Telling the stories of Post-war Cretan Female Migrants in New Zealand

An oral history and digital storytelling project

Telling the stories of Post-war Cretan Migrant Women in Aotearoa New Zealand

An oral history and digital storytelling project

Alexia Pendaraki – Full biography

Alexia Pendaraki was born on August 15, 1933, in the village of Ayia Irini, eastern Sellinos, Chania, Crete. Her parents were Markos Pendaraki and Evthokia Loubasaki, who were farmers. Alexia attended primary school until the fourth grade and was a good student. She wanted to continue her education, possibly to become a teacher, but her mother didn’t allow her to go to school after her father’s death, prioritizing the education of her brothers due to financial constraints.

Her father was exiled during the German occupation, and her family was left orphaned. Alexia and her siblings were forced to work hard in the fields to survive. Their house was burnt down by the Germans during the war around 1942-43. Alexia and her siblings were taken to a prison in Ayia, Chania, where they stayed for several months.  After Crete was liberated, they returned to their village and found their house partially destroyed. They lived in the remaining part of the house for years until they built a new one. Alexia’s father returned home after the Germans left Crete but died in 1947 due to depression and illness. He had been marked for execution by the Germans but was spared when Crete was liberated.

Alexia shares her experiences growing up in a challenging environment. She talks about her mother raising seven children without their father and the responsibilities they had to share. She reminisced on the difficult living conditions in their neighbourhood and the limited opportunities for marriage due to financial constraints. Alexia also mentions the close-knit community of cousins and their activities, such as playing games and taking care of animals. The conversation touches on topics like puberty, marriage, and the hardships of daily life.

She mentions her move to Chania to become a dressmaker with her sister where she spent 5-6 years learning dressmaking. After her training, she returned to her village and started her own business, making mostly women’s clothes. The money she earned was controlled by her oldest brother and used for family needs.

Alexia had a strong desire for education, but her schooling was cut short. When she heard about an opportunity in New Zealand for poor girls, she was interested. Her brother helped her apply, and she was accepted. She went to Mytilene for training, where she learned English and skills for life in New Zealand. Despite her fears of not being able to leave, she was reassured by her English language teacher, Janet Giamkis (see her interview on this platform). Alexia’s sister Argyro joined her in New Zealand later.

Alexia mentions the reasons for wanting to leave her village. She wanted to escape the difficult life in the village, which involved labour-intensive work on the farm and with sheep. There was also a shortage of men (as a result of the war and migration) and the financial obstacles to marriage. Alexia expresses bitterness towards the dowry system and her belief that women had limited rights in marriage.

Alexia recounting her journey from Athens to Wellington and recalls being scared and not knowing where she was going. She mentions traveling for 5-6 days and making stops in Karachi, Melbourne, Sydney, and finally Wellington where they filled out paperwork and were informed of their final destinations. Alexia describes Wellington as looking like a village and being surprised by its small size. They then took a train to Papakura, dropping off girls at various locations along the way. She mentions encountering an interpreter who helped guide them. At arrival she was picked up by a Greek lady named Eyli Papakonstantinou, who was possibly appointed by immigration. Alexia was initially disappointed by the lack of shops in Auckland but was focused on making a life in New Zealand. She was taken to Kingseat with six other Greek girls, where they each had their own room in a corridor overseen by a supervisor. They were given jobs in the hospital, such as working in the kitchen or cleaning corridors. Alexia was often kept in the kitchen due to her prior experience. They were woken up at 7 am, had breakfast at 8 am, and then went to work.

Alexia found the New Zealanders to be very nice, helpful, and polite. She also liked the Maori people, comparing them to Cretans. In the evenings, the girls would quietly sing songs in their rooms. She was not homesick because she was focused on making a better life for herself. Alexia mentions missing Greek food and not being able to find any Greek items, such as olive oil. They resorted to cooking greens but faced criticism from a supervisor.

Her sister, Argyroula, eventually joined them in New Zealand. They received letters from home once a month, and Alexia sent money back to Crete regularly, saving up to eventually return.

While Alexia was in the hospital, she became friends with Sister Kennedy, who asked her to deliver paperwork to the main office. One day, while walking, Alexia encountered Frank in a van and thought he was being rude. However, Frank took an interest in Alexia and started coming to the restaurant where she worked. He asked her out multiple times, but she initially declined because she planned to return home to her family after three years. Eventually, they went to a Greek film together, and Alexia  started developing feelings for Frank. They got engaged after Alexia received a letter from her mother, who approved of Frank who had written to her earlier asking her permission to married her daughter. Alexia set conditions for their marriage, including an Orthodox ceremony and baptizing their children in the Orthodox church. She also made it clear that she wouldn’t tolerate any physical abuse. Despite not witnessing such behaviour, she had seen arguments in relationships and wanted to ensure her safety. Frank didn’t make a big deal about expressing his love, but Alexia knew he loved her. She loved him too, although she didn’t explicitly say it. Alexia feels that mixed marriages were initially excluded from the Greek community, but she believes this has changed over time.

Alexia and her partner got engaged after Christmas, about a year before their wedding. They had a traditional Greek engagement, and the priest came to bless their engagement. The wedding took place two months later in a Russian Orthodox Church on Dominion Road. They brought a Greek priest from Australia for the ceremony, and their best man was Greek. After the wedding, they spent their first night in Waihi and later had a reception. She was the first in her family and the group of girls she came with to marry a foreigner. The conversation also touches on Alexia’s shyness and lack of knowledge about intimacy before marriage.  

She continued working until she had her first daughter, even commuting to Kingseat for work. After getting married, she and her husband had to leave Kingseat due to a lack of housing. Alexia found a job as a cook at Oakley hospital and worked there for 24 years, including 2 years in Kingseat. She went on maternity leave for about 4-5 months with each pregnancy. Childcare for the children was managed by her and her husband, with Alexia working night shifts and her husband taking care of the children at night. They had a harmonious relationship despite being from different cultural backgrounds. Overall, they didn’t argue much about raising their children. The children initially learned Greek but stopped after being teased at school, and they later learned Dutch when they went to Holland for six months.

Alexia talked about the establishment of the Greek Church in Auckland and the Greek community’s experiences in New Zealand. She mentioned that initially, there was no church or community, but gradually, with the help of older Greek individuals, they were able to establish a church. The conversation also touches upon the introduction of Greek food into the country, the upbringing of children in a Greek way, and the celebrations of Easter and Christmas. Alexia mentions that they celebrated these occasions but fasting was not strictly followed. She mentions a celebration of the Battle of Crete, which she finds beautiful but also emotional, as it reminds her of the hardships faced by her island home during the war and the subsequent migration.

Alexia mentions her participation in community events and her role in organizing a celebration for the 40th anniversary of Greek women immigrating to New Zealand. The celebration involved a large gathering of people, food, dancing, and singing. She expressed her close friendships with both Greek and non-Greek individuals, particularly her bosses at work.

She talks about her happiness in having her sister Argyroula in Auckland and their close relationship. She expresses her homesickness, especially when listening to Cretan music. Alexia’s mother passed away in 1967, and she found out about her death through a telegram. She was unable to attend her mother’s funeral due to having three young children and financial constraints.

Alexia returned to her village in Crete for the first time in 1975, finding it lonely and changed. She stayed at her father’s house and visited her mother’s village, meeting her remaining relatives. Despite feeling at home, she did not wish to stay. However, she now often wishes she could live there, as she feels a pull towards her childhood as she gets older.

Alexia believes she has more freedom in New Zealand and is happy there. She expresses anger about the Greek dowry system, considering it unfair to women. She believes her daughters have a better life in New Zealand than they would have had in Greece, and she has taught them the same values her mother taught her: not to steal, lie, or be dirty.

Alexia has spoken to Greek women who returned to Crete and found that they were happy with their decision, as they were able to establish a good life there due to the strong dollar against the drachma at the time.  

Alex’s sister, Katina, also immigrated to NZ and then left to go to Australia and got married there. However, her marriage ended in divorce, and she remained a single mother in Australia. Alexia expresses her belief that Katina made a mistake by leaving New Zealand.

The conversation also touches on Alexia’s own travels around Europe and her contentment with her life in New Zealand.  She believes that the Greek community in Auckland is dying out.

Except for one incident, Alexia herself has never experienced discrimination in New Zealand.