Real Turkish Heroes of 1915

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By Raffi Bedrosyan

Germany has decided to name several neighborhoods, streets, buildings and public schools in Berlin and other German cities after Adolf Hitler and other Nazi heroes.

If this revelation were to be true, how would you react? How do you think Germans would react? How do you think Jews still living in Germany would react? My guess is you, the Germans and the Jews would all find it inconceivable, offensive and unacceptable.

And yet, it is true, acceptable and inoffensive in Turkey to name several neighborhoods, streets and schools of Istanbul and other Turkish cities after Talaat Pasha and other Ittihat ve Terakki “heroes,” who were not only the planners and perpetrators of the 1915 annihilation of the Armenian citizens of the Ottoman empire, but also the government leaders responsible for the loss of the Ottoman empire itself. At last count, there were eight officially-named Talaat Pasha neighborhoods or districts, 38 Talaat Pasha streets or boulevards, seven Talaat Pasha Public Schools, six Talaat Pasha Buildings and two Talaat Pasha Mosques, scattered around Istanbul, Ankara and other cities. After his assassination in 1922, he was originally interred in Berlin, Germany, but his remains were transferred in 1943 to Istanbul by the Nazis attempting to appease the Turks, and re-buried with full military honors at the Infinite Freedom Hill Cemetery in Istanbul. The other notorious Ittihad ve Terakki leader Enver Pasha’s remains were also transferred in 1996 from Tajikistan and re-buried beside Talaat, with full military honors, attended by Turkish President Suleyman Demirel and other dignitaries. Is this hero worship misguided or deliberate? Is the denial of the 1915 events a state policy only, or also unquestionably and wholeheartedly accepted by the Turkish public, brainwashed by the state version of history?

Undoubtedly, there was mass participation in the genocide committed by the Ittihadist leaders, resulting in the removal of Armenians from their homeland of 3,000 years, and the immediate transfer of Armenian wealth, property and possessions to the Turkish and Kurdish general public, as well as thousands of government officials. And yet, despite the mass participation and hero worship for the leaders of these “crimes against humanity,” there were also a significant number of ordinary Turks and Kurds, and several government officials who refused to participate in the massacres and plunders, and instead, tried to prevent them. There is complete silence and ignorance in Turkey about these righteous Turkish officials, who refused to follow the government orders to destroy the Armenian people, and instead, tried to save and protect them, and paid dearly for their actions, resulting in the loss of their positions, or even their lives as a consequence. This article will cite some examples about these real heroes.

Celal Bey was governor of Konya, a vast central Anatolian province, and a key concentration point for the Armenian deportation routes from the north and west Anatolia on the way to the Syrian desert.  He knew exactly what the fate would be for the Armenians on the deportation routes, or if they survived the deportations and reached Der Zor, because he was previously governor of Aleppo and had witnessed the atrocities against the Armenians there. He had tried to reason with the Ittihad ve Terakki leaders that there was absolutely no Armenian revolt in Anatolia nor Aleppo, and that there was no justification for the mass deportations. However, one of his subordinates in Marash had inflamed the situation by arresting and executing several Marash Armenians, triggering a resistance by the Armenians. As a result, Celal Bey was removed from his governor’s post in Aleppo and transferred to Konya. He refused to arrange for the deportation of the Konya Armenians, despite repeated orders from Istanbul. He even managed to keep and protect some of the Armenians deported from other districts arriving in Konya. By the time he was removed from his post in October 1915, he had saved thousands of Armenian lives. In his memoirs about the Konya governorship, he likened himself to “a person sitting beside a river, with absolutely no means of rescuing anyone from it. Blood was flowing down the river, with thousands of innocent children, irreproachable old men, and helpless women streaming down the river towards oblivion. Anyone I could save with my bare hands, I saved, and the rest went down the river, never to return.”

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Hasan Mazhar Bey was governor of Ankara, who protected the Ankara Armenian community by refusing to follow the deportation orders, stating that “I am a Vali (Governor), not a bandit. I cannot do this. Let someone else come and sit in my chair to carry out these orders.”

He was removed from his post in August 1915.

Faik Ali (Ozansoy) Bey was governor of Kutahya, another central Anatolian province. When the deportation order for the Kutahya Armenians was issued from Istanbul, he refused to implement it, and on the contrary, he gave orders to keep and treat well the deported Armenians arriving in Kutahya from elsewhere. As he was summoned to Istanbul to answer for his subordination, the police chief of Kutahya, Kemal Bey, took this opportunity to threaten the local Armenians to either convert to Islam or to face deportation. The Armenians decided to convert. When Faik Ali Bey returned, he was enraged, he removed the police chief from his post, and asked the Armenians if they still wished to convert to Islam. They all decided to remain as Christian Armenians except one. Faik Ali’s brother was an influential and well-known poet, Suleyman Nazif Bey, who urged his brother not to participate in the barbarianism and not to stain his family name. Faik Ali Bey was not removed from his post despite his offers of resignation and he ended up protecting the entire Armenian population of Kutahya, except for the one who converted to Islam, who was deported.

Mustafa Bey (Azizoglu) was district governor of Malatya, a transit point on the deportation route. Although he was unable to prevent the deportations, he managed to hide several Armenians in his own home. He was murdered by his own son, a zealous member of the Ittihat Terakki Party, for ‘looking after infidels (gavours)’.

Other government officials who defied the deportation orders included Reshit Pasha, governor of Kastamonu; Tahsin Bey, governor of Erzurum; Ferit Bey, governor of Basra; Mehmet Cemal Bey, district governor of Yozgat and Sabit Bey, district governor of Batman.  These officials were eventually removed from their posts and replaced by more obedient civil servants, who completed the task of eliminating the Armenians from these locations.

One of the most tragic stories of unsung heroes saving the Armenians is about Huseyin Nesimi Bey, mayor of Lice, a town near Diyarbakir. Diyarbakir Governor Reshit Bey was in the process of organizing the most ruthless destruction of Armenians in the Diyarbakir region, not even bothering with deportation but quick massacre of all the Armenians immediately outside the city limits. Meanwhile,  Huseyin Nesimi dared to keep and protect the Lice Armenians, numbering 5,980 souls.  Reshit summoned Huseyin Nesimi to Diyarbakir for a meeting, but arranged to have his Circassian militant guard Haroun intercept him en route to Diyarbakir. On June 15, 1915, Haroun murdered the mayor and threw him into the ditch beside the road. Since then, the murder location, halfway between Lice and Diyarbakir, has become known as “Turbe-i Kaymakam” (Mayor’s Grave). Turkish records document this murder as “Mayor killed by Armenian militants.” In an ironic twist, or as history repeats itself, the Turkish state army attacked Lice in October 1993, supposedly going after Kurdish rebel militants, but ended up burning down the entire town, killing the civilian population as well. This act became the first case taken to the European Human Rights Court by the Kurds, resulting in a compensation of 2.5 million pound sterling against the Turkish state. At the same time, several wealthy Kurdish businessmen were targeted for assassination and murdered by the then Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller. One of the victims was a man named Behcet Canturk, whose mother was an Armenian orphan girl who had managed to survive the Lice massacres of 1915.

Diyarbakir Governor Reshit was also responsible for firing and murdering several other government officials in the Diyarbakir region, who had defied the deportation orders for the Armenians. Chermik mayor Mehmet Hamdi Bey, Savur mayor Mehmet Ali Bey, Silvan mayor Ibrahim Hakki Bey, Mardin mayors Hilmi Bey, followed by Shefik Bey were all fired in mid to late 1915, for refusing to deport the Armenians. Another official named Nuri Bey, Mayor of first Midyat and then Derik, an all Armenian town near Mardin, was also fired by the Diyarbakir Governor Reshit Bey, and subsequently murdered by his henchmen. The murder of  the mayor of Derik was then blamed on Armenian rebels, resulting in rounding up and execution of all Armenian males in Derik, followed by the deportation of the women and children.

The names of these brave men are not in the history books. If mentioned at all, from the perspective of the official Turkish version of history, they are labelled as ‘traitors’. While the state and masses committed a huge crime, while the crime became a part of daily life, these men rejected to participate in the genocidal campaign, based on individual remorse and conscience, despite the temptations of enriching themselves like the rest of the government officials. These few virtuous men, as well as a significant number of ordinary Turks and Kurds, defied the orders to eliminate the Armenians, by keeping and protecting them. They are real heroes, representing a Turkish version of characters similar to the ones in the movies ‘Schindler’s List’ or ‘Hotel Rwanda’. Citizens of Turkey have two choices today when remembering their forefathers as heroes, either go with the mass murderers and plunderers who committed ‘crimes against humanity’, or the virtuous human beings with a clear conscience who tried to prevent the ‘crimes against humanity’. Getting to know these real heroes will help Turks break loose from the chains of brainwashed history over four generations, and confront the realities of 1915.

Selected sources:

Tuncay Opcin, ‘Ermenilere Kol Kanat Gerdiler (They protected the Armenians)’, Yeni Aktuel, 2007, Issue 142

Ayse Hur, ‘1915 Ermeni soykiriminda kotuler ve iyiler (The good and the bad in the 1915 Armenian Genocide)’, Radikal newspaper, 29.04.2013

Seyhmus Diken, ‘Kaymakam Ermeniydi, Oldurduler… (The Mayor was Armenian, they killed him…)’, Bianet, 23.04.2011

Orhan Cengiz, ‘1915: Heroes and Murderers’, Cihan News Agency, 02.11.2012

 

(Raffi Bedrosyan is a civil engineer as well as a concert pianist, living in Toronto, Canada. For the past several years, proceeds from his concerts and two CDs have been donated to the construction of school, highway, water, and gas distribution projects in Armenia and Karabagh—projects in which he has also participated as a voluntary engineer. Bedrosyan was involved in organizing the Surp Giragos Diyarbakir/Dikranagerd Church reconstruction project, and in promoting the significance of this historic project worldwide as the first Armenian reclaim of church properties in Anatolia after 1915. In September 2012, he gave the first Armenian piano concert in the Surp Giragos Church since 1915.)