The International Literary Quarterly

November 2007

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Narratives of Loss and Survival: Greek Voices from the Asia Minor Catastrophe by Thalia Pandiri  


For each group of refugees, even for every individual refugee, the experience of persecution, violence, humiliation, loss of home and loved ones and identity is unique. Yet there is a sameness despite the differences, a commonality. Today we look at Congo, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Israel/Palestine. But genocidal violence, the brutality of people who lived in harmony as friends and neighbors before becoming enemies, and the self-interested intervention of outside forces--major powers and their commercial, industrial and military interests-- are nothing new.

The narratives I have translated were recorded by field workers from the Center for Asia Minor Studies in Athens, who began their work interviewing refugees from the “Asia Minor Catastrophe” in the 1930’s. Well-trained scholars, some bilingual in Turkish and Greek, interviewed survivors in refugee settlements throughout Greece and compiled an archive of roughly 145,000 pages. Based on the evidence of 5,051 informants who had resettled in Greece, research was conducted on 1,375 of the 2,163 settlements inhabited by Greeks that were identified in Asia Minor. The excerpts that appear below are taken from two volumes on the Exodos [A and B, with each narrative assigned a number] (1). These accounts amount to a small fraction of the archival material, but they are representative, coming as they do from a wide range of diverse settlements and socio-economic classes.

For millennia, Greeks lived and prospered in Asia Minor. In antiquity, from the 8th century BC, the Greek cities of Ionia (now coastal Turkey) were among the most prosperous in the region. Greek settlements in Asia Minor were a natural outgrowth of the commercial and cultural relations that had flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean since Minoan times. Homer was an Ionian; Sappho’s brother, from Lesbos, was a wealthy merchant in Sardis, and Sappho tells us that Lydian girls were among her pupils; the Greek historian Herodotus was from Halicarnassus; the Greek scientist-philosopher Thales was a Milesian; the list goes on. Whether under Persian or, later, Roman rule, the Greeks of Asia Minor were allowed to keep their own language and were granted a good deal of autonomy. Even when the Byzantine Empire gave way to Ottoman rule in the fifteenth century, the Greek population was allowed to practice Orthodox Christianity, to speak Greek, and to a large degree to govern itself on the local level. In fact, until the last years of Ottoman rule, the large Greek population, the smaller Armenian and Jewish populations, and other minority groups coexisted peacefully with one another and with the Turkish population.

The situation began to change radically with the rise of the Young Turks’ Committee of Union and Progress, the Constitution of 1908 and the deposition of the Sultan in the following year. The Balkan Wars (1912-14) caused some upheaval, but the persecution of minority populations did not escalate and become systematic until Turkey entered the First World War on the side of Germany. The German adviser, General Liman von Sanders, promoted a genocidal policy that led to the massacre of much of the Armenian population in 1915. He also encouraged the persecution of the Greek population, whose expulsion and eradication he urged as necessary for the creation of a strong, modern state. Ironically, the “ethnic cleansing” of the Greek population did not begin seriously until after the victory of the Entente powers. In 1920, after much squabbling and cutting secret deals, the victorious powers signed a treaty at Sèvres which ceded Smyrna to Greece. The symbolic as well as real economic value of the flourishing commercial port of Smyrna, a city so predominantly Greek that it was known as “the city of the ghiaours [infidels]”, and elation over the defeat of Turkey aroused popular sentiment in Greece. Prime Minister Venizelos (arguably the architect of the Greek nation state) and a conservative Orthodox Church, exploited irredentist dreams of recapturing the Byzantine Empire. For centuries, many had dreamed of taking back “The City”—that is, Constantinople. Now “taking back Smyrna” became a rallying cry, as Britain and the other allied powers pressed Greece to lead the invasion into Turkey and enforce the terms agreed upon at the end of WWI. In May, 1919 the Greek army landed in Smyrna, and was at first victorious. Without the support of the British, however, which evaporated as soon as it became clear that Kemal’s forces would defeat the Ottoman army and that the political situation in Turkey was changing, the Greek army—sabotaged and hung out to dry in the interior—was doomed to defeat. The decisive defeat came in August 1922 and three months later an armistice was signed. The systematic burning of Smyrna by Turkish soldiers and mobs began on September 9th, 1922 and lasted for days. Neighborhoods of Armenians and Greeks were pillaged and burned, their inhabitants robbed, tortured, raped, led off to slaughter. The foreign ships, “neutral observers,” looked on. Elsewhere, the retreat of the Greek soldiers left Greek communities exposed to the pursuing Turkish soldiers, to the bands of terrorists under the leadership of local war lords, to opportunistic groups of common criminals. The “liberators” were often no better: Greek as well as Turkish villages that had survived the war were burned by retreating Greek soldiers, so that the Turkish soldiers pursuing them would find no food or shelter.

Brutal murder—whether part of a policy of ethnic cleansing or the random acts of soldiers and thugs--, rape, pillage and terror preceded for years the Lausanne Agreement signed at the end of July, 1923. The Treaty called for the Compulsory Exchange of Minority Populations; all Greeks resident in Turkey (except those who could prove established residence in Constantinople) before October 30, 1918, were to be expelled from Turkey and “repatriated” to Greece; the much smaller number of Turks resident in Greece (except those who could prove established residence in Western Thrace at the signing of the Treaty of Bucharest in 1913) were to be expelled and “returned” to Turkey. The last Greek and Armenian refugees left Turkey by 1925.

The influx of refugees, a third the size of the entire population of Greece (roughly five million), proved an overwhelming challenge to the country. For the vast majority of refugees, hardships were dire and survival a struggle. Many did not survive; almost all suffered. Here are some of their voices:

Andreas Haranis was from Gerenköy, 33 km N of Smyrna. The town had 1,000 inhabitants in 1922, almost all Greeks originally from Lesbos. He was taken prisoner and marched to a forced labor camp. His wife and children had gone to relatives on Lesbos earlier and he was eventually released and joined them. Ironically, since he had joined the Greek army and was a POW who could be exchanged for a Turkish POW, he fared better than many innocent civilians.

“They took everyone on a forced march to the interior. After the first night, the Turks selected the prettiest girls and raped them. They took my niece too. She was screaming, ‘Grandpa, save me!’ My father wept when he heard her. He had always been a strong man, but now he could do nothing to help her. Two of my fellow-villagers were there, they told me about it. When those two saw what was going to be done to everyone, they jumped into the river and escaped. All the rest were dragged to Magnesia and they killed them in the ravine at Sipylos. Out of my whole family, I’m the only one who survived. My parents, three brothers and sisters, five nephews and nieces—the Turks slaughtered them all.” [A61-62]

Panayiotis Marselas was also a soldier. He had been serving in Thrace but was sent to Smyrna in August 1922 to accompany and deliver a group of soldiers who had been tried in a military court and found guilty. He was in Smyrna when the Turkish army entered the city and the fires began, starting with the Armenian neighborhood.

 “There were fires everywhere. People were trying to escape from the city, but the Turkish sentries had cordoned off the city and were shooting anyone who tried to flee. Those who could swim and managed to get to the sea jumped in. If the Turks saw them, they shot them in the water. If they managed to escape unseen, some made it to the Allied ships, but even if they managed to climb up, they were thrown back into the water by the crew. Some drowned, others made it back to land. The British, French and Italians sat in the coffee shops and had a good time.

At some point, people were allowed to leave. After two or three days, there was an order, we should come to the docks and leave. We did manage to send off our father, mother and sister to the docks, but we two boys stayed behind. After an hour, we headed out too, but we were captured by Turkish civilians and shut up in a jail. About ten at night, they took us out and gathered together some 5,000 prisoners. They marched us through the Turkish quarters. We passed through the Jewish quarter as well. The Jews were nastier to us than the Turks were. We got to Agios Konstandinos [outskirts of Smyrna] where the major slaughter began. There were fifty priests among the captives, and they were killed first….” [The informant goes on to describe killings and other atrocities and hardships on the forced march to the labor camps at Magnesia. Those who arrived numbered only 1,000, and they were officially recorded as prisoners, given numbers and used for forced labor. When the time came to transfer them to Aidini and send them back to Greece, only 500 survivors remained, one tenth of the captives who had been rounded up in Smyrna.]

Theodora Kontou was a child in 1922, from a village 8 km SE of Nymphaio/Nif and 32 km ESE of Smyrna. The village of Grytzalia [Kyzylzali] was divided into three sections: 1,300 Greeks and 800 Turks lived in the Upper Village; 500 Turks lived in the Middle Village; 50 Greeks lived in the Lower Village. (Taken as a whole, the village had 1,350 Greeks and 1,300 Turks before 1922.)

"We went from the village to Smyrna. We thought we would be coming back. We went to rest at St. John's church. There were a lot of people there. A friend of my father's took us to his house. We stayed there. He took his family and left without telling us anything. He left secretly. The Turks came in. They slaughtered our father and mother, my uncle and aunt, and my three brothers. My younger sisters and I—one was two-and-a-half, the other three-and-a-half—we were hiding under a little storage space and they didn’t see us.

We stayed there for twelve days. No food, no water. The house had some kind of basin with some water that dripped into it. What could I do? I wanted to wet my lips a little. I'd wet the hem of my dress, hold my nose and suck a little sip. From the stench, you wanted to vomit. One of my little sisters had a bullet wound in her foot.

As the days went by, and the corpses got more bloated, they stank--you can’t imagine how they stank. Turkish women came to steal and they couldn't even stand to come in, they grabbed what they could in a hurry: chickens, spoons, some copper pots, and they ran out without seeing us.

One day God must have given me the notion to venture out a bit. I made the sign of the cross, took my wounded little sister on my back and the other by the hand, and went out into the road. I was running, trying to catch up with the crowd of people fleeing. Then I saw a girl sitting on a pile of stones. I called out to her, I wanted someone to help me, someone to talk to. This girl—not a word. She sat motionless. I didn't notice anything, just kept talking to her. I saw her eyes were bugging out, but I didn’t think anything of it. Then I looked closer. What did I see? They'd rammed a piece of wood up inside her from behind, and it was sticking out of her mouth. That's when I started running faster and faster. But what was I to do with two babies? I went into a church, but because we stank—rotten blood, the baby's festering wound, our hair, our clothes—they chased us out of the church. What could I do now? We curled up like little puppies in a corner outside. So many years ago, but I can't forget. I feel it's happening right now.

We wept, we mourned, we talked about it over and over. My mother didn't die when everyone else did. They had ripped out her guts, she was covered in blood, and she was warning me, giving me advice: ‘When you see things are getting really bad, throw yourself into the sea.’ She took her purse out of her pocket and gave it to me, and a blood-soaked photograph as well. I still have it but I can't show it to you now.

In the end, I followed along with the crowd. We walked and walked, and came to the cordon. The Turks didn’t want to let us through. Now what! I got first one baby through, then the other, then finally I got through too, and eventually, after a lot of problems, we got on a boat to Mytilene. From there they took us to Thessaloniki, and from there, here [Athens]. I had a cousin who was a dressmaker, and she placed me as a servant in a household. I was fourteen. My mistress knew a lady who was able to get my two baby sisters into an orphanage. One of them died at twenty-two. The other is alive. She's married, and lives in Nea Erithrea. I got married. I married a quiet, God-fearing man, someone from back home. But I've seen a lot of suffering." [A42-43]

Vassilis Rallis was from the coastal town of Çandarli, 61 km NW of Smyrna, 29 SW of Pergamos (Bergama) and 47 NE of Ayvalik; it was built on the ruins of the ancient Aeolian city of Priene and had 2,000 Greek and Turkish inhabitants before 1922. Guilt and self-recrimination define Rallis’ memories and his view of himself.

"In ’22, there was a massacre in my village as well. I don’t want to remember it. I was to blame that my children were slaughtered, and my wife. I was focussed on saving property, I wanted to save lifeless things. I don’t want to remember it; my soul is heavy as a stone. My little boy was pleading with me, 'Daddy, take us along!' But me, I said, 'I’ll be back,' idiot that I was, as if it were in my power to make good on that promise. I couldn’t imagine what would happen. I put all our good stuff on a little boat that I had, and went to Mytilene, intending to come back. But I didn’t get a chance to, the massacre happened. They took everyone to a fortress and slaughtered them all. Four sons and my wife, all dead because of me[….] My wife’s wedding dress survived, and when I remarried, this one here used the material to make some dresses for herself. That’s the way it goes. 'Daddy, take us too!' But I was pigheaded, I wasn’t there when they needed me. That wretched fortress became a mass grave; the whole place filled with the unburied dead. All of Asia Minor." [A143]

Nota Diamandi came from Dikeli, a port and coastal market town 26 km WSW of Pergamos (Bergama), on the Ayvalik-Smyrna road. Before 1922 it had a mixed population of 4,000 Greeks and 3,000 Turks.

"My grandmother was over ninety years old, and she seldom went out of the house; we didn’t tell her much about what was going on, either, to spare her any bitterness and sadness. The night we set out to get on my uncle’s fishing boat, she was walking on the beach, stepping on the countless corpses, sometimes she stumbled over bones, sometimes her feet sank into puddles of blood. She kept asking us, 'What road is this, that you’ve brought me on? It’s full of rocks. When did it rain and make so much mud?' Only when the sun came up did she see that her stockings and her shoes were steeped in blood. How could she know the Irregulars had massacred so many people on the beach, how much blood had been shed unjustly? While the poor wretches were waiting, gathered from the villages all around, they were spared no horror. The Irregulars would snatch girls, strip everyone of money and the clothes on their backs, leave them terrified, hungry and thirsty. All their rage at what the Greek army had done to them got turned against those poor unfortunate refugees. And forget about the French! I’m ashamed even to talk about their behavior. Quite a few young men would swim to the ships to avoid being taken prisoner, and instead of protecting them the French crews would chop off their hands when they tried to climb aboard. That’s the kind of monsters they are.

At Mytilene, on Lesbos—the truth is a lot of people had landed all at once—they put us in the public garden. When winter came, they stuffed us into the movie house, and some of us in the schools. Because of us, their schools weren’t in session for quite some time. They gave us a small relief stipend. Some refugees worked as day laborers, some women cleaned the houses of the rich or were scrubwomen in stores, some made lace and knit stockings to sell. The sick begged in the streets, and the poor little children too!" [A145]

Aglaia Kontou came from Mainemeni (Menemen), 22 km NNW of Smyrna; it was a central market town and commercial center on the Smyrna-Magnesia railroad line. Before 1922 it had 12,500 inhabitants: 5,300 Greeks, a very few Jews and Armenians, and the rest of the population Turks. She describes a moment on the docks, fleeing from Smyrna.

żThere were Turkish guards there, culling out the young men as the crowd of refugees approached the ship. When the people in front of us got on board, we came face to face with the guards, and I was so frightened they would take my husband that I fainted. An Englishman snatched the baby out of my arms, tossed it to someone on the ship, and gave me some water from his canteen to revive me. In all the commotion, and what with my fainting, I don°t know how, but somehow my husband was spared. Praise the Lord, who helped us. They shoved us onto the boat. When I recovered, I saw that I didn°t have my baby and I started to cry. But my husband said: 'Woman, not a word of complaint! Be grateful we°re not at the mercy of the TurksȚ' A little while later, a woman came by, shouting that there was a kid in the hold and it was crying because it had lost its mother. I ran to find him, and it was my own son." [A64]

Maria Birbili came from Yargcilar, 10 km SW of Vourla (Urla), 35 km SW of Smyrna, in the Erithrea peninsula. There were 1,000 inhabitants before the persecution, all Greeks. Fleeing the fighting and the massacre in the area of Vourlas, some villagers made it to the nearby Greek island of Chios.

"We made it to Chios on a fishing boat, with a few other folks from our village. At first we stayed in the harbor, sleeping on the bare ground [….] Then we gathered up the few things we had and went to an orchard, but the owner drove us out; he was afraid we might eat a tangerine or two. Next we went to an olive grove. They tried to drive us away from there too, but we didn’t leave. My husband said, 'You jerk! We’ve been driven out, where do you expect us to go?' So we gathered up some stones and arranged them, just like children playing house, and we stayed there. One evening, it started pouring; we had no way to get out of the rain, so we huddled under the staircase of a house. In the morning, the owner opened the door, caught sight of us, and closed the front door again. A few minutes later, he came out again, with three slices of bread and a bit of cheese for the children. 'We came here to get out of the rain,' we said. 'We’re not looking for charity.' We spent a month on Chios, and we never saw an open door or an open window. Later we broke into a storage shed and stayed there. We came to Chios on September 1st, we left for Chania, Crete, on October 2nd. Someone took us to work picking olives in Paliochora [on the southern coast, a long journey through the mountains from Chania in the North]. It took us two days and a night to get there, walking through mountains and ravines. When we got to the village, he wanted us to sleep in a shed. 'I’m not going in there,' I said. 'If I wanted to be a captive, I would have stayed in Asia Minor.' Then the town manager came and put us in a cell. That was something! No mattress, no covers. The villagers came to gawk at us. 'Do you speak Greek?' 'Did you have a church where you come from?' 'Look, they’re wearing European clothes!' After a year we picked up and left, we went to Chania. We stayed on a Turkish plantation. It used to belong to one Turk, and they divided it among sixty families. You can imagine how much we got! In 1950, my two children left and came to Athens, and gradually we all settled here.” [A72]

Eftyhia Roussou came from Kouitzaki, a small all-Greek village with only about 400 inhabitants. It was located 82 km SW of Aydini and 18 km SW of the city of Mylasa (Milas), a commercial center with 3,500 Greeks, 3,000 Turks and about 500 Jews. The village was 38 km SE of Gerontas , where many refugees went in search of boats. [Turkish "Ören Gerontas" , “old man” in Greek, is a distortion of the ancient name "hieron Apollonos", or Apollo’s sanctuary]

"A big war started in 1914. All the peoples got into it, and Greece and Turkey too. There were blockades, folks suffered. In the beginning, we lived quiet; we had enough to eat, and no one bothered us. But later things outside got nasty, and so did things at home. The Greeks made a guerilla revolt, and the English gave them arms. They’d come down into the villages and steal, and attack the Turks. They’d steal their livestock and run off. They came down at night, they left at night. We never got a good look at them. The Greeks who showed up every day would tell us: ‘You have to go. Get on fishing boats and cross over to the islands. There’s going to be big trouble, and you’ll be destroyed.’ We didn’t want to believe them. Do you think it’s easy to leave all the good things you have and go away? […] We left with just the clothes on our backs, the slippers on our feet. We took nothing, just a few coins hidden in our bodices. We left the house just as it was, with food in the kitchen. A Turkish neighbor came, crying because we were leaving. I locked the house and gave her the key for safekeeping, until my return. We thought we’d go away and come back, and live in our homes again." [A199-200]

Angelis Mavridis came from Sariköy, (ancient Zeleia), a town in the Panormos region, located 35 km SW of the large port city of Panormos and 28 km SW of Artaki. Only 300-400 of its 9,000 inhabitants were Greeks.

"We used to have a very good life there, we lived like brothers with the Turks. Even after the events and the wars that brought hatred between the two [Greeks and Turks], we experienced no harm.

At Easter, every Christian had a Turkish friend, a sagdiç or koumbaros [the speaker glosses the Turkish term with a Greek word denoting a kinship relationship through marriage or through sponsorship at a wedding or a baptism.] to whom he sent eggs and Easter bread. The Turks looked forward to that, they thought these things were delicious. And when they had a feast, they sent us baked goods, and sweets -- you wouldn't believe how fantastic they were! For the Resurrection, we would fire our rifles in the air, as much as we wanted; if a policeman came by, we'd give him an Easter egg, and we would all go on our way without any problems. (2)

The Turks revered and honored our priest. They also respected the procession on Good Friday, and they honored the Virgin, they called her Meriem ana. [ … ] When a Turk was a guest at a banquet, no matter if he wasn’t hungry, he'd always sit and taste the food, after saying his prayer. And if a Christian was at a Turkish meal, it was a great insult for him not to partake of the food.

We would invite them and they would invite us to weddings and community celebrations. This was especially true among friends. In general, until the Constitution, everything was fine. But even afterwards, when the Terror started, we still experienced no harm. Even during the Balkan Wars, everything was all right. Bad things started happening during the Mobilization [for WWI].

At that point, they drafted the Greeks too. Whoever could avoid it, did well. Most of those who went never came back. We also went hungry--we had no bread to eat. I was a little boy, but I had to work in the fields as a day laborer, in exchange for a bit of bread.

After the Great War, during the Armistice, and especially when the Greeks landed in Smyrna and came closer to our area, a civil war broke out between the Circassians--we had a lot of them in our parts (their leader was Aznavour) -- and Kemal's forces. It was village against village, one brigand-chieftain against another, they had a sort of vendetta way of doing things...I remember going once with my father to Siziköy [a neighboring Circassian village 6 km distant]]. The Circassians liked us Greeks. So they welcomed us and gave us food, and right then one of them showed up and started talking to the others in that peculiar language of theirs, that sounds like walnuts clattering against each other, being mixed up in a bowl: kraka-kroukou.

What had happened? Their warlord Gel Islam had been killed by an Albanian warlord from Yortan [a Turkish town 9 km from Sariköy with about 200 houses]. They didn’t tell us any of this--we found out later. They just insisted that we stay and eat and drink, they had a bit of business to take care of in a hurry. They left, and after quite a bit of time, they came back. They had killed Gafer Ali, the Albanian from Yortan..

Around that time we knew fear and danger too. As the Greek army advanced, the Turks became quite enraged and savage. Some Irregulars came to our village and said to our Turks: 'Why do you hold on to these lousy Infidels? Why don’t you cleanse them out?' We got scared that they were going to slaughter us, and for two or three nights we didn’t sleep at home. Some of us went to the basement of the school, others to the homes of Turkish friends. But the local government didn't let anything bad happen. And when the Greek army came, no one bothered the Turks either." [ A335-336] (3)

Vrettos Menexopoulos was from the coastal town of Hili (Sile) on the Black Sea, near the Bosporos, 52 km NW of Nicomedea and 58 km NE of Constantinople. Before 1922 it had about 1,000 Greek households and 500 Turkish households. Menexopoulos’ father was a shopkeeper.

"In our region the Turks and Turko-Lazoi were good people, and they loved us and supported us. When you went to their village, they never asked what you were. They'd lead you into their guest-room, bring you food and drink; they'd keep you company, put you up for the night and send you on your business the next morning. After the Constitution, things got rough.

We didn't know much about Greece. In our living rooms, we had a portrait of the Russian Czar. We only learned about Greece during the Balkan Wars. Before that, we were familiar with Russia, Bulgaria, Rumania. We didn't know about America either.

In the Balkan Wars, our boys fought as soldiers too. They gave them weapons, and took them in the navy, too; that is, they were in the regular armed forces. But they would desert and run off to Bulgaria with the Bulgarians or to Greece with the Greeks. That's why later, in the Great War, they didn't give them weapons, but put them in the Labor Battalions.

In the Great War, at first they'd let the Greeks pay a fee to be exempt from the draft [in fact all minorities, not only Greeks, were allowed to purchase exemption from the draft]. Later they stopped that and there was no escaping the labor battalions unless you could sneak off or bribe someone. […]

In 1917, on account of the deserters who joined the resistance, we had to go into exile. […] My father had left a lot of gold with a Turkish friend of his. As soon as we came back, he gave it all back to him. We found our houses just as we had left them. Whoever had left gold or money with a Turkish friend got it back. They returned everything. […]

There was an amnesty, and the rebels came down and surrendered all their weapons to the French. That is, they were supposed to surrender their weapons, but they hid and kept the best ones. During the war, they hadn't been plundering, but now they went and stole 3,000 sheep from a Turk, Azlan Bey. So he got together a bunch of armed men and came and burned our villages. When they burned our villages, neither the Foreigners nor the Greeks had gotten there yet." [Excerpts from A 339-341. Menexopoulos goes on to tell of the arrival of the Greek army with the British, of how Greek soldiers fooled the British commanding officer by having one of their own men fire shots from the direction of a Turkish village so they could then set fire to the village in retaliation for an attack, and plunder and steal livestock. He describes the Indian soldiers in the British force of occupation, and how the local Turkish police acted as a buffer between the Indian soldiers and the local population. He describes the departure of British and Greek troops, the ensuing acts of brutal violence committed by Kemal’s soldiers, and stresses that the local Turks still treated their Greek neighbors well, as did the Turks in villages along the escape route of those Greeks who survived the slaughter.]

Fotini Marangou-Karavela was a widow when she had to leave her native village of Akk/Asprochori, a village near the ancient Miletus with 4,500 Greek inhabitants before 1922, and no Turks. She worked in the tobacco fields both in her home village and later in Greece. Being shunted from one location to another in Greece is typical, as are the hardships endured by many refugees for whom there was no shelter and no organized relief. Less common is her matter-of-fact and sometimes wryly humorous tone, her lack of self-pity and her thankfulness for having survived and done all right by her daughters; she never complains about the hard work in the tobacco fields that was her lot both in her home village and in Greece.

"We went through a lot. My house was isolated. I worked in the tobacco fields. I woke up, took care of my children and went out. Quiet, a strange silence. Oh God, the news traveled in whispers from one of us woman to the other: the Greek army was in retreat. I left. I was all alone with two little girls, one five and the other seven years old. What can you take with you? I just grabbed a burlap sack and tossed in a few of the children’s clothes. My husband went for a soldier in the Turkish army in 1918. God must have given him the bright idea to bathe in a lake! It was January, he caught a chill. They sent us a letter that said he was sick with pneumonia, but on the mend. After a bit another letter came, saying he was dead. He died, and escaped!

Okay, so what can you do with two children? What was to become of us? We got on the road towards the [Aegean] coast, maybe we could find a fishing boat to take us to Samos. We walked for hours, we crossed the Maeander on a boat. On the other side, sky and a broad plain…And it started to pour, torrential rain, hail stones, it seemed like the end of the world. My littler girl was drenched to the bone, she was tired, what do you expect, poor thing? She had turned blue. I put her on my lap. I thought: should I revive her or leave her to die? What’s the point of dragging her along? I rubbed her dry with a blanket; I don’t even know where that blanket came from. I blew on her hands, I pressed her against my bosom, and little by little she came back to life.

We set out again. A crowd of people was walking along with us, people from my village; some I knew, some I didn’t. Afraid I’d lose my children, I was gripping the burlap bundle in my teeth and holding a child by each hand. That’s how I walked. Eventually we reached Gerontas on the coast. Another disaster there! There was nowhere to go. Not a boat in sight, not even a small fishing boat. Nothing.

So we turned back and tried Kelembesi [near ancient Priene]. They put us in the barracks for the Greeks. Bedbugs! It was unbelievably horrible; we were exhausted but we couldn’t sleep a wink, not me, not my girls. We went to Sokia, hoping maybe we could get a train to Smyrna. Lots of others came too, from Sokia, Akköy, Kelembesi. When we got to Smyrna -- wailing and lamentation, we were all jammed up against one another. Somehow or other, I was sitting in a corner on a sack of flour. As I got up, I dragged the sack along. Someone said the flour wasn’t mine, but I told him to hush up and he did. That flour saved us. I’d knead some flour and water in my lap, right on my apron,--no way I had a bowl!—and we’d gather a few twigs and scraps of paper on the beach and light a fire. On a scrap of old tin I’d bake some pretty miserable flatbread; that’s all we had to eat. We used up the whole sack of flour.

Every day people would get on ships. Our turn came too. We went to Thessaloniki. We suffered a lot there. Too many folks came all at once. My children fell asleep exhausted by their crying. They were hungry. It was about midnight when the Committee, the aid people, managed to cook up some rice. How could I get close, how could I get some food? And where could I put it? Pushing and shoving along with everyone else, I managed to get close. I didn’t even have a kerchief, nothing. So I held up my apron and they put a bit of rice in it. I woke up the girls and fed them. Later they put us on boats for Naxos. They treated us well there, they gave us tea, coffee, rum, they cooked food for us. But that was the limit of their compassion: at night they sent us to a dry gully to sleep. The sky got angry, it started to look like rain. Then a woman called out from her veranda: ‘Aren’t you Christians? Aren’t you Greeks? Have you no fear of God? Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? If it rains the water will rise and those women and children will drown.’ So they found us a house whose owners were away in America, and they took us there – as if we could all fit! So finally they bit the bullet and opened the school buildings to lodge us there.

Some time later, we came to Eretria. I worked in tobacco and brought up my children. Now they have children, and I have grandchildren. Praise the Lord." [A185-186].

Saroula Skyfti came from the small village of Eriköy, 15.5 km NW of Magnesia and 39 km NE of Smyrna; there were fewer than 1,000 Greek and Turkish inhabitants, with the Greeks in a minority. She tells of how the police left the village on the sly, in August of 1922, without telling the inhabitants that the Greek army had been defeated. As she is fleeing, she meets a Turkish neighbor on the road (whom she addresses as “Grandpa Mehmet”), who helps her and her family. After suffering many hardships and witnessing atrocities, she finally gets on a boat to Chios, where she experiences the same inhospitable reception others recall. From there she goes to Crete, where she picks olives and lives in very primitive conditions. Her family then moves to Thebes, but she and a girlfriend go to Athens in search of relatives.

“'They’re building a settlement,'” they told me, 'and folks are moving in before the houses are finished.' […] We went and found my cousin, she had a half-finished house; a bunch of women from my village lived nearby too. There was a house a bit farther away, the same house I’m living in now. So I wrote my mother: 'We’ve got a house in Piraeus, come quick!' My mother wrote back: 'Are you crazy? We sent you to rent a place; what’s this business about a house?' Then I explained that the house was half finished, without doors or windows, and refugees were moving in without waiting for any kind of official permission, whoever got there first grabbed a place. You just hang an empty burlap sack in the doorway, go in as a squatter, and that’s how you claim a house. I was sleeping at my neighbor’s, because I was afraid to be alone at night. In the morning I’d go back to my place and find my piece of burlap torn down and thrown aside, and other folks would be in the house. 'Get out!' I’d say. 'It’s mine!' Some would leave, others stayed. One day a family showed up –Antigone, Katina, their mother, and a male cousin. They told me: 'We’ve claimed this place.' 'What did you do with my burlap?' Next door lived an old woman; one of her sons was a soldier in Plastiras’ army. [General Plastiras brutally persecuted political “dissidents,” and was feared.]. She and I would chat during the day; she spoke Greek. She had her son’s uniform jacket on a hanger. I asked her to lend it to me, and I hung it up in my house. Pretending to be talking to the old woman, so the family that had moved in to my space could overhear me, I said in Turkish that both my brothers were Plastiras’ soldiers, stationed in Athens, and that they were coming in the evening. 'Don’t worry,' I added, 'You can live in one corner of the house and I’ll stay in another.' 'Vai oglum' [Turkish, roughly: oh dear, bad luck, my son] the old lady said, 'Go find Andreas and tell him this here girl has two brothers in the military. It just won’t do, me in one corner with two girls and her in the other with two young men.' They all agreed with her, and they left and found another place a bit farther down.

Remembering those days now, we can laugh. Another morning, two bullies showed up, with their hands stuffed in their pockets and a lot of attitude. They slept there and presented themselves in the morning. If it hadn’t been for my godmother’s brother, a young man, I would have lost the house. He confronted them: 'What business have you got here? About face, get out!' I owe this house to that boy. I’m still living right here!" [A125].


1. "Exodos A: Martyries apo tis eparchies ton dytikon paralion tes Mikras Asias/Testimonies from Provinces on the West Coast of Asia Minor." (Center for Asia Minor Studies: Athens 1980); "Exodos B: Martyries apo tis eparchies tes Kentrikes kai Notias Mikras Asias/Testimonies from the Provinces of Central and Southern Asia Minor." (Center for Asia Minor Studies: Athens 1982). I would like to thank the Center for Asia Minor Studies for enabling my archival work and for permission to publish my translations of these narratives.

Readers who would like more information, see Thalia Pandiri, “‘We Used to Live in Like Brothers with the Turks—We Were Driven out of Eden and Came Here to Hell’: Voices from the Asia Minor Disaster.” In "The Dispossessed". Edited Peter I. Rose with a foreword by Liv Ullman, (University of Massachusetts Press. Amherst and Boston, 2005, 44-69.) Go Back

2. Many narratives echo such recollections. One example comes from Sophia Devletoglou, settled in Kokkinia near Piraeus, who talks about her home town of Arabisos [Turkish Arapsum] 75 km W of Caesarea, in the valley of the river Alys. In 1924 the town had 384 Greek-speaking Greeks and 1,500 Turks. “Before the war we got on very well with the Turks. We were like brothers and sisters. They were our guests and we were theirs. Whenever we had a festival, a wedding, a funeral, they came to us….And when they celebrated the Feast of Sacrifices, they would send us meat. They invited us to their weddings.” [B152]. Go Back

3. Eudoxia Ioannidou from Skopi (Turkish Uskubu), 25 km NE of Caesarea in Cappadocia has similar recollections of better days. In 1924, the town had 140 Turcophone Greeks, 250 Turks, and had relations with surrounding Greek, Turkish and Armenian communities. “We lived well before the wars. We got along fine with the Turks. We would go to their homes, they’d invite us when they had any festivities, and we would send them gifts of sweets and pastries. We gave embroidered head-coverings as bridal gifts. The same was true for them too. They would come whenever we had a festive event, share our food and celebrate with us, just as if they were family […]One day we found out that the battle of Smyrna was going on. Our local Turks kept hearing that Greek soldiers were killing Turks and throwing their corpses into the sea. They got angry, and began threatening that they would do the same and worse to us. We were scared. We kept expecting that we would be attacked, we were afraid to go out alone. We’d shut ourselves up in our homes early, before sundown; as soon as the herdsman led our sheep back to the village, we would lock and bolt our doors….” [B107]. Go Back