Journalist and Boston University professor Lou Ureneck has written ‘The Great Fire: One American’s Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century’s First Genocide.” Get the book at a discounted price by clicking this link. The Pappas Post interviewed Prof. Ureneck about his book and the research he conducted. The book, published by Harper Collins Publishers, has received critical acclaim.
(Q) Do you have a connection to Asia Minor Greeks? What made you write this book?
I have no personal connection to Asia Minor. I was drawn to the the story of Asa Jennings’ rescue of so many Greek refugees. I wondered, “Who was this man who achieved so much but so few people know about.” I followed his story and learned so much more — about Asia Minor, about the genocide that swept Turkey and killed three million Greeks, Armenian and Assyrians and about the magical city of Smyrna.
(Q) You obviously did a great amount of research for this book— did it turn into an adventure?
A big adventure! I climbed to the top of Kocetepe, the mountain from which Mustapha Kemal launched his attack on the Greek army. I walked up and down the Quay at Smyrna many many times with maps and photos to be able to recreate the horrible scene of the fire and slaughter in September 1922. One of my most wonderful days was spent at Lesbos, in a tiny village named Skala Loutron, where I met the Greek descendants of old Smyrna. Everyone in the village is descended from the Smyrna region. They keep a beautiful little museum of household items from life in Smyrna. I was given a warm Greek welcome at Skala Loutron and hope to return.
(Q) Tell me about Turkey. They must have resisted a bit, especially since the government still denies the Armenian Genocide?
Many people in Turkey helped me with my research — they were primarily university professors so I don’t know if they represent the mass of people in Turkey. My sense is that the people of Turkey are unaware of their history except as it has been shaped by the government’s ideology, which views the Greeks and Armenians as subversive and dangerous. The denial of the genocide is a project of the Turkish government. The denial is an insult to all who died and a distortion of history.
(Q) You make the point in the book that this slaughter marked the first use of the word “genocide.” And yet, the story of Smyrna is most forgotten. Why?
Yes, the word “genocide” was coined by a Jewish scholar to describe what had happened in Turkey. His name was Raphael Lemkin, and he studied the Greek and Armenian genocides, which really was a single religious cleansing of Anatolia. The Smyrna story is forgotten for two reasons. First, the U.S. government, and especially the State Department, wanted it forgotten in the 1920s in order to establish commercial and diplomatic relations with Turkey. There was an official propaganda campaign in the U.S. to diminish the horror of what happened. Second the Turkish government has tried to sow doubt and controversy about the terrible events of those years, and to some extent it has been successful. I hope my book — and the work of others in this field — puts to rest any doubts about whether this genocide occurred. The evidence is irrefutable.
(Q) What was the German connection to these events? Numerous reports have claimed that German military “learned” from Ataturk?
Imperial Germany had a close military and commercial relationship with the Ottoman Empire. Germany trained the Ottoman military, provided equipment and often commanded its forces during WWI. The commander who directed Mustapha Kemal at Gallipoli was General Limon Von Sanders, a Prussian officer. After defeat in WWI, many Germans admired the Turkish nationalists for their resistance to the Allies, and the Nazi party in particular was entranced by the Turkish nationalists. Hitler admired Kemal, and Kemal predicted the revival of a militaristic Germany after WWI in response to the Treaty of Versailles.
(Q) The Turks have spent a fair amount of time, energy, effort and money trying to convince the world that they weren’t the perpetrators of the fire that burned Smyrna. Is there any doubt in your mind that they started the fire intentionally?
No doubt. There are too many American eye-witnesses to Turkish soldiers setting the fire. These were witnesses who had no reason to lie about what they saw. There was also sworn testimony taken in London that established the cause of the fire. At first, the Turks claimed the Armenians started the fire, but when pressed by U.S. naval officers in the city to produce the evidence, the Turkish authorities were unable to supply it. Subsequent scholarship points to a desire to eliminate Smyrna as a western and Christian outpost as the reason the Turkish army burned Smyrna.
(Q) So many different titles of events that transpired— the Armenian Genocide, the Pontian Genocide, the Smyrna Catastrophe, the Christian Holocaust— are all these events connected?
The Ottoman elite wanted to create a “Turkey for the Turks,” and this meant eliminating the Christian population of Anatolia. It was an idea that carried over into the Nationalist movement in 1920 and beyond. It was essentially one genocide — aimed at all Christians, Greek, Armenian and Assyrian. Each of these ethnic groups (though all Ottoman subjects) saw it from their own experiences and perspectives, of course, but looking at it through a historical lens, we can see it was one terrible event, lasting about ten years. Smyrna was the conclusion.
(Q) What should we have learned from this, and what can we still learn? In your opinion, what is the enduring lesson from all of this?
Three lessons, from my perspective. First, a genocide seems to require that one group of people see another group of people as less than human. This provides the psychological permission to kill them. This was the case in Turkey, where Christians were viewed as infidel dogs, or cattle. Second lesson: Big and powerful countries like the U.S. and Britain (back then) are reluctant to stop a genocide if its national interests are not directly threatened. This is sad, but true. President Warren Harding was pressured to stop the killing of Greeks at Smyrna, but he refused to consider sending American troops. Third, a person like Asa Jennings, who operated without official portfolio but on the basis of his own conscience, can make a huge difference in history. Millions of people are alive today because of Asa Jennings and the American rescue he initiated with the help of his co-conspirator, U.S. Lt. Commander Halsey Powell.
(Q) In the midst of all of the chaos of the events unfolding, Asa Jennings acted heroically and, as you’ve pointed out, saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Was he driven by his character? what struck you most about him?
Jennings was raised in a tradition of religious service. He was a minister and a devout Christian. He prayed several times a day and read the Bible with his family. He valued human life. He also had compassion as part of his personal nature. His upbringing, faith and character formed a powerful combination for good in the world. I find him inspiring. He’s a genuine American hero. His story should be taught in school.
(Q) How many people were ultimately rescued, thanks to Jennings?
U.S. Navy records show that the Jennings evacuation removed about 250,000 refugees from Smyrna by the end of September 1922. Most of them were women and children and old men. The rescue continued along the Aegean coast in places like Ayvali and along the Mediterranean coast as far south as Mersini well into October 1922. The process was for a U.S. destroyer to escort a Greek merchant ship to the point of evacuation and for U.S. Navy officers to parley with the Turkish army officers on the loading of the people. Sometimes, the American officers ran into resistance and had to force the issue. At least once, they were fired on. Jennings directed a lot of this activity from either Mytilene or (later) Athens, where a U.S. destroyer was based to provide him radio contact with rescue ships. By the beginning of 1923, there were large numbers of Greek refugees waiting to be rescued along the Black Sea coast. Jennings arranged for the charter and movement of merchant vessels for evacuation there as well. In fact, he was aboard the first evacuation ship to pass through the Bosphorus. The plight of the refugees along the Black Sea was as appalling as it had been at Smyrna. By the end of the rescue operation, about the beginning of June 1923, enormous numbers of people had been saved and transported to Greece. The Patriarch at Constantinople put the number of people saved by Jennings at one million.