Jennings Honored in New York for Aid in Smyrna Holocaust, Descendants Give Testimony

Cleveland, NY -- Dr. Stergeos Arvantides and his sister, Anna Bantuvanis, believe they owe their lives to Asa K. Jennings.

Jennings, an Upstate Methodist minister now buried in Oswego County, in 1922 helped organize ships that saved more than 300,000 people —mostly Greeks — who likely would have perished at the hands of theTurkish government.

Among those saved were Arvantides’s and Bantuvanis’s mother and grandfather. “He helped all those people during the extermination and genocide in Turkey — he helped get the ships to Smyrna,” said Arvantides, who lives in Lysander and has a dental practice in Baldwinsville.

Jennings, at 5 foot 2 inches in height, with a hunchback, didn’t look the part of a hero. But Jennings, who is buried in the Cleveland Village Cemetery, is a hero to Arvantides, Bantuvanis and many other Greeks for what he did in September 1922.

His story was told during a special program on September 14th at
his gravesite in Cleveland Village Cemetery, followed by a program and display at Cleveland United Methodist Church, with a speech by Jennings' grandson, Roger Jennings, of Queensbury, New York.

was the greatest rescue in the history of mankind,” Roger Jennings said.
Arvantides said the homeland of his mother and father’s families was
in the area known today as Turkey. Greeks had lived there dating back to the time of its invasion by Alexander the Great.

But 1922 was a different time. After centuries of various ethnic groups living in Asia Minor, the Turkish government wanted to cleanse the country of other nationalities, mostly Greeks, Armenians and the Assyrians, according to experts and histories written about the time.

Read Ships of Mercy, the story of Jennings' Rescue.
More info.

Many Greeks and others, being sent to a part of Turkey where food and water were scarce, faced almost certain death, they said.

Others, including Arvantides’ and Bantuvanis’ mother and grandfather —Fani Arvantides, then 28, and George Pappas, then 74 — headed toward the sea and the city of Smyrna.

That is where Asa K. Jennings enters the story.

Jennings, a United Methodist minister from the Mohawk Valley, was
working for the YMCA at the time, serving in Smyrna, a large city in western Turkey on the Mediterranean Sea. It’s known today as Izmir.

His grandson described Asa Jennings as a humble man, who lived the New
Testament, was nonconfrontational and turned the other cheek.

"It was the greatest rescue in the history of mankind," said Roger Jennings.

“He believed to do good in the world and be effective, you have to get others on board,” Roger Jennings said. “He was quite the community organizer.”

As such, Asa Jennings came to work with the Greek and Turkish governments. The two countries had been fighting for 15 years, there was little or no trust between them.

When the Turkish government began purging non-Turks, Asa Jennings made a deal with its leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to move the Greeks and others out of the country.

With that agreement in hand, Asa Jennings then found ships to transport the refugees. Roger Jennings tells of how his grandfathereventually bribed an Italian ship’s captain to begin the process.

Then Asa Jennings pressured the Greek government to accept them to the Greek mainland and islands.

That brings the story back to Fani Arvantides and George Pappas and how they escaped.

Their descendants, Stergeos Arvantides and Anna Bantuvanis, tell how Turks had begun searching houses in their town, Gotsepe, for non-Turks. The two hid in the nearby home of a Swiss man.

“Then after the searches were over, Mom got things out of the house and headed to the boats,” Bantuvanis said.

Her mother hid some family jewelry and Turkish gold coins in a loaf of bread and wrapped the bread in a scarf and carried it toward the ships.

“Imagine thousands of people all headed to the quay,” Stergeos Arvantides said. “She got bumped and the bread dropped. My grandfather said, ‘Don’t pick it up. The Turkish soldiers are watching us.’”

At about that same time, the Turkish soldiers grabbed an Armenian boy and when they were distracted, their mother picked up the bread.

“If not for Mr. Jennings acquiring the ships that saved over 300,000 people, our mother and grandfather may not have survived,” said Anna Bantuvanis, a retired math teacher in Ithaca.

After his rescue efforts, Asa Jennings continued his work in Turkey. Eventually he established Turkish hearths, community centers modeled on the YMCA tenets of developing body, mind and spirit, said Robert Zens, a professor at LeMoyne College.

He said Asa Jennings also co-founded the American Friends of Turkey, an exchange program to “help promote Turkey in the United States.”

Roger Jennings said his grandmother, Amy Will Jennings, lived in Cleveland with her family. Her father, David Will, ran a canning factory in the village.

When Asa Jennings died, she buried him in the village cemetery, with a small gravestone engraved with the name Asa K. Jennings, 1877 — 1933.

(Posting date 18 September 2012. Source: "Man with ties to Oswego County helped save Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians after World War I," by Debra J. Groom, in the Cleveland [NY] Post-Standar, 15 September 2012.)

Article submitted to HCS by Roger Jennings and by June Samaras.
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