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Istanbul 1955: The anatomy of a pogrom

By Ilias K. Maglinis - Kathimerini

On the night of September 6, 1955, authorities in Istanbul organized a protest rally on the Cyprus issue in response to an alleged arson attack in Thessaloniki, at the house where Kemal Ataturk was born. The rally got out of control and resulted in a «Kristallnacht» against Greeks in Istanbul. The Turks in the city went on a rampage, shouting «Down with Europe» and «Onward to Athens and Thessaloniki.» They looted and destroyed hundreds of Greek shops, homes, churches, schools, and cemeteries. The tragedy of that night - as well as its prologue and epilogue - form the core of a new book by leading Byzantinologist and student of Greek-Turkish relations, Spyros Vryonis. The book, titled «The Mechanism of Destruction: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, and the Destruction of Istanbul's Greek Community,» was recently released in the US by Greekworks.com. It is distributed in Athens by Estia and Eleftheroudakis. Most historians abroad are not aware of how far the damage extended that night in 1955. Turkish governments have tried to erase what they consider an «isolated incident» from the country's collective memory. Moreover, Turkish officials say the night's events did not unfold the way witnesses described them. Nearly all Turkish governments have become adept at systematically distorting history in order to highlight their national and geopolitical interests. Dozens of US universities - including Harvard and Princeton - have received donations from Turkish businessmen to found Turkish studies departments, the American writer Thea Halo, who is of Pontic Greek origin, told Kathimerini in a December 24, 2000 interview. This way, she said, Turkish history can be taught in a way that serves their own interests, downplaying events such as the genocide of 1,200,000 Armenians, 750,000 Assyrians and 350,000 Pontic Greeks in the country. Spyros Vryonis, who talked to Kathimerini shortly before his book was published in the US, confirmed this information while emphasizing that Greece had been remiss in its reaction to this. Vryonis usually delves into Greek history from the time of Homer and Greece's relations with other Balkan countries, particularly Turkey. But his new 650-page book illuminates unknown aspects and details of a modern tragedy witnessed by Greeks and foreigners alike. The book took him years to write. In the book, Vryonis refers to the enormous damage to property and the psychological wounds that Istanbul's Greeks suffered. He focuses on the human element without abandoning a sober and strictly historical approach. He opens the book by describing the social and economic conditions in Istanbul's Greek community, which was very active in the city's business and cultural life, and analyzing the political and diplomatic environment. He also examines a trial that eventually resulted in the hanging of then-Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. Vryonis got access to previously unknown archives from the trial, discovering the peculiar mechanism of Turkish justice, whereby the accused is denied fundamental rights regarding his defense. Excellent photographs illustrate the text, mostly from the lens of the Ecumencial Patriarchate's official photographer, Dimitris Kaloumenos, who risked his life to record the events and to smuggle the photographs into Greece with the help of Ethnos newspaper correspondent Giorgos Karagiorgas. Spyros Vryonis considers Kaloumenos one of the main witnesses to the events and says the book would not have become what it is without him.

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