Almost one century after the Catastrophe of Smyrna, it was the oral history, the stories told by his grandmother Eugenia Caristinos (nee Girdis) that led Brisbane cardiologist Professor Con Aroney into the world of creative writing rather than research papers.
The book Flames on the Water, Tears in the Sea, published last year, was the result of his five year labour of love, as he calls it, that ‘had to be done one day’.
A powerful historical novel about one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, the destruction of a prosperous Mediterranean city, the massacre of hundreds of thousands of its multicultural inhabitants and the displacement of millions more, the book is based on the involvement of the author’s family in the actual events, the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922.
It was Mr Aroney’s maternal grandmother, Eugenia, who would describe in detail what had happened to her family in Asia Minor, tell stories of their struggles, their losses, and their salvation.
Con Aroney’s book is a reconstruction of the historical event that took place in Smyrna – the melting pot of different ethnic groups – told through three interwoven stories: those of the author’s maternal grandparents, the Girdis and Caristinos families, and an unknown hero, Asa Kent Jennings.
“These stories were very important in my early life. As I grew older, I felt they had to be told. Firstly, I wanted to leave a historical record for my children and grandchildren, so that they could understand their roots. Secondly, I wanted this story to be told so that Australian public would know about the event of 1922, because most of them have never heard of it. I thought it was important to educate them so that they understand that many Greek people, who later came to this country, faced these terrible events,” Mr Aroney tells Neos Kosmos.
Even more so, the book was the author’s personal acknowledgment to brave people who were displaced, gave their life or were tortured in the Asia Minor catastrophe, a big thanks for their bravery that led to others having the privilege of living in Australia.
“My maternal grandfather’s family, Caristinos, from Chesme, and my grandmother’s family, the Girdis family from Alatsata, were both involved in the catastrophe.
“The Caristinos lived in Chesme, and the patriarch of the family was John. During the first diogmos, or the first persecution, around 1914-1918, many of the Greeks left Asia Minor, but John was one of the few who refused to leave. He sent his family away, but he stayed to protect his house and business. His love for his patrida was so strong that he refused to leave and was killed there.”
The second story, that of the Girdis family of Alatsata, is the story of a family separated by the great persecution. The four Girdis sons found a refuge in Australia, while the rest of the family stayed in Greece. The Girdis story is the story of the tragedy that befell them and their will and strength to survive.
The two stories are interwoven with the story of a great humanitarian, Asa Kent Jennings, a YMCA worker posted to Smyrna only a week before the Turks swept into the city. The book is about a man and a hero, his rescue of the Greek people of Smyrna and the whole Asia Minor coast.
In never before published detail and based on the material provided by Jennings’ grandson, the author describes the life of the remarkable A.K. Jennings, a man of amazing courage, without whom many thousands of Greek refugees would have perished.
A Methodist pastor from the US, Jennings was crippled by tuberculosis which affected his spine, and was in continual pain all his life. And yet, he gave his life to the service of humanity. He was the primary person responsible for the rescue of women and children of the Asia Minor coast.
“For me, many of us wouldn’t have been in this country if it wasn’t for his efforts, his ability to launch a rescue. His heroic deeds were truthfully represented in the book.”
After the events of Smyrna, he was given the highest military and civilian award by the Greek government, the first time in history that the two awards were given to the same person.
“He was very much valued by Greeks of the time, and even more remarkable – he was also admired by the Turks and Kemal Ataturk. Afterwards, they invited him back to Turkey to help rehabilitate Turkish children,” Mr Aroney tells.
And with the major events in the book being based on historic records, it is the human side of the catastrophe, portrayed through the author’s family, that captures the reader’s heart. And hearts of many will be captured on Sunday, when the Melbourne launch of Con Aroney’s book will coincide with the commemoration of the Genocide of Pontian Hellenism in Pontus.
“The genocides in the Pontic region and Asia Minor were similar events and the Greeks were involved in both episodes. Wherever we came from in Anatolia – whether it was Asia Minor or Pontus or Cappadocia, the Greeks suffered equally. I think that there will be a chord felt by any Greek from that region if they read this book; of the suffering that these people underwent and the great heroism they showed coming through it and bringing their families – or what remained of them – to Australia and America.”
The book Flames on the Water, Tears in the Sea will be launched on Saturday 17 May at 3.00 pm, at the Pontian Community of Melbourne, 345 Victoria St, Brunswick. The book is available at selected bookstores or the publisher at www.copyright.net.au