Review: How 250,000 refugees were rescued in Turkey

AP News
Posted: Jun 08, 2015 10:46 AM

"The Great Fire" (Ecco), by Lou Ureneck

It reads like a story drawn from contemporary headlines: U.S. Navy warships deployed to the Middle East; ISIS-like beheadings and other atrocities targeted at Christians; fears in Washington about denial of access to the region's vital oil supplies.

But this harrowing account goes back nearly a century, focusing on the 1922 destruction of Smyrna, the richest and most cosmopolitan jewel of the moribund Ottoman Empire, and a sickly American missionary's effort to spearhead the rescue of 250,000 Greek and Armenian refugees.

It's a long-forgotten humanitarian feat brought to life in Lou Ureneck's spellbinding history of the final chapter in what many regard as the first genocide of the 20th century. An estimated 3 million Christians perished in the 10-year holocaust, a template for more extensive mass slaughters and ethnic cleansings in years to come.

The stage was set for the final round of killings when the Turkish nationalist army under Mustapha Kemal defeated Greek forces that had been sent to the region to stave off its seizure by Italy. The victorious Turks then went on a rampage of murder, rape and robbery in which Smyrna was set ablaze and its people left homeless and starving.

The unlikely hero of the unfolding tragedy was Asa Jennings, a 44-year-old Methodist minister from upstate New York who arrived in Smyrna with his family the previous month to begin a new job at the local YMCA. Barely over 5 feet tall with thick, wire-rimmed eyeglasses, he wore an oversized suit jacket to hide his hunched back that was a vestige from tuberculosis 20 years earlier.

A small man with a big spirit who believed that disabilities can help build character, Jennings was the lone American civilian who remained in Smyrna as it was consumed by fire over three days. He became a familiar figure, roaming the charred streets to rescue orphans, rape victims and wounded refugees and find safe houses in which they could wait out the carnage.

Jennings' most notable achievement came when he teamed up with a similarly compassionate Navy officer, Lt. Cmdr. Halsey Powell, to arrange the logistics, security and financial backing for a massive rescue effort involving a flotilla of Greek ships. Battling a Turkish deadline for completing the evacuation, they skirted orders from higher-ups and arranged to ferry boatloads of refugees from Smyrna and other Turkish ports across the Aegean to safety.

Perhaps the greatest hurdle facing Jennings' rescue mission was the ongoing opposition of the U.S. high commissioner in Constantinople, Rear Adm. Mark Bristol, a blustering, self-serving quasi-ambassador whose disdain toward Greeks and Armenians fed into his agenda of helping Turkish nationalists and U.S. oilmen seeking a foothold in the region.

Jennings' story invites comparisons to that of Oskar Schindler, who saved countless Jews from Nazi death camps four decades later and is remembered in the acclaimed movie "Schindler's List." Ureneck, a newspaper editor-turned-journalism professor, based his book on years of research drawn from primary sources and accounts passed along by survivors.

The author masterfully captures the sights, sounds and smells of an ancient city in the midst of its death throes. The Turks would later rebuild Smyrna and rename it Izmir, now home to nearly 3 million people.

"The Great Fire" reads like a fast-paced thriller replete with vivid profiles of heroes, villains and ordinary people caught up in ethnic and religious violence. It also provides a look at a forgotten chapter in history that set the stage for America's growing involvement in the Middle East.