Book of the Week: The Great Fire – Lou Ureneck

This is one of those untold bits of history that both shocks the sensibility and reminds us that one person’s single-minded determination can save the lives of thousands—in this case hundreds of thousands of people. Told with a Simon Winchester-like verve, this story of how one Christian missionary hatched a plan to save the lives of a quarter million Greek and Armenian refugees in 1922 Smyrna is an absorbing, gripping and inspiring read.

Asa Jennings, a Methodist minister from Upstate New York, was working as a secretary for the YMCA when the Turks drove hundreds of thousands of refugees to the shores of Smyrna, burning towns and slaughtering those behind them. Appalled by the cruelty and by the “neutrality” the West maintained in the face of such carnage (as many as 30 French, British and American warships sat in the harbor), he began a plan of rescue with several other Americans behind the backs of higher-ups. By sheer cunning and wit, he and his group skirted the political stalemates and previously intractable positions to co-opt a fleet of Greek ships and ultimately save the lives of a quarter of a million people within a two week period.

It’s a breathtaking story and a bracing tonic in the face of a world that—almost a hundred years later—feels demoralizing unchanged when it comes to ethnic tolerance.

The Great Fire has received strong advance reviews and, of course, is publishing during the latest anniversary of and debate over the Armenian Genocide.

Ureneck’s research is thorough and wide-ranging as he explains the 500 years of conflict between Greece and Turkey, the World War I years of the Armenian genocide, and the new government’s policy of Turkey for the Turks, barring all others. Jennings’ appeals for evacuation to the American senior Naval officer, Adm. Mark Lambert Bristol, were generally ignored. ….Jennings worked night and day to move the refugees to a safe location. The story, especially that of Jennings, crippled by tuberculosis and typhoid, is remarkable, and Ureneck delivers it with a wonderful style that grabs and holds the reader’s attention. An inspiring illumination of a hero who deserves recognition.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Ureneck, a professor of journalism at Boston University, uses wartime archives and private papers from the principals involved to revisit the inferno of Smyrna, the concluding tragedy of the decade-long campaign of religious and ethnic cleansing that ‘killed more than three million people’ across Asia Minor and marked the end of the Ottoman Empire….Recounting the personal and political activities of key figures, Ureneck wisely underscores several essential themes of the West’s relationships with Muslim countries that remain concerns today: a fragile American foreign policy, human rights violations, and ambitions to control regional oil supplies. Surprisingly fresh, haunting, and potent, Ureneck offers a new perspective on the unforgiveable tragedy at Smyrna and the modern religio-ethnic conflicts that continue to trouble the region.”
Publishers Weekly

 The Great Fire: One American’s Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century’s First Genocide (9780062259882) by Lou Ureneck. $28.99 hardcover. 5/12/15 on sale.

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