From Sofroniadis into Sofroni

The transformation from Greek into Albanian. A family story.

 

Sofron, (Σώφρων), is a Greek name. It describes a person with sound judgment that makes wise decisions for his future. Of all men named Sofron that have lived and still live in this world, only one will remain 'the' Sofron of Sofrons. The son of Agathocles and Damnasyllis, of whom I write, was born in the 5-th century BC in the City-State of Syracusa, in Sicily. For this reason, he was known as “Sofron of Syracuse”.

Sofroni was a master of short prose. Through the dialogues of his characters, he highlighted the negative sides of human society. Many contemporary philosophers and scholars were influenced by his works. It has been said that Plato kept Sofron's writings under his pillow. As the centuries passed, Sofron became a symbol of wisdom and his name is still used by modern Greeks.

The transformation of an individual’s name into one’s surname is a known phenomenon, and this was the case for the name Sofron, which has evolved into the surname Sofronis or Sofroniadis. In our time, this surname has spread all over Greece. But, in Albania, did the surname Sofroniadis ever exist? Were the holders of this surname Greek? If so, what happened to those people?

 

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The steamship Patria sailed from the port of Napoli on September 2-nd, 1916, arriving in New York on September 16-th, 1916. Aboard were several people from Moskopolis, (a village in Albania, today known as Voskopoje). Among the villagers were two brothers, Giorgio and Theodoros Sofroniadis, (underlined in blue). At that time, Albania was occupied by the armies of several European states that were fighting

the First World War and no independent Albanian state existed. The village of Moskopolis was part of an area that was under the control of the French troops(1).

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At this point, I will focus on Giorgio Sofroniadis(2) who was the Great-Grandfather of my wife. In the document shown above, Giorgio and his brother Theodoros, declare that their Nationality and Ethnicity is Greek. In the same ship’s manifest, there are two other residents of Moskopolis that declare themselves Greeks, too. But, in the same document, a traveler named Dafina Dobreni (underlined in red), declares she is of Albanian Ethnicity. So we can see that there are five residents of Moskopolis who were all born in the Ottoman Empire, and who declared different ethnicities. 

The Ottomans did not even have the smallest interest in pressuring their citizens to declare any particular Ethnicity. In other words, the citizens declared their feelings and who they were according to their own beliefs. In this case, Giorgio and Theodors, the sons of Sotiris, residents of Moskopolis, declared that they were Greeks. At the same time, Dafina declared that she was Albanian.

Furthermore, self-declaration as Greek, Albanian, or a member of any other ethnic group, did not turn these people into enemies of each other. They had lived as congenial neighbors for centuries. The situation changed when the first tentative plans for the creation of the independent Albanian State started. The Austrians and Italians stimulated and organized the efforts for the elimination and alienation of the Greek populations that were living in several areas of Albania. Many self-declared ethnic Greeks, like Giorgio, Theodoros, and many others, resisted against such efforts but their chance of success was very slim. As an Albanian metaphor says: You cannot damage a wall by hitting it with your head!

 

Let’s return to the story of Sofroniadis’ brothers. They arrived in the USA on September 16-th, 1916. Exactly, one month later, on October 16-th, a Monday, an Austrian military plane flew over Moskopolis and, after making sure that the area was free of military troops, signaled a 'green light' for the Sali Butka’s gangs to attack the village. The aftermath is well documented and explained by other writers in greater detail.   

 

What happened to Giorgio? After working for several years in the USA, he returned to Moskopolis, which now had the official name: Voskopoje. The village and the family property were ruined. Economical difficulties forced Giorgio to return to America in 1925. But upon his return to the US, we meet a 'different' Giorgio. On the respective travel document, his name was: Giorgi S. Sofroniadhes, who reads, writes, and speaks Greek, but his nationality and race have been changed from Greek to Albanian.

The change of nationality is fully understandable because by 1925 the Albanian state had already been created. But what about Giorgio’s declaration of race/ethnicity? How was Giorgio transformed from Greek into Albanian? Did he change his race/ethnicity voluntarily? Or, was he afraid of something? What happened that precipitated his change of ethnicity? 

 

Before continuing further, some might want to ask: How can I separate different ethnic groups?

During the Ottoman times, Ethnicity was not a standard conception. Particular populations had created different categorizations that may change from one group to another. In Giorgio's time, Greek was considered a person who:

 

- Spoke Greek 

- Was a Greek Orthodox

- Was a follower of Hellenistic/Greek culture

- Was a descendant of Hellenic/Greek ancestors

 

Without the slightest doubt, Giorgio was a bearer of all these criteria. He was as Greek as any other contemporary Greek man that was living in Greece or elsewhere. 

 

The new geopolitical situations that were created after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the interest of the Big Powers, Austro-Hungary, Italy, etc, did not ask too much about the 'Little and unimportant Giorgio'. The decision was taken; he must be transformed into Albanian, and that was it. Many other people like him faced the same fate. 

 

Below is a decree, issued in 1930, by the Government of Albania. The content and the directives written on this document do not need academic explanations(2) and speak more than a whole book. The guidance provides several examples of the changes that must be implemented; names and surnames must be modified or Albanised. For example:

From Dhimitriadhi into Dhimitraj. 

From Kristoforidhi into Kristofori

From Lazarides into Lazaraj

From Pappas into Papaj

From Stavropullos into Stavraj

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Of course that the surname Sofroniadis went through the changes required from the Government's Directive and was 'adjusted' to Sofroni. 

 

Two words about the private life of Giorgio

He was married to Zoica Mekshi. The couple had three girls: Kaliroi, Eleftheria and Kalipso. At the end of the Second World War, a store and a small hotel that Giorgio, with a lot of effort and sacrifices, had managed to build in his village were pillaged and burned down. The family moved to the nearby city of Korca, where previously some relatives were settled. In the photo shown below, there are several members of the family of Giorgio Sofroniadis during the matrimonial ceremony of his daughter Kalipso with Jorgo Papa. Giorgio lived long and until the end of his life did not stop reading Greek books and listening to the Greek Radio stations.

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1-Pandeli, 2-Evangjelia, 3-Giorgio, 4-Kalipso, 5-Jorgo, 6-Kaliroi, 7-Theodhori, 8-Dhimitra, 9-Olimbia. See the notes at the end of the article for more details. 

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The creation of the new Balkan states was a troublesome process. The respective sides have committed violent acts, including ethnic assimilation. The claim that Albanians were the only victims of those difficult historical moments is just a manipulation that stands far away from the reality of the time. 

The case of Giorgio is a typical example. His ethnicity was changed, the basic right of using his mother’s tongue was eliminated, his surname was modified based on government orders, and finally, his property was destroyed and nationalized. 

 

In the Albanian language there exists an expression that, more or less, says: “Make a home where your fate sets you in.”

Our Giorgio did exactly that. For his survival, he 'forgot' who he was and adapted himself to the new environment. Did he have any other choice? 

 

 

​Notes and explanations

 

1- France did not support the Greek national feelings of the Moskopolis’ inhabitants. On the contrary, the French military administration of the Province of Korca crushed the pro-Greek movements and aspirations that existed among a considerable part of the area's population.

2- The relatives called him Jorgji, an Albanian form for Giorgio.

3- In a few words, the decree says that the people’s names, surnames, business names, etc, must be "adjusted” or replaced with “Albanian” names. 

 

The family photo was taken in November 1965. Evangjelia’s official name is Aferdita. Kalipso is also known as Kostaqe. Dhimitra’s official name is Mirela. Olimbia’s official name is Flora. It is a well-known fact that the religions in Albania were put under pressure and hostility unseen in other parts of Europe. In order to escape the state’s persecutions, many Christian Orthodox believers were forced to abandon their religious names and use secular or “Albanian” names. My generation remembers those times very well … 

July, 2021