Irene Rithianos, Kallimasia, Chios Greece 2020
Irene Rithianos - always loving, always smiling, friend to everyone
Irene Rithianos grave site, Kalimasia, Chios Greece 2020
IMemoirs from a Greek World War II refugee told by Irene
Scroll down to the bottom to read the newspaper articles about Irene's refugee experiences. Also see article written by Coree Kotula.
Below is an article written by Coree Kotula talking about her Great Grandmother Irene Rithianos and the play Shirley Valentine.
Three Newspaper articles by :
Articles By Christine L. Sharpe
Forked River, New Jersey
Memoirs from a Greek World War II Refugee Part I
The first seven years of Irene Rithianos’ life passed with the romance that most would associate with living on the Greek Isle of Chios.
In her sunny, whitewashed village, Rithianos remembers a quiet life with her father, who served in the Greek Navy, her mother and grandmother.
There were more than happy times when her father would come home on leave, and trips to Athens with her mother.
Fast forward to 1937 and the birth of her sister, Anna, when her father returned home to lan the christening of his baby daughter.
“It was the last time we saw him,” said Rithianos during recent interviews at Gordon’s Restaurant, one of many businesses she and her husband, Constantine, owned and operated.
In 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and in October 190, Musolini prepared to invade Greece.
On the night of the 28th, the invasion began, and the blessed peace that the family had known was shattered, along with the lives and livelihoods of many Islanders.
“I was 9 at the time. We went to the basement to hide. I was very scared,” she said. “After that, curfews and blackouts became commonplace, and, at the end of 1941, Hitler invaded,” she said.
All the casualties of war were not on the battlefield as Rithianos discovered.
Food shortages can kill.
“My mother used to go out to the fields and pick dandelions and lilies with onions and make mashed onionburgers.”
Then, she said, her mother would make the 90-minute walk to Athens to sell the plant leaves.
But neither man nor growing girls live by onionburgers alone, and in the following months, the ravages of war became more and more evident.
“I saw people die from starvation, with bloated stomachs,” she said.
It wasn’t long before the family, which, at this time had still not heard from Rithianos’ father, made the decision to flee to Turkey.
Despite the war and danger, it was not an easy decision.
There was the family goat – part farm animal, part pet that had to be sold.
There was also the matter of dowry, for, as was the custom, Rithianos’ mother had been putting away clothing for her daughter’s future.
“I had two big trunks that I left with my best friend,” she said.
And they left.
Rithianos, her mother, grandmother and sister joined a group at the docks where, after three false starts, they were able to make the seven-mile sea trek to Turkey in February.
In the middle of the crossing, they saw a German patrol, but, said Rithianos, they believed they went unnoticed by the guards partly through luck and partly through the intercession of Saint Nicholas, in whose honor one of the passengers had dipped a holy medal bearing his likeness into the water just before leaving port.
After landing, the group walked all night, and one soldier accompanying them carried Anna and gave both girls some bread.
“We hadn’t seen bread in 36 months. He was touched.” She said.
One man who was not moved by the plight of the group, now refugees, was the Chief of Police in the town of Kato Panagia.
“That night we stayed at the police station, and the next night we spent in a hotel, where the Greek Ambassador came and warned us not to eat too much on empty stomachs,” she said.
The Ambassador gave out chocolates and told the groups they’d be on their way to Cyprus in two weeks.
The three-day trip, made in the hold of the boat to avoid detection, was not pleasant, and Rithianos said she well-remembers their arrival.
“I’ll never forget the welcome. They took us from the port and put us in a place called Minos of Gold. We were quarantined. They shaved our heads and sterilized our clothing,” She said.
“I was crying. I was hysterical, but I had no choice,” she said.
But then, redressed, she joined the others in the dining room, where the refugees had their first “fancy” meal.
“I’ll never forget. The bread had raisins inside. It had something to do with English law,” she said.
The group moved again – this time to Maurovouni. Although Rithianos doesn’t remember much, she does recall being given clothes by a local family who wanted her to stay with them until the war ended.
Leaving Cyprus, the family went to Dikelia, where they remained for about four weeks during which time Rithianos said she would often watch local boys catch octopus.
The next stop was Lebanon, where they, refugees themselves, managed to hide two high-ranking Greek officials in their quarters for nearly three months.
Rithianos’ uncle, who at the time was working for a well-to-do family in town, and was able to secret food for the group.
They remained in Cyprus for eight months before leaving for Egypt, where Rithianos remembers going to school and performing for the Royal Family of Lebanon.
Memoirs from a Greek World War II Refugee Part II
Summary: The following is the second part of a three-part series about Forked River resident Irene Rithianos’ tales as a Greek World War II refugee.
Due to the invasion of Hitler in 1941, Greece was plagued with blackouts, curfews and famine. Although it was a tough and dangerous decision, Irene’s family decided to leave their homeland, and flee to Turkey. They left without Irene’s father, Demitrios, as he was serving in the Greek Navy, and had not been home for leave since 1937. The family members who made the trip included Irene, her mother, her grandmother and her sister.
The seven-mile trek across the sea to Turkey was frightening for the family who claimed that it was only through prayer and luck that they arrived safely. While crossing the sea, they passed a German patrol boat – unnoticed. It was in Turkey, that Irene and her sister Anna ate bread for the first time in 36 months.
The group was then sent to Cyprus where they were quarantined. They were also forced to have their heads shaven and their clothes sterilized.
The group remained in Cyprus for eight months before leaving for Egypt where Irene remembers going to school and performing for the Royal Family of Lebanon.
Forked River – It was in while the family was in Lebanon that Rithianos had the opportunity to perform before royalty.
Always the aspiring actress, she was given a poem to recite before King George II of Greece and his brother, Prince Paul.
Rithianos recalled the lines: “One thousand welcomes, our great King, I’m giving you these flowers, and every petal is for a soldier that fights for our freedom.”
Tear came into Rithianos eyes as she recalled the lines.
At that time, Princess Frederika, who had accompanied her husband, was visiting injured Greek troops in the local hospital.
The princess Queen also met Anna, with whom she “fell in love” and offered to adopt, Rithianos said.
“I started crying and screaming, ‘please don’t take my sister away from me.’”
The “adoption” never took place, and shortly thereafter, the family was again on the move.
“One night we found ourselves in an army truck. We were supposed to go to a hotel or school and wait to go to Africa, but they took us somewhere else, where we were bombarded.
“I think I fainted from fright.”
The family, still looking and hoping almost against hope for word from Rithianos father, moved again. This time, they found themselves aboard the cargo ship Rizguani with 1,500 other refugees heading for Mombasa, Kenya, via the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.
Rough seas forced the ship back to port where the captain loaded the hold with coal for ballast – a move that left the passengers covered in fine black coal dust for the entire journey.
Rough seas and an overloaded crat turned a seven-day journey into a 40 day odyssey of misery.
The captain lost radio contact, and food was scarce.
“A couple of boys found a storage area filled with onions and rice,” Rithianos said. The discovered provisions were hardly enough to satisfy the passengers, and barely identifiable as food, but life sustaining.
After a short quarantine in Mombasa, the family traveled through the jungle in an open sided flatbed railroad car for two days.
“It was the first time I saw blacks,” said Rithianos, describing the incident with long-remembered wonderment.
At Makounda, the family was housed in barracks-style buildings with no doors and bedrooms separated by racks.
Privacy was not the only reason the family wanted a door.
They were in the jungle, and in the jungle…
“I remember one night they said a lion walked into the camp. The natives would hunt them, but not the refugees.”
Life at the camp as Rithianos described it, “wasn’t bad,” for despite group showers and jungle dangers, there was a high point – the family met a group of sailors who said they would inquire about her father.
It was at that time that the family heard that Demitrios was in Johannesburg, South Africa. He, too, had been trying to locate the family.
But, the family moved too rapidly for authorities to keep a current address listing. In 1942, they were on the move again. This time to through Nairobi to the Belgian Congo, where upon arrival, Rithianos recited a poem for the Greek Woman’s Auxiliary which met them.
“I’m a little refugee from beautiful Chios. My eyes have seen a lot of things before I left. I saw people eating dandelions, and die in the streets without the priest, without the cross. They take the dead to the cemetery.”
In the Congo, the group was divided. Some were sent to Ethiopia. Others, including Rithianos and her family, were sent to Mahagi, where they lived in a house with a thatched roof and “then we started living like people,” she said.
Like people living in Ethiopia – for not only did the refugees have to acclimate themselves with yet another new locale, they had to familiarize themselves with some of the inhabitants and their habits – incidentals such as snakes sunning themselves atop large outdoor ovens, and buffaloes which liked to do a bit of nighttime roaming – right into their bedrooms.
They also took quinine on a regular basis to stave off malaria.
There, Rithianos and her sister went to school, shopped at the stores of fellow Greeks in town, and made friends.
Rithianos particularly remembers an older friend, 36 year old Joanne Rigo, who, she said, became her “best friend,” in the way the young and old can bond.
There were also weddings and parties, and despite the war and not knowing about her father, Rithianos recalls mostly happy times at the settlement.
“My mother ran all the way to town for ‘it’,” Rithianos said, tears welling in her eyes.
“It” was, as hoped and prayed for, word from Demitrios, who was living in Johannesberg. Although he had sent other messages to his family, they had never received word of them as they had not been prepaid.
But now the family was reunited, even if it was across a continent.
Everyone was safe and well.
“Everyone in the town came out when they heard, and my mother was so overcome, she fainted”.
Several months later, a letter containing $100.00 arrived, and with it, were Demitrios’ plans to see his family.
Memoirs from a Greek World War II Refugee Part III
Summary: The following is the last of a three part series about Forked River resident Irene Rithanos’ tales as a Greek refugee during World War II.
Following Hitler’s invasion of Greece in 1941, Rithianos’ family, minus her father, Demitrios, who was serving in the Greek Navy, fled to Turkey, Cyprus and the Belgian Congo.
Rithianos saw people starve to death, and with her family, experienced the anguish of being away from her home and her father. But there was wonderment in her odyssey; and her story, as seen through her adolescent eyes, is not all unrelieved sorrow.
She met royalty and made friends she remembers to this day.
The joy that the family experienced after Demitrios’s telegram arrived, continued as Rithianos learned her father was safe. Letters, some containing money, found their way to the camp.
Yet, as reassuring and pleasant it was for the family to hear from their loved one, the years and circumstances of the separation intensified their longings for him.
They had to continue the day to day business of living, and to keep idle hands busy and support her mother and two daughters, Maria began to knit, and almost never stopped, according to her daughter.
“She knitted day and night – small sweaters, large sweaters, sleeveless sweaters, cardigans,” said Rithianos.
She bought yarn from Ilias Tsaknakis, a Greek who has been living in Mahagi for many years.
“My mother must have been one of the best customers there,” said Rithianos with a little laugh.
One day, when her mother had gone to town, a taxi came to the compound, and the driver asked for Maria.
Demitrios was in town, he said.
It was all he, or anyone else, needed to say to Irene, who said she began to jump up and down screaming.
“I’m the daughter. I’m the daughter.”
And the daughter, in a state of excitement she hasn’t known since, went to meet her father.
Rithianos said she grew more and more excited as the cab drew closer to town.
“I almost broke the window,” she said.
And when she espied her father in the doorway of a shop, her joy was indescribable.
“I’ll never forget when I saw my father,” she said.
Nor will she forget the look on her mother’s face as Anna and Demitrios met.
“All of a sudden, when she turned around and saw her husband, she almost fainted.” And then we all…”
Here Rithianos stopped and gestured with her arms showing how the family embraced.
“And he saw his daughter Anna for the first time,” she said, wiping away a tear.
It had been seven years.
There was joy in the house and in the entire camp that evening and for many days and weeks thereafter, as all the friends rejoiced at Demitrios’ arrival.
He remained about four months, and although he wanted to take his family with him, authorities convinced him they would be safer where they were.
Over the next year or so, the family, once again without Demitrios, moved several times.
Irene finished grammar school, and over the next years, completed her high school education. At the time, was fluent in five languages, her native Greek, French, Mongala, Bolulu, and Kinguau, a Swahili dialect.
When the war finally ended, the family, still minus Demitrios, returned to Chios. This time, however, their trip abroad the decidedly more luxurious “Queen India,” which took the family to Elsa, Egypt where they remained for three months before finally going home to Greece in 1946.
They had, however, lost contact with Demitrios, later to discover that he had been hospitalized for many months.
Late in 1947, he came home to them.
“It was the happiest time we spent together as a family,” said Rithianos.
Ironically, Demitrios died on January 8, 1948. After year of being away from his family, he was no lost to them forever.
Enter Constantine Rithianos, “Not handsome,” she chuckled, “But a man.”
A man after her own heart, who in the process, managed, among other antics, to disrupt a solemn Good Friday service at the church while making his presence known.
And while love moved her heart, practicality ruled her brain. Unsure of his intentions at their first meeting, Irene introduced herself as “Alice.”
Their romance, which blossomed despite her early uneasiness, was interrupted by war which took “Costa” away for two years.
They were married when he returned in 1950, and in 1955, the couple, now with children Olga, 4 and George 2, came to the United States, where through the years, they operated several restaurants, which began with purchase of a single hot dog cart which Costa placed on the corner of Elizabeth and Grand avenues in Rahway.
“Right in front of the Wheatina factory,” said Rithianos.
From the corner in front of the Wheatina factory, they went to The Lucky Corner Restaurant, Woodbridge, the Brookside, New Brunswick, the Sheffield, Barnegat, and finally, Gordon’s Family Restaurant in Forked River.
The children now included her niece and nephew who were left without parents after Anna and her husband died within six months of each other in 1972.
Today, the family includes seven grandchildren.
And Irene’s dream of life in America, despite difficulties from Greek authorities which delayed the trip for five years, had become a reality.
“When I get up in the morning, my prayer is ‘God bless America,’ and I never go to bed at night without saying ‘God bless America.’”
“This is the best country on earth.”
Irene with her sister Anna and Mother Maria.