the first president elected to administer the crown land of Kythira from the time the English left Kythira 1864-1985. The Εγχωρίου Περιουσίας is a leftover English remnant of land ownership that Kythira has maintained. It is a major privilege and we are the only island who have it. From 1864-1942 the president had been a judge. From 1942-1985 it was the Archbishop of Kythira and Antikythira. With 14 councils. The electorate was 92 electors and representatives of each shire council. I was elected president, even though I had been back in Kythira such a short time. I got 48 votes and the next election I was elected with 75 votes.
One of the large jobs I had was to keep the economic management of Myrtidia and Agia Moni in the Εγχωρίου Περιουσίας, as it always had been. The Archbishop wanted to take it for the church and took me to the High Court. I said I cannot let that happen and I went to the High Court. A friend of mine suggested a lawyer to fight the case in the High Court and it turned out to be Prokopis Pavlopoulos, who later became the president of the Hellenic Republic. He won Myrtidia and Agia Moni for the Εγχωρίου Περιουσίας. I was not against the church, I was doing my job. The policy of the Εγχωρίου Περιουσίας was for the money to go to the church first.
But I suffered some character assassinations afterwards, not only from Kythira but from some Kytherians from Australia. Some people suggested I built my house with money from Myrtidia, even though it was built before I was elected to the Εγχωρίου Περιουσίας. And the other thing they said was that I was going from town to town in Australia and did nothing, even though I stayed two years in Wollongong and the other 22 years in Glen Innes. They had said it to the priest at Myrtidia as well.
My uncle and my aunty, Konstantinos and Marika who were living in Australia, came to Kythira with the boat from Piraeus. There was a priest on the boat coming from Jerusalem and he told them a story about me, not knowing they knew me. They defended my name and told him the truth. I am not sure why the propaganda happened against me. I was not the confrontational type and let it go. Other people vouched for me. A man who worked in Myrtidia was the brother of the man I worked for in Wollongong. He told the priest my true character and they started to change their opinion. It was a tough time.
In 1986 we received the result of the high court. Just before that we had a public meeting in Mylopotamos. I got up and said I would work together with the Archbishop whatever the decision was of the high court. I showed respect to him in his decision whether to hand over the sacraments or not. He learnt of that speech and appreciated it. When it came through, I said to him, Archbishop you did not lose anything, exactly as the churches are is how they will remain.
I had the inventory book ready and was intent on doing the changeover quickly before he left the island to Athens and changed his mind. People in Athens told him they would have tied us up in court for years. We escaped a difficult situation. The second election I received 75 votes and then the third time they said I had a done a good job but they wanted a new president from the New Democracy political party.
I was approached by the committee of the cooperative olive oil factory to help them erase a debt that had grown. It was in disarray. My father and father-in-law were original members and so it was symbolic for me to be a part of it. In two years, I managed to erase the debt with strict austerity measures. I had a general meeting two years later in December 1989 and I told them we were free of debt and we had money on the side. The elderly started crying and said they had been waiting to hear this from 1950. I left them in surplus.
The Minister for Agriculture. And later Prime Minister of Hellas, Costas Simitis, came to me and asked how I turned the business into a surplus when it had been in deficit. I told him I raised the productivity and lowered the expenses. He said that was the basic rules of economy. He asked me what university I attended in Australia and learnt business from. I told him I learnt it from the street and in business.
JK: What happened after that?
Manolis: Well, in 1994 there was an election for Prefect/Έπαρχος. To become Prefect\Επαρχος in Kythira the vote includes Athens, Piraeus, and the islands. It is the largest landmass elections of Hellas. It starts from Ekali and ends in Kythira. I became mayor of Kythira with 9852 votes. It was a big job and one I took seriously.
JK: What did it involve?
Manolis: My day-to-day job included capital works. Development of schools and roads, and even issuing passports, plans for the islands, battling with the Greek bureaucracy (which is the biggest obstacle in this country). We built some good things for the islands. We helped reconstruct the castle in Kapsali – I wanted a general reconstruction of the Castro, having developed a proposal to Europe to fund it. What you see today was a smaller version of what I wanted.
I also made a law on the island that Kytherians who had up to 18 500 Euros income pay no tax. And in every transaction of property, in every inheritance duty, 40% discount for Kytherians. I achieved these laws by going to Costas Simitis’ office, the prime minister at the time, to help change the law. This law he was creating was for the islands who had up to 3000 population. We were 3082 people and I got them to change the law to 3100 people. Ithaki and two islands also got in.
We built buildings at the airport and added to the port of Diakofti. The cement where the boat docks, the asphalt from airport to Diakofti, the rocks on the side. Expensive projects. There was also a time when they wanted to make Kythira an island with no possible expansion, claiming it was fully developed like Mykonos. They passed it as a law and it was to be printed, but I stopped it.
Another thing I created was making a blood bank for Kythira. It has been 25 years since I left and many thousands of units of blood has gone through it. I also did the Mytridiotisa boat to join with Piraeus. There was doubts and propaganda about the quality of the boat at the time, but it is still going since the year 2000. Kythira is also the only island in Hellas which has a legal quarry zone. I did roads in Ayia Pelagia, Kombonada, Kaladi. And the new wing in the high school, making it bigger by a thousand metres. There are other things we tackled and accomplished, but I don’t remember them now.
The biggest challenge I faced, and service to Kythira, was when the scandal of the clergy happened and I had to deal with it. It had been going on for years and had not been eradicated yet. The straw broke the camel’s back when Sky TV reported it. We were so embarrassed to be Kytherian, whereas we used to be so proud to be Kytherian always. I knew that pride from my time in Australia. I could not allow this shame to continue for us. We were being looked at and laughed at by others. I was the Prefect/Επαρχος of Kythira and had to get rid of the people who created this problem. They had to go.
I did it the Australian way and called a general meeting of all elected people of Kythira. We gathered in Fratsia. 79 of them and the people of Kythira – at least 800 people attended. I spoke and told the truth of what happened in Kythira and posed the question whether the bishop and his five sub bishops would be evicted or allowed to stay. I put forward that we the elected people had the duty to decide on the future of the island. I took it as my duty to take the stand first and lead by example. I declared them persona non grata and to leave the island immediately, as we had no room for them anymore.
I asked all those in favour to come and sign. The bishop had some important supporters in the room. I believed in democracy and wanted everyone to vote according to their conscience. I voted and then asked those whose opinion was for the clergy to stay to come forward and put their names on the paper to stay. I told them that these minutes would be recorded for the people to read and that history would judge all of us. In what stand each of us took. I made sure everyone recorded their vote. I respected their opinions, but I wanted it written down. We were there for a while, but eventually we had 79/79 votes for them to leave. I remember what I said at the end, ‘as the governor of Kythira I had an honour and duty to restore the dignity and integrity of the Kytherian people home and abroad!’ And I am pleased this happened, that Kythira is clean again.
They were very difficult years. The meeting at Fratsia happened on the 26th of November 1996. On the 14th of December the Bishop tried to come back to Kythira. He called me and told me of his plans and I respectfully replied that my advice, your Holiness, was to stay in Athens because the Kytherian people have declared you persona non grata and you have to stay away from the island. He told me that was my opinion but had decided to come to Agia Pelagia, and had told the clergy to meet him there. I told him I would meet him too. I learnt that he was coming by boat to Kythira. When I was asked by the people what to do now, I told the rest of the locals that I would go down. I did not force them to come, but I would go to Agia Pelagia and read the minutes of the meeting in Fratsia to him, and our decision. When they heard I was going about 500 people also showed up.
The police and water police had come as well. They barricaded the people back near the shops and left the jetty free, allowing only me and two others to go and meet the bishop. It was me, the president of Karvounades and president of Livadi, and the police. We got to the wharf and as they were disembarking he was in the 5th car coming out. I walked onto the ship door and stopped him. I started reading him the minutes. He said I could not stop him from exercising his duties. I replied to him that it was not only me and pointed to all the people gathered in Ayia Pelagia.
The captain of the ship came down to tell me I was disrupting the disembarkation. At that moment when I was distracted, his car drove onto the wharf. He started telling me his thoughts and all I said back to him was, ‘you are unwelcome here, please go back.’ I told him three times. The fourth time the head of police stepped in and gave me an order that he will take the Bishop to his office in Hora. I said okay you can take him through that group of people but if you hurt one single person, one head cracks, one eye gouged, one death, you will be personally responsibility. I said take him, three times, and they said nothing. The Bishop realised he was not backed by the police and turned the car around and went back on the boat. We waited with the 500 people until the boat left with him on it. In this battle, whatever goodness the island had was with us that day. It was an amazing turnout.
The second time, the Abbot of Ayios Thodoros arrived in Kythira on the 25th of December with a helicopter. It was Christmas Day and my name day. I got a phone call while celebrating, telling me a helicopter brought the Abbot of Ayios Thodoros. He snuck in. I told everyone I would go the next day to get rid of him. I got there around 3pm and over 1000 people were there the day after Christmas in the December cold. They covered the main road to Ayios Thodoros. I got the loudspeaker and said, ‘this is the people speaking, leave now. We don’t have room for you here.’ He had hauled up inside and someone said he had a dog.
We were there at night, it got to 8pm and he had not gone outside. He said to the crown prosecutor he was scared for his safety and would not come outside. I guaranteed his safety. Someone had called out to let them take care of it. I could not allow that. I asked the people to move back 50 metres and I would get him out and take him to the police station in Potamos. I went with them in the police car, 3 policemen to Potamos. He tapped me on my shoulder and told me I won the first round but there will be more to come.
After I took him to the Potamos police station, the crown prosecutor from Piraeus called me that night to give the keys of Ayios Thodoros back to the Abbot. That is how much pull he had. I said I would not give back the keys because a murder may occur like has happened in the past, in the same place. The crown prosecutor said it was the judge’s orders. They got him out and he stayed in a hotel, and they sent extra police from Athens to guard him at the hotel.
JK: What an amazing story.
Manolis: That was how the island was cleaned. In that struggle all the best of the island of Kythira participated. Shire presidents, high school teachers, doctors, university professors, solicitors, the Kytherian Press, the Athenian Press, the Australian and American Press, the Kytherian chief of armed forces, all presidents of the Kytherian Association of Athens and Piraeus, and the crushing majority of the Kytherian people home and abroad. I finished as Prefect in 1998.
JK: After such an eventful time, what did you do next?
Manolis: I stayed at home for a bit, but I also needed something to keep me connected with the people. My daughter Koula started a real estate business and I help her in her business in this office in Livadi.
JK: Let’s go back, how was it when you became a parent?
Manolis: It was an incredibly good moment for me. I was lucky to be present for both births in the birthing room in the hospital of Glen Innes. I was there with Katie and that was a wonderful experience. I loved becoming a father and being close to my two daughters. A father, I believe, is always closer to his daughters. I love them very much.
JK: Where did you meet Katie?
Manolis: It was when I returned to Kythira in 1972. She lived in Skoulianika and I lived in Gouniadika. I met her in Livadi. We had the wedding at Pierros. We went to Australia with Malaysian-Singapore airlines to go to Glen Innes and start our life. Katie loved Australia a lot and she still does. Many times we say together it was the best days of our lives. We had the plan to live in both countries, but we remained here. Kythira is inside me and I love it very much, as I do Hellas.
JK: And Kythira needed you to do some important work for it.
Manolis: I tried to give something back in whatever way I could.
Knowing our time was coming to an end, I needed to know how a real estate office in Livadi came to have a large poster of Gough Whitlam on its wall.
JK: How did you meet Gough?
Manolis: I meet him at many symposiums in Sydney. The photo you see on the wall is from the electoral poster of the 1969 elections. We were friends and I was invited to go to his funeral in Australia and to the table afterwards in the town hall reception. We were 120 people and there were 7 former prime ministers of Australia and the sitting prime minister.
Manolis tells me to get a book from his shelf and open to the first page. There is an inscription written. Words composed in the last year of Gough Whitlam’s life. ‘Lakis, with all good wishes, Gough Whitlam. 2012.’
JK: How did you feel when he was dismissed?
Manolis: Horrible. I still remember it. I was the secretary for the Labor Party in Glen Innes. We protested there. I won’t ever forget when Gough came out on the steps of the house and said, ‘well may we say God save the Queen, because nothing will save the Governor General. The proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor General’s official secretary was countersigned Malcom Fraser, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr’s Cur.’ Every so often I watch it and remember him.
JK: What values did you live by and would like to share to others?
Manolis: I would like to tell the people, Kytherians here and in Australia, first to look and find the truth in everything. To chase the truth and logic. For the youth as well. Fanaticism is not a good thing. It is detrimental to the people. I would want for the people in Australia to realise how lucky they are to live in such a Great Country and to love it much more than they do. If they love it as it deserves they will be much happier. It is a country that helps the people in need, like other Anglophone countries. The Hellenes who migrated there did not have great qualifications, nor did we have language, nor did we have money. All we had was two hands. The diaspora has managed to build houses, have cars, have money, go on holidays and live very well. Many of the Hellenes and Kytherians have become millionaires. I have only seen those results from the English speaking countries like Australia, Canada, USA, New Zealand and South Africa.
JK: You like the Anglophone system?
Manolis: I do believe it is second to none. Perhaps the perfect system of government has yet to be invented, but the Westminster system of government is second to none. We are lucky that the system exists in Australia and they made a country there. The black mark on Australia is what happened to the Aboriginal people. No one can approve of what happened to them. It was a different time and the world was different. Today that would never happen and should never happen again. It happened in America and Canada as well. I don’t believe in killing people to solve your problem. I think the reconciliation marches in Sydney were a must. To acknowledge what happened and move forward. If I was in Sydney, I would have been at every reconciliation march.
JK: How did you develop this belief system whereby you live by your values first and foremost?
Manolis: I have my mother to thank. She was always a person of the people. She taught us to be that way. She was beyond smart. She could have studied at Harvard, MIT, Sorbonne, wherever she wanted. So ahead of her time. From there we learnt to be community people. It is a family trait.
JK: A child from Kythira, born in a village, and left to go to a foreign place and invest much of his time in politics and people.
Manolis: My values are everything and I believe you can never betray them. That is life, it is what matters most. I believe in equal opportunities and the care of the non-privileged. I believe in development and a higher standard of living. I believe in the liberal economy. I do not want a restrictive economy because a restricted economy is a recipe for poverty. However, you cannot do inhumane things. We must protect minorities and you have to be a person of virtue to discharge power.
JK: I forgot to ask you about your hobbies.
Manolis: My best hobby is going into the fields and working the olives, seeing what is happening with the land. That is where I relax. The other hobby I have is connecting with humans. I cannot live without human connection. The small things make a good life.
JK: That is a beautiful place to end. Thank you very much.
Manolis: Thank you.
submitted by Susan Johnson on 27.11.2020
Thank you so much to Joshua for this sensitive and absorbing interview, and to Mr Cassimatis for his wonderful account of his life, both in Kythera and in Australia. How fortunate for those fascinated by Kytherian history to have someone with such an amazing memory, but someone who has also had such an interesting life to remember. Bravo, Mr Cassimatis! Best wishes, Susan Johnson
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