Remembering the Istanbul Pogrom
Today is the anniversary of one of Turkey’s darkest events in history, remembered as “The Istanbul Pogrom” or “September Events” which consisted of a series of mob attacks mainly directed towards the Greek minority of Istanbul in 1955.
On the 6th of September of that year, thousands of angry people took the streets in Istanbul with sticks and axes in hand after hearing the false news about the Greeks bombing Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s house in Thessaloniki (where he was born). These angry men attacked stores and houses owned by non-muslims, mainly Greeks. As recalled today in the newspaper Cumhuriyet:
“The President of the Republic at the time, Celal Bayar, arrived to Beyoglu neighbourhood shortly after the events ended, and said ‘Maybe we went too far’ indicating that the events were planned.”
Istanbul Pogrom is still vivid in the memories of many, and is an important factor shaping Turkey’s non-muslim minorities’ insecurities and fears.
Since much of the press on this issue is in Turkish, I decided to translate and share some of what has been said about the September Events today and in the past years.
Following is a non-comprehensive collage of stories and commentaries appearing on the Turkish news platforms.
“According to the press, 11 people died in the riots, according to Greek sources 15 people lost their lives. Officially 30 people were injured, unofficial numbers amount to 300. The number of raped women is estimated to be above 200.
4,214 houses, 1,004 offices, 73 churches, one synagogue, one monastery, 26 schools and 5,317 other places such as hotels and bars were attacked.” — bianet.org
Author and editor Foti Benlisoy accounts:
“Dora recalls her father coming home worried, who worked for one of Istanbul’s Greek newspapers. She remembers him telling her mother to take her and her three sisters to the basement and hide. His father then went to the ground floor to Anastas’ store and took off the sign that had the owner’s name on it. He went upstairs again, to the balcony, started waiting with a bottle of nitric acid in his hand thinking ‘Maybe I can stop them if they attack the house’. Ripping off the sign of the store was in vain, Anastas’ store was destroyed to the ground by a crowd. Dora and her younger sisters couldn’t get a grip of what was going on, but their elder sister Smaragda who was 12 at the time was trembling like a leaf and sobbing out of fear. Her sisters couldn’t make sense of why Smaragda was turning yellow. In the end, what they feared did not happen, the attackers didn’t get to them but that night Smaragda’s heart could not bear the fear any longer and the little girl lost her life in the following morning.”
“Little Andon’s grandmother was living in Balat at the time. She went to her neighbour’s place, an old lady, Zehra Hanim, right before the crowd of assaulters arrived to their street. Then “the events” took place. While the attackers burnt down her house, Zehra Hanim was waving the flag, and Andon’s grandmother clapping, so that they wouldn’t think that she is Greek. She was watching the destruction of her house with fear in her eyes yet joining the attackers in the crowd at the same time, clapping and cheering so as to avoid being recognised.”
Another story shared by Raffi A. Hermonn in 2016 goes like this:
“Anastasis Yordanoglu was a citizen of Greek origin who lived in Beyoglu… That day, as usual, Anastasis went to the kahvehane (coffee place) in his neighbourhood… The owner of the coffee shop liked him very much. Slowly approaching Anastasis he whispered to his ear ‘Antoncugum (my beloved Anton), it’s better if you go home today’. ‘Why?’ asked Anastasis… The owner repated: ‘Listen to me, hurry up, go home!’ Annastasis Yordanoglu accounts what happened next: ‘After crossing a few avenues I understood what was going on. They were breaking stores’ and houses’ doors with axes. Pianos, wardrobes were being thrown out from the windows and they were shouting ‘Today your properties, tomorrow your lives!’’”
Journalist Serdar Korucu talks about the events with Ceni Palti, in an Avlaremoz interview:
“Although it has been emphasised that no killings were ordered that night, a strong wave of violence was directed especially towards the Greek community. Other than the psychological violence and the fear of death, this went so far as to battering. This land even witnessed rape and an organised human hunt directed towards priests.”
“ It is hard to keep an exact record, especially in cases of rape. Even today, how many women are able to go to the police after being raped? Then again, this wave of violence, this plunder, this pogrom happened in front of the security forces, how many women would trust governmental institutions after that? How many would seek refuge in them?”
“Our janitor Ahmet Efendi was standing with a flag in his hand in front of the apartment building, and had closed the apartment door behind him. ‘There are no gavurs (infidels) here’ he was shouting, waving his flag. As we later learned, he had also removed the special sign drawn beforehand to indicate that the place was to be vandalised. After he saved us, Ahmet Efendi opened the apartment door, left his flag, took a pick-axe and joined the attackers.”
“There is a consensus that links the September the 6th Pogrom to the Cyprus issue. This is not correct. Cyprus was an opportunity, if that was the reason, Armenian and Jewish communities would not be included in the pogrom and their houses and offices would not be signed.”
In a 2012 article Can Dundar wrote about Lefter Kucukandonyadis, the infamous football player who belonged to the Greek community of Istanbul:
“ It’s the 50's… Lefter becomes a distinguished player not only in Turkey but also worldwide. (…) He scores a goal against Greece wearing the national uniform… In 1955, we caused this man the biggest pain of his life. On the 6–7th of September, the looters that surrounded his house in Buyukada threw stones shouting ‘Beat this gavur (infidel)’.”
“(…) What would you do? I asked this to Nebil (who interviewed Lefter at the time): He (Lefter) asked to turn the camera off (…) He just said ‘I cried for days’. He abstained from giving details. But there is also the bright side of this country… (…) Lefters’ fans from Fenerbahce Football Club came to the island in ferries when they heard about the news, and they barricaded in front of his house. The fans told him ‘ Who did this to you? Tell us and we’ll put them in their place.’ Lefter, despite knowing all the attackers by name, did not denounce anyone. He did not make a complaint either. He found strength from his fans support. He said ‘These things happen in all communities’ and he kept quiet.
Mois Gabay expressed his feelings abut the memory of the September Events in his Salom article:
“ Still today, when I read the marginalising news in an antisemitic newspaper starting with ‘ The Jews, the Armenians, the Greeks’ I remember the 6–7th of September. Whenever I see crowds marching with banners in their hands in Beyoglu, I imagine how the 6–7th of September could have happened. The tragedy of the Jewish father in Galata makes my heart sink, who had to take off his trousers to say ‘ I’m not one of them, I am circumcised’ with his wife and daughter in front of him. I become ashamed of my humanity, thinking about how I lived in the same country with the villains who tried to rape the prettiest girl of the neighbourhood in the middle of Besiktas, who took out the bones of the dead from graves, who tortured, who circumcised the priests and cut their beards. The question of the woman who stood up from the crowd a few days after what happened, when the Patriarch was declaring that the damages would be recovered and repaired and asking the community not to leave asking ‘His holiness, my daughter was raped by one of the attackers. How are you going to repair her and our girls who share the same fate?’ still echoes in my ears.”
About the significance of the September Events in the history of the Greek community of Turkey, Mihail Vasiliadis says:
“September Events should be regarded as a breaking point for the Greek community. (…) people of this community who saw their future here until then (…) decided that their children’s future could not be here, and that they would not be given peace in their native land. (…) Nine years later, when the government started applying the deportation policy, their population decreased rapidly: to under 30,000 from 90,000 in 18 months. After the mid 70’s, this number was below 5,000. Today, it is thought that the community has an average age of above 60, and consists of 600 families…”
“How many dark Septembers have passed, and you’re not back
Even the wind is ashamed now, look, even the wind”