Lou Ureneck. Smyrna, September 1922. New York: Harper, 2015. E-book.
The title of the book caught my attention because of Hemingway’s collection of short stories In Our Time. The first story in this, his first published fiction book, is titled “On the Quai at Smyrna.” There is also one of the entr’acte vignettes in this book set at Adrianople at what was then the Greece-Turkey border. If nothing else, Smyrna, September 1922 gives a lot of background to these stories as well as an understanding of a flashback described in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
An earlier edition of the book was entitled The Great Fire, a little more ambiguous name than the newer one, but what made Smyrna in 1922 even more horrible than the general attempt of the Turkish nationalists to extirpate Greeks and Armenians was that the Greek and Armenian quarters of the city were deliberately set on fire by Turkish army.
It takes a certain stomach to get through this historical chronicle. There is so much violence and death. Virtually every woman except for the very old and very young (and I mean younger than three) were raped, some many times. Often after the rape, they were killed, whether shot, stabbed, or beheaded.
All men determined to be between the ages of eighteen and forty-six, “of military age,” were rounded up and sent to the interior to concentration camps. Most of them died on the way, and the few that made the entire trek were killed anyhow, including the favorite uncle of Smyrna native Aristotle Onassis. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” there is a description of Greek soldiers being routed by the Turks and “things that he could never think of and later still he had seen much worse.” The horrors of Smyrna may be included among those things.
Smyrna, September 1922 focuses on a few people, especially a couple of American naval officers, a British officer, and an American missionary. Americans were in an unusual position with respect to the Turks. The United States had been allies of the British and French and others fighting the Axis powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. However, America and Turkey never declared war on each other, so Americans were not involved in fighting the Ottomans in World War I.
Much of Smyrna, September 1922 tells of an Admiral Bristol, who was the chief American naval officer in Constantinople and who served as the liaison in the Turkish capital with the State Department. He was the unofficial ambassador to the country. He also was terribly bigoted against both the Greeks and the Armenians. This made him get along well with the Turks, as he basically felt that getting rid of inferior races like the Greeks was a good thing.
Though set in New York, it would be easy to imagine the admiral speaking a line from one of the Hemingway entr’actes in In Our Time when an Irish New Yorker kills two Hungarian immigrants: “They’re wops, ain’t they? Who the hell’s going to make any trouble?”
The remarkable thing is that some Americans and a few Brits, with some French as well, were able to organize humanitarian relief and an evacuation to nearly 250,000 Armenians and Greeks who were either from Smyrna or fled there. Probably a lot more could have been saved without Bristol’s foot dragging and indifference, but eventually Washington put enough pressure on him to do something.
In the meantime, an American based in Smyrna named Asa Jennings and men from two American navy ships anchored in the harbor tried to do what they could to feed refugees and protect more people from being killed by the nationalist army. Their nearly untiring efforts through the whole month eventually enabled action to help many refugees escape.
In the course of the book, we hear accounts of many people. There is a wealthy Armenian businessman who loses everything but does escape with most of his family. The nine-year-old girl who survives the massacre of her entire family except for two younger sisters and how she managed to survive. We also learn of the Onassis family. Many of them were killed, too, but eighteen-year-old Aristotle was out of the country at the time and so survived to become at one time the wealthiest man in the world and husband to the widow of the President of the United States.
The geographical focus of the book is the quai. It was a two-mile long wharf along Smyrna harbor. It became the safest place in a very unsafe city for fleeing Greeks and Armenians. The fire destroyed most their part of the city, but a few buildings near the quai and the quai itself were spared. This was the place, then, where those who survived the destruction and depredations of the Turks ended up.
Because this was an area with a certain number of foreigners and a number of foreign ships, the Turks were less violent here. They still would go here looking for women to abduct and for men of military age to go to the interior, but they were more subtle about it for the most part and tended to leave many of the people there alone once they had been robbed of any goods they had.
The challenges of finding food and fresh water for so many people were challenging. Many died. Bodies floated in the harbor daily. In his short story “On the Quai at Smyrna,” Hemingway writes from the perspective of a British sailor on one of the ships anchored in the harbor. Every midnight they would hear screams, but the screams would stop when the ship’s searchlights would scan the quai.
That is all the story tells us. Recall Hemingway’s dictum that good writing is like an iceberg, seven-eights below the surface. Smyrna, September 1922 shows some of what was lying below the surface.
Because of its location, Turkish soldiers would wait until the middle of the night to rape women who were on the quai. They also did not necessarily want people from other countries to be aware of their behavior, so when the spotlights would shine on them, they would usually stop. As the Bible says, “For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” (John 3:20)
The Hemingway story also mentions a change of command as “Kemal came down and sacked the Turkish commander.” Kemal Ataturk, the nationalist leader, was indifferent to the plight of the refugees. Indeed, while in Smyrna he was entertained by the woman whom he would marry. The Turk in charge of the military in the area was notoriously cruel. He had even been court-martialed for his violence by the Turks. Kemal Ataturk did not care for him, he knew the kind of man he was, but he let him and his men have pretty much free reign to do what they wanted to the city and its non-Turkish people. Hemingway’s comment is not trivial.
Like Hemingway, Ureneck describes how there were indeed among the refugees women giving birth and even hanging onto dead infants. He also mentions briefly the evacuation of Adrianople, described briefly by Hemingway in one of the entr’actes in his book. Greeks had lived in this region since around 1700 B.C. Now they would be gone.
Ureneck uses the term genocide, which he says was coined by a scholar describing what happened to the Armenians during the decade ending in 1922. He also quotes Hitler when sharing his idea of attacking Poland to “annihilate the enemy physically,” reminding his hearers, “Who today still speaks of the Armenians?” (9) His model for extending and securing German “living space” was what the Turks did to non-Muslim minorities in their land after the Great War.
This also relates to our contemporary world. The Young Turks were really the first ultranationalist movement in a traditionally Islamic country. They justified their genocide both from national identity and religious jihad. While Ataturk went in a more secularist direction, it is clear that today’s jihadists kill and terrorize according to a similar twisted morality to those soldiers who terrorized Smyrna nearly a century ago. No, Ataturk was not interested in maintaining the caliphate, but ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Iran, and the present-day Turkey of Erdogan are. We already know in each case that the end justifies the means to these people as well. Smyrna was one of the early steps of something that continues just as relentlessly today. God willing it will meet with less success.
Still we cannot help admire the people who at least helped save many lives and in a few cases were able to appeal to consciences that still functioned.