BLOODLINES: SMYRNA, 1922 - A Powerful Installation
Articles on Greece by AURELIA
When Marjorie Housepian Dobkin's grandparents were forced to flee Smyrna in 1922, they escaped with scant possessions, one of which was a newly acquired tin cup. As Anna and Krikor Ashjian walked up a ramp to one of the few ships taking refugees, they were in a crowd of frantic people prodded along by Turkish guards. Mr. Ashjian did not move fast enough for one guard, so he hit him on the back of his head with a rifle butt. It was a fatal blow, administered just twenty feet from the gangplank.
Someone in the family picked up the cup and it went with them to America.
It is now a precious possession of the daughter, Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, author of the acclaimed book, Smyrna, 1922: The Destruction of a City,
She told the story of this cup and held it for the audience to see. The group was gathered at the Fuller Museum of Art in Brockton, MA., for a special program entitled 'Bloodlines: Remembering Smyrna, 1922.'
The cup was first given to Ms. Dobkin's grandfather on the day the Turks entered the city. The family, along with many other families, sought refuge in the American Missionary College for Girls and the missionaries gave each head of the household one cup to be shared by all family members to drink water when it was passed around. Within a short time after the Turks invaded the city, the school went up in flames and everyone fled the college, but Mr. Ashjian took the cup with him, and still had it when he tried to board the boat.
The event combined a talk by Ms. Dobkin; comments by Nancy Horton, daughter of George Horton, author of The Blight of Asia; a reading of a new poem on Smyrna by Sophia Kostos, mother of Dean Kostos, the poet; and a powerful and haunting installation of heirlooms owned by families who fled Smyrna, the Asia Minor city burned by the Turks during a five-day massacre in September of 1922.
The installation is the work of artists Annee Spileos Scott and John Rexine and all artifacts are from members of their respective families. Items included framed pictures of single family members, of couples, and of couples with children; Turkish coffee grinders; a polished mahogany chest; a beautifully preserved Persian rug; children's clothing; hair ribbons, and many, many other treasurers.
To view the installation, a deck of a World War 1 battleship was created and visitors stood on this platform, facing a sea of detritus The floor was painted blue, representing the ocean, and the gallery itself was darkened and dimly lit with a fiery, orange flow. On the sea/gallery floor one saw the precious objects - the heirlooms belonging to the artists' ancestors. Rafts were seen floating in the 'water,' and dried flowers were scattered about in homage to lives lost.
On the sides of the installation are pictures of twenty-seven battleships, owned by the great powers of the time, who remained in place once the fire began and did not help with rescues. Behind the sea was a five-panel watercolor drawing depicting the bones of the dead above the Greek flat. As the drawings unfolded, so did the catastrophe. The visitor suddenly saw more and more bones on each panel and then the blue and white flag of Greece turned red, representing spilled blood. Finally, the flag became black, the color of the charred remains of a once glorious city.
Accompanying the visual clues were sounds by electro-acoustic composer John Mallia, who created an audio backdrop for the burning of Smyrna. Disembodied voices and the music of this once magnificent city were layered acoustically with the screams and tears of mass execution, rape, and torture.
The artists are passionate about their creation. Mrs. Scott says she is the 'collective voice' of her relatives, many of whom she will never know or know about. Her great aunt, whom she called 'Yiayia' told her the family survived initially because a woman named Mrs. Jacobs, 'an angel from the Red Cross,' hid them in her home. Men in the family refused to hide and when they went to fight the Turks they were literally lined up against a wall and shot. The great aunt survived as a refugee and came to America in 1935. She lived to be 92 and at the end of her life she talked only about the beloved homeland she had fled.
As he was growing up in his Greek household, Mr. Rexine could never fully comprehend the significance of the family's artifacts - the old books and photographs, Turkish coffee grinders, Persian carpets, and record albums of sorrowful songs. Like many children of his generation, he grew up in a home where the Catastrophe was not discussed. It was not until the mid 1990's that Mr. Rexine began the search for his family roots and he was fortunate to find a handwritten autobiography written by his maternal great-grandfather, Jovianos Lavrakas, who became a Greek Orthodox priest 'while the Greco-Turkish wars, the first Great War, the Balkan Wars, and the Armenian Genocide raged all around him.' His autobiography makes for powerful reading.
Mr. Rexine says of the installation: 'Annee and I will try to help the silenced have their voices heard again in the best and only way we can - through our art and remembrance.'
Anne Spileos Scott received both her MFA and BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art. Her works have been exhibited at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, MA., the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, MA., The List Visual Center at MIT, the University of Maryland, and the AIR Gallery in New York. Solo exhibitions of her work have also been held at Boston University and the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.
John Rexine is an artist living in Waltham. The eldest son of the late Dr. John Efstratios and Elaine Lavrakas Rexine, he is a 1983 graduate of Colgate University and was awarded a Core Artist Residency by the Glassell School of the Museum of fine Arts, Houston, in 1991-93. Since 1990, his work has focused on issues of personal and ethnic identity, collective memory, and spiritual and mechanical regeneration and production. His paintings have appeared in museums and galleries in New York, Texas, and Massachusetts.
John Mallia is exploring the use of voice as a sound source in his electronic music and is making use of this technique in collaboration with poets and visual artists. Current projects include a text-sound/text-graphic project with poet Dana Dalton showing at the Brandeis University Festival of the Arts.
The main lecture was given by Ms. Dobkin, a speaker who is in great demand. Her book is the second edition of a work previously published as The Smyrna Affair, and both editions have earned critical acclaim.
Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City, is an engrossing account of what happened in a city once called 'The Pearl of Asia Minor.' It is a well-documented account of the roles of the powers at the time. The story and the plots are intricate, and the narrative is masterful. Ms. Dobkin provides captivating accounts of the city's beauty and significance as a major port. The story of the destruction of this once magnificent city is told through the eyes and voices of the major players. Surely, it is and will be one of the most important books every written on the catastrophe that befell Smyrna.
C.M. Woodhouse said 'it is an authoritative piece of research, as vivid╝as a novel, told with restraint and dignity.' The New York Times Sunday Book Review added that it is 'a poignant, meticulously documented tragedy╝beautifully recaptures the flavor and richness of Smyrna in its prime.'
The author explained that she is not an historian, but majored in economics and taught English. She had published one successful novel, the amusing Houseful of Love, and was asked by a publishing house to write another. Under contract from Random House, she spent three months travelling in Greece and Turkey. While in Turkey Ms. Dobkin met a Turkish professor and asked him about 'the great fire in 1922,' and the professor answered 'we have had many fires and the Greeks and Armenians burnt the city.'
This conversation sparked the author to conduct serious research and she went first to the Encyclopedia Brittanica where she found an entry that stated, 'In May 1919, Izmir was occupied by Greek forces. Heavily damaged in the fighting, it was recaptured by Turkish forces in September 1922.' She soon discovered the entry was written by three Turkish professors. She then searched for any book written on Smyrna and also read reports in The New York Times. The first account in the Times was dated September 15, 1922, and declared 'Smyrna Burning!! 1,000 Massacred as Turks Fire City,' and it was written by a man named Mark Prentiss.
Further accounts by Prentiss, however, soon began to praise the Turks for 'policing the throngs,' and Ms. Dobkin knew that something was terribly wrong. She read other sources, including George Horton's The Blight of Asia, and dug deeper into many different archives. Soon, she discovered eight eyewitnesses - sailors who had been aboard a US destroyer, and she actually found five of them who gave her excellent information. One man had kept a diary.
Next she called upon her training as an economist and read the oil histories, then researched the main political characters of the day and made some important connections. She explained how it came about that Turkey, who with Germany was on the losing side of World War I, ended up the winner and got everything it wanted while Greece, on the winning side, ended up losing.
Ms. Dobkin emphasized that greed for oil played a role in the catastrophe, and she read a line from a letter written to Georges Clemenceau, Premier of France, by Henri Berenger, a political leader and writer in charge of the gasoline and fuel supply system for France for World War I. Berenger said: 'He who owns the oil will own the world,'
The author presented interesting contrasts of principal players. Admiral Mark L. Bristol, chairman of the Inter-Allied Commission of Inquiry on the Smyrna Landings, wrote in his diary: 'The actions of the Greeks came as no surprise to the people of this country who know the character of the Greeks.' In a letter to a colleague, he was more explicit: 'To me it is a calamity to let the Greeks have anything in this part of the world. The Greek is about the worst race in the Near East.'
On the other hand, George Horton, the American Counsel General stationed at Smyrna during the time of the catastrophe, was haunted for the rest of his life by what happened and by America's failure to take actions to save lives. He wrote his account in The Blight of Asia and Ms. Dobkin said he did this 'at some cost to his career.' Horton wrote 'The torch was applied to that ill-fated city and it was all systematically burned by the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal.' He went on to describe the Allied and American warships 'impotently watching the Miltonic scene' and concluded that he was 'ashamed to belong to the human race.'
Prior to Ms. Dobkin's talk, Sophia Kostos read a vividly descriptive poem, 'Despina's Rug,' written by her son, Dean Kostos. Like the tin cup which Mrs. Dobkin held aloft for all to see, the poem and Mrs. Kostos' superb reading held the audience spellbound. The work is from his newly published book, The Sentence that Ends With a Comma, enjoying much critical acclaim and featured on the April cover of Greece-In-Print. Mr. Kostos is rightfully being called one of the most important of today's Greek poets.
Next, Nancy Horton, daughter of George Horton, author of The Blight of Asia, spoke briefly about her father, saying 'Smyrna seems to have been my father's destiny.' Mr. Horton was U.S. Counselor General at the time the city was torched and he is credited with saving the lives of many residents, including Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. Ms. Horton said her father begged President Hardy 'in the name of humanity' to save the indigent population, but the president said 'we must protect American lives.'
Ms. Horton said that her father broke many laws to save those he could and that he received much praise in his lifetime, but she said he always told her 'It is the lives I did not save that haunt me.' She said one of his saddest memories was 'the battleships lining the harbor, impudently watching and doing nothing.'
Photo of Smyrna from the February 2004 issue of the magazine Izmir Life
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