Posted on

A Narrative of Faith and Courage by Lou Ureneck

2016 venizelos chair lecture

On Thursday, March 10, The American College of Greece was honored to welcome Professor Lou Ureneck on campus as the 2016 Eleftherios Venizelos Chair Lecturer. The presentation was held in a packed Upper Level Library, amidst an audience eager to listen to Ureneck tell the story of one of the most horrible moments the world has encountered: The Smyrna catastrophe.

President Horner welcomed the audience to this year’s lecture, in the context of celebrating the College’s 140 years of educational life and its roots from Smyrna, and introduced Lou Ureneck as a talented storyteller with a greatly significant interpretation of historical events.

Professor Lou Ureneck, with a past in journalism and writing, is head of the Department of Journalism at the Boston University, a valued student exchange partner institution of ACG. But there’s more to this bond than an impeccable cooperation between two institutions; Professor Ureneck’s latest book, The Great Fire: A Narrative of Courage and Faith tells a tale intrinsically related to the ACG legacy: the story of people who made an incredible difference during the Asia Minor catastrophe. Such is the story of our very own Minnie Mills, a hero in Ureneck’s book, and a role-model throughout our history.

The speaker thanked the attendants, and shared that he was intimidated to talk about the Smyrna catastrophe in Greece, to an audience so closely related to Asia Minor. On the contrary, though, his speech was deeply insightful and took the audience on a vivid trip down the path of time to the events of the Smyrna catastrophe. Showcasing remarkable story-telling and narrative skill, the speaker brought the fateful events of ’22 to life.

Connecting the dots

The American College of Greece, established in the Armenian district of Smyrna in 1875 as the American Collegiate Institute for Girls, found itself in the eye of the storm as the frightful events of September 1922 unfolded, changing the course of history for thousands upon thousands of people. Henry Morgenthau, who served as the American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the First World War said of the Smyrna catastrophe, “I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible event as this.”

Minnie Mills, a missionary and teacher at our school, was “a strong, stout, and determined woman, as events would show,” said Ureneck. And so they did, as when the Turkish army set the Armenian section of the city ablaze, Mills opened the gates of the American Collegiate Institute, offering shelter to 1,200 refugees who flooded the courtyard.

As dark days went by, Smyrna – a once beautiful, cosmopolitan, and tolerant city – was reduced to piles of bodies amidst the rubble of fallen buildings. Escape was almost impossible for survivors, as they were barely able to navigate the remnants of their land through the thick smoke of a fire that burned for days. Flailing in the chaos, the civilians were “exposed to the full wrath and brutality of the Turkish Army,” said Ureneck. “It was like the sacking of a medieval city… A hellish, hellish scene.”

Tens of thousands of people tried to escape a living nightmare, running from the flames only to reach a waterfront so packed that many suffocated. The fire raged on and burned so hellishly hot, that sails on ships in the harbor were ignited. “It was the biggest story in the world,” Ureneck said, “and everyone wondered why no one would help.” Responding to a later question from the audience, the speaker added that “It was a cold-blooded, strategic decision of the great powers to be on the winning side of the Turkish nationalists.”

On Telling the Story

The speaker explained his decision to narrate history through the stories of individuals, not nations; to select – out of thousands –  the characters who would be his heroes, and to show that one individual can change the course of history. Individuals such as the unlikely hero Asa Jennings, a missionary who joined forces with U.S. Lt. Commander Haulsey Powell and Greek Captain Giannis Theofanidis, and took matters into their own hands, saving over 250,000 people from Smyrna, many of whom found safety upon reaching the shores of Lesvos. People needed help all along the Aegean coast however, and Jennings continued on his mission to lead a useful life – ultimately being credited with saving over one million lives.

“As an American, I found an American story – but this story belongs to the survivors,” said Ureneck, and added that “ACG is an heir to these memories as an establishment of knowledge, understanding, and tolerance.”

Challenging The Narratives

Ureneck discussed the powerful way in which trauma and violence move down through generations, from artifacts and memories, to stories retold by families. Of course, the stories told by the survivors are always different from those told by the aggregators. Minnie Mills was a key figure in how the events in Smyrna were recorded in history. Her testimony was of great importance in defining the truth of what happened, in what turned out to be a very controversial historical narrative.

In an engaging conversation that was held after the lecture, a member of the audience asked, “Does history do justice to the victims?” to which Ureneck replied was an unanswerable question, mentioning however that there are newly-emerging voices of Turkish historians who are questioning the dominant narrative in Turkey.

The Turkish was a narrative of victory, said Ureneck, while the Greek and Armenian narrative was one of disaster. Therefore, following the route of events that led to the Smyrna catastrophe is extremely challenging. Sharing a story from his past, Ureneck offered the crystal-clear metaphor of criminal court, in regard to the narratives of history: There are two sides, with the same facts, presenting different stories. One is of guilt, and the other is of innocence. Beyond that, it is up to the jury to decide.