By Tim McLaughlin
BOSTON, May 20 (Reuters) - A forgotten and unlikely American hero has been resurrected by author Lou Ureneck in a new book about the ethnic cleansing of Smyrna, a cosmopolitan gem in the Ottoman Empire burnt to the ground in 1922.
"The Great Fire", released this month by HarperCollins, details how a sickly YMCA worker named Asa Jennings spirited about 250,000 people from certain death by the Turkish national army. Led by Mustapha Kemal, the army targeted Greeks, Armenians and other ethnic groups in what Ureneck calls the final act in a 10-year genocide of Christians.
Jennings, a Methodist minister, arrives in Smyrna racked with fever, a limp, and a spine disease that already robbed him of several inches of height. The book recounts how he felt God's hand placed on his shoulder as he doggedly pursued the merchant ships he would need for an epic rescue of about 250,000 people.
Turkey, which is mostly Muslim, denies any genocide occurred. Smyrna, known today as Izmir, was rich, sophisticated and a hub for trading cotton, figs and tobacco. A young Aristotle Onassis lived there before becoming one of the world's richest men.
But in September 1922, Smyrna was beset by crisis as thousands of refugees from the countryside poured into the city after Kemal's troops routed the Greek army. Despite a harbor full of warships, including U.S. Navy destroyers, little was being done to avert the nightmare.
"It was a humanitarian disaster," Ureneck told Reuters in an interview. That's when Jennings resorted to a bribe, a lie and an empty threat, as Ureneck writes, to secure merchant vessels for refugees. The story bears some resemblance to Oskar Schindler. Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" shows how the rakish Schindler outsmarted the Nazis with bribes and work programs to save Jews.
Ureneck, a 64-year-old journalism professor at Boston University, delivers an action-packed narrative. But it is the YMCA worker Jennings, who went to Smyrna to teach sports and Christian values to young men, that stands out.
Ureneck's previous two books, "Backcast" and "Cabin", are memoirs that center on a flyfishing trip with his son in Alaska and building a cabin with his brother in Maine.
But Ureneck, who had read about Jennings and thought there must be more to his story, became convinced that he was the man to tell it.
"I have another personal story that I want to tell and had already begun it, but I decided I wanted to tell the Asa Jennings' story first," Ureneck said. (Editing by Christian Plumb)