NEW YORK – The Istanbul Pogrom/Septemvriana of September 6-7, 1955 A Historical Remembrance was the subject of the 2nd AHEPA Seraphim Canoutas Lecture Series hosted and sponsored by EMBCA with the Order of AHEPA District 6 (New York State) and Delphi Chapter #25 (Manhattan) at the 3 West Club in Midtown Manhattan on September 6. The commemoration was introduced by Lou Katsos, President of EMBCA, with presentations by AHEPA District 6 Governor Demi Pamboukes and District 6 Director of Hellenism Vassilios Chrissochos. The 2nd Seraphim Canoutas Lecture was given by the eminent historian Professor Alexander Kitroeff of Haverford College.
The Istanbul pogrom was an organized series of mob attacks directed primarily at Istanbul’s/Constantinople’s Hellenic minority on September 6–7, 1955. The pogrom was triggered by falsely orchestrated news reports in the Turkish press which insinuated that Hellenes had set off a bomb the day before in the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki, Greece, which had previously been the home where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, had been born. It soon became known that the bomb was planted by a Turkish usher at the consulate, who was later arrested and confessed. The Turkish mobs were bused into Istanbul to carry out the attacks and Municipal and government trucks were placed in strategic points all around the city to distribute the tools of destruction (shovels, pickaxes, crowbars, ramrods, and petrol), with 4,000 taxis also requisitioned to facilitate the attacks. Between 13 and 16 Hellenes (including two priests) and 1 Armenian died as a result of the pogrom and the severe damage and costs greatly accelerated the immigration of ethnic Hellenes from Turkey who still resided there (their homeland for over three thousand years before that), and the Istanbul region in particular, the city founded by Hellenes in 657 BC.
The extensive damage and cost to the Hellenic population (and including some in the Armenian, Judaic, and even Muslim communities of the city) included 4214 homes, 1004 businesses, 73 churches, 2 monasteries, 1 synagogue, and 26 Hellenic schools. Estimates of the economic cost of the damage varied and as high (in 1955) as $500 million USD. The Turkish government eventually paid 60 million Turkish lira of restitution (about $24 million) to those who registered their losses.
Prof. Kitroeff and others have called it the “Kristallnacht” of the Hellenic community in Constantinople and yet few people know the history of what the community suffered in this highly organized attack. Among those present at the lecture, Elias Tsekerides, a former AHEPA District 6 Supreme Governor, was about to begin his senior year of high school in Kozani when the pogrom broke out. Pamboukes noted that his grandparents on both sides were originally from Constantinople and had left for America earlier in the 20th century. The family followed the news of the pogrom in shock and sorrow for the community that had lived there for generations.
Even 63 years later, the description of what happened written at the time by Patriarch Athenagoras, and read by Prof. Kitroeff at the start of his lecture, is chilling. The Hellenes who were also citizens of Turkey, a stipulation of the Treaty of Lausanne after the population exchange that allowed a minority of Hellenes to remain in Constantinople and a minority of Turks to remain in Thrace, waited for the authorities to protect them, but help never came.
Citing the definitive book on the Septemvriana, The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, and the Destruction of the Greek Community of Istanbul by Speros Vryonis, Jr., Kitroeff noted that without the photographs by Demetrios Kaloumenos, to whom the book is dedicated, there would be no visual record of the destruction. Kaloumenos saw soldiers arriving and changing into civilian clothes. He ran to his photo studio which was later destroyed in the attacks, grabbed 2 cameras and followed the groups to record the event. The film had to be smuggled out of Turkey. The resulting photos, included in Vryonis’ book, show the destruction of businesses, churches, homes, and schools.
Economic devastation was the goal of the organized attack, to force the Hellenes to leave rather than massacre the minority group, since a high death toll would have drawn the outrage of the international community. Some received compensation but only about 19-24 percent of what was lost, making it impossible to stay. The Hellenic population of Constantinople was about 300,000 in 1922, by 1955 it was 100,000, by 1964 about 40,000, and now only about 2-3,000. The Turkish policy towards minority groups continues from the time of the Young Turks with the concept of Turkey for Turks only and no room for a multiethnic or multicultural society.
Concerning the causes of the events of 1955, some have suggested a connection to the EOKA struggle in Cyprus, but Kitroeff pointed out that even the Turkish government at the time noted that Cyprus was an issue between the Greeks and the British, and it was only after the Septemvriana that the British actively sought to recruit Turkish Cypriots into the police.
In his closing remarks, Katsos noted the importance of talking about the tragic events of the past otherwise we are doomed to repeat them. He pointed out that the Turks of Thrace have thrived while the Hellenic population in Constantinople was decimated. “Standing up for Hellenism, not only as Hellenes and Philhellenes, but as Americans, we stand up for Hellenic principles, the rule of law, and doing the right thing,” Katsos said.