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Mihalis Veziris: The War Years 1912-1918

The National Herald

The Great Fire of Smyrna, also known as the Catastrophe, of 1922. Photo: (EUROKINISSI)

My name is Mihalis Veziris and I was born to Greek Smyrniotes parents: Manolis and Aphrodite Veziris (nee Papadakis) in 1900. Our Father and mother were born in 1860 and 1865 and married in May 1885. My three siblings George, Maria, and Alexandra were born in 1890, 1906 and 1905 respectively. Manolis inherited a carpet factory from his father, Iacovos who died in 1900 which he ran until 1922.

We lived in Bournabat, a suburb of Smyrna, where wealthy Greek and Levantine families lived in beautiful palatial homes with fine gardens, manicured lawns where they hosted their famous garden parties.

Like millions of Greeks at the time, we were subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

The start of 1912 promised much but proved a nightmare come October. I was still in school, my sisters were ready to start their education and our carpet factory continued to do good business.

As war clouds hovered in the distance, I remember the picnics with our family friends at Lake Tantalus where we played without a care in the world. Our world came crashing down when I read that our Empire was ready to go to war against our Balkan neighbors. I didn't have a clue nor understood the politics behind this war. I asked my father to explain to it me but despite his explanation, it was way over my head.

All the daily Smyrna newspapers reported on the progress of the war. Our father kept quiet about the war so as not antagonize our Turkish friends. I remember Turkish passions running high against the Christians during the Balkan Wars. Essad Pasha did everything in his power to protect all the citizens of Smyrna from any hostile attacks by the Turkish mobs. His good relations with the leading Greek, Armenian, and Levantine families and allowed us to continue living normally against the backdrop of slaughter and mayhem during the war. Our father's relations with Essad proved very good for our family business as well.

When the war finished and treaties were signed in late 1913, the Young Turks replaced Essad Pasha with Rahmi Bey. As the new Governor, he immediately sought to cultivate good relations like his predecessor with all the leading families in Smyrna. Rahmi Bey was a cosmopolitan individual who spoke several foreign languages, enjoyed his whiskey, and entertained the wealthy at his villa. Our father always received an invitation from him. This relationship would prove beneficial in later events.

In 1914, I remember the Ottoman government decreed that Turks should boycott all shops owned by Greeks. Rahmi Bey did his utmost to countermand this directive as he wished to protect all foreign businesses, including our own. The political atmosphere in Smyrna was highly charged as relations between Greeks and Turks were on a knife-edge. All it needed was a spark to light the fuse which would have erupted into violence against the Greeks. Rahmi reduced these tensions by applying a carrot and stick approach.

The big shock came when our Empire declared war against Russia in October 1914. I was 14 years old at the time. My sisters Alexandra and Maria were eight and nine years old and didn't understand the consequences of what followed.

I remember young Greek and Armenian men rushing off to enlist in the Ottoman army. They wanted to display their patriotism and loyalty to the Empire. I was lucky to avoid conscription due to my age and continued my education. Rahmi Bey reassured all citizens that they had nothing fear so long as he remained Governor. Our father was very pleased with Rahmi's announcement.

The British blockade of Smyrna didn't really impact my family as much as the poorer classes. They faced inflation and high prices that made it difficult for poor families to meet their daily needs. My family faced difficulties as well but had sufficient funds to ride out the storm of the Great War. Our carpet business suffered greatly under the blockade. However, we managed to sell carpets direct to the public at reduced prices.

My father bought a restaurant along the Smyrna quay to supplement our family income. I think he bought it in early 1915 and sold it at the end of the war. It was a smart move as it was a place where the wealthy elites came to wine and dine. Our region was self-sufficient in foodstuffs which made it easy to source fresh produce for the restaurant. Sometimes I helped out in the kitchen after school, which would help me in my later life.

There was a shortage of medicine which made it difficult for doctors to treat patients. Wounded soldiers received top priority over the ordinary citizen regarding treatment. Doctors did remarkable work making medicines last longer than usual. Despite the blockade, the survival rate of the sick and wounded was good.

In 1916, I enrolled in the commercial and foreign language school which was part of the Evangelical School. Here I learned several foreign languages that proved beneficial in communicating with the multilingual population of Smyrna. At times, I felt English and other times French. It helped me better understand those around me.

I graduated from school in the middle of 1917. My parents were very proud when I received my diploma, being the first to graduate among my siblings. They wanted me to study at Athens University but that wasn't possible with war raging in the Balkans. As far as I know, George never graduated and hated school with a passion. He found ways to avoid doing his homework.

Upon graduation, I assisted my father in his businesses until the end of 1919. I learned how he managed them, looked after employees, and interacted with customers. I felt apprehensive at the start but my confidence increased under his guidance until I could stand on my own. He was a very good mentor.

Rahmi Bey received orders from Constantinople to deport Greeks and Armenians into the interior. He disregarded these instructions much to the annoyance of his masters. My father saw Rahmi Bey, who told him: " I will protect your family and all the Greeks and Armenians as best I can." There was one instance where he deported a small number of Armenians but returned them back to Smyrna within a couple of days. He wanted to show Constantinople that he could be tough when needed. He thumbed his nose at the Young Turks. It could be said that Rahmi Bey proved to be our friend and protector during the war.

The war ended with our empire accepting the allied armistice terms. My parents and I jumped for joy when we read it in the local press. I know the Turks were angry and upset losing the war but like us, they didn't know what the future held for all of us. I hoped that peace would be concluded quickly so life could return back to normal. I looked forward to 1919 with high hopes.