NEWS

Facing up to past wrongs

ISTANBUL – Mihail Vasiliadis’s friends warned the teenager to leave work early and go home to his family on September 6, 1955. Within hours, mobs were attacking thousands of shops, churches and homes throughout Istanbul in a rampage against ethnic Greeks that eventually led thousands to leave Turkey. «It was the shock of a lifetime, but it was something that wasn’t talked about for 50 years,» said Vasiliadis, who was aged 15 at the time and is now one of just 2,800 or so Greeks left in Istanbul. He is now the editor of Apoyevmatini, Istanbul’s last Greek-language newspaper. Now a film titled «Guz Sancisi,» or «The Pain of Autumn,» tells the story of that night more than half a century ago, the first time a Turkish movie has tackled the events that Istanbul Greeks call their «Kristallnacht.» The fictional love story of Behcet and Elena, a Turkish man and a Greek woman, is set against the tension that culminated in the real-life destruction of 5,300 businesses and houses owned by Greeks, Armenians and Jews. More than 500,000 people have seen the film since its release last month, according to its distributor Ozen Film. Television talk shows and newspapers have covered both the film and the discussion of the events on which it is based. Its makers say the public debate is a result of an easing of curbs on freedom of expression accompanying Turkey’s drive to meet EU standards. «This film couldn’t have been made 10 years ago,» said Etyen Mahcupyan, who wrote the screenplay and is editor of the Armenian community newspaper Agos. «Though the laws on the books still limit free speech, the reality is there’s less and less that can’t be criticized.» As recently as 2005, demonstrators stormed an Istanbul gallery and vandalized photographs on exhibit from a prosecutor’s investigation into the 1955 events. «Until now, we’ve either used silence or shouted to block out the past,» said Murat Belge, literature professor at Bilgi University and a political columnist, who was prosecuted in 2006 for criticizing Turkey’s treatment of minorities. «It’s a major shift that we’re now using art to examine it.» Police stood by On the night in question, thousands of protesters converged on central Istanbul, incited by news reports that Greeks in Thessaloniki had bombed the childhood home of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. It emerged later that the reports were false. Tension between Turkey and its historical rival Greece was high at the time over Cyprus. Police and soldiers stood by when the protest turned violent. Cemeteries were desecrated, churches were looted and about a dozen people died, said Dilek Guven, a historian and author of a 2005 book on the subject, «The September 6-7 Events.» Hundreds of women were raped, she said. Damage was estimated at $50 million, or about $400 million in today’s terms. Most of the attacks were against Greek-owned targets, but almost a third were aimed at property owned by Armenians and Jews. More than 5,000 people were arrested and most were later acquitted. Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and two members of his government, deposed in a 1960 military coup, were found guilty the following year of violating the constitution and executed. During the trial, one of the principal charges the judges heard was that the Menderes government was behind the 1955 events. Research by Guven and others has shown the conspiracy ran deeper, involving the military and the intelligence service, and was aimed at pressuring minorities to abandon their property and leave the country. Never discussed «A film like this might be just a film in another country,» said Mahcupyan. «Because there’s been a vacuum and this issue was never discussed, the film now fulfills an important mission.» Today, 60 percent of Greeks living in Istanbul, seat of the Greek-dominated Byzantine Empire for 1,000 years until 1453, are aged over 55, says the Reverend Dositheos Anagnostopoulous, a spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul. One-and-a-half million Greeks left Turkey for Greece in 1923, when the Turkish Republic was established, and thousands more emigrated when a «wealth tax» imposed on minorities in 1942 wiped out their fortunes before it was repealed two years later. About 120,000 Greeks were living in Istanbul in 1955, said Anagnostopoulous. After the attacks 50,000 more left, and the final blow was in 1964 after fighting between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. By 1966, just 30,000 Greeks remained, he said. Istanbul, a city of 15 million people, is also home today to about 60,000 Armenians and fewer than 20,000 Jews. «September 6-7 was our Kristallnacht,» Anagnostopoulous said, referring to the Nazi pogrom of 1938. «The chances of something like this happening again are slim, because Turkish youth today are more critical in their thinking. But to be sure, they need to learn that this catastrophe occurred; that’s why the film is important.» The EU has criticized the Turkish government’s refusal to recognize the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s legal status and its ban on the training of Orthodox clergy. Anagnostopoulous said a 2006 change in the law on non-Muslim foundations has relaxed restrictions on Greeks’ property rights. However, the government has returned only one of the handful of buildings that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled it had illegally seized over the years. The Turkish government has never formally apologized for the state’s role in the violence 54 years ago. «We are aware in Turkey of what we have done, but we fail to confront it, and we keep repeating it,» Belge said. «This is a society that fails to bury its dead, and so you have a lot of ghosts roaming around.»