A Greek-American's Account of the Smyrna 'Catastrophe'

By Sofka Zinovieff*

AS THE number of eyewitnesses to Smyrna's "Catastrophe" and its fallout is rapidly diminishing, so the number of writers examining these seminal events in Greek history seems to be increasing. Long popular with novelists and filmmakers for its human drama, the subject has recently been written about eloquently by British writers Bruce Clark (Twice a Stranger) and Giles Milton (Paradise Lost). Ships of Mercy is written by Greek­American businessman Christos Papoutsy and is an attempt to fill in the many gaps in the American­Greek story. Papoutsy took 10 years to carry out the research, and the result is a carefully documented testament to Greek suffering and a call to acknowledge some long­forgotten American heroism.

Smyrna refugees in 1922

Ships of Mercy is particularly interesting for its detailed archival material, but the reader who knows nothing of why 1922 was such a time of crisis for Greece gets some solid, if potted, history: how Greeks thrived in Asia Minor for thousands of years and how Smyrna in the early 20th century was "one of the most beautiful and cultured cities on the Aegean Sea", as well as information about the Greeks' pursuit of the Great Idea (Megali Idea). Papoutsy doesn't downplay the Greek provocation of Turkey with their invasion of Smyrna and the Turkish interior. He also tries to be fair to the Turks in his description of the rise of Kemal (later Ataturk) and the Turkish Nationalist Movement, though an innate Greek bias emerges - "more than one million people sought escape from the Turkish horde" would not have been written by a Turkophile.

Few can fail to be moved by the horrendous scenes of September 1922 on Smyrna's quay, where hundreds of thousands of Greek and Armenian refugees crowded into a hellish environment. Many starved within the stinking, frantic crowds and were beaten, raped and randomly killed by the Turkish army. Then there were those who chose drowning over burning by the flames that consumed the city.

Papoutsy is particularly good at unravelling the myths from the solid evidence, and he is keen to show that the Allied ships that crowded the harbour were not all indifferent to the plight of the Greeks who were desperate to flee. The unlikely and almost entirely unsung hero of the exodus was a short, bespectacled New Yorker with tubercular lungs who worked as Smyrna's YMCA secretary. Seeing the imminent disaster unfolding before him, Asa Jennings approached various ships and eventually persuaded an Italian captain to take 2,000 refugees to nearby Mytilene. From there he not only set up relief committees, but asked the dithering Greek government to put all ships in the Aegean at his disposal.

This daring "everyman" succeeded, becoming a de facto admiral of the Greek navy. Making sure that Greek ships were accompanied in and out of Smyrna's harbour, "Admiral" (as he was subsequently nicknamed by fellow Americans) managed to save about 300,000 mostly Greek refugees before the Turkish deadline at the end of the month. Although Jennings was honoured with Greek decorations for his heroism, he died 10 years later and was quickly forgotten. He is not mentioned in any Greek museums and only in a few books.

Huge numbers of Greek men were separated from their families in Smyrna and were never seen again. But Greece absorbed over a million people into its existing population of five million - an extraordinary achievement, which brought revitalisation and energy along with the countless personal tragedies.

Jennings was not the only hero to come from American ranks. Papoutsy names the philanthropic organisation Near East Relief, which had been in the region since 1915. Dr. Mabel Elliott was among those who walked and rode on donkeys through hundreds of kilometres of inland Turkey to save Greek orphans.

Papoutsy is no professional historian, but the reader gets the sense of uncovering the story along with the author, whose enthusiasm for his subject is palpable. There are numerous photographs, copies of telegrams, ship log books, official documents and witness statements ­all a testament to his tenacious research.

Smyrna's destruction in 1922 is part of a controversial and complex series of events that still haunts descendents of those who fled. This book tells the well-known story but from a new perspective. And above all it shows how one "insignificant" person can rise to an extraordinary challenge and change history.

Ships of Mercy: The True Story of the Rescue of the Greeks, Smyrna, September 1922 by Christos Papoutsy is available from www.amazon.com

* Sojka Zinovieff is the author of Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens and Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life

(Posting Date 27 January 2009)

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