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Arts and Culture

The Story of the Unsung American Hero Who Saved 250,000 Lives in Armenian Genocide

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Courtesy, HarperCollins Publishers
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"The Great Fire" by former Maine journalist Lou Ureneck.

In the past few weeks, there have been many stories marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian Genocide. Former Maine journalist Lou Ureneck's new book is about what happened after nearly a decade of killing and dislocations. It's called "The Great Fire," and details the efforts of an American who may have saved a quarter of a million lives. Ureneck spoke about his book with MPBN Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz.

Lou Ureneck: "I think of the story of Asa Jennings as the greatest story of an American hero that no one knows about.  I read a book years ago in which Asa Jennings was a minor character.  It was a book about the burning of Smyrna.  And Jennings made a cameo appearance in the book and I wondered, who is this person who saved so many lives?  He had a huge achievement and he seemed to be unknown in the United States.  So I went in search of the story of Asa Jennings."

Irwin Gratz:  "Tell us little bit about Smyrna and what is going on at the time of the book."

Lou Ureneck:  "Smyrna was the richest, most sophisticated and most cosmopolitan city of the Ottoman Empire, a city of about a half-a-million people on the Aegean coast, the west coast of Turkey.  The story takes place in 1922, which is the conclusion of 10 years of religious cleansing. The Armenian Genocide fits into that.  In September of 1922, the Turkish nationalist Army entered Smyrna, set it on fire, and began a slaughter of its Christian residents. Smyrna was principally a Christian city. Many different peoples lived there:  Greek Christians, Armenian Christians, Jews, Turks, Europeans, but it was predominantly a Christian city and a Greek Christian city.  So a slaughter was commenced and a terrible humanitarian situation developed.  People were starving, they were without water, disease was rampant in the city.  The Turkish Army separated men from women and they were marching the men into the interior of Turkey, not unlike what had happened in 1915 and 1916 to the Armenians during those deportations.  So, it was just a horrible situation and it seemed hopeless and the people seemed absolutely helpless.  
     "The great powers at the time, principally the United States, Britain, France, and Italy, all had warships in the harbor, but they all elected not to get involved. And, at that point, miraculously really, a minister, a small town minister from upstate New York who had a minor job with the YMCA in Smyrna, came forward.  He felt moved to do something to save the people who he was watching suffer:  Asa Jennings.  And he set in motion a series of events that ended with the evacuation of a quarter million people.  He first paid a bribe to an Italian ship captain and he was able to transport 2,000 people out of the city.  And, I don't want to give too much of the story away, but in time, he came to lead a flotilla of 50 ships.  He was able to rescue at least a quarter of a million people from the city of Smyrna, who otherwise probably would have died."

Irwin Gratz:  "One of the things I like about reading history is you get a chance, sometimes, to peek at historical figures, decades before their fame. Now, in your book, I noticed a guy named 'Onassis.' "

Lou Ureneck:  "Onassis was the son of the most prominent Greek tobacco trader, Socrates Onassis.  Aristotle was the son of Socrates. And, actually, he was, sort of, the wayward son.  The father was a strict, observant, orthodox Christian.  The son, not so much.  And there was already friction in those years. The son was already a playboy, and when the Turkish Army came into Smyrna, the father, Socrates, was arrested, placed in prison, and he faced a very uncertain fate - possible execution.  Ultimately, the son was able to spring him from jail by paying a bribe.  Interestingly, going forward, the old man was a very good businessman and he watched his liras and drachmas very carefully.  And he was very unhappy with the size of the bribe that the son had paid to get him out of prison.  It opened a breach between the two of them. The father thought he had been impecunious; that he had spent way too much freeing his father from prison. Of course, Aristotle went on to be the richest man in the world."

He also went on to become the second husband of Jackie Kennedy.

Lou Ureneck is a former Portland Press Herald editor who now teaches journalism at Boston University.  His latest book is called "The Great Fire:  One American's Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century's First Genocide."  It's published by HarperCollins Publishers