‘I’ll squeeze those Armenians like lemons’

Special for the Armenian Weekly
It was one of those receptions that had taken months to organize. The tables were fitted with fancy decor topped with bouquets of tulips picked from all parts of the country. The hall was unlike most other halls in the city; elaborately embellished with handmade ornaments, it had the capacity to dazzle one’s eye. Throughout the night, couples mingled, announcers made long speeches, and others danced. It was the place to be.

The reception took place in Istanbul and was hosted and organized by a local Armenian church. The leading figures of Istanbul’s Armenian community were present. Among those invited were various government dignitaries, including Ismet Inonu, then president of the Republic of Turkey. Inonu was accompanied by his wife, who was impressed by the decorations and the preparation that went into the event.

“My goodness, such beautiful decorations!” she said gleefully. “Where do they come up with the money to finance all this wonderful decor?”

“Don’t ponder about that too much,” Inonu replied sternly. “Pretty soon, I’m going to squeeze them like lemons so hard that they’ll run dry.”

Inonu would never back down from his promise.

A few years after this event, in a village nestled deep in the heart of Anatolia, my grandfather, who was 14 at the time, was returning home after a day spent playing with neighbors. He found the front door left open and a blaring commotion inside his home. As he walked in, he saw his three older sisters sobbing, his mother on the divan crying uncontrollably, and his father sitting beside the table with a folded piece of paper on his lap.

Asking what had transpired, his father replied, “This year’s taxes came in,” as he waved the bill in his hand. “There’s no possible way I can pay it. It’s three times what they were last year. The only way to keep our home and livelihood is if I go to Askale.”

What terrified the family the most wasn’t the tax bill itself, but the prospect of their father and husband having to go to Askale and serve in the harrowing labor camps there.

In the days of Varlik Vergisi of 1942, when non-Muslims were forced to sell off their possessions to pay the exuberant taxes imposed on them
In the days of Varlik Vergisi of 1942, when non-Muslims were forced to sell their possessions to pay the exuberant taxes imposed on them

My great grandfather had 15 days to pay the bill in full in cash or else his property and belongings were to be confiscated by the state. However, what terrified the family the most wasn’t the tax bill itself, but the prospect of their father and husband having to go to Askale and serve in the harrowing labor camps there. With the head and main provider of the household gone, the house would likely be confiscated anyways. But this was a risk my great grandfather was willing to take. Askale was located in the eastern part of the country where the freezing cold and labor-intensive duties would almost certainly lead to death. This was especially traumatizing for the mother of the household, who had already lost three children and a husband during the Armenian Genocide. The prospect of losing her second husband in similar circumstances inflicted the worst kind of pain.

These were the days of the Varlik Vergisi of 1942, a tax policy that was supposed to be levied on the wealthiest citizens of Turkey. However, it was the Armenians who paid the biggest burden with a tax hike of 232 percent—the most punitive tax rates to be known in Turkey. Although the heaviest hit were the Armenians, the Jews, Greeks, and converts (Donmehs in Turkish) were hit hard as well.

The policy’s main proponents were two men—President Inonu and Prime Minister Sukru Saracoglu—who championed the idea of taxing the non-Muslim minorities heavily before Turkey’s potential involvement in World War II. These men are much revered in Turkish society today. In fact, two of the largest stadiums in Turkey are named after them.

For the Armenians, however, it was part of another genocide in the making. If Stalingrad was to fall, and Germany subsequently named victor of the war, Turkey was to wipe out its minorities—the same way its tentative ally Nazi Germany had done in Europe. Turkey knew that an ally like Germany would never condemn it; on the contrary, Germany would encourage it. Moreover, with an alliance with Germany and the fall of the USSR, the nationalist clique within the Turkish government was excited about the prospects of an open corridor into Central Asia. In this sense, the Turkish government found an opportunity to complete what it had left unfinished in the previous war.

The government’s master plan was thereby programmed similarly to how the Young Turks set up their genocidal policy prior to World War I: heavy taxation; labor battalions of able-bodied men; the militarization of society; the forceful conscription of Armenians into the army in what became known as the Twenty Classes, or the Yirmi Kura Ihtiyatlar Olayi; and the eventual reunification with their brethren in Central Asia by demolishing anyone in their way.

By this time, it was reported that 26 armed Turkish divisions were stationed across the border with Armenia, waiting for an opportunity to launch an offensive. As such, another Sardarabad was to commence if Germany succeeded in Stalingrad. In other words, my worried great grandmother had every right to believe that history was to repeat itself.

Upon hearing of his father’s decision to go to Askale, my grandfather rushed out of the house in tears. He sat on the curb in front of his home and unleashed a frantic wail. A Turkish man, who just so happened to work in the local tax bureau, saw my grandfather crying and approached him. The man asked my grandfather why he was crying; my grandfather said that his father was going to Askale and that he may never see him again. The man already knew about the taxes, but had little power to circumvent the damage. Deeply moved by my grandfather’s grief, he nevertheless demanded the tax forms from my grandfather and said he would try to help. Miraculously, the man managed to render the tax bill void and thus saved the life of not only my great grandfather, but his home and the entire family from certain doom. To this day, my grandfather believes that man was an angel sent from God.

It was through such confiscations that the Turkish government reportedly collected 314,900,000 liras (or about $270 million) that amounted to 80 percent of the state budget. Just like in the previous war, Turkey now had the money it needed to fund its war machine at the expense of non-Muslims—mainly Armenians—in the wake of another world war.

A newspaper headline announcing, 'The Tax Period Has Ended'
A newspaper headline announcing, ‘The Tax Period Has Ended,’ but adding, ‘If these taxes aren’t paid, their belongings will be confiscated.’

The rest of the population wasn’t so lucky. Confiscations of property occurred all throughout the country. Many sold their properties at a price significantly lower than their actual worth to avoid forced labor camps and potential death in Askale. Some rich Turks, such as the Koc family, took advantage of the ordeal and bought several properties at pennies on the dollar. It was a good investment on their behalf; today these properties are worth astronomically more than the puny amounts they were bought for. It was through such confiscations that the Turkish government reportedly collected 314,900,000 liras (or about $270 million) that amounted to 80 percent of the state budget. Just like in the previous war, Turkey now had the money it needed to fund its war machine at the expense of non-Muslims—mainly Armenians—in the wake of another world war.

It may be a lesser known part of Armenian and Turkish relations, but these events were so profound that they still have an effect on my family and I today. I wonder what would have happened to my family if that man had never encountered my grandfather on the curb crying. I also wonder what would have happened if the tides of war had swung in Germany’s favor. One can’t help but assume that my family would not have come out of the war alive if Germany had won the war. With an entire people squeezed dry from the “lemons” they once were, I don’t believe such questions matter. But with non-Muslims essentially reduced to a few thousand in Turkey today, one can’t help but wonder who the Turkish government will tax next in case of a third world war?

Garen Kazanc

Garen Kazanc

Born in Paris to Armenians from Turkey, Garen Kazanc moved to Los Angeles at a young age, where he attended and graduated from the Armenian Mesrobian School in 2006. He received a B.S. degree in sociology from Cal State Los Angeles. He has been an active member of Hamazkayin and the Armenian Poetry Project and has contributed articles to various Armenian newspapers and media outlets.


    • Thank you for this article. My husband’s family was not so lucky. They sold their mansion (kosk) in Kadikoy, Istanbul and the new owners let them live “with the furnace” or in the basement of their former home. All we have left are two pictures. Today, a small, 3 bedroom flat in the area can cost $500,000.

    • İsmet İnönü was an Armenian… Even during to die, was spelling Armenian letters by memory,I hope, you might know… Varlık Vergisi was triple taxes’ and main purpose is; Turkey’s Jews citizens force to immigrate to new established İsrail, like 2nd world war; to force Jews to israil for population m. c

    • Nobody even bothered contemplating it at the time. The US and the UK were just calculating how much damage they could let Hitler do to the USSR before stepping in. Hitler and Hirohito made the decision for them. But European Jewry was still sacrificed on the altar of anti-communism.

  1. E aferim Garen
    I also lived that somber days while in Istambul 70 years ago. I and my family were affected by both events. It’s true that we have been “squeezed like lemon” . I have known Ismet Inönü personally who hated specially Armenians.
    I congratulate you for your article and also your decision to move to new world.
    Shnorhavor nor Dari

  2. Even though I was three or four years old at the time I vividly I remember those days of “varlik vergisi”. My father refused to pay and ended up going to Askale.They had sealed the entrance to our apartment in Istanbul and were going to confiscate all our belongings to auction them off.I also remember my father with the help of the Kurdish doorman climbing into the apartment through a window at night and removing as many valuables as they could.

  3. My parents were smart. They knew they were on the wrong end of the stick so they immigrated to America. There is a long story in that immigration which many who immigrated know too well.


  4. Hello, Happy new years and Armenian Merry Christmas.I remember I was 13 years old, My father do not have $2,500,00 to pay,The MEMUR, official persons come and put every salable idem and furniture put in tow rooms and they seeled Muhurlediler. and told my little sister do not touch this door. Sold everything. and bi com homeless,I miss my Apple threes,and apricot.

  5. Despite the good Turks then and now, there are still many others whose “Turkishness” is insulted when you mention their many brutal sins. Judging by the millions spent on denial of the Genocide by the Erdoğan government, we must ask ourselves just how much official Turkey has changed in the past 100 years. The continuous lying, duplicity and hate out of Ankara still boggles the mind in 2015.

  6. Turks are opportunistic people in general, when Hitler send World War I military attache Franz Von Papen to Ankara to meet with Turkish officials, before Barbarossa, Turkey signed a Friendship Treaty with Nazi Germany on June 18, 1941. Turks were in process of wipe-out of the left over Christians of WW1, if Nazi Germany was not defeated during the battle of Stalingrad!

  7. ignorants like inonu feel so insecure that by squeezing the LEMONS , the acid of the LEMONS make them blind and KILLERS

  8. Sadly, it is Not Ismet Inonu who is squeezing our poor kin in Armenia, but SURPRISE, our filthy rich crooked oligarchs who live in mansions, while the majority Armenians live in abject poverty. Such is the fate of our motherland. Sooner or later, when there is left but only a few Armenians in Armenia, Aliyev would Not even resort to squeezing the rest. He will walk straight to the government building in Yerevan and claim the country for himself.
    We simply cannot sit idle in the West, in Europe and USA, living in luxurious houses, driving Mercedeses, and then sit down and scream “Bravo” to the rest of our brothers and sisters, who have absolutely NO OPTION but to stay in Armenia. Phony “Gettse Hayastans” and “Bravos” do Not make Armenia a better place. If you do Not want to live in Armenia, then You have to dig in deeper into your pockets and help Armenia financially. Armenia is dying, that is the sad reality. Aging population, poverty, outward migration…no wonder Aliyev hasn’t resorted to full blown war, because sooner or later, all he has to do is walk into Armenia without even firing One bullet.
    The GREATEST MORTAL THREAT to Armenia will NOT come from Turks, nor the West, nor the Russians, but from Armenians.
    Oh and just in case you wondered, I moved to Armenia in 2012 from the USA.

    • I agree, but what is needed to get people back? I moved also in 2008, but what will it take for others to move back, and claim their own land? How can we sit there and make other nations rich yet allow our own to go down the toilet?

  9. thank you very much Garen, for information I did not know. My gratitude also to Ars Keyfer and to E aferim Garen. All of you whose families endured this suffering, this attempt to again annihilate us, have the responsibility of documenting it, storing it in a safe place, of telling your descendants, to not allowing it to be forgotten. Because, someday, Brothers, someday….justice will prevail.

  10. This is why Armenians should never submit. Fight for freedom – because dying free is sweeter than living as a slave. My ancestors were given the option of converting to Islam and raising their children as turks and living as turks but they would not live a lie. Their deaths and the destruction of their civilization will never be forgotten.

  11. My grandfather got the tax bill and he also had to go to Ashkale. In the mean while, turks came in the house and took everything. When my grandmother begged them to leave one bed for her and her daughter to sleep in, they shot and killed her while her two children stood by her. My mother was 12 and my uncle a couple of years older then her. Forgive the bastard turks-never. This is not all-from my grandfather’s family in the late 1900 in gilikia, to my mother’s family in Van to my father’s maternal side in Sebastia, too many lives were destroyed, everything taken-forgive those bastards-never

    • My grandmother was from Sebastia also and we have to forgive if we want God to forgive us and give us the change

  12. The following quote came from the author Yaşar Kemal, who wrote:
    “Another bird cannot prosper in an abandoned nest; the one who destroys a nest cannot have a nest; oppression breeds oppression.” this came from Today’s Zaman.

    Preston Bagrationi, did you see Garen’s article in Asbarez? Since you are living in Armenia, you might want to contact Garen with your suggestions.

  13. Great article, written with a personal viewpoint. For years we in the diaspora knew of Varlik Vergisi, but had little authentic data. It makes perfect sense–impose the crippling tax under the cover of war. After all, what happened in 1915? On the eve of Stalingrad, the Turkish military was prepared and ready to invade Soviet Armenia–another face of the ugly racism of the Turks.

  14. Thank you for writing this brilliant article. It is a great pity that these atrocities took place but even greater that these have not been admitted by the turks. The truth remains. It is a pity that vene the European community did not do a thing to stop the destruction of the Armenian population. Let us not only put the blame on the turks but to the european countries that were fully aware of what was happening but decided not to get involved and this is why the problems have not gone away and the turks continue to deny the genocide. Happy New Year to all.

    • Thank you Garen for the article. It is part of Armenian history not widely known, unfortunately. My family also suffered deeply from this atrocious tax. And it is multigenerational; the suffering effected us the unborn children. I still remember my grandmother cursing Inonu. Khule she called him and it was more venomous than the meaning of the word; the deaf. She truly hated him.

      The Turks are finding out and acknowledging this crime. It was part of turkifying process of the economy/capital. I believe Ayhan Aktar is one of the current historians who has written and spoken extensively about the Wealth tax. It is a slow process, but there is some movement. I don’t think anyone has mentioned reparations though.

    • Yeah its not like those Europeans countries were in the middle of fighting the deadliest war in human history in 1942 or anything. Oh wait…

  15. my grandmother was also from sepastia,and when i was a young man i would ask about those days,she would have a strange look on her face and would ask why i would want to know about those day, she was 14 at the time a widow with a young boy, my father.never asked her again,forgivr those bastards never.

  16. Excellent article/documentary. To be revealed in UN Human Rights meetings or addressed to the IPC or international law experts. Also the story of my own father (and family) who was deported to Askale to come back two years later after the amnesty on these taxes. It’s history which has wielded into todays propaganda of negationnism and accusations. International action must be undertaken not only to restore facts and truth but require accountability from Turkey and Azerbaidjan for such criminal acts and hidden strategies – that only Armenians from Turkey know too well. aline d.

    • Yes it should.

      Unfortunately, people you would expect to be the first to say “Armenian Genocide, Never again” are in fact at the vanguard of AG Denialism. Sadly, too many Jewish-Americans, Jewish-American politicians, Jewish-American NGOs (e.g. ADL), the State of Israel, Jewish-Israeli scholars and writers are engaged in proactive Armenian Genocide denial, in support of the Turkish denialist machine.

      They dishonor honorable Jews such as Dr. Lemkin, and brave Dr. Israel Charny, and many other Jews, Jewish-Americans, Jewish-American politicians (e.g. Rep Schiff of CA) who battle the AG Denialists.

      Ironically the Jewish AG Denialists’ vile efforts to appease the denialist Turks have not worked: Turkish-Jews are increasingly leaving Turkey, feeling threatened and fearful for their safety in the face of resurgent radical Islamism and Anti-Semitism since the election of AKP.

  17. We cannot be full of hate and the unwillingness to forgive you pray for change and awknowledgement but God wants you to forgive first. Also you want to blame the Europeans yes they did know but if it were not for the pictures they took risking their lives to take those pictures and smuggle them out it would be our words only I say to all change your hearts and God will reveal the truth

    • {“We cannot be full of hate….”}

      with so much love coming from our dear Turk and Turkbaijani neighbors, how could we possibly be full of hate.

      [Two Armenian soldiers killed by Azeris on Christmas Eve]

      {As reported earlier, the enemy violated the ceasefire and attacked Armenian positions on Monday night, on the Eve of Armenian Christmas.}
      {According to our sources, two Armenian contractor soldiers were killed. Both soldiers lived in the Nagorno Karabakh Republic.}

    • {President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday Ankara would “actively” challenge a campaign pressuring Turkey to recognize the Armenian Genocide, on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy this year, AFP reports.
      “I believe that both the foreign ministry and the relevant institutions will actively counter those allegations,” Erdogan told Turkey’s ambassadors in a keynote speech, adding that discussions were already under way to detail an action plan.

      Also, Erdogan accused Armenia of expending its energy on genocide claims and politicising the issue by imposing its own “biased” view point.} (panorama.am 07/01/2015)

      No need to hate such dear neighbors: love will conquer all evil.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.