ROSEMONT, Ill. (A.W.)–On Sat., Nov. 7, the Academic Conference on the Asia Minor Catastrophe took place at the Westin Hotel in Rosemont, Ill. One hundred people attended the daylong event. George Movropoulos, president of the Pontian Greek Society of Chicago, welcomed everyone and presented a brief overview of last year’s conference, the first of its kind on the subject of the Asia Minor Catastrophe—the genocide of the Greeks in the Pontus region of Anatolia. He stressed the importance of such a conference in order to promote research, knowledge, and the culture of the Greeks in that region. He added that to date not enough published literature is available on the topic. For that reason, the society is working on establishing a research center. After representatives from the various Greek organizations, as well as the Greek Vice-Consul, were invited to say a few words, Movropoulos introduced the moderator, George Shirinian, director of the Zoryan Institute in Toronto, Canada, and executive director of the International Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (a division of the Zoryan Institute).
In his opening remarks, Shirinian briefly discussed the previous year’s conference, the need for more publications, more scholars, and training in the languages involved, such as Greek, Armenian, and Turkish. “These efforts,” Shirinian said, “lead to constructive and powerful action.” As he concluded his remarks, he stated, “When a people’s rights are trampled on, no people are free from the same thing. In a sense, this is a shared human experience.” Shirinian’s father was a genocide survivor. Following his opening remarks, Shirinian introduced the speakers.
Dr. Taner Akcam, associate professor of history at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., presented his paper titled “The Greek ‘Deportations’ and Massacres of 1913-1914, A Trial Run for the Armenian Genocide,” addressing the elements and the calculated methods of destruction of non-Turkish minorities, namely the Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians, along with any signs of their respective cultures in Ottoman society. The goal of the Ottoman government was to “free themselves of non-Turkish elements in the Aegean—to kill and annihilate them,” Akcam said. “In 1913 through 1914, a large number of people were expelled and murdered.” As for the Armenians, many were forced to convert to Islam but later most were killed. The aim of the campaign of ridding the country of certain citizens was to reduce the Christian population to 5-10 percent for “security” reasons. The entire act was a social engineering process—the killing of the Armenians, and the riddance of the Greeks, most of whom were deported. “The government,” explained Akcam, “presented two policies—one legal, the other private.” In the legal policy, they presented a face of “humanitarianism” in their manner of “moving” or “deporting” their unwanted populations, while privately, they conducted illegal and treacherous activities against productive and peaceful Christian members of their society. Ottoman archives were to leave the impression that the government carried out its mission of depopulating the Greek villages in a humane manner. For those Greeks who survived, in addition to what they had suffered, fares were collected from them as they were shipped away to Greece. In his concluding remarks, Akcam explained that the Greek massacres and deportations were so successful that they became the forerunners for the Armenian Genocide. When asked about the Armenian Genocide, he replied, “Turkey will never admit the Armenian Genocide—a crime maybe, but not genocide.”
Dr. Constantine Hatzidimitriou, Queens director of school improvement for the NYC Department of Education, and associate adjunct professor at St. Johns University in New York, presented his paper titled “Official and Unofficial American Reactions to the Asia Minor ‘Catastrophe’—What the Documentary Evidence Reveals.” Hatzidimitriou described the burning of Smyrna, and referenced publications, namely Marjorie Housepian Dobkin’s Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City, and Giles Milton’s Paradise Lost, Smyrna 1922; the Turkification of minorities and the seizing of their properties; ethnic cleanings and cover-ups, which continue today; and the use of sanitized reports, such as those by Admiral Mark Lambert Bristol, instead of those by George Horton (The Blight of Asia), which were detailed and damning, and as a result kept secret until the 1950’s. Hatzidimitriou emphasized the large volume of archival sources describing the destruction of the Greeks (among them, the massacre of 350,000 Pontic Greeks) and other minorities in Asia Minor. “If you were a Greek or an Armenian,” he explained, “your property was seized by the government because you were not there (either massacred or forcibly driven away). When there were inquiries about missing people in the region, the Turks would say ‘they never existed,’ and the Americans, for example, would say, ‘they are presumed dead because they can’t be located.’” The example Hatzidimitriou gave of seized property was that of the burning of the American Consulate by Turkish soldiers and how, as a result, the consulate found a house to rent. The house was that of an Armenian who had fled Smyrna, and therefore the property was declared abandoned.
Matthias Bjornlund, a Danish archival historian who specializes in the Armenian Genocide and related issues, presented his paper titled “Aspects of Western Sources and Interpretations of the Pontian Genocide.” Bjornlund is a researcher and translator of Danish documents on the Armenian Genocide for a Danish section of the German website (www.armenocide.de), a committee member preparing for the 2010 exhibition and conference on Scandinavia and the Armenian Genocide in cooperation with the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute (www.genocide-museum.am), and author of a monograph on Denmark and the Armenian Question. His MA thesis was titled “Et Folk Myrdes. Det Armenske Folkemord i Danske Kilder” (“A People is Being Murdered: The Armenian Genocide in Danish Sources”). In his paper, Bjornlund discussed the destruction of Greek and Armenian communities in Smyrna and stated that the Danish Consul there, as well as Swedish eyewitnesses described the violence against these people, and the Austrian Consulate reported mass arrests of Armenians. In 1916, the Ottoman government had attempted to exterminate the Armenians in that city but the Germans stopped them. Finally, in 1922, the Greek and Armenian communities in Smyrna were destroyed. Bjornlund outlined some of the methods and reasons for expunging not only Smyrna’s Christian Greek and Armenian minorities, but also the entire country’s Christian minorities. He explained that the extermination of these minorities was the official policy of the Ottoman government. Expulsions were to accompany torture, intimidation, and violent persecution. Greek and Armenian merchants were forced to close their businesses, which were quickly replaced with Turkish ones. People were instructed by Muslim religious leaders to boycott Christian businesses, and as a result, merchants went bankrupt. In 1914, Inga Nalbandian (a Danish woman married to an Armenian) reported from Turkey that Muslim women were threatened not to buy from Greek and Armenian merchants, and that Greek and Armenian professors were fired from their university positions. In his concluding remarks, Bjornlund said that, in general, England, Europe, the Scandinavian countries, and the U.S. try to place a lid on the Greek and Armenian genocides for economic reasons.
Alexander Kitroeff, associate professor of history at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where he also serves as the academic director of the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, presented his paper titled “The Plight of the Greek Refugees After the Break-Up of the Ottoman Empire.” He discussed the importance of photographic evidence, which documents the way people live, the destruction, the burning, as well as the superficial or obvious, such as symbols, flags—things we take for granted. “And the way the photographer takes pictures reveals much. For example, some photos of victims are taken in a passive way,” he added. Kitroeff discussed the resettlement of the Ottoman Greeks in Greece in the 1920’s, their adoption of a “refugee identity” based on their place of origin and the memories it generated—their common experience of violence and displacement, and their treatment by others. He stated that the refugee identity has a history. For the Ottoman Greeks, it was resettlement in the 1920’s; establishment and incorporation in the 1930’s to 1950’s; and upward social mobility in the 1960’s to 1980’s. The professor concluded his presentation by saying that for political reasons, the Greek government does not want to raise the issue of the Greek Catastrophe, and so refers to it in indirect ways, such as literature.
Dr. Van Koufoudakis, rector emeritus, University of Nicosia, Cyprus, and dean emeritus of the College of Arts and Sciences, Indiana University and Purdue University, presented his paper titled “Turkey’s Deliberate and Systematic Violations of International Agreements Since 1923,” in which he described how the Pontian Greeks and the Armenians were forcibly removed from their homes—their ancestral homeland dating back 3,000 years—because of their ethnicity, religion, language, and culture. To assist in the ethnic cleansing of these minorities, which was the Turkish way of dealing with ethnic groups, criminals were let loose to terrorize these populations. The people were intimidated, their properties confiscated, forced to labor under horrendous conditions, raped, and murdered. The rape of women and children was the ultimate attack because the offenders knew they had the protection of the state. Evidence that showed where these minorities had lived was destroyed, such as buildings, churches, schools, and cemeteries. Koufoudakis discussed Turkey’s violations of international agreements since 1923; international apathy, which allows Turkey to continue with its violations of international laws with impunity; and the practice of “blaming of others, which is how Turkey can deny what they did.” Koufoudakis concluded his presentation by stating that American and British policies against Turkey’s violations are to overlook the actions on the basis of political expediency for economic and strategic reasons. “What can we do?” he asked, and then gave examples of what has been done: “1) The Cypriots have taken Turkey to the European Court of Human Rights. 2) The Greeks and the Patriarchate of Istanbul have gone against Turkey for violating property rights to the European courts and have won.”
As the academicians took final questions from the audience, and then as Hatzidimitriou presented the closing remarks—in which he discussed “placing the events of the Anatolian Genocide in the broader context of Hellenic and world history”—I could not help but think of the final two lines of the poem, “They Thought They Were Free”: “…When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”
With conferences such as this one, with the establishment of research centers, more researchers and publications on the topic of genocide, anguished voices brutally silenced will be heard again.