“Finding Your Roots” Features Greek Genealogy

By Diane Haddad

I was struck by the strong Greek identities of the guests—comedian Tina Fey, author David Sedaris and journalist George Stephanopoulos—on last night’s “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.” All grew up with a deep sense of being Greek, spent time with other Greeks, and went to Greek Orthodox churches.

A lot of this identity comes from the guests’ relatively recent Greek heritage—each had grandparents who came from Greece in the early 20th century. Could it also be the food? My husband and I, and lots and lots of other people, go every year to a Greek festival in our area to get dinner and copious amounts of baklava. It’s a good reason to be proud of one’s culture.

Despite their strong ethnic identity, though, none of the guests knew much about their family histories. Gates pointed out that Greek roots can be hard to trace because of record losses suffered during the world wars and Greece’s fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire—struggles that also took their toll on the Greek people. There’s the language barrier and decentralized archive system, too.

Nonetheless, the show’s researchers were able to discover quite a bit of family tree information for each guest. The highlights:

  • Tina Fey: Researchers found Fey’s immigrant grandmother Vasiliki Kourekou on a 1921 passenger list “deep in the Ellis Island archives.” (I had to chuckle over Gates’ dramatic wording. Ellis Island passenger lists are readily available online, and the record “archives” at Ellis Island are on the computers in the first-floor Family History Center, which any visitor can use.) She was from Patrina, and researchers found an old family history with genealogies of the town’s residents. Fey’s third-great-grandfather escaped the Turks’ massacre on the island of Chios, and went on to earn a medal for his service in the Greek Revolution.

    On her father’s side of the family, Fey’s English fifth-great-grandfather John Hewson was a manufacturer in the textile industry. He migrated to the American Colonies with a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin and became a prominent textile manufacturer here as well; quilts from his company now hang in museums. He also organized his workers to support the American Revolution.

    The ethnicity estimates from Fey’s DNA test show she has 6 percent Asian ancestry, which breaks down to 3 percent Caucasus and 3 percent Middle Eastern—not surprising for a person of Greek heritage.

  • George Stephanopoulos: Both of Stephanopoulos’ parents are Greek. His maternal grandmother Marguerite Nicodopoulos was born in Saravali. The town was the site of a WWI Nazi raid in January 1944, in which George’s family, part of the local resistance, was rounded up and later released. Their home, though, was later burned down by German supporters.

His fourth great-grandfather was a Klepht, or anti-Ottoman rebel, leading up to the Greek Revolution, and later served in the war. Stephanopoulos’ DNA revealed he’s 98.9 percent European.

  • David Sedaris: When Sedaris was young, his Greek grandmother, who spoke no English, lived with his family. She was born in Apidia, where Sedaris still has distant cousins who helped piece together the family history. In Greek military archives, researchers discovered that his third-great-grandfather Elias Sedaris, born in 1781, had a daughter seized by the invading Turkish army. Her fate is unknown.

Ancestors in Sedaris’ maternal line were in the United States from colonial times. His fourth-great-grandfather was 16 when he enlisted for the Americans in the Revolutionary War. His DNA test revealed 4 percent Caucasus ancestry.

If you’re researching Greek ancestors, let our downloadable Greek Genealogy guide lead you to records, websites and resources. It’s available in Family Tree Shop.

You can watch this episode on the “Finding Your Roots” website. Next week’s episode will focus on genetic genealogy and the DNA results of guests such as Anderson Cooper, Jessica Alba, Gov. Deval Patrick and others.