It’s 1922 in the Ottoman Empire. Greek teen Veta and her Turkish best friend Sevi live in the Mediterranean city of Smyrna where they support each other’s dreams, even if their parents don’t. Veta wants to be an astronomer, which is unheard of for a young woman. Sevi, who’s a genius with her Singer sewing machine, imagines living in Paris, designing the latest fashions.
But the girls’ dreams are cut short when the Greek-Turkish War ends and ethnic violence erupts in their city. With the Greek army in defeat and the Ottoman Empire crumbling, a new nationalist Turkish government takes over with the goal of ridding Smyrna of every last ethnic Greek.
Although Veta and Sevi cling to their friendship at first, complications soon arise. When Veta’s Greek boyfriend, Andreas, says that Turks “are not even human,” Veta doesn’t push back. Sevi, too, seems to be growing partisan, but on the pro-Turkish side.
As the anti-Greek violence in Turkey slides into genocide, 250,000 Greek and Armenian refugees are trapped on Smyrna’s quay with their lives in danger. When Veta is swept up in a real-life rescue plan led by her employer, Mr. Asa Jennings, she learns that the actions of even one person can make a big difference.
More about I Am But One
I Am But One is based on true historical events and relates to my own family’s Ottoman Empire past. In 1919, the Greek army, which included my grandfather, marched into the Turkish interior in a bid to create a modern Greek Empire. In retaliation in 1922, the Turkish army under General Mustafa Kemal (a.k.a. Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey) destroyed the Greek-held Turkish city of Smyrna (present-day Izmir), where my grandmother was born and grew up.
Although Veta and Sevi are fictional characters, Veta’s employer, Asa Jennings, is a real-life hero who saved 250,000 people. Much of what happens in my novel is based on detailed research by other writers, including many first-hand accounts. Of particular use to me in crafting this story was journalist Lou Ureneck’s singular book, Smyrna 1922.
The Greek and Turkish War of 1919 to 1922 was followed by a forced population exchange. One and a half million Christians (ethnic Greeks) from Turkey were sent to live in Greece, while half a million Muslims from Greece were resettled in Turkey. The Treaty of Lausanne, which the exchange was based on, became a notorious model for ethno-religious “purification” treaties (such as that between Pakistan and India in 1947) for the rest of the 20th century.
About Astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose work inspires Veta
Like Asa Jennings, Henrietta Swan Leavitt was a real person. She graduated from the precursor to Radcliffe College in 1892 with a strong interest in astronomy and eventually found employment at the Harvard Observatory, where she worked from 1902 to 1921.
Because of her startling discovery of a correlation between the length of time it takes a Cepheid variable star to blink and how bright it is (its magnitude), Edwin Hubble was able to use her findings to prove the existence of multiple galaxies in 1924. Hubble, Harlow Shapley and other astronomers went on to measure the size of the universe based on Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s work. Her discovery, known as Leavitt’s Law, forms the basis of modern astronomy.
Ms. Leavitt’s name was put forward for a Nobel Prize in 1924, but when the Nobel committee learned she had died of cancer in 1921, she became ineligible to receive it, as Nobel Prizes cannot be granted posthumously.
Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics details more of the momentous discoveries related to Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s work in an article from 2018, which can be accessed here.