The plight of Istanbul’s ethnic Greeks

Throughout history, ethnic and religious minorities have found themselves in the crossfire of international disputes, used as pawns to apply pressure on an opponent or as scapegoats to drum up nationalist sentiment and deflect public attention from pressing domestic issues. The plight of the once-flourishing Greek minority of Istanbul in the 20th century bears all these sad features, amply documented in Kaiti and Irini Sarioglou’s compilation of papers on one of their community’s darkest hours, «Fifty Years Since the September Events, Istanbul – Before -Then – After» (Greek Literary and Historical Archive, 2005). As of the founding of the Republic of Turkey by Ataturk in 1923, Istanbul’s Greek community numbered 250,000 – a third of the city’s population – and was the second-largest anywhere after Athens and certainly the most thriving. The book comes in three parts. The first, covering 1861-1922, illustrates the «idyllic» (of sorts) period, or «renaissance,» and details how a whimsical nationalist policy of discrimination and intimidation set the Istanbul Greek community on the road to decline. By the time the Cyprus issue flared up in 1955, its numbers had dwindled to 100,000. Then came the September events, the focus of the book’s second part. September 6, 1955 was subsequently likened by acclaimed Turkish author Aziz Nesin to the night of St Bartholomew for Istanbul Greeks. That day a well-organized Turkish mob unleashed its fury on anything Greek, after a report of a bomb that had caused extensive damage to the house where Ataturk had been born in Thessaloniki. Official data showed that, on the following morning, 16 Greeks lay dead, 32 were seriously injured and scores of women had been raped; 1,004 homes, 4,348 shops, 27 pharmacies, 21 factories, 110 hotels and restaurants, 73 churches, two monasteries, 26 Greek schools and five sports clubs lay in tatters. Greek cemeteries were desecrated. The book includes well-documented accounts of how the government of Adnan Menderes, pressed by economic problems and internal party dissension, had prepared and planned the riots to coincide with a tripartite London conference on Cyprus. This was shown in court four years later, following Menderes’s overthrow by a coup. At the time, Menderes, unprepared for and embarassed by the extent and virulence of the riots, blamed the Communists and declared martial law. It was also later proved that the explosive device, which caused only minor damage to Ataturk’s birth house, had actually been planted by an employee of the Turkish Consulate in Thessaloniki. A previously unpublished official report by then-Greek consul Vyron Theodoropoulos refers to widespread rumors of British funding of Turkish nationalist newspapers, and frequent visits to London by riot organizers before the events. It also mentions cases where ordinary Turks helped rescue Greeks and their property. The aftermath, dealt with in the book’s third part, is excellently chronicled by Pavlos Palaiologos, who notes Turks’ mixed feelings on the events. On one hand, there was sadness and embarrassment. On the other, for some, the harm did not go far enough and for whom, oddly, the victims were asking for it. He also paints a bleak picture of the overwhelming atmosphere of insecurity among the Greeks. «Take us from here…» They now number about 1,000. The editors/contributors Kaiti and Irini Sarioglou are mother and daughter, both Istanbul-born and bred, like all the contributors to the book (except Theodoropoulos). Kaiti studied classics at the city’s university and in Sienna, Italy. She has received an Ipekci award for Greek-Turkish friendship for her literary translations. Irini studied French literature in Istanbul and Grenoble and now teaches modern Turkish history at the University of Athens.