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Culture

Damergis’ Film on Smyrna Catastrophe Tells Asa K. Jennings’ Story

July 12, 2022
By Joseph C. Keane

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

This is the story of one man who saw what had to be done and without authority, position, or obligation, but a firm belief in God and in his mission in life, did it. This is the story of Asa K. Jennings who as a God-fearing young man when diagnosed with an incurable life-threatening disease believed, “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it,” JN 11:4. Decades later, Jennings was a Methodist minister with the American YMCA working with young boys in Smyrna, in the late summer of 1922, during the then-Greek-Turkish War. With the Turkish capture of the city and the city in flames, the inhabitants were struggling to flee the city with Turkish troops raping and killing behind them and the Aegean Sea in front of them, they had nowhere to go. The time for his mission had arrived and Jennings was ready to accept the responsibility to help humanity.

Thanks to Professor Michael Damergis, Jennings actions have been memorialized in film. Prof. Damergis is a professor at Iona College in the Media and Communications Department. Having two grandparents who were part of the population exchange in 1923 and left all their worldly possessions behind, Damergis knew this was a story that had to be told.

Smyrna: Paradise Is Burning, The Asa K. Jennings Story is a short, beautifully presented documentary that tells this complicated story in a sensitive and authentic manner. Damergis uses actual newsreel recordings of events narrated by scholars, authors, witnesses, and relatives that provide an accurate and suspenseful dramatization of the events.

Smyrna: Paradise Is Burning, The Asa K. Jennings Story by filmmaker Michael Damergis won best Historical Film in the Cannes World Film Festival for the month of May. Photo: Facebook

Having set the stage for the impending disaster, the documentary then recounts the earlier story of Smyrna, the beautiful city. Trade between Europe and Asia came through its port. There were consulates for all the major countries. It was truly a cosmopolitan and cultural center. With the partitioning of Turkey at the end of World War I, Greece was given Smyrna and the surrounding area. It was a major base of operations for Greek troops in Anatolia during the Greco-Turkish War (1919–1922). The Greek occupation of Smyrna ended on the September 9, 1922 with the Turkish capture of the city by troops commanded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The signal event of the Turkish occupation was the mutilation and murder of the popular Greek clergy patriot, Metropolitan Chrysostomos. A few days later, the Great Fire of Smyrna burnt large parts of the city, including most of the Greek and Armenian areas, with estimated fatalities ranging from 10,000 to 100,000. Seeing what was transpiring, the inhabitants were struggling to flee the city. It was estimated that there were 300,000 Greek men, women, and children on the quay at Smyrna, attempting to escape. There were ships in the harbor from France, Britain, the U.S., and Italy but they would only allow citizens of their own country to board. Swimmers who attempted to board these ships were forcefully repelled at bayonet point.

Into this hellish situation Asa Jennings intervened. He worked with a Geek ship Captain Ioannis Theofanidis, who translated Jennings’ demands and encoded them to persuade the Greek Government to send ships for the evacuation. The Greek Prime Minister ignored Jennings’ many requests and finally refused to send ships. Then Jennings stated his next request would not be encoded and the world would be copied. That got the attention that was needed, and 26 ships were approved for the evacuation. Meanwhile an American, Captain Halsey Powell, was negotiating with the Turkish authorities to allow the Greeks to emigrate. Unfortunately, when approval came, the Turkish government only allowed the evacuation of women, children, and old men. All young men from 16 to 65 were not allowed to leave and have disappeared from the pages of history. There were two final acts needed to successfully complete the saga. The Greek shipowners were reluctant to risk themselves and their ships in the Turkish harbor. Captain Theofanidis announced that he would court marshal and execute any captain that didn’t take their turn in the evacuation. The Turkish government insisted no Greek flags could be flown and all those emigrating had to be approved at a single checkpoint within seven days. The process was frantic but completed, however a generation of Greek men were left behind and lost.

This is a tremendous story and there aren’t enough superlatives to commend Asa Jennings for his efforts to avert such a potential disaster. A story like this brings into sharp focus man’s inhumanity to his fellow man and how so many people can remain indifferent to the plight of others, in the face of malignant evil. It also causes one to consider what one might do when confronted with a comparable situation. It is a good question that needs to be asked and we are indebted to Damergis for providing the forum for raising such issues. In any event, we have to be indebted to Damergis for sharing this inspirational story. He was rewarded, in part, by receiving the Cannes World Film Festival Best Historical Documentary for the month of May.

The documentary can be seen online: https://bit.ly/3PbAxko.

Joseph C. Keane is a longtime member and former president of AHEPA Chapter # 405 of New Rochelle and also served as chair of the AHEPA Hellenic Cultural Commission.

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