Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Great Fire: One American's Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century's First Genocide

The Great Fire: One American's Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century's First Genocide
by Lou Ureneck
HarperCollins, 2015.  488 pgs. Nonfiction

In recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, Lou Ureneck has written a fascinating book about an extraordinary man. The Reverend Asa K. Jennings didn't have the look or demeanor of a hero. Just over five feet tall, he had barely survived tuberculosis, and walked with a limp. Sent to Smyrna, one of the great cities of the Ottoman Empire, he was largely shunned or ignored by those who should have helped him in his assignment to administer the YMCA there. Shortly after he arrived, Jennings found himself, literally and figuratively, in the midst of a great conflagration. Turkey had overcome Greece in their nationalist battles, and as Greek soldiers, Armenians, and other Christians fled to the harbor at Smyrna, no one seemed willing or able to help them escape the slaughter that was to come. The senior U.S. naval officer in the region liked the Turks and despised the Greeks, so ignored reports of the calamity at Smyrna, so it fell to a makeshift rescue committee, Reverend Jennings, and Lieutenant Commander Halsey Powell of the U.S. Navy to engineer the removal of thousands of refugees, mostly women and children, from certain death at Smyrna. Jennings established safe houses in the city and took as many people who would fit, and then some, negotiated to purchase as much food as he could, and when these measures were about to fail, he tirelessly negotiated with Greek merchants, British military officers, andTurkish administrators to get the refugees to safety. He had often to rely on bribes, half-truths, and Halsey Powell (who risked his career to help) because of the relentless courage, determination, and charity of a short, gimpy, plain-spoken man wearing a straw boater. Ureneck's descriptions of the massacre of Greeks, Armenians, and Christians at Smyrna are graphic and distressing, but provide a memorable picture of the savage times that would change our world forever.


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