Coming to America
lias Politis was born in Kefalari, Corinth on February 5, 1938 to parents Eleni (Pappastavros) and Dimitrios Politis. Kefalari is a small village in the Pelopponese region of southern Greece, not far from the ruins of ancient Corinth and at the eastern foot of Mount Killini (also known as Zyria). The village is a short hike from Lake Stimfalia, which is famous in Greek mythology as the site where Heracles (Hercules), as the fifth of his Twelve Labors, killed the great birds that suffocated, and ate passers-by.
Ilias is the middle child of three with older brother Vlasios (born March 26, 1935) and younger sister Demetra. Ilias’ father, Dimitrios, was killed in 1941 during a Nazi air raid. He was on his way to a nearby village to sell goods when he met some friends, one of which was celebrating his Nameday. Dimitrios offered to buy them a drink in the local taverna to celebrate the occasion. German airplanes then began dropping bombs in the area. The taverna was hit and Dimitrios was killed along with two of his friends. The man celebrating his Nameday was lucky enough to survive.
It was a tragic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ilias’ mother, Eleni, gave birth to Demetra shortly thereafter, on October 18, 1941. She was named after her late father. Eleni was now a single mother with three children. She was a remarkable, strong, and loving woman who tended the land while raising the kids. The only help she had was her own mother, who lived with them. They had a difficult enough life until it was made more so about 2 years later.
In 1943, the Germans were approaching the village and a group of communist guerrillas set up on a cliff at the village entrance to attack. The Germans had tanks but first sent a group of foot soldiers. The guerrillas attacked and killed the group.
Or seemingly so. One story that was passed down says that one guerrilla was taking a dead Nazi’s boots when he rose and shot him.
Meanwhile, the villagers immediately took flight to the mountains, including Eleni and the kids. They fled with whatever they could grab and slept outside in the chilly night. When the Germans saw what happened to their fellow soldiers, they shelled the village, bulldozed through it with their tanks, burned homes, and threw whoever they found into the fires. One woman, related to the Politis’s, didn’t flee to the mountains because, as she told her son, there was no reason for them to hurt her as she was blind and helpless, but nonetheless she was thrown into her burning house and killed. The German’s gathered all the males they could find, took them to a nearby cliff, shot them, and threw them over the edge.
This ruthless reprisal was very much like others that were happening all over Greece, particularly southern Greece. The most infamous of these atrocities was the mass execution of almost 700 people at the nearby village of Kalavrita (some accounts state it was double that number). The massacre at Kalvrita was in response to the killing of 81 German soldiers by partisans.
Back in Kefalari, Eleni’s house was among those destroyed and she later moved into her aunt and uncle’s summer house in the village (Dr. Mavrayannis, who lived in Athens), which somehow escaped damage. The Germans stayed in the village for about a week. The villagers all came down from the mountain when it appeared that most of the destruction was done. For the most part, the Germans did not harm any of the women and children upon their return.
One day, during the German occupation, some women of the village came running to Eleni, screaming hysterically that the Germans had Ilias and that was the end of him. As Ilias remembers well, he was talking to the German soldiers and they were showing him a tank, which, being a typical 5 year old boy, he was very interested in. They took him inside one and were generally laughing and having fun with him. They gave Ilias a bar of chocolate and he remembers grabbing it and running home while the soldiers laughed. He went home to his frantic, yet relieved mother, and he handed her the candy bar. Unfortunately, this gift of chocolate didn’t stop Eleni from handing Elias some serious “ksilo”.
To compound matters, a severe earthquake hit the region in 1944. It was centered in the Mani area further south, but caused much damage in Kefalari. Soon thereafter, the war ended and the communist guerrillas appeared from hiding and took over. In some ways, they were much worse than the Germans. They tried to convert everyone to communism and took all the educated men who were against them to the mountain of Helmos a few villages away and executed them, evidently having learned something from their invaders.
In the years that followed, Kefalari slowly rebuilt, although rebuilding was difficult due to the communist presence and the bloody, chaotic civil war that was going on between the government and left-wing groups. Mother Eleni and the kids had a simple, yet tough, life. When they became old enough, Ilias and Vlasios went to school in Kiato, the nearest city with a high school. The brothers lived in Kiato during the week and would take food from home for their week’s stay and cook for themselves. Vlasios went on to finish high school, while Ilias jumped at the offer to go to the country that helped liberate his homeland, the United States of America.
When Ilias was 14 and had just finished the 7th grade, he was sponsored by his Uncle Tom Pappastavros to become an American citizen. One day, “Theo” Tom visited Kefalari and offered to take one of the boys to the USA. So Theo Tom arranged,with the help of the AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association-a fraternal organization of Greek-Americans) and Senator Alvin Price of Illinois, to adopt Ilias as an orphan and victim of communist guerrillas and (another) recent earthquake. With the adoption, Ilias had to take his uncle’s surname of Pappastavros, hence the reason his first child, Christos, was born with this surname.
Ilias left Greece on April 16, 1952 aboard the rickety Greek steamship, Nea Hellas, and arrived in New York city on May 1st. He remembers being in a closet-sized room at the bottom of the ship and being seasick most of the way. When he arrived in NYC, a Greek family met him, kept him overnight, and saw that he got on a train for the 3-day trip to East St. Louis, Illinois, where his uncle was living. Theo Tom worked for a Greek man named Karnezis at the small 9-Barrel-5 Liquor Store. Ilias stayed with his Uncle for a couple of days in his one-room apartment, but soon he found a Greek family with a room to rent and paid them to house Ilias.
In America, Ilias, now known as Louis or “Lou”, immediately enrolled in school. From May to September 1952, he played baseball at Lansdown Middle School in Rosemont, Illinois. When regular school started in September, he was put in the 9th grade. At this point, Lou spoke very little English and didn’t know how to read. A good friend, Noel Harris, who lived nearby, helped him learn English while Lou taught him Greek. He even joined the school football team as a tackle. Lou only stayed in school that first semester and at the end of the year, while lying about his age, got a job at the Missouri Athletic Club (MAC) in downtown St Louis. He also moved into the St. Louis downtown YMCA at that point. At the MAC, he worked as a busboy for a short time (6 months) before becoming a waiter. During the next 3 years, Ilias went on to work at St. Louis’ upscale Italian restaurant, Tony’s, as well as the landmark Chase Park Plaza Hotel’s Tenderloin Room. Lou remembers waiting on Mr. Mavrakos (the chocolate magnate), who told him that someday he would own his own restaurant. Lou remembers thinking, “Is this man crazy?!?”.
In 1955, Lou was finally eligible to become an American citizen. He did so and almost immediately joined the US Navy. If you do the math, Lou enlisted in the Navy Reserve Program at 17, but due to an error in his US records, he was listed as 18 and thus was able to join. Now a citizen, he helped bring his brother Vlasios into the country. Lou was on active reserves for 2 years from 1955-1957, followed by 2 years active duty from 1957-1959, and 2 years stand-by duty. He was also the subject of a few local newspaper stories about his Navy enlistment and travel back to Greece with the US Sixth Fleet, which you’ll find at the left margin of this page.
After Lou’s active duty service, he and Vlasios brought their sister Demetra to the US in 1959 and their mother Eleni in 1960. Vlasios married a Greek-American girl, Joann Anast, in 1959 and Lou, Demetra, and Eleni moved into a two-family flat (rental) on St. Louis’ Chouteau Avenue, near Forest Park. The decision to move to that house proved fateful, as Lou fell in love and married Theone Morris (Morousias), the beautiful Greek girl that lived across the street. They wed in 1962, and within 3 years had 3 gorgeous kids (well, two gorgeous girls anyway), all born in August and a year apart. Amazingly and to everyone’s surprise 15 years later, Theone and Lou had another son, Peter. Pete, it seems, inherited his father’s qualities of hosting and entertaining. (Lou and Theone used to have the baddest, blow-out New Year’s Eve parties, complete with live band and belly dancer.)
On the work front, after returning from the Navy, Lou continued to work as a waiter, first at Tony’s, then at Nantucket Cove. An opportunity came up to purchase a small diner in St. Louis’ Central West End area. Lou and the then current owner struck a deal and Lou later brought in his brother. Demetra also began working there and the siblings that went through the war together in a small Greek village were reunited. 40+ years later, but not without some ups and downs, the Majestic Restaurant is a St. Louis institution and is doing better than ever.
Oh yeah, the coolest thing of all, though, is that Lou is my Dad!