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Parallel lives: Population exchanges 1922-1924

By Spyros Yannaras

Maria Iliou’s approach to the sensitive historical issue of population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in the aftermath of the Asia Minor disaster of 1922 was reflected in the way she spoke about the subject at recent press conference held in Athens. “There are no privileges when it comes to pain,” said the director during a presentation of a new documentary and exhibition currently on view at the Benaki Museum.

Both a documentary and an exhibition, “Expulsion and Exchange of Populations, Turkey-Greece 1922-1924” complements Iliou’s previous effort, the highly successful “Smyrna: The Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City 1900-1922.” While the former is being shown at the Benaki Museum’s headquarters in Kolonaki, the latter is currently on screen at the museum’s Pireos Street annex.

“The second documentary was made in the hope that 90 years after the Asia Minor disaster, we could tell the whole story from both sides of the Aegean Sea,” said the director.

Historian Alexander Kitroeff, who collaborated with Iliou on both films, noted that when the exchange was agreed in Lausanne in 1923, the majority of Greeks had already been expelled or repatriated to Greece. The treaty, which followed the first expulsion of the Greeks of Smyrna, Pontus and Cappadocia, was valid for 180,000 Greeks and some 400,000 Muslims from Crete and Macedonia -- in the latter’s case, the majority would have preferred to remain in Greece.    

The tragedy, in other words, was that populations on both sides were never consulted on the issue of their planned destiny as refugees.

According to historian Thanos Veremis, the Greeks were taken to a country with a lower standard of living, leaving behind their property, successful businesses and other activities which secured them a high standard of living, to end up living in poverty and humiliation. The predicament of the exchanged Muslims, however, was even worse.

“Our people got some elementary care, while the Muslim refugees were left to their own devices,” he said.

The documentary presents individual stories demonstrating the impressive similarities in the experiences of Greek and Turkish refugees, based on the belief that their common hardship may act as a unifying factor for both sides.

Benaki Museum, 17 Vas. Sofias & 1 Koubari, tel 210.367.1000; Benaki Museum Pireos St Annex, 138 Pireos & Andronikou, Gazi, tel 210.345.3111-3. For more information, visit www.benaki.gr.

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