The “Greek” Promise: A Letter from Despina Gianopulos Landers
April 4, 2017
A new motion picture, The Promise, is a deeply moving cinematic experience about the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1922. The film will undoubtedly resonate with every ethnic group that has experienced similar oppression.
In addition to the Armenians, hundreds of thousands of Greeks were also victims of the Turkish “ethnic cleansing” aimed at Christian minorities under the Ottoman Empire. This shared history has created a bond between Greeks and Armenians that is powerful even today, 100 years later.
I am the granddaughter of two Greeks who survived. Hundreds of thousands of others were not as lucky. My maternal grandparents had no choice but to escape and create a new life in America. My grandfather Dimitrios arrived at Ellis Island in 1914 and my grandmother Despina, who I am named after, arrived there in 1923. They didn’t know each other before my grandmother’s arrival in the U.S., but were married a few months later. My late mother, Mary, was born in New York City in 1925 and was raised by two proud Hellenes, dedicated to their language, church, philanthropy and the cultural activities they shared with fellow Greeks in New York.
In our own household, my mom’s directive was “Despina, promise me that you’ll never forget your roots. Your grandparents were forced to abandon their homes, but they held on tightly to their language and faith. Their courage and optimism kept them going in spite of the atrocities they witnessed. You must never forget what I’ve taught you.”
My grandparents may have been “refugees”, but I like to think of them as pioneers. In 2007, decades after my grandparents came to this country, my mother was presented with the PIONEER AWARD from the L.A. chapter of the Hellenic Society of Constantinople. It was one of the most fulfilling moments of her life.
I’m certain my beloved mother is smiling proudly from heaven now. Her doctor, Eric Esrailian, is the producer of The Promise. Through his efforts, the powerful story of the Armenian Genocide will soon be presented on the big screen, reminding today’s generation to never forget their ancestors’ experiences.
The Promise is universal in its message, yet personal when seen through the prism of our own family experiences. When I met Eric 10 years ago, we knew my mother was sick, but we didn’t know the exact prognosis. She had a feeling things might not go the way we would have liked, but she remained optimistic. She entered Eric’s office, looked at the name plate on his desk that said “DR. ERIC ESRAILIAN” and said, “Are you Armenian?” Eric proudly said, “Yes, I am, Mrs. Gianopulos”. My mother smiled when she responded: “Then we’re going to be friends”. She looked over at me with her soft eyes and said, “Okay, Despina, I have an Armenian doctor so I’ll be in good hands.”
Then she continued – “You know, Dr. Esrailian, my parents were from Asia Minor, my mother attended one of the finest teacher’s colleges in Constantinople, but had to leave when…” Even in a doctor’s office, she wanted to recount the details of her parents’ eventful lives. Eric smiled and listened patiently to her synopsis, recognizing their familiar shared history. He treated my mother like his own and provided unconditional support, patience and medical care throughout her illness.
One of God’s miracles is that painful circumstances can often lead to unexpectedly profound relationships – such is the case with Eric Esrailian. I lost my mother, but gained family members: Eric and his family mean the world to me, my husband Jay and our daughter Sophia.
When we read the news these days, we see that the stories of diaspora, persecution and families torn apart by political and religious extremism are not just a part of the past; unfortunately, they are a reality that continues to challenge society today.
The story of The Promise is a reminder that freedom can never be taken for granted.
On April 21st, I urge every Greek to grab a friend, and go see The Promise. The movie will take you on a journey through our collective past, and provide inspiration for the future.
Despina Gianopulos Landers
Los Angeles, CA