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

This part of the digital archive contains the material of the oral history project funded in 2010 by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and Australian Sesquicentennial Gift Trust for Awards in Oral History and with the support of the Greek and Cretan communities in Aotearoa and Australia. It explored the migratory experiences of a distinct group of single women who left the impoverished post-war island of Crete, in Greece, to undertake domestic, hospitality, and hospital-related work in New Zealand in the early 1960s. Linked to the Battle of Crete and NZ’s historic connections with this island, these women’s arrival to NZ resulted directly from the advocacy of those NZ soldiers who fought in the battle and were assisted by locals.

The oral history project focused on 15 selected women in New Zealand, Crete and in Australia and also included their NZ English language teacher. The recorded interviews and supporting material for “Greek female immigrants to New Zealand in the 1960s oral history project have been deposited at the National Library Archives. You can access all records here.

The interviews followed the NZ Oral History guidelines and were based on an interview list based on the following themes:

  • Life in Crete – childhood memories, war memories, daily rhythm of life, impetus to migrate, expectations, process to qualify;
  • Life in the NZ – arrival, early experiences and first impressions, settling in, interactions at work & social life; creating social networks to maintain sense of community and Greek culture, contact with home;
  • Return visits to Crete – visiting home for the first time, impressions, sense of belonging.
  • Reasons for choosing to stay, return to Crete or migrate to Australia

Common narrative threads

Harsh effects of the war, which impacted upon their childhood and young adulthood – wanted to get away from the sadness and poverty.

Dowry system meant many could not afford to get married.

Exploring womanhood and sexuality – unspoken taboos carried away from home.

Wanted adventure, own a car, something different.

Everyone was leaving which unsettled those who remained.

Their intentions were to work for a few years and return but many married and became absorbed in raising their own families.

The communities where they were larger in number supported one another so they did not feel isolated.

Impact on their subsequent children, particularly the daughters.

Many would not have come to New Zealand if they had known what they do now.

The impact of war

“Before the war we had an okay life.  When the Germans came they burned everything.”  

“They [Germans] gathered all our possessions from our house and put it in a big pile and burned it and we were left with nothing, not even a change of clothes.”

 “My mother had to tear one of her dresses to make nappies for the two small ones.”

Experiencing Intense feelings of loss

The NZ experience was accompanied by a deep sense of loss.  Parting from the known was abrupt. Realization of what they had given up only hitting them as they boarded the plane – I was crying all the way to New Zealand and I haven’t stopped.”

Return visits to Greece were welcome on the one hand – “It was like I was dead and I was resurrected” – but the loss of their village communities hit them hard.  People had left and the villages were emptying and family homes crumbling from disuse.

“If I knew what I know now I would have never come”

“If Greece was what is it now, I would not have come [to NZ]”

View the Digital Storytelling Project