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Historical Observations: The Smyrna Fire: Theodore Bortoli Tells His Tragic Story

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The Great Fire of Smyrna, also known as the Catastrophe of 1922. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Tatiana Bollari via Art Exhibition concerning Smyrna)

The Committee of Immigration and Naturalization of the U.S. House of Representatives held meetings on December 15, 16, and 19, 1922 to hear evidence regarding a bill to allow the admission into the United States of refugees from Turkish territories. The Bill HR 13269 was presented by Congressman White of Kansas. Some of the witnesses included: Lothrop Stoddard (author), Prof. Edward Capps (Princeton University, NJ), Esther Lovejoy (Chairman of the Executive Board of American Women's Hospitals), Charles Vernon Vickrey (Near East Relief), George Horton (ex-U.S. Consul General, Smyrna), Aristidis E. Phoutrides (Asst. Prof. of Greek, Yale University), Mary M. Bremer (National Board of YMCA, New York), Rev M.T Kalaidjian (Sec., YMCA, Armenian Dept, New York), and Brainerd P. Salmon (Ex-President American Chamber of Commerce of Athens, Greece). Many of them had either lived, worked, or had connections with the Near East.

Theodore Bortoli gave evidence before the committee on what he had witnessed in Smyrna before arriving on November 22 in the United States. He stated that he was born in Smyrna to Italian parents who lived in that city for forty years. His family owned a carpet and rug factory in Smyrna with a depot in England. Bortoli was interested in opening up a factory if he was permitted to remain in the United States.

He showed sympathy for Greece, given that she was confronting a major refugee crisis and was doing everything in her power to help these individuals. He hoped his information would convince the committee to relax its immigration regulations in allowing the United States to increase its intake of Asia Minor refugees. Bortoli believed that Europe had to share the responsibility that "France and Italy gave the armies of Kemal the assistance that made victory possible." 

His mission coming to America was to tell of the wonderful work which the American relief organizations did before and during the Smyrna fire and telling the truth of events that he witnessed in Smyrna. He described the violent death of Archbishop Chrysostomos by the Turkish mob which was sanctioned by Turkish officialdom. Bortoli never mentioned Nourredin Pasha by name, who handed over the Archbishop to the mob, however.

He describes events that happened in Smyrna between September 11-13. The Turks started going through the Armenian quarter visiting and knocking on doors. After the first visit, another squad passed through firing bullets, massacring people, and setting fire to their houses. "When the Armenians saw these things [happening] they went to their church, St. Stephano, and the Turks went immediately after them and asked them to surrender. The Armenians refused and said “we will yield to the Allies, but not to you”, Bortoli said. He continued, “I am sorry to say that the Turks fetched French and Italian officers, and knowing the friendship of the French and Italians for the Turks the poor Armenians surrendered thought they were safe and they surrendered.”

Once this happened, the Turks immediately entered the church, killing an unknown number of people and then pouring “petrol in the church and set fire to it and all the Christians were burned alive.” Bortoli claims he saw flames coming out of the church. As an Italian citizen, he was disgusted with the Italian soldiers who did nothing to assist the Armenians.

Bortoli notes September 13 as a significant date in his testimony. “On the 13th anyone passing on the streets was stopped and robbed. The Turks said they wanted gold money and if the people did not have enough they would kill them.” He scoffed at the idea that the Greeks had torched the city. “On 13th I saw Turks in a motor lorry sprinkling petroleum over the cadavers and through the city, and after little [while], I saw the flames going up from one part of the waterfront to another. Those were Turks sprinkling petroleum. I am only here to tell the truth, and to ask you for admission for these refugees [to come into the United States]."

The committee chairman declared that the United States wasn't in a position to accept a huge influx of refugees which would put pressure on its quota system. Bortoli responded that the relatives of the refugees in the United States could sponsor them and provide accommodation provided they passed their medical. He believed that no more than ten to fifteen thousand would come to the United States. The whole idea of relative sponsoring was to ensure that the refugee didn't become a public charge on the U.S. government. 

On September 14, Bortoli attempted to take his mother to the passport office and put her on a ship. Unfortunately, she died when a bullet struck her in the head. He went to Boudja, a suburb of Smyrna, to check on his two sisters and found both of them dead "with revolvers beside them." They had committed suicide to avoid being raped and tortured by the Turks. His brother was wounded and became insane. Bortoli wasn't sure whether this would be a temporary or permanent situation. He knew that his brother wouldn't be allowed to enter the United States because of his medical condition.

He praised the U.S. Consul General, George Horton in getting the entire American colony safely out of Smyrna. Horton inquired into the fate of an American which the Turks claimed had been released. Unsatisfied with the Turkish reply, Horton sent for an officer to ascertain when this person had been released but no one knew of his whereabouts. The Turks didn’t want to reveal that he had been executed.

Bortoli revealed that the French and Italians had no problems with the Turks whereas the British were a different matter. The Turks hated the British and would kill them immediately if they saw them. The British Consul had instructed his nationals to leave on the first available boat with many finding refuge in England and Malta. Bortoli blamed both the French and Italians for not taking action against the Turks. If their warships “had fired two warning shots it would have stopped everything.”

He described the plight of the refugees on the quay trying to leave Smyrna. French, Italian, British, and American marines were landed supposedly to protect the refugees. In reality, there was no protection at all as the Turks came in groups taking children, women, and girls massacring them. The major powers had given instructions to protect only their nationals.

“You could not leave Smyrna with a pair of shoes. I left Smyrna without a shirt”, Bortoli concluded.