What happened to teacher Niko in Istanbul on September 6, 1955?
September 6, 1955, marked a turning point in modern Turkish history. The Turkish state evicted thousands of its citizens from their ancestral homes solely because they spoke Greek and practiced the Christian Orthodox faith.
In this article, on the anniversary of the tragic events of September 6-7, 1955, I relay the experience of Nikos. This Greek-born teacher from Istanbul watched the nationalist sentiments of the Turkish government and segments of the society thrusted Turkey into turmoil for two consecutive days.
Teacher Nikos cherished two things: his extensive collection of books on history and literature and his beloved Eleni. Their bond persisted until just days before the violent coup in 1980 when Niko suffered a fatal heart attack and passed away in the arms of his greatest love.
Nikos embarked on his teaching journey in an era when the Cyprus conflict was casting a shadow over Turkish-Greek relations, and the Greek community in Turkey was facing escalating pressures. He spent winters in Pera (Cihangir, Beyoğlu) and summers in his cherished Halki (Heybeliada).
In the mid-1950s, roughly 100,000 Greeks lived in the city. Despite mounting tensions, especially during the years of Turkey's early governments, the economically influential Greeks of Turkey were optimistic about 1955. However, the atmosphere shifted when the Greek Cypriot leadership initiated on April 1, 1955 an armed uprising against British colonial rule, aiming to unify Cyprus with Greece.
In the face of Greek Cypriot maneuvers that were supported by Greece (which had recently annexed the Dodecanese) and Britain's hesitations, the Democratic Party government in Turkey begun implementing its strategic responses. In September 1955, following a planned bombing of Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's residence in Thessaloniki, Turkish nationalists targeted the city's Greeks, Jews, and Armenians. This violent spree coincided with the Turkish Foreign Minister's calls to Ankara, attempting to underscore the gravity of the Cyprus situation internationally.
During the start of the pogrom Niko found himself in Halki (Haybeliada). The violence, on this island that had been frequented in the summers by a Ismet Inonu, a co-founder of modern Turkey, was confined mainly to the beach area (skala in Greek), where mobs targeted the Church of St. Nicholas. Thanks to the naval school's intervention, the Theological School was spared from violence and fire.
Isolated in his wooden home on of Halki's narrow “Kilavuz” street, news of the chaos spreading in his city initially paralyzed Niko with fear. Aside from thinking about his personal safety and his home security, he was frantic about Eleni's wellbeing. Unknown to Nikos, during the pogrom's harrowing hours, Eleni and her sisters had sought refuge with a Turkish neighbor.
From Nikos' account (as relayed by his wife posthumously): "Voices echoed, glass shattered near the stairs. Military forces mobilized on the adjacent street. Gripped by terror, I instinctively placed a pot on my head for protection and hid under the house's wooden stairs, praying for peace." We'll never find out whether this evokes a vivid scene or a Don Quixote-esque image. What we know is that the tumultuous events of 1955 couldn't sever the bond between Nikos and Eleni.
Eleni recounted, "Emerging hours later, walking in the 'small tour' (mikros giros in Greek, küçük tur in Turkish) we noticed smoke billowing across Istanbul's skyline. The autumn night was tainted with an orange hue. From then on, nothing was the same ever again."
Eleni's observation was poignant. September 6, 1955's aftermath saw the Turkish government displacing thousands solely due to their Greek heritage and Christian Orthodox beliefs. Of the 100,000 Greeks of Istanbul in 1955, only around 2,000 remain in 2023.
However, Eleni's perspective was skewed. Shaped by the ordeals between 1955 and 1974, she attributed her community's suffering to the entirety of Turkish society. Her grandson, the writer of this piece, refutes the pitfalls of such sweeping judgments. Amidst the darkness of nationalism and xenophobia shines the vibrant, multicultural, and democratic Turkey, which the grandson, sharing his grandfather's name, ardently promotes.
P.S. Celebrating the "other," magnificent Turkey, kudos and gratitude to the women’s national volleyball team. Their resilience in such a challenging era is a beacon of hope.