Special for the Armenian Weekly
Sept. 6, 1955 started just like any other day for the Greeks, Armenians, and Jews of Istanbul—or Constantinople.
”I resided in Cengelkoy with my wife and two children back then,” wrote Apostolos Nikolaidis in the book I Nihta ton Kristallon. ”Just as protests were starting in Taksim, I left my shop in Karakoy and went home.”
Nikolaidis did not know that a horrid ethnic cleansing campaign was on the way. Just like Nikolaidis, thousands of non-Muslims in Istanbul were not yet aware of the intent of their own state to destroy their private property, businesses, and places of worship, to terrorize them into abandoning their ancient homeland.
Nikolaidis continued: “We tried to listen to the radio to get the news. The noises of the plundering continued to come closer to us. They must have been attacking the shop of Yovani. Then, right afterward, the first stone was thrown at our home. … The crowd was throwing the coal that I had stocked in the area in front of my house into the windows of the houses nearby. Then the crowd moved away from our house for a while. After half an hour, a new group arrived. They were led by Kemal, a ticket conductor. I had known Kemal for a long time. He had always complained about headaches. I was the only one in the village who had a refrigerator so I had provided ice for Kemal to cure his headache. So I decided to speak with him, trusting our friendship. I took the Turkish flag at home and went downstairs.”
”They were shocked when they saw me and retreated, so I took advantage of the silence and started speaking. I said: ’I, Apostolos Nikolaidis, was born and grew up here like you did. I’ve served in the army like you have. I am a Turkish citizen like you are. I have nothing to do with what is going on in Cyprus. I believe in God like you do. Please leave my family and home alone. Don’t forget that I am a part of this land as much as you are.’
”A short period of silence followed my words. Then I recoiled in horror at a scream: ‘What is the Turkish flag doing in this infidel’s hand?’ shouted a man. Then, a few of them who were near me jumped on me. They hit my head with sticks. I heard my son scream as I fell on the ground. ‘Brother Kemal! You are killing my father!,’ he shouted. Then Kemal got astonished, stopped the others, and walked away with the crowd. My wife and son took me back home. We then went to the home of our relatives in Tarlabasi where we would be safer. September 6, 1955 was the last night we spent in our home. We first moved to the city center, then, a few years later, we left Turkey.”
In the pogrom that lasted two days, flames rose all over Istanbul from the fires that began during the plundering and destruction.
The homes and workplaces of Greeks and other non-Muslim communities had been located by the mobs beforehand. One day before the pogrom, the aggressors had told the owners of Turkish shops to “put Turkish flags on their windows”; the shops that did not have Turkish flags were destroyed or damaged. Witnesses said that the mobs were equipped with a list of addresses to attack.
Then, on Sept. 6, they started their “mission,” and devastated the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish districts of Istanbul, killing an estimated 37 Greeks. They destroyed and looted the homes, offices, shops, and schools of non-Muslims, as well as their places of worship. The holy images, crosses, and icons were attacked. Some of the churches were set alight and completely burned.
The mobs beat and injured many people, destroyed graveyards, exhumed the dead from their graves and dragged them in the streets. The scope of the savagery was beyond words.
Some 200 Greek women were raped. It was also reported that Greek boys were raped and that a priest was burned alive. Many Greek men, including at least one priest, were exposed to forced circumcision.
The list of rape victims was established by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and by the Greek consul general, and reported in Speros Vryonis’s 2005 book, The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, and the Destruction of the Greek Community of Istanbul.
Alexandros Hacopulos, a Greek MP from the Democrat Party, then the ruling party of Turkey, gave a speech in the Turkish Parliament on Sept. 12, in which he said that his house had also been plundered. He said that about 300 people had gone to Buyuk Ada, a neighborhood in the Adalar district of Istanbul, by motorbike and plundered the houses and workplaces of the Greeks there as police stood by.
On Sept. 27, 1955, the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul sent a dispatch to the State Department saying, “Only a very small percentage of community property appears to have escaped molestation.”
These atrocities were committed over a 48-hour time period in Istanbul, one of the biggest cities in the world, and one that houses one of the most powerful armies in the world.
However, the Turkish security forces that coordinated the pogrom refrained from protecting the lives and property of the victims, instead paving the way for further violence and plundering.
Lois Whitman, a lawyer and the former deputy director of the Human Rights Watch’s Helsinki Watch Division, reported in her book Destroying Human Rights and Ethnic Identity: The Turks of Greece the stance of the Turkish security forces in the face of these attacks: ”The American consul general telegraphed the Department of State that ‘the destruction was completely out of hand with no evidence of police or military attempts to control it. I personally witnessed the looting of many shops while the police stood idly by or cheered on the mob.'”
Orhan Eyuboglu, one of the security directors of Istanbul at the time, said in court that the then-Minister of Interior had instructed police not to use violence [against the aggressors] as what they were witnessing was “a national rage.”
The transportation of the plunderers was provided by private cars, taxis, trucks, as well as buses, trains, ships, and even military vehicles.
According to case records, 4,214 homes, 1,004 workplaces, 73 churches, 1 synagogue, 2 monasteries, 26 schools, and 5,317 places including factories, hotels, and bars were attacked.
”I was 13 years old. Those who came to our door said, ‘There is a 13-year-old girl here, give her to us right now!’ My mother was terrified. I was trembling like a leaf. I could not understand why they wanted me so insistently. But later I learned that they had raped many non-Muslim children, especially in Beyoglu and Taksim,” Keti Bagdat, 65, one of the few Greeks who stayed in Istanbul after the pogrom, told Turkey’s Bianet news agency.
Bagdat added that she was devastated when she saw the scope of the disaster the following day. ”Churches were burned down and completely destroyed. The graveyards of Greeks and Armenians were plundered. They exhumed the dead and did not even leave alone the bodies of those who had just died. They did not just deal with the living; they also disquieted the dead,” she said.
As the attacks were orchestrated by the Turkish state forces, the non-Muslim communities had nowhere to turn to for help. With terror and fear, they exercised their only remaining option: They fled Istanbul—Constantinople, their ancient homeland—in a mass wave of migration.
During Kristallnacht on Nov. 9-10, 1938 in Germany and Austria, at least 91 Jews were killed; Jewish homes, hospitals, and schools were ransacked; more than 1,000 synagogues were burned; and more than 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed or damaged by the Nazi SS and SA.
The world witnessed another Kristallnacht on Sept. 6-7, 1955. This time in Istanbul and against the Greeks, Armenians, and Jews of the territory.
The Istanbul pogrom should be evaluated in terms of two issues: Cyprus and the Turkification policies of the Turkish Republic.
Prior to the London Conference of Cyprus on Aug. 29, 1955, Adnan Menderes, then the prime minister of Turkey, had said, “Our brethren in Cyprus are faced with a threat of public rape in the upcoming days.” Hikmet Bil, the head of the “Cyprus is Turkish” Association and a columnist at Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper, had made a similar statement on Aug. 20, 1955: “The response to such a move [an attempt of massacre against Turkish Cypriots] must be very short. There are so many Greeks in Istanbul.”
The Turkish authorities considered some of its citizens—Greeks and other non-Muslims—as a trump card to exploit in their foreign relations. They brought the issue of Turkey’s Greek minority to the agenda every time tensions between Turkey and Greece emerged, thinking that any betterment—or aggravation—in the living conditions of Turkey’s Greeks could be used to force Greece into making concessions to Turkey.
As the conference in London continued, members of the “Cyprus is Turkish” Association and other Turkish nationalist organizations attempted to provoke the public by using such rhetoric.
And Sept. 6 marked the peak of their propaganda: The Istanbul Express newspaper that day featured the headline, “The home of our dear Ataturk has been bombed in Thessaloniki,” in a clear attempt to provoke people against non-Muslims.
However, the two-day pogroms in Istanbul and Izmir were so planned, systematic, and organized that they could not have resulted from a simple provocation.
The issue of Cyprus was a pretext to incite the public to violence against the Greeks and non-Muslims. And the Sept. 6-7 pogrom did not just concern Cyprus. It aimed to further homogenize the “Turkish nation,” an open objective of the Turkish regime, and to create a national economy by ending the involvement or leadership of the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish citizens in Turkey’s economy.
Hence, this pogrom should be viewed as a continuation of the long-established policy of discrimination by the Ottoman and Turkish governments against their non-Muslim communities.
The forcible population exchange in 1924 between Turkey and Greece; the laws that excluded non-Muslims from certain professions; the 1934 anti-Jewish pogrom in Eastern Thrace; the Wealth Tax of 1942 imposed on non-Muslims; and the recruitment of non-Muslims into work battalions of the Turkish Army during World War II were all manifestations of Turkey’s discriminatory policies against its non-Muslim citizens.
The Republican People’s Party, which established the Turkish Republic in 1923 and ruled until 1950, stated in its 1946 report on minorities that its aim was to leave no Greek in Istanbul until the 500th anniversary of the “conquest” of Istanbul (until 1953). Their plan was carried out with only a two-year delay.
On Sept. 6, 1955, an explosive went off in the courtyard of the Turkish Consulate in Thessaloniki, a building adjacent to the house where Ataturk was born. Later, it was revealed that the bombing was organized by the Turkish Consulate with the knowledge of the Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Oktay Engin, a Turkish national, who was then a university student in Thessaloniki, had been assigned to carry out the explosion near Ataturk’s house. He was later promoted by the Turkish Interior Ministry to high positions and became the governor in many provinces of Turkey. These realities became known during the 1960-61 Yassiada trials that were conducted after the 1960 coup d’etat.
Even though the biggest victims of the pogrom were the Greeks, all non-Muslim minorities were targeted.
”The September 6-7 pogroms were not just an act of retaliation against Greeks concerning Cyprus because only 59 percent of the workplaces that were destroyed belonged to the Greeks. Seventeen percent belonged to Armenians and 12 percent belonged to Jews,” reported Dr. Dilek Guven, a historian who wrote a book on the pogrom.
Vryonis also reported that “according to the Istanbul police, 2,572 Greek, 741 Armenian, and 523 Jewish businesses were destroyed.”
The pogrom started a wave of migration in line with the objectives of the Turkish state. In a few months, most large businesses had been transferred from non-Muslims to Muslims, and the businesses that were destroyed were never reopened.
With the wave of migration, the state took an important step toward fulfilling its objective of homogenizing “the Turkish nation” and Turkifying its economy.
“The local press of Istanbul, however, covered the mass migration as ‘a traditional disloyalty of minorities’ and ‘their historic alliance with foreign states,'” Guven said.
Due to heavy damage to its printing facilities during the pogrom, Embros, an Istanbul-based Greek newspaper, stopped printing for eight days. Once printing was resumed, the September 15, 1955 editorial read: “We will stay right where we belong. We’ll stand up to rebuild our churches, bury our dead, refurbish our schools, shops, flats, and stay where we are.”
“We will stay in this country, where we were born and raised, where our forefathers’ graves lie, albeit damaged. We will make a new world out of the damaged graves, and out of the churches, schools, shops, and flats that have been reduced to ruin. Through perseverance and courage, we will put our lives in order again amid the ruin.”
“We will raise our voices and shout out that this tragedy that befell us should not have taken place. We will exclaim that the country that we live in is our home and we are not here as anyone’s hostage or captive and that we do not have to leave simply because some want to see us leave. We will stay here. Like a sycamore embracing the earth with its roots, we will constantly remind others that we have our roots in this country. They may cut off our branches but the deep roots of our old tree are beyond anyone’s reach.”
“With the help of God Almighty and the security provided by the government, Turkish Greeks will rise from the ashes in no time.”
However, nothing would be the same for the non-Muslim communities of Turkey after the pogrom. A large majority of the Greeks of Istanbul and at least 10,000 Jews were forced to abandon Turkey. Most of the remaining Greeks were exiled to Greece en masse in 1964—another tragedy in Turkey’s history.
In 1964, some 30,000 Greeks in Turkey were forced to leave their birthplace with only personal items weighing 20 kilograms (44 pounds) and money amounting to $20. They were not allowed to sell their houses or property or to take money from their bank accounts before they left.
Have Turkish state officials made any moral and material reparation for the 1955 pogrom? Have they shown sign of remorse or grief years after that ethnic cleansing?
Sadly, the answer is no. Instead, they have named a university, an airport, and schools after one of the architects of that pogrom. And there is still not a single official Turkish government report on the violence of Sept. 6-7, 1955, except for a statement made by an army official in an interview.
General Sabri Yirmibesoglu, a Turkish Army officer during the pogrom, said in an interview in 1991 that Sept. 6-7 had been the work of the Special Warfare Department (SWD) of the army. “It was a good organization. It has reached its goal. I am asking you: Wasn’t it an excellent organization?” he asked the journalist who was interviewing him.
The SWD was also involved in the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, under the command of Yirmibesoglu. In 2010, Yirmibesoglu said in televised comments that Turkey burned a mosque during the Cyprus conflict “in order to foster civil resistance against Greeks on the island” and that “it was a rule of war to engage in acts of sabotage made to look as if they were carried out by the enemy.”
Istanbul’s Greek minority, which numbered some 100,000 before the pogrom, is currently estimated to be 2,000. As Yirmibesoglu stated, “The organization has reached its goal.”
How would the international community have reacted if the German government had refused to render compensation to the survivors of the Holocaust and publicly praised that genocide instead?
Will the West ever see that its double standards on the Turkish state harm all nations in the region—the peoples of Turkey and of neighboring countries?
If Turkey aims to be a respected member of the international community and remain an “ally” of the West, there are certain duties that the Turkish state should fulfill:
It should offer official apologies for the Sept. 6-7 pogrom and for other massacres it has committed. It should recognize the right to the truth, and prohibit the denial of the genocides in its history.
It should express repentance for its crimes, following the example of then-German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who fell on his knees in humility and penance in front of a Holocaust memorial in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970.
It should pay extensive reparations to the survivors of those massacres as well as the families of the victims. It should recognize their right to return to their ancient homeland as equal citizens and offer them all their cultural, linguistic, and political rights. It should stop promoting and awarding the murderers and immediately bring them to account for committing crimes against humanity.
It should establish memorial museums across Turkey to raise awareness among the Turkish people so that similar crimes are never committed again.
And if it is unprepared or unwilling to do all of these things for now, it should at least stop praising and taking pride in those massacres. It should try to not bring further shame on itself and its citizens.