My muscles ached the day after dancing to the haunting but lively music of the lyra and daouli at the Pontian
Society of Chicago dinner dance on November 12, 2011. Children, some as young as three years old, initiated the dancing dressed in traditional costumes, with the boys brandishing bandoliers across their chests. They keep alive their culture in a country far removed from the land of their ancestors, Pontos, on the coast of the Black Sea in Turkey.
From in 1914 through 1922, thousands of Greeks from Pontos, as well as thousands of other Greeks living in Asia Minor and Eastern Thrace, were deported by Turkish authorities or fled their homes in the face of Turkish atrocities. In 1922, following the defeat of the Greek forces in the Greek-Turkish war and the burning of Smyrna by the Turkish army, any Greeks remaining in Turkey, except those in Constantinople and the islands of Imbros and
Tenedos, were forced to leave Turkey in what is called the “exchange of populations.” All together, more than a million Greeks left Turkey.
The descendants of these Greeks celebrate life, but there is an underlying sadness. They mourn the relatives who died at the hands of Turks; they ache for a homeland in Turkey that has been lost to them forever; they remember the difficult life they experienced as refugees.
To make sure their history is not forgotten, members of the Pontian Society of Chicago organized the Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center (AMPHRC). They recently published the 162 page book, Fridtjof Nansen and the Greek Refugee Crisis 1922-1924: A Study on the Politics of International Humanitarian Intervention and the Greek-Turkish Obligatory Population Exchange Agreement by the distinguished historian, Dr. Harry J. Psomiades.
Psomiades had organized the October 11, 2011 conference in Athens about Nansen, the Norwegian explorer, scholar, statesman, and winner of the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize. The conference and book celebrated the 150thanniversary of Nansen’s birth in 1861. The conference was followed a day later by the dedication of a bust of Nansen in the park between S. Merkouri and King Constantine in Athens. Sadly missing was Psomiades, who had died in August 2011.
At the conference, George Mavropoulos, president of the (AMPHRC), told of his own family’s experience as refugees: “After my grandfather died in the labour battalions (where the average life span was 2-3 months) at the age of 44, my father assumed responsibility for taking his family to Greece but before they arrived, they were held in the notorious barracks of Selimiye, in Constantinople, for several months where 30 to 300 refugees died daily from typhus, cholera or smallpox. It was Nansen who called in the League of Nations’ Epidemic Commission to deal with the various epidemics in these camps and elsewhere.” Psomiades’ book brings the reader face-to-face with Nansen, an extraordinary man who shaped the history of modern Greece and whose impact on Greece continues to be felt today.
Psomiades interprets the history of the refugee crisis and of the impact of not only Nansen but of the former Greek prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, during this crucial period of Greek history. Step-by-step Psomiades outlines their roles in the negotiations regarding the compulsory “exchange of populations” agreement between Greece and Turkey following the Greek-Turkish war.
Nansen helped thousands of refugees who were caught in the tangled web of war and politics. He did not take “no” for an answer in his quest to obtain transport, healthcare, food, and shelter for them. He got them the assistance they needed from various countries, organizations, and individuals.
His strength of personality was revealed at a young age. Nansen excelled as a student and athlete. At age 18, he broke the world one-mile skating record and the following year, won the national cross–country skiing championship. While a university student, Nansen went on a five-month expedition to the Arctic.
He thrived on adventure. While working on his doctorate, he became the first person to cross Greenland. The publication of his book about the Greenland expedition made him an international celebrity. In 1885, he set off on a 2400-mile journey to the North Pole, getting farther north than anyone else before. He survived two winters in the frigid Arctic before making his way back to Norway.
When he returned, he got involved politically by writing articles which championing the cause of Norway achieving independence from Sweden. When Norway peacefully achieved its independence in 1905, he became its first ambassador to Britain, where he established important diplomatic contacts. These contacts helped him in his subsequent work with refugees.
After this assignment, he returned to family life (he had five children) and research writing and teaching. In 1920, the League of Nations asked him to help with the repatriation of POWs to their respective countries following World War I. To combat typhus and cholera, he established stations to treat the prisoners before they were transferred to their respective countries.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, 1½ million Russians became refugees or asylum seekers. He was asked by the League to assist them. The Russians under his care were placed in the Slavic countries of southeastern Europe and France. He established the Nansen passport for the unfortunate Russian refugees who were left without a country. The Nansen passport was also used by Armenian refugees fleeing slaughter by the Turks. It was honored by 52 countries.
After Lenin had asked for help for the 30 million Russians who were threatened by famine, the League again called on Nansen to help. Since the Great Powers did not trust Lenin, they did not give Nansen much monetary support to carry out his job. He relied on private organizations to help them.
On September 1922, the League called on Nansen to head their initiative to deal with the exodus of Christian populations from Turkey in the wake of the Greek-Turkish war. Nansen helped with transport of the Greek refugees and delivered food and clothes. He helped stem the transmission of dreaded typhus, cholera, and smallpox by setting up stations where Greek refugees could be treated and disinfected.
He planned, organized, and funded settlements for 15,000 refugees in Western Thrace. The International Refugee
Resettlement Commission, which was established in Greece in 1924, adopted his model and installed similar
settlements throughout northern Greece.
Psomiades goes into detail regarding the events that led up to the “exchange of populations” that was agreed to by Turkey and Greece on January 30, 1923. He explores both Nansen’s and Eleftherios Venizelos’s role in this controversial agreement, the first “forced exchange.”
Both Venizelos and Nansen (who had been empowered by Greece to act on its behalf) supported the exchange of
populations. They realized Turkey would not allow refugees to return and were concerned with the well-being of those remaining in Turkey. Psomiades points out that Venizelos wanted to clear Greece of its Muslim populations so that there would be room for the Greek refugees who had begun pouring into Greece. He says that Venizelos worried that there would be “severe repercussions if Greece forced the expulsion of its Turkish minority…. And it certainly would accelerate the massacres and expulsion of the remaining 200,000 Greeks in Anatolia and even those in Constantinople.”
There was also concern about the Greek detainees (men from the ages of 16 and 50 who were captive in the dreaded life-taking labor battalions), prisoners of war, and civilian hostages held by the Turks.
Psomiades points out that the painful choice of the compulsory uprooting of populations was viewed as a “lesser evil by both Venizelos and Nansen” and that “subsequent historical developments have tended to vindicate their actions.”
After helping settle the refugees from Turkey, Nansen continued in his work as an international civil servant. He helped the Armenian refugees, victims of the 1915 Turkish massacre, settle in Soviet Armenia. According to Psomiades, there had been reports that he had been disappointed with his lack of progress and the unwillingness of the international community to support the Armenian refugees. He returned to Norway in the winter of 1929. He died on May 13, 1930 at the age of 69, after catching a cold following a ski trip.
Psomiades did a thorough job documenting his sources. He built upon research he had conducted over many years, utilizing foreign policy archives in London, Paris, Rome, and Washington, D.C., as well as archives and libraries in Greece and Switzerland. To assist the reader with further study, he included an extensive list of “Works Consulted,” 3as well as the following documents: “The Military Convention between the Allied Powers, the Government of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey and Greece, October 11, 1922” (in French); The Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek-Turkish Populations, January 30, 1923;” and “The Treaty of Lausanne, July 24, 1923.”Nansen is a fascinating man whose role in the modern history of Greece had been forgotten. Congratulations to the Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center for giving us the opportunity to learn about him through Psomiades’ excellent book.
For more information about purchasing this book, please contact the AMPHRC by email at
email@example.com, phone 630-303-4361 or visit www.pontiangreeks.org
About the reviewer:
Elaine Thomopoulos, Ph.D., is the editor of Greek-American Pioneer Women of Illinois and the author of The History of Greece (to be released by ABC-CLIO/Greenwood in January 2012). She serves as curator of the Greek Museum of Berrien County, Michigan, which is located at the Annunciation and Agia Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Church building in New Buffalo (http://www.greekmuseumofberriencounty.com).