The Demise of Armenian Smyrna: an Oral History Perspective
Cover photo: Kourken and Malvine Handjian, 1927 / Stephanie Wolf
The Survivors Speak
Is there a difference between the two tragedies, 1915 and 1922 as there is between Smyrna and Izmir?
The survivors of the inferno all attest to the good relationship between Armenians, Greeks, and Turks of cosmopolitan Smyrna. But even here and in most locations outside the city, these ethnic groups were concentrated in separate quarters and had distinct roles and functions within the community. Before Armenian schools were opened in the environs of Smyrna, most Armenians spoke Turkish only, but in some cases Greek as well. There was a modus vivendi among them, notwithstanding discrimination and occasional incidents of persecution. In fact, Haig Messerlian of Afion-Karahisar repeats a commonly- held belief that every year during the Kurban-Bayrami (the Islamic ritual of sacrificial slaughter), the Turks abducted and murdered an Armenian boy. One year, according to the interviewee, the Turks killed the only son of a man whose wife had given birth to the child after ten years of marriage. The man lost his mind, grabbed a gun and entered a clubhouse, where he opened fire and killed six Turks. He fled to the mountains, and his wife took refuge in the Messerlian home.
According to Anna Aghakhinian, the population was mixed in Afion-Karahisar, and Armenians were forced to speak Turkish outside their homes. Even the church sermons had to be delivered in Turkish, because there were always Turks from the local administration watching over Armenian activities. Vahan Arakelian of Manisa states that during the massacres of 1895-96, a Turkish mob had gathered on the outskirts of the Armenian quarter and was preparing to rush in, but an influential Turk named Bekira, who was on good terms with Armenians, influenced the mutasarrif (district governor) to disperse the mob.
The modus vivendi was ruptured and a change of attitude became apparent with the outbreak of World War I. Turkish suspicions against infidels (giaours) were aroused. Word of the government’s violent actions against the Armenian population of the empire had a negative effect on inter-communal relations. The arrest of Armenian notables and house searches on the pretext of looking for army deserters worsened the situation. The father of Malvine (Hanjian) Khanjian was among those arrested in Aksar, not far from Manisa. He was a dentist who worked with a Turkish partner. The family learned later that the partner had turned him in as a revolutionary. About a month later, they received the news of his death by being poisoned in the army camp. And one day, Malvine recalls:
"My father’s Turkish partner came to our house and drove us out, confiscating all our money and belongings. We were left in abject poverty, my mother with four orphans. She began working in the orchards, but she fell ill. One by one, she gave us away to other families. She had no choice. A family adopted me and took me to Manisa."
The family of Edward Papazian had a similar fate. His father was drafted into die army, placed in an amele labor battalion, and later killed. His mother, a frail and sick woman, was left with five children she could not care for. She had to entrust her children to the care of relatives and acquaintances. Edward, the youngest of the five was the only one who remained with his mother.
Despite the hardships endured during the war, widespread arrests and deportations did not occur except in a few places some distance from Smyrna such as Afion-Karahisar and Nazilli, for most of the region, the war years passed relatively quietly. It was in September of 1922 that the Kemalist triumph at Smyrna provided the opportunity for the local Turks to turn against the Christian population.
Kristine Avakian, Onnik Eminian, and all the survivors of the Smyrna fire remember how the local Turks joined the Kemalist forces in looting and killing. They speak of the Turks forcibly entering Armenian and Greek homes and the barbarities committed at the quay. Most of these survivors conclude that the Armenian and Greek quarters were set ablaze to drive out the entire Christian population. That is how they explained the burning of the Armenian church with hundreds of refugees inside. The explanation—regardless of its plausibility—lends meaning to an unfathomable cruelty; it serves as a tool to ease the pain. However, there was no explanation for the betrayal of a trusted Turkish friend of the family. How could that happen? The unanswered enigma continued to weigh heavily on already painful memories.
Upon hearing the news of the approaching Kemalist forces, Onnik Eminian’s father decided to move the family from Sivrihisar to Smyrna.
"A high ranking Turkish government official in Sivrihisar, a friend of the family, convinced my father not to go. He said, "I personally guarantee your safety." My uncle did not listen and fled to Izmir, taking me along with his family. Later, we heard that the Kemalists had arrested my father, and my father had committed suicide by throwing himself down from the second floor window of the Greek hotel which had been converted into a prison. The Turkish bystanders had shot my dying father as he lay in the street. My older brother and a few Armenian men in Sivrihisar—there were only a few Armenian families, the rest were Greek and Turkish—were taken to Akshehir, where they were locked in a church and set on fire. A survivor from Sivrihisar, whom we met in Greece, told us that the same Turk who had encouraged my father not to leave had entered our house and killed my mother, my three-year-old sister, my fifteen-year-old brother, and an eighteen-year-old orphan girl who lived with us like a member of the family… As a twelve-year-old boy, I had come to the conviction that Turks are animals who kill."
The Kemalist campaign had given the local Turks the impetus to act, and it was the collaboration of the local administration that made the cleansing of the occupied lands so thorough. "What the Young Turks did to us in two years, Kemal did in fifteen days", Malvine Handjian declares. «Իզմիրի ջարդի պէս բան մը տեղ մը չէ եղած» (A massacre like that of Izmir has never happened anywhere). That conviction controlled her mind and shaped her life as a survivor of "the greatest tragedy on earth." What are the dimensions of that "truth" which she asserts with such certitude?
The relative calm of the war years followed by the three-year period under Greek administration had created a sense of security among the Armenians as being protected by the European powers. The fifteen-day carnage by Mustafa Kemal’s forces shattered that illusion which was replaced by a sense of uniqueness of the mayhem: "A massacre like that of Izmir has never happened anywhere."
Vahan Arakelian states that during the world war Rahmi Bey, the governor of Izmir, was on good terms with Armenians. His wife, he states, associated only with Armenian high-society ladies; these women found the opportunity to befriend Enver’s wife, who at the time was a houseguest of the Rahmi. She promised to intervene with Enver and save the Izmir Armenians, and Vahan believes that she did so. However, Vahan heard that about 240 Armenian families, considered dangerous and undesirable, were exiled, put into wagons and sent to Afion-Karahisar. The rest of Smyrnean Armenians were saved. The story may be garbled, and perhaps Vahan only heard rumors about Enver’s wife and her intervention; in any event, this trust in the possibility of Turkish goodwill demonstrates a perception of being different from all other Armenian communities in the empire.
Malvuie Handjian believes that the Smyrnean Armenians were spared because of large bribes and European connections. She reasons that Smyrna was a European city different from the rest of the empire, and that the Turks would not dare to engage in a total extermination of the Armenians, many of whom were rich merchants having close ties with Europe. This sense of exclusivity is embedded in the pride that Smyrnean Armenians felt for their city. Edward Papazian articulates that pride in a phrase expressing a sentiment that was fairly common among others as well: "If Constantinople fell, Izmir could rebuild it. If Izmir fell, Constantinople could not rebuild it. Izmir Armenians were rich."
The Kemalist conquest came as a death knell to these convictions, as incredulity replaced the sense of exclusivity: this cannot be happening to us! And then came a deeper disillusionment: the European protectors did not intervene! During the first few days, the missionary institutions did give refuge to fleeing Greeks and Armenians, but after the fire broke out, the missions were evacuated, too, and the refugees were turned out and left alone to meet their fate. Numerous pleas to the foreign consulates were ignored.
Every single interviewee remembers vividly how the European and American naval commands reacted. Their voices betray their violated expectations and their feelings of bitter irony, amazement, and anger. Haig Messerlian had managed to swim a long distance in the water full of floating corpses to an American ship, only to be thrown back into the water by the force of a water hose turned on him.
Edward Papazian describes a similar scene he witnessed. Onnik Eminian remembers how the beautiful Smyrna seashore or karap, as Armenians called it, was turned into a slaughterhouse. And the Europeans walked indifferently among the victims, filming the gory scenes. At night, more than one survivor asserts, when things quieted down a little, the warships turned their spotlights on, and in this light the Turks were able to continue to loot, rape, and kill. "That was betraying Armenians, a pro-Turk behavior", Eminian exclaims.
Arsenouhi Vrtanessian, too, speaks of those ominous spotlights illuminating the shore and the Turks snatching young pretty girls.Malvind Handjian angrily reiterates:
"The European and American representatives in Izmir passed by indifferently, paying no attention to the pleas of women."
And when, after days of suffering, American Near East Relief jeeps drove in with bread and water, Malvine remembers the victims shouting:
"We want no bread. Help us! Save us from this Hell."
Vahan Arakelian expresses a genuine rage that has not been assuaged in sixty-five years:
"These Americans! Why didn’t they help the tens of thousands of women and children? Why didn’t they intervene to put a stop to the Turkish atrocities?"
Armenians of Smyrna, its suburbs, and nearby towns such as Manisa, Aksar, and Krkaghach, were spared the wholesale massacres and deportations during World War I, but they were aware of what was happening elsewhere. Onnik Eminian remembers:
"I was a young boy when we heard about the atrocities. I remember my older brother wrote a poem in Turkish—we did not know how to read and write Armenian. The poem was called "Խիղճ" [Conscience] and it meant to say that there is no such word in the Turkish language because Turks do not have a conscience. Our relatives in Yozghat [where Onnik’s parents came from] were deported to Deir el-Zor and killed. My aunt sent us a photo asking my father to help. My father sent her money, and she came with her son. They were the only survivors of their large family. My aunt’s appearance was shocking, and her stories were horrifying. She told us how the soldiers rounded up the surviving deportees in Deir el-Zor around a large pit, shot them and threw the bodies in the pit."
In towns and villages along the railroad, Armenians witnessed the deportees from Bandirma, Balikesir, Akshehir, crammed in freight cars, passing by on their way to the desert. Vartanush Iskenderian saw them in the Eskishehir train station. She remembers their doleful faces, "looking back to us and their desperate voices echoing in the distance, «Պատմեցէք պատմեցէ'ք բոլորին՛...» Tell! tell everyone about our fate, the horrors we live, the terrible death we are destined for’."
Vartanush did not know then that Eskishehir Armenians, too, would soon be exiled. She did not know that she would survive the concentration camps and eventually reach Smyrna only to experience the new atrocities all over again. She says, "I have sworn to myself to tell everything I have seen." And she has seen a lot. It is her mission to tell the world what she cannot forget, what changed her innocent life of a good mother and housewife to become an ever-mourning woman helplessly wrestling with the past. "I jump up at night from the nightmares I see. I cannot forget", she exclaims. And this is not unusual. The survivors of such catastrophes surrender to the images in the deep layers of their memory which are propelled to the surface in sleep, overcoming the suppression of these images during the wakeful hours. Charlotte Delbo explains the split between the self at the time of the morbid experience and the self that has come back to normal life; this separation secures the sanity of the subject Nightmares are the result of the closing of the split and the victory of the old self over the consciously assumed self:
"In a dream, the will is powerless. And in these dreams, there I see myself again, me, yes me, just as I know I was: scarcely able to stand... pierced with cold, filthy, gaunt, and the pain is so unbearable, so exactly the pain I suffered there, that I feel it again physically, I feel it again through my whole body, which becomes a block of pain, and I feel death seizing me, I feel myself die. Fortunately, in my anguish, I cry out. The cry awakens me, and I emerge from the nightmare, exhausted—I become myself again, the one you know, who can speak to you of Auschwitz without showing any sign of distress or emotion."
Vartanush is not as sophisticated as Delbo to be able to articulate her feelings with such refined imagery, but the split self is evidence of her predicament, the painful conflict between the present and the past, resurfacing now and then as a reminder of its permanent presence.
Some survivors like Vartanush Iskenderian narrate freely. There is no need to prod them with questions. They go on and on with every detail, as though they speak about something that happened only yesterday. Haig Messerlian’s memory is impressive, as is the road he has traveled But, is “travel” the appropriate term for such a trek? Afion-Karahisar was one of the places not too far from Smyrna where Armenians were deported during the world war. Haig was twelve, and he remembers the day the government ordered the Armenians to depart. As the church bells tolled, they gathered in the church to take courage for the perilous and uncertain journey ahead. The Messerlian family started off with seventy-nine members, keeping close together, but that was not to last. Murder, starvation, and disease took a heavy toll. Haig, his parents, and a brother were the only survivors. The "travel" had taken them from Afion-Karahisar to Konia and Tarsus then through the Bozanti mountains to Katma, Damascus, and on to an Arab settlement in the desert, then back to Damascus, and later after the war to Beirut, to Mersin, and back to Afion-Karahisar again. They came to rebuild on the remnant of their disrupted life under the protection of British armed detachments, but from fear of the Turks, they had to flee again when the British withdrew to Constantinople. They returned again to Afion-Karahisar when it came under Greek military occupation but remained there only a short time because the Greek army started to retreat. The Turks were coming, so the Armenians took the road through mountain passes to reach Smyrna, only to face yet another exodus there.
Harutiun Bzdigian’s testimony provides another detailed description of places, people, and events. The Armenians of Nazilli, Harutiun’s hometown near Smyrna, were deported during World War I. Harutiun remembers that the day was a Thursday and that his father had taken him along to his shop in the marketplace in the Turkish quarter. Suddenly, soldiers raided the marketplace and arrested all the Armenian men. Then, the women, children, and old men were put on the forced march. Harutiun’s months-long ordeal began there on the road with his father, on foot or piled up in open wagons in summer heat and the freezing winter weather. The unending road eastward took them to Denizli, Ayerbere, Ushak, Sharkikaraaghach, Sivrihisar, Ereghli, and deep into Anatolia to Aksaray, the final stop of this long deportation route. Somewhere along the road, father and son found the rest of the family. Two Turkified Armenian women helped them to find refuge in Aksaray, and the family remained there until 1928. Harutiun was only eight when the deportations began, but the memory of each place, the local characteristics, the names of fellow deportees, the Turks who helped them along the way, and the Turkified Armenians they met are bright memories etched on his mind. Harutiun talks about them allm wondering what happened to these Armenians who had secretly kept their name and identity, what was the destiny that awaited them, what happened to the generation born to them.
Author: Rubina Peroomian