15-25 Segment 2 The Great Fire: An unsung hero who saved thousands

 

Synopsis: After World War I there was a great conflict in Turkey and many Christians and others were killed. The city of Smyrna was set ablaze and even more people had to run to the beaches just to escape the flames. Refugees poured into the city from towns and rural areas and soon there were tens of thousands stranded on the shore with nowhere to go. We’ll hear how governments and diplomats in the West all but ignored their plight, and how the efforts of one brave relief worker and a Navy commander finally brought the victims to safety.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: Lou Ureneck, Professor of Journalism at Boston University, author of The Great Fire: One American’s mission to rescue victims of the 20th century’s first genocide.

Links for more info:

Unsung Hero

Marty Peterson: The film Schindler’s List won accolades for it’s gritty portrayal of life in a Nazi concentration camp, and for bringing to light the heroism of factory owner Oskar Schindler. Schindler is credited with saving 12-hundred Jews from the death camps by employing them in his factory which made enamelware for the German war effort. Certainly Schindler deserves all of the praise he’s gotten, but there’s one American hero who performed a similar act of kindness who has gotten little if any recognition for it. His name is Asa Kent Jennings, and Lou Ureneck thinks it’s time he receives his due. Ureneck is a Professor of Journalism at Boston University, and author of the book, The Great Fire: One American’s Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century’s First Genocide. The genocide begins before World War One and continues on through the early 1920s. Ureneck says there was a religious cleansing in Turkey that escalated to huge proportions…

Lou Ureneck: The Ottoman Empire was in decline. The Ottoman elite were anxious, they were paranoid, they were xenophobic, they were looking for some excuse, some scapegoat, for the decline of the Empire and they focused on the Christian population. Interestingly, and not many people know this, the Anatolia, what we now think of as Turkey, 20-percent of the population was Christian, you know a really large proportion of the population. So, the Ottoman Elite focused on the Christians as a problem, as a disloyal minority, as a kind of fifth column, and that’s when the killing began – as early as 1912. It accelerated through the war, we think of the Armenian genocide classically as 1915 and 1916. The Ottoman Empire was defeated along with Germany in 1918 and then, for a brief time, the killing stopped.

Peterson: It started up again in 1919 when the Nationalist Turkish Movement gathered steam…

Ureneck: That movement which created a provisional government, it raised an army, all of which was in opposition initially to the sultan and Constantinople and so forth, that’s the army and the government that entered Smyrna in September of 1922.

Peterson: Ureneck says that the city of Smyrna was a jewel in Asia Minor’s crown at the time, with a diverse population and a thriving economy…

Ureneck: It was a majority Christian city inside the Ottoman Empire, it was cosmopolitan in that many different kinds of people of different religious faiths lived together relatively amicably. It was a very prosperous place. It was quite the city in many, many ways. It was called the Paris of the Orient, and people who visited there were astonished at the art and culture and sophistication of the city. So on September 9, 1922, the Turkish Army enters the city of Smyrna and commences to killing Christian residents, principally, at least at first, Armenian residents. There was an Armenian district in this city. So soldiers went into homes, pulled people out of their homes; women were raped; men, women, children were killed; bodies were strewn about the streets; the stores were looted.

Peterson: The killing spread to the Greek Christian section and the Turkish army continued its rampage of killing and looting there. On September 13, 1922, the army visited its final indignity on Smyrna by setting it on fire…

Ureneck: This created an enormous humanitarian problem. In addition to the half-million people who lived at Smyrna, about 300,000 farmers – essentially peasant farmer, villagers from the countryside who had fled ahead of the Turkish Army – came into the city of Smyrna. They were sleeping in the streets and the railroad stations and cemeteries, churchyards and so forth. So the fire caught all of these people, both the people who lived there, the Christians who lived there as well as the refugees, the Christian refugees in the city, and drove everybody to the waterfront. And so what we had on the night of September 13 was this horrible scene in which at least a half a million people are caught between a very big fire, and by big I mean two miles long and a mile deep – it was a big city, they’re caught between this very big and very hot fire in a narrow space on a place that was called the Quay, a kind of waterfront promenade, and the harbor.

Peterson: This is where Asa Jennings comes in. Jennings was an American and a very unlikely model for a hero…

Ureneck: He was a little man with big round glasses that magnified his eyes. He had suffered lots of health problems as a young man when he was a minister. He had been an itinerant minister in Upstate New York – places like Utica and Carthage and the small towns in the Mohawk River Valley. He joined the YMCA, which at that time had a kind of a missionary purpose, was sent to France after the war, he helped decommission soldiers, and he went to Czechoslovakia, again decommissioning soldiers, part of the Y’s mission. And then he was sent to Smyrna in August of 1922 and to a relatively low-level job. He was going to be working with boys on sports leagues and cultivating Christian values and so forth. And so he was there when this catastrophe began.

Peterson: People tried to reach ships in the harbor by swimming out to them, and many of them drowning in the process. Pack animals and people died from the intense heat and smoke, and no one was there to help them. It was Jennings who was moved to take action…

Ureneck: He was a member of what was called The American Relief Committee. The Americans, I’m proud to say, the private people who were there – missionaries, businessmen, and we had a very big business presence in Smyrna – formed a relief committee. Jennings was on that committee and one of the things he did initially, actually before the fire and through the fire and somewhat after, was he had occupied a series of mansions that had been abandoned by their owners in anticipation of the Turkish Army entering the city. Smyrna had these big, beautiful mansions made of marble along its waterfront, and he turned them into aid stations for women.

Peterson: What really needed to be done, however, was to get as many Christians out of Smyrna as possible. For this huge project, Jennings enlisted the help of another American…

Ureneck: He asked the permission of the American senior Naval officer at Smyrna, a man named Halsey Powell who later becomes very important to the story, if he could have use of a Navy boat, a small boat ,and a sailor to go out and ask the captain of an Italian freighter which he saw out in the harbor to take some of the people away, some of the women who were in his safe houses. Just get them out of the city and away from danger. Powell consented, Jennings went out, he parlayed with the Italian ship captain, paid him a bribe and the ship removed 2,000 people from the city of Smyrna. Jennings when with them on their trip to Lesbos which is a Greek island nearby, and when he got there he saw that there were lots of empty merchant ships. These had been used as troop transports by Greece, and he thought, you know, if I can get access to these ships, and if we can find some way to allow the Turkish military to allow the Greek ships to come into the harbor – no small thing, by the way – you know maybe we can begin to evacuate people and save lives.

Peterson: Jennings managed to secure 50 ships while Powell negotiated with the Turks to evacuate the Christians, and devised a plan for loading them on the ships in the harbor. Ureneck says that Powell did not have permission from his Navy bosses to do all of this…

Ureneck: Powell was putting his career in jeopardy. He had been told not to get involved. Protect American property of the tobacco warehouses and the Standard Oil tanks and so forth, but don’t get involved in what is a domestic situation, an in-country situation. But he saw the suffering and he was moved, and so both Jennings, initiating the action, and then Powell working the Turks, they put together – it has to be called miraculous looking back on it – an evacuation. They were given a seven-day deadline, one week, by the Turkish military to get the Christians out of the city – lots of people. And they did it. In seven days they removed 250,000 people from the city of Smyrna, brought them principally to Lesbos but also to some of the other Greek islands and from there they went mostly to mainland Greece and sometimes to some other places.

Peterson: Jennings said later that he “felt the hand of God on his shoulder” and that gave him the courage and the will to evacuate all of those people from Smyrna. The evacuation from the waterfront, though, isn’t the end of the story. Christians were being persecuted all over the region, and Jennings decided he needed to help them too…

Ureneck: All along the Aegean coast, you know the west coast of Turkey, the Sea of Marmara so-called, which approaches Constantinople, and then the long Black Sea coast, which is the north coast of Turkey, towns were just full of refugees and nobody was removing them. So after Smyrna, beginning in let’s say late October of 1922, Jennings went to work, again on his own – he was not acting with government portfolio, he was acting on his own initiative – he was able to charter ships, Near East Relief paid for many of them, the Greek government paid for some others, money was raised. And he began chartering ships, and he, himself, went on these ships, brought them through the Bosperus, and ultimately Halsey Powell reconnected with him, Powell once gain providing U.S. destroyer escort in some cases to the ships.

Peterson: By the end of his efforts, Jennings is credited with helping a million refugees escape to safety. Ureneck says the situation in Smyrna and the surrounding area got out of control because the U-S, Britain, France and others did not enforce treaty provisions after World War I and then let the diplomacy with the region wither. These kinds of incursions need to be nipped in the bud, and it’s a good argument for having a strong military. The story of Asa Kent Jennings also tells another story – one that we can all learn from when we hear about strife and suffering…

Ureneck: You know, one of the lessons that I derived from this story is the power of one person to make a difference in the world. Asa Jennings was an unlikely hero, he was a guy who was essentially handicapped, but he was always trying to be useful. He was raised in a tradition of religious service, and he was a little motor of a guy who wanted to make a difference, and he made an enormous difference. He saved lots of lives. And I think we can all draw inspiration from Asa Jennings.

Peterson: You can read the details of how one man with the help of a U.S. Navy commander saved a million lives in the 1920s in Lou Ureneck’s book, The Great Fire, available in stores and online. Ureneck invites listeners to visit his website at S-M-Y-R-N-A-fire.com to look at historical photographs and documents of the events surrounding the evacuation. For information about all of our guests, you can log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You’ll also find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.

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