Sunday, November 26, 2017

Kountouriotika Refugee Settlement: 1923 Red Cross Films

How is it possible that the first organized humanitarian action by the Greek immigrants in the U.S. could disappear from the annals of history? Although I have not quite verified this by any primary sources, Greek-Americans raised funds in 1923 to build the earliest refugee settlement in Athens. The settlement was known as Emirikon or, more commonly, as Kountouriotika, after Greek Admira (and later President) Paul Kountouriotis, who managed the distribution of the Greek diaspora relief funds. Kountouriotika is a unique settlement. It preceded the refugee housing built by the Refugee Settlement Commission (1923-1930) and the housing blocks built by the Greek government in the 1930s. The most famous of these, the Alexandras Avenue Apartments designed by the Le Corbusier trained Kimon Lascaris (1933-1935), has so dominated the architectural discourse over public housing, that it has eclipsed any interest on its American project across the street. 

The corner of Alexandras and Vasilisis Sofias Avenue has a layered history. It houses Greece's oldest continuously used stadium (for ther Panathenaic Soccer Team) and was inaugurated the same year as the refugee crisis. The Greek American diaspora invested in this corner a second time, paying for the field's light electrification in 1938. The corner is also the site of the infamous Averof Prisons, where political prisoners were held during the Fascist Regime of Metaxas (1937-40) and the colonel junta (1967-74). Like the Kountouriotika settlement, Averof Prisons were torn down in the 1970s.

Although I'm certain there is some Greek scholarship on Kountoriotika, I am surprised that it has not received greater attention. I am grateful to conversations with Jack Davies, who has explored this settlement even further in his archival work and with Alexander Kitroeff, the expert on the Panathenaikos Stadium. The limelight of Kountouriotika is 1923, when it was presented as a model project for humanitarian aid. It was quickly superseded with other projects, such as the refugee settlement at Pangrati, named Vyronas in 1924 (at the centennial of Lord Byron's death). 

My first photographic discovery of Kountouriotika was in the Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection at the Library of Congress. During his journey through Greece in 1923, Carpenter took photographed the refugee crisis. In the photo below, he notes: "A refugee city that was built by Greek Americans--A model of cleanliness and order."

This weekend, I became aware of another visual source for the Kountouriotika refugee settlement, thanks to the Greek Red Cross and Stephanie Larson. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has digitized its audiovisual collection and made it available to the public online. The collection includes seven reels documenting the 1923 refugee crisis in Greece. 

The reels offer invaluable evidence for the archaeology of humanitarian relief and, specifically, on the construction of Kountouriotika. The reels were recorded in 1923 by Rodolphe de Reding Biberegg, the ICRC delegate in Greece. De Reding took over the delegation in 1922 after the abdication of King George (Queen Sophia had been the president of the Greek Red Cross and, naturally, resigned). De Reding's activities in Greece are best documented in a recent article by David Rodogno, “The American Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross’ Humanitarian Politics and Policies in Asia Minor and Greece (1922-1923),” First World War Studies 5:1 (2014), pp. 83-99. De Reding's first accomplishments was to convert the abandoned Stringos light bulb factory into a shelter for 2,500 refugees and to organize numerous soup kitchens. An even greater accomplishment was to manage the construction of Kountouriotika and herald it as a model refugee settlement. It is for this precise paradigmatic reason that the reels were filmed. Rodogno argues that "the construction of this showcase village was supposed to demonstrate to both Greek authorities and international donors that it was possible to find a permanent solution to the settlement of the refugees." (94)

The ICRC film is perhaps the most thorough documentation of this experiment. The settlement included a textile factory, a school, kitchens, a hospital, and a church. The film also shows working textile workers. It also shows the construction of yet another refugee settlement, which I have not yet identified. It is constructed by wood rather than brick. This is the German (Γερμανικά) type of housing, which took its name from the wood that the German government gave to Greece as part of its World War I reparations. Most architectural historians concur that no wooden structure of this type survives today, but I am hopeful that we might have simply not looked hard enough.

I have only began to scratch the surface on the archaeological value of these ICRC films entitled "The Greek-Turkish War: Greece 1923." But first, I provide here a general overview and links of the seven digitized films. Each film has a reference number and a link to its source. The most relevant reels for Kountouriotika are numbers 7, 8, 9, and the end of 10. The description is quoted directly from the ICRC Audiovisual Archive.

Individual portraits of all members of the International Commission for the Exchange of Turkish and Greek Civilian and Military Prisoners in front of the ICRC delegation in Athens. Established by the agreement of January 30, 1923 between Greece and Turkey on the exchange of prisoner of war, the commission works from February 27, 1923 (first report) to September 15, 1923 (departure of the ICRC delegate in Smyrna, dr Schatmann). Members: President Colonel Eduard Wildbolz (Swiss RC); Dr. Page (Swiss CR); Dr. Lindsjöe (Swedish CR); Commander J. Cottakis (Greek Gov.); Ali Muzaffer Bey (Turkish Govt) and Paul Schazmann (Intermediate at Smyrna from February to September 1923, made two fact-finding missions to Turkish prisoners of war in Greece in January 1922 and January 1923).

The first plans show the embarkation of Turkish refugees on a liner. A second sequence shows a refugee camp at the seaside in which many Turks wait to be embarked. The latest plans show the International Commission for the Exchange of Turkish and Greek Civilian and Military Prisoners in its entirety on the wharf and in front of the ICRC delegation in Athens (same plan as in V F CR-H-00001-5). Members: President Colonel Eduard Wildbolz (Swiss RC); Dr. Page (Swiss CR); Dr. Lindsjöe (Swedish CR); Commander J. Cottakis (Greek Gov.); Ali Muzaffer Bey (Turkish Government) and Paul Schazmann (Intermediary at Smyrna, Feb. 1923, who made two fact-finding missions to Turkish prisoners of war in Greece in January 1922 and January 1923). 

The film presents the different stages of the construction of the village "Embirikon" built thanks to the support of the mission of Reding and the subsidies sent by the Greeks of America to permanently lodge part of the refugees in brick houses. The construction of this village by the Greek refugees is the subject of this film .. It shows the work of the various workers (masons, carpenters, carpenters, etc. ..)

The film shows several weaving and sewing workshops where girls work. The images also contain two scenes of children's meals. The emblem of the International Union of Help to Children appears in most plans. A map shows children entering one of the brick houses that are being built in V F CR-H-00001-7. 

The first plans show the installation of families in the village "Embirikon". We see Rodolphe de Reding. The following plans show the construction of a camp of ten white tents. The latest plans show the construction of a wooden barracks camp, a gift from the Imperial war fund.

The film shows King George II and Queen Mary of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in front of the ICRC and International Children's Relief Union delegations in Athens. Following a ceremony of awards ceremony in which the king participates in an amphitheater; hard to know what exactly it is. Finally, the royal couple visit the village "Embirikon"

The film shows food coming and going in the Save the Children Fund depot and a visit by two Save the Children Fund delegates from a children's school (or orphanage). The Save the Children Fund sign appears three times in these images.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States