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Historical Fiction: The Rescue of Greek Women and Children in Asia Minor

September 22, 2020

At the end of the First World War, I was sent by the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (ACAS) to the Ottoman Empire to inquire into the location of Greek and Armenian women and children held in Turkish harems. Our party left New York on December 28, 1918, and arrived in Constantinople on January 8, 1919.

Our  ACAS central office in consultation with our  Embassy arranged for our accommodation at the Tokatliyan Hotel in Constantinople. It was a nice hotel, close to all the foreign embassies, restaurants, and department stores. We didn't travel halfway around the world to wine and dine in Constantinople's finest restaurants. Our mission was to rescue as many Greek women and children as possible in Asia Minor. We also had another mission – to save Armenian women and children.

Our Embassy provided us with the names of towns and villages where these poor souls were being held in Asia Minor. Our missionaries had forwarded such information to our Embassy before we severed our diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire in 1917. I was assigned an area around Brusa to begin my rescue work. I knew it wasn't going to be an easy task dealing with a hostile Turkish population who were angry in losing the war and seeing Constantinople occupied by foreign troops. They had no choice but to accept it.

One day I was taken to a house in Constantinople to interview a Greek girl named Maria Paxinou aged 18. She told me of her experience being held in a Turkish harem. Maria stated that when the Ottoman Empire surrendered in October 1918,  "Many Turks released us who thought they would escape punishment, turned us girls and young children into the streets. I was homeless – a refugee in my own land", Maria said, with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Maria came from a village outside of Brusa in Asiatic Turkey. She remembered the day when Turkish soldiers accompanied by chetes (irregulars) entered her village. "They pillaged, robbed us and set fire to our houses. We were told to assemble outside the village town hall, ready to march off to some unknown destination in Anatolia," she lamented. Within a couple of hours, men, women, and children were marched off like cattle – some of them unwittingly going to meet their maker.

"Along the way, my parents and I were not initially separated out and chosen to be among those to be killed and eventually we came to some Turkish village which I believe was just outside Afion Karahissar," Maria declared. I was moved by Maria's account of the horrors she encountered. She was eventually separated from her parents, whose fate is unknown but more than likely they were massacred along with others from her village.

Maria is a beautiful young woman who was taken to a Turkish house to become the third wife of Mehmet Effendi. She rejected his advances and he got so angry with her that he attacked her like some wild beast. She refused to reject her Christian faith to become a Muslim. Maria was starved, beaten, and even tortured to make her succumb to his advances. But she refused him every time. Maria was determined to escape from his clutches. I asked her about the Effendi's two other wives. Maria stated that one of the others was a Greek woman whose name she couldn't recall. This woman told her that Effendi could barter and sell women like cattle in the local bazaar. At these bazaars, Turks, Arabs, Circassians, Lazes, and Kurds would fiercely compete to buy the most beautiful Christian women. Maria figured out her fate was sealed if she didn't escape from this evil man.

The second wife mentioned that the Effendi promised to release one of his previous wives if her family paid him 5000 Turkish liras. The father raised the money only to be told that he had to pay an additional 3000 liras. That was beyond the reach of the poor father. Mehmet Effendi sold this wife in the local bazaar for a handsome profit.

One night, Maria dressed up as a man and escaped into the Anatolian darkness. "I survived by eating wild grasses and berries and drinking water from fast-flowing rivers," she recounted. Trudging along dusty roads, Maria saw dead bodies of men and women who had been bludgeoned to death. It was a ghastly spectacle seeing these innocent victims just left lying there, their corpses waiting for the wolves and wild birds to devour.

Maria wandered 12 months in Anatolia, dodging capture, hiding in the woods by day and travelling by night. It was a cat and mouse game of survival. During this period, she didn't see a solitary human face and managed to stay in the shadows. She knew what her fate would be if captured by the Turks. She would have had to endure being tattooed on her face, branding her with as a Muslim. But Maria was determined to maintain her Greek identity at all costs, and her eyes shone with great pride as she told me this.

Maria arrived in Constantinople just before Christmas 1918, where she finally felt secure. Her family had visited Constantinople when Maria was a young child and remembered being told that the Greeks lived there. She knocked on the door of a house in the Phanar quarter. A woman named Alexandra answered, speaking to her in Greek. Maria stated that she had been held captive in a Turkish harem and wanted to stay somewhere safe. She was invited inside and ate her first solid meal in 12 months. Alexandra and her husband Manolis told Maria that she could stay with them. They had no children of their own and were very happy for her to remain with with them until she decided where she wanted to do with her life.

Maria signed an affidavit stating her account was true. Her story provided me with lots of important details, which I will include in my report to our head office in New York. Maria’s story provided important insights into the problems that we will be facing as we venture into Anatolia to rescue the women and children held in Turkish harems.

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