September 14 marks the 94th anniversary of the Smyrna Fire & the Great Catastrophe, which ended 3000 years of Greek presence in Anatolia. We honor the heroes and those whose lives were lost.
Some may be familiar with the events surrounding the Pontian Greek Genocide and the so-called “population exchange” of the early 20th century. This little-known, and often-forgotten history bears important lessons. It’s important that we never forget what happened, and heed the lessons, so a tragedy like this never happens again.
The destruction of Hellenism in Asia Minor, the burning of Smyrna, and the death of more than 100,000 people became a humanitarian disaster of which the world had never experienced before. The Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center was founded in 2001 to expand our understanding of these events and ensure that we never forget the thousands of victims lost in the senseless violence of this era. We welcome members of the AMPHRC to educate us about this important history.
By: George Mavropoulos, Founder; and Vicky Stavropoulos, Board Member; of the Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center
Smyrna Fires and the Great Catastrophe: End of Hellenic Presence in Anatolia
In September 1922, the world witnessed the savage burning of the great city of Smyrna, which culminated in the mass slaughter of thousands of civilians. The events of the Great Catastrophe effectively ended 3,000 years of Greek presence in Anatolia. This month, as we commemorate the 94th anniversary of the tragedy, let’s look back at what happened, and recall two heroic individuals who bravely intervened to save innocent civilians in the face of insurmountable evil.
As the terrifying days of the holocaust were unfolding, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, stationed outside the city of Smyrna, gave orders to rid Anatolia of its Christians. Ataturk’s forces set the city ablaze after plundering and massacring the Christian and minority communities. At the same time, the Greeks were left hopeless as Greece’s allies stood idle. Due to political interests, they refused to intervene. Boats dropped anchor in the harbor but did not offer refuge to people trying to escape certain death.
The burning of Smyrna by the Turkish troops, accompanied by the violent displacement of Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrian Christians from Asia Minor, was motivated by the desire to achieve the goal of “Turkification”. Indeed, the first quarter of the twentieth century was marked by the violence and massacres directed by the state itself that aimed to remove these communities from their historic homelands.
The human trauma of the tragic fire has been widely recorded in numerous books, articles, and personal accounts collected from the event. In November 1925, National Geographic published an article by Melvin Chater, titled, “History’s Greatest Trek”. It painted a picture of the nightmare on Smyrna’s quay.
“The dance of flames became a fiery hurdle race, as the wind-fanned flames leaped from a balcony to balcony across the narrow streets: then the race became a hungry conflagration whose roaring mouth ate through and gulped down that mile-and-a half breadth of city down to where the 300,000 refugee souls huddled between a waste of fire and a waste of sea… the city had become a Titanic blast furnace, whose wind-driven heat fanned the quay with so dreadful a heat that the multitudes dipped their blankets in the sea and swaddled themselves. Maddened horses… ran amuck through the press, leaving a wake of crushed bodies, which roasted where they lay…Affrighted faces mingled with wild-eyed animals, and human cries with the neigh of horses, the scream of camels, and, last, the squeaking of rats, as they scuttled by in droves from the underworld of a lost Smyrna.”
World in disbelief
The world was shocked by the magnitude of violence and the massacre waged on innocent people. Giles Milton wrote about the events in Smyrna, in Paradise Lost.
“What happened over the two weeks that followed must rank as one of the most compelling human dramas of the twentieth century. Innocent civilians — men, women, and children were caught in a humanitarian disaster on a scale that the world had never before seen”.
Honoring two heroic men
Despite the allies’ refusal to help, two heroic individuals emerged, whose intervention saved thousands. These individuals, George Horton and the Japanese captain of the ship, “Tokei Marou”, should be recognized for their brave interventions to save innocent civilians in the face of Ataturk’s forces.
George Horton, the U.S. Consul General in Smyrna, was an honorable humanitarian who, during the most terrifying days of the destruction, attempted to do everything humanly possible to save the Christian population of Greeks and Armenians from the ongoing slaughter. George Horton even risked his diplomatic career since he had taken a different political stance from that of the U.S.
At one point, he offered the great Archbishop Chrysostomos the opportunity to escape, but Chrysostomos refused to save himself. The Archbishop chose a savage death at the hands of the Turks who were getting orders from the notorious Nurredin Pasha, the governor of Smyrna.
George Horton was forced to leave the consulate building moments before it collapsed from the fire set by Ataturk’s forces. As he boarded the battleship Litchfield, he looked back at the voracious flames encircling his beloved city and with great sadness uttered his immortal phrase:
“I feel ashamed to belong to the human race.”
A Japanese friend
On September 4, 1922*, in the midst of the violence, the captain of the Japanese boat, “Tokei Marou”, and his sailors demonstrated extraordinary courage and human compassion.
After his arrival at the port of Smyrna, the captain gazed at the scene of the port of Smyrna. He called it “worse than hell” for thousands of helpless women and children who faced inevitable death with fire raging behind them, the inhospitable port forward, and Turkish troops blocking any escape.
The captain ordered his crew to toss overboard cargo that consisted of precious silks, lace, and porcelain. Then he saved the lives of 825 women, children, and elders. He transferred them to Piraeus.
The heroic actions of the captain were confirmed by the American Consul George Horton and from the newspaper EMBROS, 4 September 1922, and from the eyewitness accounts of several individuals, including American Anna Harlow Birge. Unfortunately, we do not know the captain’s name.
Honoring our Japanese friend
On September 15, 2012, the Research Center held a major event commemorating the 90th-year anniversary of the great fire of Smyrna. The Consul of Japan in Chicago, the Honorable Kotaro Matsuzawa, and members of the Japanese community attended the event. A plaque was presented to Mr. Matsuzawa to recognize the heroic captain, and to show our appreciation to the Japanese nation. During his acceptance remarks, Mr. Matsuzawa expressed his sense of honor to have ancestors such as this captain and thanked the Greek-American community for recognizing the humanity of the captain and crew.
94th anniversary: never forget
Our Hellenic history has often been tumultuous, but it’s important that we do not forget these important events. This year, on the 94th anniversary of the Great Catastrophe in Smyrna, we remember the thousands of victims that were uprooted from their homelands and faced unimaginable tragedy, as well as the honorable individuals who courageously fought to save innocent civilians. May their memories be eternal.
The Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center was founded to document and disseminate information about the Greek communities of the later Ottoman empire, and study the expulsion of the Greeks from their ancestral homelands in Asia Minor (or Anatolia), Eastern Thrace, and Pontos. Visit the website for a wealth of materials including extensive information on the gencocide, teaching guides, and more.