Witnessing the pogrom of September 6-7, 1955

The Istanbul pogrom started on the evening of Sept. 6, 1955 when mobs took to the streets of Istanbul and raided the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish districts, destroying and looting the non-Muslim places of worship, homes, businesses, cemeteries and schools. The events were triggered by false reports that the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, in the Greek city of Thessaloniki had been bombed. Some 4,200 houses, 1,000 businesses, 73 churches, one synagogue, one monastery, 26 schools and 5,300 other places, such as hotels and bars, were attacked during the evening of Sept. 6 and early hours of Sept. 7. 

It has been 64 years, I remember that night because I was 15-years-old. Those who were aged seven or eight were too small, probably they do not remember much. And how many of those who were in their twenties that night are still alive? If they are still alive, now they should be 85, 90-years-old. In 20 years, there will be nobody left on this earth who witnessed that night.

Today, for many that night is just history. When I am saying history, I mean it is an event they read or heard about, but did not experience. History is not things we witness in life, these are called memories, it is a reconstruction of the past. It is a tool in some people’s hands. It is a tool for education: centralised education systems, knowledge creation mechanisms that are regulated by laws and decrees used in the reconstruction of the past. The media also has a role in this effort. When something becomes history, it becomes official. And sometimes forgetting history is the other face of the reconstruction of the past.

What I write now is based on my memories. The events to a large extent did not affect our street. It was like a short wind that ruffles everything on the table in the garden in a few minutes and was followed by silence. In our case, a group of 20 to 30 people raided the small grocery of a Greek man across from our house.  

My family was living on the first floor. Afraid that something could happen, we went to the fourth floor to find refuge in our neighbour’s house. But they did not enter in our apartment because our door lady Münire stood in front of the door and told them: “There are no gavurs (a slur meaning infidel used since the Ottoman Empire to define non-Muslims) in this house."   

As a witness, that was all I experienced. But the aftermath of that night was a tragedy for my family. My father’s shop in Beyoğlu was totally destroyed that night. It took a few years for my family to make ends meet again. We went through difficult days. After I got a bit older, I recalled the events that happened that night. And I saw certain gaps in the official narrative of the events.

The pogroms against non-Muslims erupted that night after the Istanbul Express newspaper was published with the headline: "Our father Atatürk's house has been bombed.” In fact, the Turkish media had been impregnating hate against the Greeks for days. But who were those Greeks? For some they were the ones in Cyprus, for others, they were the Greeks in Istanbul who supported terror in Cyprus. We, all Greeks in Istanbul, had been accused of this crime. 

Many say crimes are individual, sometimes they are not. In practice, in Turkey, groups can be accused of individuals’ crimes. This can be sometimes Armenians, sometimes fundamentalists, or leftists, or Alevis, or Kurds, or non-Muslim minorities, or Gülenists, or liberals. 

Those crimes are perceived as animosity, as treason. What do people do to their enemies? Probably they show no tolerance to their enemies or do not empathise with them when they suffer. Such acts are sometimes labelled racism, sometimes they are called othering. But it is not important which term you use to describe those acts, what was done lingers on. 

But why did Armenians and Jews in Istanbul share the same fate as Greeks, why were their places of worships destroyed? They neither supported the terror in Cyprus, nor had they failed to respect the memory of Kemal Atatürk. This means that the target was not the Greeks, it was all the non-Muslim minorities. Since they were all seen as enemies, they were treated accordingly. 

I started thinking these things later. I also thought of the rage of the people who joined the events and the reflections of joy on their faces as they kept raiding and looting. Such joy is easily seen when you look at the photos from that night. It means that the seeds of hatred that had been sown bore fruit. The psychology of the masses was horrifying. Did they really want us gone that much?

I was also later curious about the role of the education system and textbooks. I saw that animosity in people was not a result of a few weeks of propaganda, it was the outcome of a racist, vulgar, nationalist citizenship concept that had been pumped into people’s heads for decades via education.

A long time has passed since the September 6/7 events. But that understanding, seeing groups as enemies and guilt by association, still remains. The fact that the majority of society watches in silence today’s persecution prove that immaculately. Each group in society is busy with its own problems, there is still no joint understanding that favours solidarity.  

This environment shows that Turkey has still not completed the process of becoming a nation. Religious or secular tribalism, regionalism are still dominant both among those suffer and among those who make others suffer. Despite all those national and nationalist delirium, society is still traditionalist. 

In short, I have for a long time stopped recalling that event. I sometimes write about it when someone requests. But it left to me an important life lesson. I do not want to remain someone in the audience when such things take place. I do not want to act only as a member of one group and ignore the rest. As much as I can. 

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