NEW YORK – The East Mediterranean Business Culture Alliance (EMBCA) presented The Life and and Times of Aristotle Socrates Onassis Panel Discussion on February 27. The event was in association with AHEPA’s National Hellenic Cultural Commission and was moderated by Lou Katsos, EMBCA’s President and AHEPA National Hellenic Cultural Commission Chairman.
The distinguished panel included Professor Ismini Lamb, the Director of The Modern Greek Program in the Department of Classics at Georgetown University; author/writer Lou Ureneck, Professor of Journalism (retired) at Boston University; author/poet Nicholas Alexiou, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Hellenic American Project at Queens College; Onassis The Play writer, producer, actor Anthony George Skordi; director Dikran Tulaine; and assistant director George Zouvelos.
Katsos gave the welcoming remarks and introduced the panelists, noting that this year is the centennial of the Burning of Smyrna and EMBCA is set to present a few panel discussions this year on the subject. The Burning of Smyrna, known as the Catastrophe, “refers to the deliberately set fire four days after Turkish forces entered and captured the port city of cosmopolitan Smyrna in Asia Minor and which completely destroyed its Hellenic and Armenian quarters,” Katsos said. “The fire was started September 13 and extinguished September 22 in 1922. Turkish troops per eyewitnesses systematically cordoned off the Quay to contain the Hellenes and Armenians within their fire zone quarters and prevented them from fleeing.”
He continued: “The estimated Hellenic and Armenian deaths resulting from the fire range up to 100,000. Approximately up to 400,000 Hellenic and Armenian refugees were in the city from other parts of Asia Minor, to escape the Turkish troops and irregulars, crammed its waterfront and quays to escape from the horrific flames. Eyewitness reports describe panic-stricken civilian refugees diving into the water to escape the flames and that their terrified screaming could be heard miles away.”
The Onassis story, one of the tens of thousand stories of survivors of the Smyrna Genocide, is a story that must be told,” Katsos noted. “In his case, Onassis a product of the Smyrna catastrophe, became one of the most famous, richest and most fascinating charismatic men in the 20th century.”
Born in Smyrna, Aristotle Socrates Onassis fled the city with his family to Greece in 1922 in the wake of the Catastrophe and the last phase of the 30 Year (1894-1924) Hellenic/ Christian Genocide, Katsos noted. “He never forgot that during this period, he lost three uncles, an aunt, and her husband and their daughter, who were burned to death in a church in Thyatira where 500 Christians were seeking shelter during the Smyrna burning. With the Onassis family’s substantial Asia Minor property holdings lost, he and his family become refugees and Aristotle hellbent to succeed.”
Onassis left Greece at age 17 in 1923 for Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a Nansen passport (originally an officially stateless persons passports from 1922 to 1938) virtually penniless, Katsos pointed out, adding that “the rest is history.”
Professor Lamb noted “times of crisis bring out the best or the worst in people, and Onassis chose the former and rose to the challenge and demonstrated characteristics that served him well later.”
The fascinating discussion highlighted the history of the Catastrophe, the compelling details of the life and times of Onassis, and the new Off Broadway production Onassis The Play, written, produced, and acted by Anthony George Skordi. The play runs March 3-20 at The American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th Street in Manhattan.
Prof. Ureneck focused on the Onassis family in Smyrna and the entrepreneurial spirit of the lively city that “continues to hold a grip on the Greek imagination.”
Katsos also noted that on March 15, the anniversary of Onassis’ passing, EMBCA in association with AHEPA and the AHEPA National Cultural Commission and everyone associated with the play will present a Special Charity benefit performance of the play with all the ticket proceeds that evening going (50/50) to the Greek Division of Ronald McDonald House which provides support services for families from Greece and Cyprus, and for Greek-Americans staying in New York City while battling cancer; and to the Hellenic American Project (HAP) at Queens College, a nonprofit program that documents the Hellenic American presence in the United States from the first wave of mass immigration in 1900 to the present and operating as a research facility, archive, Greek American Library, museum, and event space.
Video of the event is available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/1XzrXmd_41M.