Commemorating the Destruction of Smyrna

Remarks by Greg Bedian

In commemorating this tragic event today, we are not alone. During the month of September, there are commemorative events being held across the country, and indeed worldwide, to remember the tragic events which took place in 1922. Only yesterday, for example, at the Armenian Genocide Museum in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, an academic conference was held as part of the official opening of an exhibition to mark the Destruction of Smyrna.

For Armenians, Smyrna was the last great massacre of the Armenian Genocide. That does not mean that the Armenian Genocide ended in Smyrna. Unfortunately, the Kemalists, whose leadership contained the left overs of the Committee of Union and Progress, continued to actively pursue the Ittihadist’s policy to ethnically cleanse the remaining Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks from Asia Minor for years to come. However, after Smyrna, there would only be smaller, sporadic massacres simply because, by that time, with the exception of the Armenians remaining in Constantinople, there just weren’t any more concentrations of Armenians left to kill.

While we are here to commemorate the Holocaust of Smyrna, I would like to focus my comments not so much on recounting the events of those horrific days in September 1922, but rather to share with you what was lost by the Armenian Community. As we talk about the events from 90 years ago, we all tend to speak in terms of numbers – numbers of dead, numbers of refugees, numbers of ships in the harbor. This clinical approach can sometimes shield us from the magnitude of the horror experienced by the individuals and the trauma, both physical and emotional that they had endure, whether or not they survived. So I ask you all today to try to imagine the unimaginable, to keep in mind the terror experienced by just one person, as if you were in Smyrna about to be enveloped in flames.

Although there were only about 30,000 Armenians in Smyrna in 1922, the loss of the Armenian community of Smyrna had a profound impact on the Armenian Nation. Smyrna was perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the Ottoman Empire, and the Armenians there were highly influenced by the presence of Europeans and the significant population of Levantines, Europeans who had established themselves in the Ottoman Empire, some for several generations.

A significant Armenian presence in the city dates back to the 13th Century. Because of the nearly constant state of war between the Turks and the Persians in the 1600 and 1700s, there were several migrations from Eastern Armenia, especially from the areas of Nakhichevan and Karabagh. Some of these Armenians became involved in trade and established links to Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and became wealthy and influential in the process.

With access to Western education and ideas, the Armenians of Smyrna took a leading role in the Armenian cultural renaissance of the 19th century. The works of many great Western writers, including Shakespeare, Hugo, Voltaire, Byron and others were translated into Armenian and published in Smyrna. There were newspapers, drama groups, civic groups and organizations dedicated to educating less fortunate Armenians in the interior.

By the turn of the 20th Century, the Armenian Quarter, which was located in the Basma-Khane district in the heart of the city, had three Apostolic Churches, including the St. Stepanos Cathedral, as well as the Armenian Catholic and Protestant churches. Also located in the Armenian quarter was an Armenian Hospital and several schools, including the St. Mesrob Boys School, the Sts. Hripsimyats Girls School, and the Mkhitarist Catholic School. Outside the quarter were other institutions, including the Vartanian School. There were Boy Scouts, several soccer clubs and other athletic clubs.

Unfortunately, this vibrant community came to an end 90 years ago this week, after Turkish soldiers began the familiar routine of rounding up and massacring Armenian men, raping Armenian women, and burning down the Armenian quarter. According to American Naval Captain Arthur Hepburn, “every able-bodied Armenian man was hunted down and killed wherever found, with even boys aged 12 to 15 taking part in the hunt.” And despite the fabrications of the Turks and their allies about disgruntled Armenians starting the fires, the pattern of destruction was all too familiar. The soldiers went house to house and street by street, starting the fires which would eventually destroy much of the Christian areas of the city. As one of Smyrna’s firemen testified in court, when confronting the soldiers as to why they were starting the fires the soldiers replied “You have your orders…and we have ours. This is Armenian property. Our orders are to set fire to it.

Falih Rıfkı Atay, a renowned Turkish journalist and author, later lamented about the Turkish army’s action. “Why were we burning down İzmir?” he commented. ”Were we afraid that if waterfront konaks, hotels and taverns stayed in place, we would never be able to get rid of the minorities? When the Armenians were being deported in the First World War, we had burned down all the habitable districts and neighborhoods in Anatolian towns and cities with this very same fear. This does not solely derive from an urge for destruction. There is also some feeling of inferiority in it. It was as if anywhere that resembled Europe was destined to remain Christian and foreign and to be denied to us.”

And indeed, when the fires had burned themselves out, the Armenians of Smyrna were no more. I am sure that Dr. Hatzidimitriou will fill in many of the details of the destruction of this jewel of a city, and of the suffering of those tens of thousands who were killed, those who died trying to escape, and those who somehow managed to survive. There were, of course, Armenians who survived the carnage and were able to flee with their lives. Because of a tightening restrictions on immigration in the US and Europe, many of these Armenians eventually made their way to South America – to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. There, they gradually built their schools, their centers and their churches, and re-established their press, their community organizations and their Armenian cultural life, far, far away from their roots in the Ottoman Empire. And yet, despite their many accomplishments, the Smyrna that had nurtured them, that had given so much to Armenian culture and the Armenian Nation, would be lost forever.