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Exhibition Marks Centenary of the 1922 Asia Minor Disaster

Asia Minor Disaster Exhibition
The destruction of Smyrna haunts Greece 100 years later. Public Domain

Visitors to the 86th Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF) will have the opportunity to learn about one of the darkest moments in Greek history, the Asia Minor Disaster of 1922, in an exhibition that marks the centenary since the events unfolded.

The exhibition “AEON…in Ionia, Thrace and Pontus” will take visitors on an audiovisual journey that spans moments in the lives of ethnic Greeks living in present-day Turkey before the forced exchange of populations, the refugees’ flight from Asia Minor, Thrace, and Pontus to Greece, and their settlement and incorporation into the Greek state and society.

Deputy Professor of Modern Balkan History of the University of Macedonia, Dr. Vlasis Vlasidis, who was responsible for collecting the archival material and confirming the historical accuracy of the exhibition, stressed in statements to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency that this tribute, which features an original score by Yiannos Aiolou and is edited by N-CODE EPE Audiovisual Productions, highlights the positive impact of assimilating the refugees in Greece.

Exhibition on Asia Minor disaster highlights mental collapse on refugee boats

The audiovisual presentation will be housed in Pavilion 6 in an area of five hundred square meters and will exhibit how these populations passed from premodernity to modernity, leaving behind a tranquil, traditional way of life and finding themselves forced to follow orders, leave their homelands and properties, board ships, and go into quarantine.

“From each person being responsible for themselves, they suddenly [entered] an organized society and for the first time [obeyed] orders for their own good, in order to save themselves,” Vlasidis said.

Very little material has been found regarding life on board the ships in the four to eight day journey from the Turkish shore to Thessaloniki, Kavala, Makronissos, and Piraeus, but this part of the story has been included in the narrative, as it had a profound impact on the refugees emotionally.

“We will try to decipher it, even though it is very difficult, as it does not only have to do with the real conditions of the trip but also the fact that the refugees, who had lost everything in their lives, underwent a mental collapse once they were on board the ships and felt safe,” Vlasidis said.

While much has been written about the quarantines and decontamination centers once the refugees reached Greece and the appalling conditions in which they lived there, Vlasidis noted that although refugees perceived this as punitive, there were actually a great many infectious diseases and many people had died. “If they had left this unchecked, it would have been a very great disaster for the local population as well,” he added.

Creation of a middle class and separation of memory and fact

The state preferred to install the refugee populations in the countryside rather than in urban areas and therefore allotted parcels of land which, depending on the area and the number of children in each family, could amount to three hectares total, including a house, livestock, and tools to get started.

“The state at the end of the 1920s and early ’30s…greatly [assisted] the refugees [in settling] in and [helping] to create a middle class, not a cheap and destitute workforce,” Vlasidis said, adding that the Greek government saw the refugees as a lever for improving things.

“At that time, the state also truly changed, itself graduating to modernity,” the professor noted. “We then had very great changes in many areas, such as the provision of free education to all, the creation of hospitals by the state, ports, the draining of land and road networks. Projects carried out in the ’60s and ’70s had been initiated then. They were not only for the refugees but the role of the refugees was a catalyst and the state was used for the good of society.”

“The memory of refugees is focused on drama, destruction, abandonment,” Vlasidis pointed out, underlining that the experiences were a different issue to the event in its entirety. “It looks at those that were lost and not those that were saved. The installation at the 86th TIF strives to show the narrative of the refugees [and] what truly happened to them [as well as] the importance of what was done by the Greek state and how successful this effort was overall.”

The photographs above were supplied by Dr. Vlasidis from the Historical Archive of the Refugee Greeks of Kalamaria – Smyrneans’ Union – Thracian Home of Katerini. They depict the Greek community hospital and its aftermath, Smyrna going up in flames in August 2022, a soup kitchen in Thessaloniki after 1922, and the new refugee housing built by the state in Kalamaria.

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