The first International Greek Ancestry Conference, offered virtually on Youtube from January 29 to 31, promises to shed new light on the process of tracing your Greek roots through genealogical research.
This fascinating, free event comes at the perfect time, as many Greeks in the diaspora are now interested in reconnecting with their family history and deepening their bonds with their ancestral land.
The conference was organized in part by Gregory Kontos, the founder of Greek Ancestry, a largely free online service where those of Greek descent can search for their ancestors’ records and learn vital tips about how to create their own family tree.
With topics ranging from the Greek War of Independence, The Greek diaspora, and new advances in genealogical DNA testing, the virtual conference covers the topic of Greek ancestry from all dimensions.
Additionally, an impressive group of Greeks who re-created not just their own family trees, but, amazingly, the family trees of their entire ancestral village as well, featuring nearly 50,000 people, will guide amateur researchers on their own journey of discovering their family history.
With such a wide range of sessions, all those interested in the field of Greek genealogy, from amateurs to professionals, will discover something new about Greece’s culture and history from the conference.
Attendees may even find new sources of inspiration for their own ancestral research at what he calls the “multidimensional and multi-layered” conference, one that Kontos organized to have broad appeal.
Kontos, a historian and self proclaimed “genealogy nerd,” has a wealth of experience in untangling webs of Greek ancestry, arranging complicated genealogical elements into a legible family tree, in which hundreds of years — and thousands of stories — are contained.
From a young age, Kontos has always been fascinated with genealogical research, an interest that led him to become the Greek records specialist for MyHeritage, an online genealogical platform and genetic testing service.
He also worked on genealogical research for the episode featuring Greek-American political commentator George Stephanopoulos on the popular show “Finding your Roots,” which delves into the ancestry of celebrities and public figures.
Using his wealth of research experience, both in the fields of history and genealogy, Kontos founded Greek Ancestry in January 2020, and set out on his mission of compiling, digitizing, and indexing thousands of records from all around Greece.
Through this laborious process, Kontos managed to accomplish something groundbreaking — thousands of historic and genealogical records are now searchable online through his website, making it the first such source of these priceless documents.
This means that anyone with some information about their family history, including a name and place of origin, can find precious records about their ancestors through a simple, free search.
For those looking for advice at how to start, Greek Ancestry can offer research plans and advice at no cost, as well as free, weekly one-to-one consultations with Kontos about their lineage.
In particularly difficult cases, Kontos even offers private consultations about how to best uncover the layers of your past.
Hurdles in tracing family history
Tracing your family history isn’t always easy, to say the least. Common hurdles include “the language barrier, distance, and accessibility to records,” Kontos tells Greek Reporter.
The difficulties that crop up while hunting down old records have left many Greeks of the diaspora who don’t speak the language or have a hazy background in Greek history feeling hopeless.
Many have tried digging into their family history by themselves and have given up, or sought help and later balked at the cost of hiring someone to hunt down information and records in Greece.
Greek Ancestry’s free bank of digital records can help facilitate the process, however, eliminating many of the stresses and hurdles faced when researching family history.
Most notably, the bank of digitized records can be accessed for free, and users only have to pay a small fee to order their records after conducting a search.
In addition to linguistic and financial barriers, name changes — a common practice when Greeks left their homeland and went across the world, particularly to the US, Australia, and Canada — can bring a whole host of problems.
The first step is to identify the original name of your ancestor, before it was changed, and then figure out how to transliterate it in the Greek alphabet.
If you’re unsure how a surname or the name of a town is written in Greek, you can send a phonetic spelling, or the word written in the Latin alphabet, and Greek Ancestry will get back to you with the original Greek at no cost.
Greek Ancestry in context
For those hoping to chart their own family history, the conference’s sessions will provide invaluable historical context to their discoveries, allowing Greeks of the diaspora to truly understand the world and lives of their ancestors.
When speaking with Greek Reporter, Kontos stresses the importance of understanding Greece’s history and culture when doing genealogical work.
Oftentimes, those who have compiled essential records of their family’s Greek history are lost without this background, as they sit in front of large stacks of records with very little understanding of how they relate to a larger framework.
Recreating this cultural and historic background helps us understand records on a different level, as it provides “not just a name, but also a story,” to the genealogical information we collect, Kontos says.
Interest in genealogy “growing”
In the past ten years, the field of Greek genealogy has flourished, fueled by Greeks of the diaspora looking to ” reconnect and reconstruct their identity,” Kontos says, or even acquire citizenship through tracing their family tree.
The massive Facebook groups dedicated to research Greek ancestry, home to tens of thousands of members, lend credence to the observation that the field is currently blossoming.
The Greek state has also received an unprecedented wave of applications for Greek citizenship from those of Greek descent across the world in the last four years, according to Kontos.
The historian and genealogist attributes the sudden explosion of interest in ancestry to many factors, but has isolated a few common traits amongst those who are dedicated to digging through their lineage.
Strengthening links to Greece
Some simply have a “passion about research and discovering,” but most of those who are invested in tracing their family history are Greek-American women who “have lost a connecting generation,” such as a parent or grandparent.
They often feel that, at this loss, their “connection to Greece is also lost forever,” Kontos posits. Through conducting research and recreating their family trees, however, they hope to maintain this bond, both to their country of origin and to the family member they have lost.
In many cases, depending on the number of generations one’s family has been separated from Greece, people have absolutely no idea about their family history or lineage, and look to genealogy for answers to their most basic questions of identity.
In other instances, some Greek Americans are extremely closely connected to Greece, returning to their family’s ancestral village every year for decades.
They may believe that they know all there is to know about their ancestry — yet even they can uncover fascinating details about their lineage that they would never expect through genealogical research, Kontos states.
Even those who haven’t left Greece can benefit from investigating their ancestry, he says: “In Greece, if you live in the village where your family has been for centuries, you may not feel the need to preserve anything, and you have the idea that everything will be there forever.”
This perception, however, is wrong, Kontos asserts, adding “that connection can be lost any minute.” And this is unfortunately a concept that many Greeks of the diaspora can fully understand.