Greece’s Lost Children of the Cold War

In 1960, I was a high school junior in Argostoli, Cephalonia, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea between Greece and Italy. In addition to my regular classes in science and humanities, I was also learning English. I had decided that, at the end of my senior year, I would leave Cephalonia and Greece for the United States for a college education.

My years in high school, 1956-1961, were the happiest in my life. I was thoroughly innocent of the dangers of the raging Cold War, though I had vague memories of the Greek Civil War, 1946-1949, from stories I heard.

I was an outstanding student. I excelled in athletics as well, especially in 100-meter sprint. My boyfriends were also athletes. We trained together and often, when the weather was nice, we walked together in the city’s square, hoping to take glimpses of beautiful teenage girls.

Practicing English with Russians

During one sunny afternoon, when one of my best friends and I were walking in a tree-lined boulevard, I noticed a group of foreigners not far from us.

I assumed one or more of those foreigners spoke English. With the enthusiasm of a beginner, I approached them and started a conversation with a young man who responded to my asking them, do you speak English? The young man and I started a dialogue that did not last very long or go beyond simple introductory remarks, like my name is… and where are you from?

It turned out that these foreigners were Russians who were in the business of importing and exporting goods. I did not learn much more about them because my conversation was rudely interrupted by a high school teacher. He called my name and ordered me to approach him.

“Don’t you know these are Russian communists,” he asked me.

“No I did not know,” I said. “And why would that make any difference, I mean, these guys being communists,” I added. “I am practicing my English with them.” “We will talk about that tomorrow,” the teacher said in anger.

The furiousness of the teacher and the idea of communism exploded next day in high school. I learned that this paranoid man spoke to the high school principal, demanding that I be expelled from school. The principal turned him dawn.

That incident faded from my memory until, years later, I started my historical studies at the University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin, and Harvard: Greek (ancient, medieval, and modern) and Roman history, medieval Western European, British, Southeastern European, Russian, and Soviet history and the history of science.

Greek history

There’s little doubt Greek history is full of great moments of incomparable achievements in science, technology, politics, and civilization. Indeed, the Greeks civilized the West. At the same time, the Greeks made terrible mistakes that ended in destructive civil wars and foreign invasions and conquests.

One of the darkest pages of Greek history is the Civil War of 1946-1949. This fratricidal conflict, as all other Greek tragedies, had Greek and foreign roots.

Greece and WWII

Greece entered WWII on October 28, 1940 and defeated the invading Italians, thus winning the first victory against fascism. However, Germans came to the assistance of Italy and, in the process, overwhelmed the Greek military.

Germans, Italians, and Bulgarians occupied Greece, thus sowing the seeds of discord and bloodshed. Some Greeks joined the enemies, others resisted them with weapons and ideology coming from communist Soviet Russia.

Britain and the Unites States added their interests in the Greek struggle, funding and arming Greeks fighting the Germans, Italians, and Bulgarians.

All foreign occupiers in Greece were killing and looting the country. But the Germans were ferocious. They drove the country to the precipice of extinction.

By the end of WWII and the victory of Americans and British and Soviet Russians, Greece was like a cemetery of famished people, with no intact infrastructure, wrecked agriculture, and few buildings standing.

Equally toxic was the waring ideologies of capitalism (American and British) and communism (Soviet Russian). These ideas set people on fire.

Greek Civil War

The hatreds and hardships and violence of total war, and the victors’ demand that all the defeated and those who depended on them become like them, or else, made an explosive mixture. Once again, like in the dark ages, crusading political theologies were at work.

These intolerable realities sparked Greece into three years of vicious civil war. American and British weapons and money sided with the non-communist Greeks fighting communist Greeks, which they defeated in 1949.

I remember hearing that the defeated Greek communists kidnapped thousands of Greek children, taking them to Eastern European communist countries. But I had never heard that a few thousand Greek children were also abducted and exported to the United States.

The exporting of about 3,200 Greek children to America took place mostly in the hysteria of the Cold War years, 1950-1962. America was all over Greece, influencing the country profoundly. Greek Americans and their organization, American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, however, led this dishonorable campaign of deceit.

As I said, World War II and the extremely harsh foreign military occupation devastated and starved Greece. Something like 340,000 to 375,000 Greek children lost one or both parents, making one in eight children orphan. About 46,200 Greeks lost their lives in the Civil War, adding thousands of orphan children to hundreds of thousands of children in extreme poverty.

The communists killed two brothers of my father and a sister of my mother. The first to die was my father’s younger brother. He was an unmarried lawyer visiting from Athens. The other brother, like my father, was a very small family farmer. He worked the land he and my father inherited from their father. He left four orphan children who, immediately after his murder, joined my family.

The lost children

There’s little doubt that children suffered enormously in this dark-age Greece of war, destitution, and Cold War, 1940s-1960s.

I heard about the abducted and exported children of the Greek Civil War and Cold War accidentally. On November 23, 2021, I joined a zoom broadcast from the American School of Classical Studies in Athens featuring two women professors who had written books focused on the children exported to the United States.

The first professor, Gonda Van Steen, a Flemish/Belgian scholar of ancient and modern Greece, is the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature at King’s College in London. The second speaker, Mary Cardaras, is associate professor of Communication, California State University, East Bay.

I listened to them talk about the export of thousands of Greek orphans, primarily to the United States, but also to Sweden, the Netherlands, and other countries. I was shocked. Despite my decades of studying and writing about the Greeks, including modern Greeks, I had never heard of this tragedy.

Mary Cardaras was one of the thousands of Greek children uprooted from her home and country and exported to America. Her book, Ripped at the Root: An Adoption Story Based on True Events (Spuyten Duyvil, 2022), is full of pain and passion and tragedy engulfing Greek children growing up without knowing their parents and living thousands of miles from their homeland.

Cardaras tells the story of Dena Polites, born to an unwed couple in Greece and sent for adoption by a Greek-American couple in Ohio. The book reads like a beautifully written novel, though, Cardaras says, it is “based on primary source material”: a thorough investigation of the birth of the baby girl, why the baby girl was unwanted in the village, its abduction, and its adoption in America. Cardaras interviewed extensively Dena and her Greek parents.

In contrast to Cardaras, Gonda Van Steen was born in the Netherlands. She is a scholar of Greece who turned her attention to the plight of the Greek children exported to America. She authored a timely and important book, which gives the context of why such a sustained atrocity took place. Her book, Adoption, Memory, and Cold War Greece: Kid pro quo? (University of Michigan Press, 2019), is complementary to the book by Mary Cardaras because it expresses similar sentiments of outrage for the wounded children often treated like commodities for kidnapping, export, and profit. In addition, Van Steen explains the cruel adoption practices as part of the deleterious politics of the Cold War.

She says the “trauma of deep Civil War and the ensuing socioeconomic havoc” blended with America’s insatiable “demand or pull” for influence and control in Greece. These two currents opened a highway for the systematic abuse of children, especially those children born to communist parents. Well-placed middlemen, she says, paraded their lust  for power, harming countless Greek children, which became “pawns in unrelenting games of exercising and displaying power, domestically and in global contexts.” Greece “remained inextricably linked to some of the most distressing experiences of private or family life.”

Read Cardaras’ and Van Steen’s books. They speak eloquently about our dangerous times, which we unthinkingly wrap with the lipstick of civilization.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.