by Andrew Harrod
The forgotten ethnic cleansing.
On September 6-7, 1955, Istanbul’s Greek Christians underwent the “most destructive pogrom…in Europe since the infamous Kristallnacht” of 1938 Nazi Germany, eminent Greek-American historian Speros Vryonis, Jr. has written. As he wrote in the extensively documented 2005 book The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, and the Destruction of the Greek Community of Istanbul, these important events remain “virtually unknown” even today.
As the Greek Consul General of Constantinople (Istanbul) wrote in September 1955, Istanbul’s Greek community that dated from the city’s founding in 668 B.C. “suffered a complete and destructive catastrophe in only seven hours.” Turkey’s ruling Demokrat Parti (DP) and allied groups as well as Turkish Special Forces had recruited Turkish rioters in Istanbul. Other rioters arrived by train, truck, and some 4,000 taxis from Turkey’s provinces, some 100,000 in all. A faked bomb attack against the Turkish consulate in Thessalonica, Greece, whose grounds contain the birth house of Turkish republic founder Kemal Mustafa Atatürk, would trigger a feigned popular outburst.
Under police and military coordination, gangs of 20-30 rioters perpetrated the pogrom, while simultaneously attacks occurred against the Greek community of Izmir. “Targets were marked with paint, and the attackers had lists” as during Kristallnacht, wrote international law authority Alfred de Zayas. Forewarned Turkish Muslims marked their properties with Turkish flags and lights, Vryonis wrote.
Resulting casualties in the extensively photographed carnage included an estimated 37 Greek dead and 200 raped Greek women. Turkish mobs forcibly circumcised many Greek men, including at least one priest. Greek authorities estimated $500 million in damages among thousands of attacked Greek homes and businesses, while Istanbul’s Jewish and Armenian communities also suffered significantly.
This pogrom with relatively few killings, Zayas noted, initiated the flight of Istanbul’s Greek community, an “ethnic cleansing” subject to the 1948 United Nations genocide convention.
Describing his personal witness of “Istanbul’s Night of Terror” for the May 1956 Reader’s Digest, journalist Frederic Sondern, Jr. wrote that Istanbul’s Greek community then approximated 100,000. One writer examining Turkey’s Greeks in 2012 stated that they “number around 1,700 today, down from estimates around 1.8 million at the start of the 20th century….With an average age over 65, the group is dying out.”
While specific DP concerns (i.e. the Cyprus conflict) motivated the pogrom, it occurred within the “historical context of a religion-driven eliminationist process” beginning in pre-World War I Ottoman massacres, Zayas wrote. During the 1955 pogrom, Vryonis noted, “British, US, and Greek missions were unanimous in ascribing a major role in the violence…to religious fanaticism.” Gavur (infidel) was a common epithet among Turkish rioters who often chanted “First Your Property, Then Your Lives.” As knowledgeable observers knew, the Turkish republic’s “harsh secularist policies…had failed to penetrate the majority of the Turkish population in any significant way.” Rather, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes’ DP government had made overtures to Islam since coming to power in 1950.
Other elements fueled the pogrom. Sondern noted that Greeks were the “backbone of the city’s economy and a vital part of the country’s economic structure” such that they “inspire resentment and envy” among Turks. The pogrom, Vryonis wrote, also showed a “basic fusion of two contradictory forces in Turkish society: religious fanaticism and secular chauvinism” encouraged by Turkey’s falsified nationalist history teaching.
Greek individuals living in the United States bring to life such historical documents with descriptions of a sometimes pleasant yet increasingly precarious life in Istanbul before 1955. Nicholas Metz (18 in 1955) remembers Greeks in Istanbul living “living pretty good” in a “quite sophisticated” and “beautiful city” while Christo Daphnides (25 in 1955) enjoyed working in a major Istanbul advertisement agency. His younger sister, Vicky Mitrofamis recalled many Turkish family friends and sometimes good Greek-Turkish communal relations, but “every ten years we have a problem,” such as Turkey’s World War II harsh labor conscription of Greek males. Catherine Pitsiokis (born 1936) remembered Greek-Turkish marriages among her relatives, something Mitrofamis stated was often a source of pride for Turkish men who perceived Greek women as sophisticated.
Despite his many Turkish friends, Metz remembered that “harassment was always there” from Turks. Conflicts over matters such as girlfriends as well as publicly speaking Greek could incite violence among Turkish youth, who would command that “this is Turkey now.” Under such circumstances, Metz’s father had Turkified the family Greek name, similar to many Istanbul Jews noted by Pitsiokis who publicly took Turkish names while keeping their Jewish names in private.
Pitsiokis expressed feelings of Istanbul Greeks having “capitulated all our lives” before Turks. “If they wanted to harm you, there was a way,” such as with false charges of business malfeasance like embezzlement brought before biased Turkish judges. While working as an accountant in a luxury department store, she once substituted for a lunching cashier when a well-dressed Turkish woman “raised such a ruckus” in refusing to leave a deposit for a clothing item. The store managers came and explained to Pitsiokis a store policy of bending the rules in such cases of obstreperous Turks.
Even as a child, Pitsiokis was weary of her Turkish neighbors. Her family hesitated in approaching a Turkish family whose father was a military officer after the man’s daughter had taken Pitsiokis’ dolls while playing. “We were terrified of the Turkish teachers” who taught state-mandated subjects in her private Greek school, she recalled, given the possible repercussions of expressed politically incorrect views. “No question about it, there was pressure” concerning what to say, Metz had concurred.
Media incitement over Cyprus and other matters in 1955 made Turks appear to Pitsiokis “almost as if they were looking for an excuse” to attack Istanbul’s Greeks. “It was very obvious, we want you out.” Then “suddenly it exploded” on September 6, 1955, when her family was getting ready to eat at 7 pm. As rioters fanned out across Istanbul following the newspaper announcement a few hours earlier of the Thessalonica bombing, the surprised 19-year old collapsed from fear.
At about the same time Mitrofamis was waiting for a streetcar when saw crowds frantically running and suddenly noticed posters everywhere blaming Greeks for the Thessalonica attack. “None of them would be left alive after tonight,” she recalled the posters announcing. Two friends found her and took her back to her apartment building, whose exclusively Greek residents had barricaded the building and gone to the roof for safety. Three daughters from a Greek family on her street also made it to the apartment building roof and from there they ran across rooftops to the Greek consulate; reports the next day said that they were going to Athens.
Across the street from the apartment building lived a Turkish family that had always been very friendly with Mitrofamis. The wife was a “traditional Turkish woman” who blocked the apartment building’s entrance and convinced the mobs that no Greeks lived there. Two churches flanking the apartment building on either side were not so lucky; rioters burnt one to the ground and destroyed and defecated upon the altar of the other after tying up the priest. Similar pogrom outrages, like the raping of Pitsiokis’ high school classmate at her priest uncle’s church (she later spent her life in an insane asylum), ravaged Christian institutions and cemeteries throughout Istanbul.
Metz had similar experiences with protective Turks. The evening of September 6 found his family renting a vacation home on one of the Prince Islands across from Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara when a large crowd with sticks, dogs, and police protection appeared. Confronted by the Turkish owner, the mob went on to ravage other nearby Greek homes. The Turkish owner of Metz’s family apartment building similarly turned away rioters, indicating that wealthy Turks often had little animosity towards Greeks and were also protecting their property. By contrast, Pitsiokis recalled that even Turks known by her family “would not make the slightest effort” against rioters due to fear.
One pogrom storm center was İstiklâl Caddesi (Independence Avenue). Greeks dominated the businesses of this fashionable Istanbul shopping district and knew the avenue by its French name, Grande Rue de Péra. “Can you imagine 5th Avenue to be destroyed?” asked Daphnides, who fortuitously returned on the morning of September 7 in Istanbul harbor from an America cruise.
At Péra on September 7, Daphnides and others examined what “hillbillies from inside Anatolia” had wrought. Metz and his father saw pianos dropped from third-story windows amidst debris from looted stores that blocked streetcar and other traffic for many days afterwards. Mitrofamis also saw Péra on the pogrom morning after with her father. “In that moment,” she recalled, “we all had the same thought: that we had to leave this place that we had called home so that we could live freely and speak our language openly.”
After the pogrom Istanbul’s Greeks wondered “how are we going to leave with just our lives,” Pitsiokis stated, and “started rushing to Greece” by trains and other transport. Turkish restrictions on property expatriation meant that people like Pitsiokis “had to leave everything behind” in Istanbul. She and her newlywed husband came to America in 1957 with just two suitcases, not even daring to take their wedding silverware. A prominent doctor acquaintance planning to leave Turkey died of a heart attack at the airport after authorities became suspicious of his Greece trips and made property inquiries. The Jewish owners of the department store where she had worked “gave it away for nothing and left.”
While all of these eyewitnesses were fortunate to establish happy new lives in America, painful memories of the old home remain. Metz’s wife claimed that he had nightmares for five years after their 1965 marriage and he vividly recalls the mob approaching his family’s vacation home with Turkish flags waving. When Pitsiokis hears of modern Islamic State atrocities, she thinks that “it is exactly the same what we have gone through and worse.” Persistently referring to his native city by its original Greek name of Constantinople, Daphnides speaks of the former Byzantine capital as “something which was our property, now it is not anymore.”
Catherine Pitsiokis’ son, Peter, generously supported the completion of this article. The Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons also helped host and arrange interviews.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. You may follow Harrod on twitter at @AEHarrod.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.