Dr. Esther Lovejoy was the head of the Medical Women’s International Association, which, in the first week of September 1922, was conferencing in Geneva with kindred groups.
Her colleagues there were all American and Canadian women M.D.s who, when they discovered that women nurses but no women doctors would be allowed into the United States Army at the outbreak of World War I, decided to build their own organizations.
Within a little more than a year, several fine American and Canadian women doctor volunteers found themselves providing hospital care and other services for Armenian and Ottoman Greek refugees throughout Anatolia. Others toiled elsewhere in devastated Europe.
Dr. Mabel Elliott became the head of the American Women’s Hospitals in Turkey, but she and Lovejoy met and often worked together as the chiefs of their two organizations, and both eventually wrote stunning books about their experiences.
On hearing of the terrible fire at Smyrna in mid-September 1922, Lovejoy immediately traveled to Constantinople, soon to board a tramp freighter that quickly took her to Smyrna even while the inferno was still simmering. For several days, Lovejoy immersed herself as a doctor in the unspeakable squalor, anxiety, despair, and tragedy of the Smyrna quay.
The only American woman to be found there, Lovejoy helped pregnant women as best she could, gazed at the “infernal gates” the Turks had set up on the quay, listened to the terrible nightly shrieks that Ernest Hemingway would write about later (but without comprehension; he had not been there), and daily labored alongside American sailors and officers of the American destroyer Litchfield and a few relief workers.
Most of these Americans were doing all they could to help more than 200,000 Greeks and Armenians huddled there, many of whose lives were in great danger. However, as we will see, yet another American naval destroyer captain is portrayed toward the end of this passage who—in striking contrast to the merciful instinct of a sailor who possibly came from his own crew!—finds himself utterly perplexed or stymied by the admiral’s orders to “stay neutral,” and sends a young Greek lad back to a probable death on the pier.
A very intelligent and observant witness, Lovejoy by turns effectively expresses outrage, compassion, cynicism, and deep irony in describing the terrible events that had taken place before her very eyes.
Her testimony follows below.
“The Horror on the Smyrna Quay”
. . . the Turks finally notified all concerned that males of military age (17-45) were to be detained and deported to the interior, and that all refugees regardless of age or sex, remaining in Smyrna after September 30, 1922, were to share this terrible fate. This notice was posted in conspicuous places, and scattered from an airplane among the wretched people huddled on the quay
“Deportation to the interior” was regarded as a short life sentence to slavery under brutal masters, ended by mysterious death. . . .
The people on the quay were panic-stricken. The Allies had forsaken them. The Turks were going to deport them to the interior on the thirtieth of September. What country would help them? Greece had signified her willingness to receive them, but how could they get there without ships?
The night of September 25th had come. Eight ships sailed on the24th, one on the 25th, and only four days remained until the 30th of September. That evening at dusk, I stood on the balcony of the Relief Headquarters with a native Christian woman, and looked out over the shoal of tragic faces on the quay. There was a strange murmur of many voices rising and falling along the waterfront. The sound was mournful, like the moaning of the sea, increasing in volume as the darkness deepened. The language was unfamiliar, the tone minor and the effect weird and indescribably uncanny.
“What are they doing?” I asked this girl.
“Praying,” she answered simply. “Praying for ships.”
This girl and her sister, capable, well-educated young women, had been working among the refugees and keeping house for the [American] Disaster Relief Committee, since the opening of the headquarters. I had urged them to take the first ship which they could reach lest they lose the opportunity. But their young brother was in hiding, and they refused to leave, because in saving themselves they would sentence him to certain deportation and probable death. By staying they could give him food, day after day, and they might be able to find someone, some American perhaps, who would help him get away.
That night when I went to my room, which I shared with this young woman, I found her kneeling by her bedside praying to God for mercy—praying for her people, for ships, and for her brother’s life. She had been educated in a mission school, and she spoke my language. She asked me to pray with her, but my soul was dumb. As I listened to that strange woman pleading her case with God, so simply, so intimately, even as she might speak to her father, I sensed, in a vague, indefinite way, the meaning of “Our Father which art in heaven” and I realized that I was standing in the presence of the Faith which had sustained her people, age after age, unto this day.
The remnant of the race to which that woman belonged, after eight years of massacre and deportation under the Turks, had joined Soviet Russia in order to survive. She and her family had lost all their worldly possessions. They were facing deportation and perhaps death, but as soon as her prayer was finished she slept peacefully, while I, in personal security, lay awake listening to the terrible sounds from the quay.
Night after night blood-curdling shrieks, such as Dante never imagined in Hell, swept along that ghastly waterfront. From my room-mate I knew what these cries meant. When the Turkish regulars or irregulars, under cover of darkness, came through the ruins to the quay for the purpose of robbing the refugees or abducting their girls, the women and children, a hundred thousand or more in concert, shrieked for light, until the warships in the harbor would throw their searchlights to and fro along the quay, and the robbers would slink back into the ruins.
Darkness and silence followed these outbursts, broken at times by the phonographs on the warships in the harbor, which, of course, suggested Nero playing the violin while Rome was burning. . . . [Since] Smyrna, we should let Nero and his violin rest. He has been outclassed.
We have a better story. Time after time, the sweet strains of familiar records, including “Humoresque,” and the swelling tones of Caruso in “Pagliacci,” floating over the waters, were suddenly drowned in that frightful chorus of shrieks from the Smyrna quay.
Well after midnight I heard a sound on the stairs. It was Mr. Jacobs of the Y.M.C.A., bringing good news. Nineteen ships were coming into the harbor. Greece was not only receiving the refugees, but she was sending ships to save them. . . .
Early Tuesday morning, September 26, a terrible struggle to reach the ships docking at the end of the railroad pier began. The quay was separated from the pier by two iron picket fences about seventy yards apart. These fences had narrow gates. The pier extended a long distance out to deep water, and three more fences with narrow gates had been improvised by placing heavy timbers across the pier about two or three hundred yards apart. The purpose of these fences was to force the refugees to pass through the narrow gates, where they could be carefully scrutinized, and all men who appeared to be of military age detained for “deportation to the interior.” The gates were guarded, and between the first and second gates at the north end of the quay leading to the pier there was a double line of Turkish soldiers, in addition to officers and other soldiers moving to and fro among the refugees. . . .Portion of a large diagram from National Archive files indicating where American sailors were stationed on the Smyrna Quay. These sailors helped load nearly 200,000 refugees aboard transports that finally took them away from Smyrna. Incidentally, a comment next to “Y” indicates “No robbing here.” Markings near other gates on the diagram indicate where robbery was “systematically” taking place, something also noted by Lovejoy.
The description of that frantic rush to reach the ships is beyond the possibility of language. Pain, anguish, fear, fright, despair and that dumb endurance beyond despair, cannot be expressed in words. . . .
For six hours on Tuesday, September 26, I stood near the land end of the pier, between the first and second gates, watching this inhuman spectacle. Thousands upon thousands of refugees, with heavy bundles upon their backs, pressed forward along the quay, struggling to reach and pass through the first gate. The Turkish soldiers beat them back with the butts of their guns to make them come more slowly, but they seemed insensible to pain, and their greatest fear in the daylight was the fear of not reaching the ships. . . .
The crush at the first gate was terrible. Many of the women lost one or both shoes, their clothing was torn and their hair hanging by the time they got through. One poor old grandmother, who had become separated from her group, was naked from her waist to her feet and apparently unconscious of this fact, as she ran about in the open space near where I was standing, calling pitifully for her family. Another woman, whose child passed the gate just as a halt was called, was beaten back by the soldiers, but the mother instinct is hard to control.
With a wild expression of countenance she turned, dropped her bundle and went over that iron picket fence, which was at least seven feet high, like an orangoutang. . . .
All along this fence there were women attempting to climb over and get their children over. Here and there they were caught on the sharp pickets. A Turkish soldier, who had noticed that the gate receipts were worth while for those who had the luck to be stationed along the line of traffic, improvised a ladder by hooking a bed spring on the pickets, and did a profitable business helping women and children over the fence at this point. . . .
In the space between the first two fences many of the deportees were robbed. Individual soldiers would seize the more prosperous-appearing women, drag them out of the line and rob them in broad daylight. As the men of military age passed through with their families, they were sometimes arrested at once and placed with the group of prisoners for deportation, but frequently a man or his wife would whisper to the solder making the arrest, after which they would pay tribute and the man would be released. Before he had gone far, he would be held up by another soldier and then another, the experience being repeated over and over again. At first I wondered why they temporized in this manner, but as the hours passed the motive became clear. It was evidently a plan of the common soldiers to secure their share of the loot, and to trick the women, who had money or other valuables secreted upon their persons, into buying their husband’s or their son’s freedom. These men would afterward be arrested at one of the gates farther down the pier, many of them reaching the last gate before they were finally placed with the prisoners for “deportation to the interior. . . .”
The greatest crime against humanity with which I am personally familiar was committed on the Smyrna Railroad Pier during the last week of September, 1922, and consisted in the separation, by military force, of the members of all the Christian families. At every gate during the daylight hours, this atrocity was conducted systematically.
As family after family passed those gates, the father of perhaps 42 years of age, carrying a sick child or other burden, or a young son, and sometimes both father and son, would be seized. This was the climax of the whole terrible experience for every family. In a frenzy of grief, the mother and children would cling to this father and son, weeping, begging and praying for mercy, but there was no mercy. With the butts of their guns, the Turkish soldiers beat these men backward into the prison groups and drove the women toward the ships, pushing them with their guns, striking them with straps or canes, and urging them forward like a herd of animals, with the expression, “Haide! Haide!” which means “begone! begone!”
I shall never forget those women with their little children clinging to their skirts as they moved backward, step by step, gazing for the last time, perhaps, upon the faces of their husbands and sons. “Their wives shall be widows and their children orphans” is a prophecy which was fulfilled on the Smyrna Railroad Pier, the Via Dolorosa of those unfortunate people.
Deportation is a common practice during war, but this was not a common deportation. The men were going to the “interior,” and the women, children and elderly were going to a strange country to begin life anew without the support of their natural protectors. Day after day the pitiful procession of mothers and their little children, the aged, sick and helpless, moved toward the ships. This was the most cruel, cowardly and unsportsmanlike spectacle that ever passed under the eyes of heaven. . . .
In a city with so large a population there were, of course, a great many expectant mothers, and these terrible experiences precipitated their labors in many instances. Children were born upon the quay and upon the pier, and one woman, who had been in the crush at the first gate for hours, finally staggered through holding her just-born child in her hands.
The [American] sailors soon came to know me and call me in maternity cases. . . . On one occasion . . . I was called to a woman in labor on the quay. There was a midwife in the crowd who promised to stay with the sick woman, if we would see that they were both put aboard a ship later. An American marine [probably a sailor] was with me, and we knocked insistently on the door of one of the few houses standing. Finally it was opened, the woman taken in and made as comfortable as possible. The place was full of frightened people. Just as I was leaving, a woman who spoke English detained me. She was in deep trouble like all the rest. Her sons and several other young men whose parents were in that house were hidden in the attic. Up a narrow stair she led the way to a low space at the top of the house, where these young men were lying flat on their chests looking out through peepholes under the eaves.
After the manner of mothers, this woman begged me to help these boys escape. The older members of the family would gladly die, she said, if only their young could live and be free. These boys were watching the ships in the harbor, measuring the distance and planning to make a swim for life and liberty. But their mothers were afraid. Night after night, young men from the quay, who knew that they could not pass the gates on the pier, were silently slipping into the dark waters, and no one ever knew whether they succeeded or failed in their desperate attempts to escape. It was a long way to swim and hard to beat against the steel plates of a ship in the darkness, when the waves were high. The waters were smooth in the morning, and told no tales of the night, but sometimes on the flooding tide a body was seen floating in the distance, and hundreds of women on the quay whose men had made that swim, said prayers for the souls of the drowned. . . .
Day after day there was a succession of harrowing incidents. Children fell off the pier and were drowned, young men committed suicide, elderly died of exhaustion, and at the end of the pier, when two or three ships were loading at the same time, children were lost and their mothers ran to and fro frantically calling for their little ones, and great was the joy if the lost were found. But in many instances such children were already stowed away in the holds of outgoing ships, crying for their mothers, who were put aboard vessels bound for other ports.
Women whose husbands had been seized and whose sons had swum away into the unknown at night, moved down that pier silently, and sometimes audibly praying for strength and mercy. With seemingly impossible loads on their backs and their little children by their sides, they passed those infernal gates. . . .
On the night of September 29 I left Smyrna on the United States destroyer Litchfield. There were, perhaps, fifty thousand refugees still in Smyrna, and approximately a quarter of a million had gotten away. Pestilential diseases were inevitable among these people wherever they went, and our organization would be called on to conduct hospitals for their care. Fortunately, we had a small fund, but it was necessary for me to reach the United States as quickly as possible in order to get more money for this service.
Several Americans were leaving, including the United States Commercial Attache and the representative of the Baldwin Locomotive Company. I was detained on account of an accident to Mr. Jacobs of the Y.M.C.A., who had been working day and night since the beginning of the holocaust for the relief of the victims. It was dusk when I reached the small pier used by the launches of the warships, but I saw one of the sailors pass my suitcase to a young boy and I heard him whisper: “Take this suitcase aboard for the lady and don’t come back. Listen! Don’t come back. . . .”
Dinner was over and the men had lighted their cigarettes when the captain turned to me and asked about the boy who came aboard with my suitcase. I told him that he was a stranger to me, but the captain seemed unsatisfied, so he sent for the boy and questioned him in the presence of everybody, including the vice-consul, who was a guest at dinner. This boy was small in stature, looked very young, not more than twenty, and spoke English well. He was pale and trembling, for it was a case of life and deportation and death, perhaps, to him, although but a light, unimportant matter to those used to this sort of thing from the other end of the game. Mr. Jacobs identified the boy as one of those who had been helping relief workers on the quay. Therefore, we knew that in saving others he had probably lost any chance to save himself.
He was a brave boy. Not a word did the captain get out of him about his friend the sailor who sent him aboard. I had not noticed him particularly, but standing before his judge in the bright light of the cabin, his thin, blanched face contrasted strikingly with the the older, harder faces of that company, and strangely suggested the “Judgment” upon which his religion was founded.
There was no fault in this boy except that he was an Orthodox Christian. My plea for him was of necessity denied. In the beginning the captain might have closed his eyes, but having called attention to the case he was bound by the rules and as helpless as Pilate.
The captain of the Litchfield was an efficient officer. Wherever he appeared during the evacuation order was maintained. Day after day I met him on the quay and pier. He seemed like a man with a kind heart and a strong defense reaction against this weakness within himself. In the performance of their duties such men are apt to lean backward from their humane impulses.
The boy was sent ashore—two of them, for another had meanwhile reached the ship. This seemed very cruel, but orders are orders, and neutrality is neutrality.
Less than half an hour later, while I was leaning over the rail peering through the darkness at the last refugee ship of the day pulling out from the end of the wharf, a sailor told me that those boys had been put on the pier. The vessel was already well in the stream, and with the pier guarded by Turkish soldiers, it seemed unlikely that they could have gotten aboard—but perhaps they did. Seven months later I was told by a diplomat (formerly the American vice-consul at Smyrna) that those two boys had actually been put aboard that outgoing refugee ship. Strange, how that boy’s pale face still lingers in my memory. If I ever meet Saint Peter I shall ask about him.
I was still leaning over the rail when the representative of the Baldwin Locomotive Company, who had been in Smyrna on business for several days, came along and stood with me for a few minutes. He said that he had been on the pier, but did not stay long, because he could not bear to witness the suffering of the children. “Besides,” he added, as he turned away, “my business is to sell locomotives.”
That was the answer. That was the core of the whole wicked game. It was a case of every man for himself, and every company and country for that matter. The ships in the harbor were under instructions to protect the property of their own nationals and otherwise maintain neutrality. Their shadowy forms on the dark water suggested a herd of sea monsters with big bodies and no heads.
They had not saved the property of their nations, unless “futures” may be regarded as property. They had failed. The property had gone up in smoke. But, if in all the ages that men have lived upon the earth, they had found some simple plan of standing together for humanity’s sake in times of great disaster, Smyrna would have been saved, and incidentally the precious property. . . .
From the deck of the Litchfield after dark, the ruins of Smyrna seemed as spectral and fantastic as a nightmare. I could not see the people huddled at the north end of the quay in the angle they dreaded so terribly, but I knew they were there, and that later in the night they would shriek for searchlights. . . .
(From Certain Samaritans, rev. edition, by Esther Pohl Lovejoy, M.D., New York: Macmillan, 1933.)
Excerpt from the book: The Greek Genocide in American Naval War Diaries: Naval Commanders Report and Protest Death Marches and Massacres in Turkey’s Pontus Region, 1921-1922 by Savvas “Sam” Koktzoglou (Editor), Robert Shenk (Editor)
This book is a gripping collection of American naval war diaries recently found in the National Archives about what was happening on the northern coast of Turkey in 1921-1922. At the time, a series of American destroyers were continuously stationed at the port of Samsun, and the destroyer captains describe here many of the atrocities then being perpetrated upon the Asia Minor Greek minority by the ruling Nationalist Turks, along with local Greek reactions. Get the book here.
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