Editor’s note: This guest blog post was written by Ciara Barrick a Literature and Ancient Greek student at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
A group of seven students and two professors (Professor Kitromilides, The University of Athens and Professor Tom Papademetriou, The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey) have traveled to Athens to study the Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christian Communities of Asia Minor during the Ottoman Empire. The seminar took place at the Centre for Asia Minor Studies and focused on Oral Histories. These histories were provided by refugees who recount their lives in Asia Minor prior to the expulsion of their communities following the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.
As part of our program we did research on the archive, reading the accounts and intimately experiencing the traditions, beliefs, personal histories, and struggles that faced the Greek Orthodox Christians in Asia Minor, primarily focusing on the villages that belonged to the bishopric of Caesarea (modern-day Kayseri, Turkey). During our research we were also engaged with faculty and peers to piece together the history of these refugees.
The group received a lecture from Dimitris Kamouzis (researcher at the Centre for Asia Minor Studies) on the failure of the population exchange of 1923 and what life was like for the refugees in Greece thereafter. Refugees were housed in stadiums, theatres and churches; they also built their own housing settlements on the outskirts of the cities. People who lived in these areas had arrived with few personal possessions and lived in shacks of tin and board.
Refugees were hesitant to put down roots as they hoped to return to Asia Minor. Additionally, the racism they faced caused few to develop reasons to want to stay. Many spoke only Turkish or spoke little Greek which kept them at odds with the native populations. Language was not the only barrier for these refugees; often, women came to Greece having been separated from their husbands. These women were seen by the Greeks as being somehow unclean or unethical.
There is a large cultural impact due to the population exchange. We see the failure of the exchange rippling through Greek art, music, theatre, television and cinema. (As in Nikos Koundouros’ “Μαγική Πόλις” or “Magic City” a movie filmed in the shanty town of Neos Cosmos).
Nicolas Nicolaides (PhD student of Ottoman History and co-founder of Big Olive, a company offering scholar-led walking tours) guided the group on a walking seminar through Neos Kosmos, the site of the refugee housing during the exchange. Nico explained that “Neos Kosmos was one of the shantytowns that had sprung up on the outskirts of Athens housing thousands of Greek and Armenian refugees. Even today when empty Armenian churches and a decaying Bauhaus social housing complex bear the only witness to the refugee settlement that once was, new immigrant groups from Southern Asia and the Middle East continue to find in the neighborhood a focus for acculturation to urban life.” Nico also shared with us a passage from Henry Miller’s book “The Colossus of Maroussi” which recounts Miller’s time in Neos Kosmos:
“Despite the fact that the whole quarter had been created out of the rubbish heap there was more charm and character to this little village than one usually finds in a modern city. It evokes books, paintings, dreams, legends: it evoked such names as Lewis Carroll, Hieronymus Bosch, Breughel, Max Ernst, Hans Reichel, Salvador Dali, Goya, Giotto, Paul Klee, to mention but a few names. In the midst of the most terrible poverty and suffering there nevertheless emanated a glow which was holy; the surprise of finding a cow or a sheep in the same room with a mother and child gave way instantly to a feeling of reverence. Nor did one have the slightest desire to laugh at seeing a squalid but surmounted by an improvised solarium made of pieces of tin. […] Only in sorrow and suffering does man draw close to his fellow man; only then, it seems, does his life become beautiful.”
In the pictures attached, the top is of the Smyrna Opera House before the exchange. It illustrates the wealthy, culturally advanced, thriving society of Smyrna (modern-day Izmir, Turkey). In the second picture we see a theatre in Athens filled with refugees who perhaps a few years prior were sitting in that same Smyrna Opera house. At the time of the exchange, cities like Athens were housing refugees in any kind of public space possible. It is the paralleling of images which allows us to see how devastating the effects of the exchange were on these people.