Imagining Smyrna, May 15, 1919

People crowded into boats to escape from the Catastrophe of Smyrna 1922. (Photo: Museum of Asia Minor Hellenism "Filio Hademenou" in Nea Filadelfeia, Eurokinissi/Tatiana Bollari)

My name is Michalis Veziris and lived in Smyrna during the auspicious day of May 15, 1919. It is a day etched in my memory which brought joy to my heart and soul, seeing our Greek army land in the most beautiful city of the Ottoman Empire.

The local Greek newspapers reported on the Paris Peace Conference and of rumors that the Greek army might sent be to Smyrna. I also subscribed to British, French, and American newspapers who offered different perspectives on what was happening in Paris. I was educated at the famous Evangelical school of Smyrna where I learned foreign languages which helped me communicate with foreigners resident in this beautiful city.

I didn’t know whether to believe or disbelieve these news stories. Obviously, should our Greek brothers arrive in Smyrna, they would be proclaimed as our liberators. I am sure many of my fellow Greek Smyrniotes would have shared similar feelings. I was glad we participated on the allied side in the Great War with Eleftherios Venizelos as our great leader. I had no sympathy for King Constantine and his followers whom I regarded as traitors and who sided with Germany.

We now had a great opportunity to realize the Megali Idea. This would bring all our brothers and sisters outside the Hellenic Kingdom into a Megali Ellas –Greater Greece. I do recall from newspaper articles that Venizelos put up a brilliant performance delivering our territorial claims before the great powers in Paris. He was an extraordinary politician who brought honor and glory to Greece. Even his enemies conceded that he was a great orator who had captured the imagination of the political leaders and journalists in Paris.

In early May, rumors circulated that a Greek landing at Smyrna would happen very soon based on the decision of Great Britain, France and the United States. The Italians were distrusted and considered rascals trying to upset their allied partners by landing troops in Asia Minor without their consent. I feared that our troops might end up in a spat with our Italian ally in Asia Minor. Such a clash would benefit the Turks, who would exploit it for their own advantage.

On May 14, the local Greek and foreign language press revealed that the Greeks were finally coming. When I read this my heart rejoiced that our day of liberation was at hand after almost 600 years of Ottoman rule in Ionia. “They’re coming, they’re coming,” I noted in my private diary.

Next day, the whole of Smyrna was abuzz with the expectation and excitement that our brothers would finally arrive to liberate us. I walked up to high ground and had a great view of the entire Bay of Smyrna. I saw Greek navy ships in the distance moving slowly towards Smyrna harbor. At last our navy landed with the troops disembarking on the quay ready to march onto government house (konak).

The troops had been blessed with a beautiful warm sunny day which made everyone feel excited for such a momentous occasion. Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Smyrna blessed the troops upon their arrival on the Smyrna quay. Chrysostomos was highly respected by his fellow Smyrniotes who tended to his flock and maintained good relations with the Ottoman Governor, Rahmi Bey during the Great War. Rahmi treated us kindly and did everything in his power to protect us from being deported into the Anatolian interior.

On May 15, everyone was well dressed for this special occasion, with all Greek businesses and schools closed on that day. My parents, who owned a small carpet factory, gave all their employees the day off to partake in the celebrations. I will never forget the smile on my parents’ faces. They had waited for this day with great anticipation.

The streets were thronged with thousands of Greeks waving Greek flags and shouting “Zito o Venizelos,” “Zito h Ellas,” and “Zito our liberators ” as our troops marched towards government house. I too was elated seeing such marvellous spectacle. The Turks were most unhappy seeing us giaours (infidels) controlling Smyrna as the former master now became the servant. How times had changed with us firmly ensconced in the saddle.

What followed along the procession to the konak was something that would stain our Greek name and create serious doubts in the minds of our allied friends. As our troops approached government house shots were fired by unknown individuals which provoked chaos and a breakdown of law and order. Our soldiers returned fire to protect themselves. Turkish shops and property were looted and destroyed. According to press reports some 300 Turks and 100 Greeks were killed with scores of injured victims. The allies in Paris thought they had made the wrong decision to let us go to Smyrna.

Venizelos argued strenuously that we were capable of administering Smyrna on their behalf. He appointed his close friend, Aristidis Sterghiadis as High Commissioner to administer the city. I didn’t like Sterghiadis, who showed greater sympathy towards the Turks and treated us Smyrniotes with disdain. He was a stern individual who even treated his own staff very badly. It was rumored that he hit Smyrniotes with his cane. No wonder why he was hated by us. Whatever one thought of Sterghiadis, he did manage to administer Smyrna with a firm hand.

The allies appointed an inter-allied commission to investigate the events of Smyrna. Many witnesses were interviewed whose testimony did not assist our cause. The inter-allied final report was scathing of our army, whom they considered undisciplined and quick on the trigger in returning fire. Venizelos once again was able to convince the allies that Greece could maintain law and order. Again his oratorical skills and his friendship with British Prime Lloyd George proved to be decisive for Greece.

As I recount that tumultuous day of May 15, 1919, it is something which I will never forget in seeing us liberated from Ottoman rule. My brother, George who arrived in the United States in 1908, sponsored me  to come here in early 1920. I am glad I came to America, leaving behind my parents and other three siblings whom I never saw again.

(A fictional account on day the Greeks landed in Smyrna on May 15, 1919)

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