Those who came, who lived and loved and are gone

They built modern Australia, often coming from other countries to win a different future for themselves and their families.

They risked much and achieved more than they could have imagined. Here we pay tribute to four of them.

Maria Vasilakis

Maria Vasilakis learned hard and early about making personal sacrifices for her family.

As a young mother on the Greek island of Corfu, Maria had no choice but to labour at picking olives, walking each day to the groves far from her ancient family village of Sinarades, leaving her baby son and daughter alone in the house.

“She had to leave me in my cot,” her son Spiros says.

“During the day she would walk for one hour back to the house to check on us and make sure we were fed, then turn around and walk another hour back to work. It was a harsh life.”

Later, when the family moved across the world to Melbourne, Maria never let her children go without school shoes or good clothes or food. “She never put herself first. She used everything she saved to make sure we had a good life,” Spiros says.

Maria’s husband Peter was a bricklayer who had worked since the age of 13, travelling around Corfu building houses with his controlling father.

In 1970, Maria and Peter Vasilakis chose the hope of a better life. With their children, Spiros, seven, and Theodora, six, they sailed for Australia.

“When we arrived in Port Melbourne, we had one small suitcase, no money and neither Mum or Dad spoke English,” Spiros says. “Established Greek families took on families like ours in those days, and helped us find housing and jobs.”

Peter and Maria Vasilakis with their grandchildren Stephanie and Natalia.

Peter joined a building crew, working and socialising with other Greek immigrants, and never learned much English.

Maria took a job in a biscuit factory where there was no union, poor working conditions and insecurity. She picked up English from her fellow workers but kept her thoughts to herself.

“There was a lot of heartache and tears because she was in fear of losing her job if she spoke up for herself,” Spiros says.

Later she found work in a clothing factory with better conditions. She and Peter saved hard.

Within four years, the Vasilakis family bought their own house in Fairfield. Later, they moved to a larger home in Brunswick West with a big garden.

Decades passed and five grandchildren arrived. Maria and Peter doted on them. “My sister and I were in awe as our parents let our children get away with things they would never allow us to say or do,” Spiros laughs.

Peter Vasilakis died in 2016.

After her years of toil, Maria’s lower back hurt. She could not cope with stairs or the garden.

She moved to a granny flat at her daughter’s home. “But loneliness was hurting her,” Spiros says.

One night, she accidentally flooded the flat. Rather than ask for help she stayed awake all night mopping up alone.

Maria chose to move to St Basil’s Home for the Aged in Fawkner.

Maria on Greek Independence Day, March 25, in 2019.

“She never held a grudge or whinged about anything; not a day in her life,” Spiros says.

Maria celebrated her 81st birthday on July 10. Within days, she had tested positive for COVID-19.

On July 23 her life of sacrifice and love of family ended. Alone.

Haralambos Bakirtzidis

Haralambos Bakirtzidis was a strong, acrobatic man, given to dangling by his legs from an iron trapeze he’d built in his backyard and somersaulting to the ground.

He was tough, too. Years ago, working at a Melbourne factory constructing wooden pallets, a three-inch nail fired from a nail gun went through his ankle.

At hospital, he decided not to wait for a doctor to tend to him. He found a small chain on his bed, looped it around the head of the nail and tore it out.

And yet this was a sensitive, artistic man too, who loved dancing.

Haralambos Bakirtzidis' daughter says her father loved to dance.

Haralambos, a skilled wood worker, had learned as a young man in Greece to carve the shadow puppet known as Karagiozis. Later, he entertained his growing family in Australia with shadow-puppetry shows at home.

In recent years, Haralambos’ daughter Athina – the eldest of four Bakirtzidis children – spent many hours interviewing her father about his life.

She has written a memoir, The Bells Will Toll, named for a song famous among Greeks about freedom and resurrection.

The memoir, chronicling the lives of both Haralambos and his wife Niki, who survives him, is almost ready for publication.

Athina mourns that her father will never see it.

Haralambos Bakirtzidis was born 80 years ago in the northern Greek city of Salonika, also known as Thessaloniki. He established a carpentry business and renovated houses including the building famed as the birthplace of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk.

But at 28 he had itchy feet. He and his wife Niki and their first two children – Athina was three – sailed for Australia. They disembarked in Port Melbourne in 1972, living in a migrant reception centre at Maribyrnong before moving to a flat at the home of another Greek family.

Haralambos Bakirtzidis.

Haralambos worked at the Broadmeadows Ford car plant and the pallet factory. In 1975 his carpentry skills won him a job in Darwin, helping reconstruct the city after it was destroyed by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve 1974.

By an amazing coincidence he was billeted in Darwin Harbour aboard the ship that had brought him and his family to Australia less than three years previously, the Patris.

Within six years of arriving in Australia, the Bakirtzidis family owned their own home in Maidstone.

Haralambos brought the dances of his youth into the lives of his family.

“Oh, he loved to dance,” says Athina. “We would dance as a family. It is a communal thing; an important thing. We would all join hands. It made the family strong.”

Haralambos was known across Melbourne’s Greek community as a man who would help out if a family needed a roof fixed or a home renovated and couldn’t pay.

He took pride in his vigorous health and was known to bend iron bars with his hands and to carry 200 kilos of plasterboard on his head.

He and his family expected him to live to 100.

COVID-19 stole such hope. The life of Haralambos Bakirtzidis ended on July 15 at Footscray Hospital.

Angela 'Lina' Onciarich

There was no doubt that when a beaming Lina Onciarich arrived, she was the life of the party.

She loved fancy dress, dancing and a whisky on the rocks. She was addicted to crime series on TV and loved Ellery Queen novels and Italian word puzzles.

Lina Onciarich moved from Trieste, Italy, to Melbourne in 1956.

At the centre of her world was her family, her two sons and daughter who she raised in Australia after migrating with husband Mario after World War II.

Lina was born in 1932, the oldest girl in a family of five children raised in Trieste on Italy's Adriatic coast. She was seven when World War II began.

“They relied on her a lot and she had a really strict upbringing,” says daughter Laura.

She met Mario at a dance when they were both 18. They courted for a bit over a year, married and in 1956 the pair came by the ship Aurelia to Australia.

They lived at the Bonegilla migrant camp, near Wodonga, before moving to Melbourne shares houses in Coburg and Brunswick.

Lina moved to Coolaroo with her husband Mario.

In 1964, they moved into their own home in Coolaroo.

It was here, in the house which Mario still lives in today, that Lina made friends with her neighbour Lorraine. Lorraine taught her English and she taught Lorraine how to cook.

Lina loved to watch television, at first to improve her English but later as a passion which stayed with her throughout her life. (Particular favourites in later years included Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy and NCIS).

When her first son went to school, she worked in a stockings and socks factory before becoming a barista for 17 years, working in Italian cafes and bars in St Kilda and Moonee Ponds.

She loved fancy dress, pictured here in costume as Carmen Miranda.

“She was a very, very hard worker to make sure that as kids we kept up with the trends and got what we wanted,” says Laura.

In her younger years she was a party animal, Laura adds. She loved to have fun, get dressed up and have a laugh. She always looked immaculate and got her hair done weekly.

The pair would often sunbake in the backyard. Whenever Laura would go to the beach, her mother would make her take an empty two-litre bottle to fill with sea water.

“She reckons that it enhanced our tans,” Laura says.

Lina was known for her cooking – lasagne, gnocchi, banana bread – and would take food with her to the doctor and hairdresser.

In her older years she remained active, visiting Laura when she lived in Darwin at the age of 80 and continuing to drive up until last year.

And although Lina and Mario separated in recent years, their daughter says they became "beautiful friends".

Mario would ring Lina several times a week when she eventually moved to Arcare Craigieburn Aged Care. He made her home-cooked meals.

Lina at Arcare Craigieburn Aged Care.

Lina was 87 when she died on July 26 after contracting coronavirus.

Laura was able to visit two days before her death. She told Lina she was loved and her Mum smiled.

“She was fun, loving and very independent. She was thoughtful with a very, very caring nature. What saddens me is that for this woman that had so many friends, they can’t all be there for the funeral," she says.

"Because she deserved better than that. She just didn't deserve to die alone.”

Ilias Takis

There were few vegetables Ilias Takis didn’t grow in his thriving garden.

For decades he could often be found sitting in the sun surrounded by greenery, coffee in hand, admiring his handiwork.

“Anything you can think of, he had it in the garden,” says daughter Eleni.

“He always used to say, ‘Why do I need to go to the supermarket to find my fruit and vege when I can grow them myself?’”

It was a self-sufficiency developed through an adventurous life.

Ilias Takis in his younger years.

Ilias Takis was born in 1939 in the tiny village of Agia Triada in Greece. He was one of eight children, with a mother he adored and a father he would later remember as severely strict.

When he turned 18 he completed his mandatory military service and travelled to Germany, working as a kitchen hand on boats and then for a car company.

He later returned to Greece, married his first wife and had four children.

The marriage didn't work out and his love of travel lured him to tropical Townsville, in north-east Queensland.

It was here that a horror car accident led him to the city where he would spend the last three decades of his life.

“Something happened with his rental car. His brakes were shot and he ended up hitting a tree, so they flew him to Melbourne,” says Eleni.

“He loved Melbourne, the people and everyone that was in it. He just loved being here. As soon as he got better he flew back to Greece and said ‘I’m moving to Australia’.”

It was during the short trip home that he met Aristea. He told her he was moving to Australia and he wanted her to come with him. She said yes.

The pair married and in the late 1980s moved with what they had to Prahran, then Coburg and finally Heidelberg, where they settled to raise two children.

Eleni was born in 1989 and Evagelia five years later.

Ilias, his wife Aristea and daughters Eleni and Evagelia with Santa Claus.

Ilias picked fruit and did some farm work and bricklaying, while encouraging his wife to learn English.

“Dad always tried to make Mum go to kindergarten with me to try and get her to learn some English. But my Mum was too embarrassed, going to school with a child,” Eleni remembers, laughing.

To ensure his daughters learnt Greek he would make them sit down and write out the newspaper before reading it back to him.

He doted on his girls and would often say he had come to Australia to give them the life he never had.

They caught the tram weekly to the Queen Victoria Markets. Ilias knew people all over the city and would make friends wherever he went.

He loved to play cards with friends while smoking at the kafeneio on Sydney Road, but his main passion was sitting outside in his garden enjoying a cup of coffee.

“It wasn't the finer things in life, it was more sort of like the normal things in life he loved,” says Eleni.

He never made it back to Greece after moving to Melbourne, but would regularly video-call his four children and grandchildren there.

After a severe stroke, Ilias moved to St Basil's Home for the Aged in Fawkner at the end of 2017.

A severe stroke in 2017 meant he had to move into St Basil’s Home for the Aged in Fawkner.

The last time Eleni spoke to her father was the day he tested positive for COVID-19. He seemed disoriented and was mumbling.

Four days later – on July 24 – he died without family by his side, aged 81.

But Eleni will remember her Dad like this: constantly offering shots of ouzo to friends and strangers. Driving her and her sister across the city to the zoo and Luna Park. And sipping a coffee in the sun in his overflowing garden.

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