Kurt, right, with Marc Mamigonian

Ümit Kurt Discusses Economic Aspects of Genocide

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BELMONT, Mass. — On April 20, the Armenian Center at Columbia University, the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) with the co-sponsorship of the Research Institute on Turkey offered a fascinating lecture by Dr. Ümit Kurt bringing to light some of the economic aspects of the Armenian Genocide.

Kurt discussed his recent book, The Armenians of Aintab: The Economics of Genocide in the Ottoman Empire.

From the beginning of the talk, Kurt, a native of Gaziantep (Aintab), Turkey showed himself an engaging speaker who captures the attention of his audience with his energy and interest on the subject. His sympathies with the Armenian people are clear; going beyond just using the term “Genocide” he is even willing to refer to the “Six Eastern Provinces” of the Ottoman Empire interchangeably with the term “Western Armenia.” More than this, the story of how he got involved in Armenian Genocide research and what he had to undergo to carry it out, shows the character of an individual with a deeply held belief in human rights and, perhaps more important, a dogged quest for the truth.

Kurt, growing up in the now all-Turkish modern city of Gaziantep, the former Antep or Aintab, lived in such an atmosphere of denial that he wasn’t even aware that any Armenians at all had once lived in his hometown. One almost feels this to be a kind of mixed blessing — because when the young Kurt discovered the fact of the Armenians’ presence and then disappearance from the city, his response was not the cynical attitude of knowing silence displayed by Turkey’s leaders from Mustafa Kemal on down, but genuine confusion and shock, followed by a deep interest in the fate of the Armenian community.

The young Kurt, when meeting a friend in the now-trendy Kayacik district of Antep, found himself in an incredibly beautifully refurbished Ottoman-era home serving as a coffeeshop. Upon inquiring about the history of the building, the owner quietly mumbled that “Armenians were here” and “they left.” These words changed the course of Kurt’s life and career, sending him on a quest for the history of his native region and all of Asia Minor and its indigenous Armenian population.

New Light On A Familiar Subject

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Kurt’s talk focused on the contents of his book, which explore the economic aspect of the Armenian Genocide. This is something that every descendant of survivors “knows” but which has been less studied in an academic way or shown through documentation. The basic idea is that the Turkish population of the different cities of regions of the Ottoman Empire expropriated the properties, money, homes, and assets of the deported or murdered Armenians, and built modern Turkey with those financial assets as capital. Kurt shows exactly how this took place by using the city of Aintab as an example. Therefore, he explores the history of the Genocide in Aintab as a “microhistory” illuminating what was likely going on throughout the Empire. Of course, all this is the culmination of what led him into this field in the first place — his desire to know the history of the beautiful home turned coffee shop where he first found out about the Armenian history of Aintab. The story of that house, originally owned by the Nazaretian family, is included in the book.

Another interesting fact elucidated in the talk as well as during the question-and-answer session was that the Armenians of Aintab were not deported until much later than other regions — not until the end of the summer of 1915, with the Protestant Armenians seemingly not deported until December. The various reasons are examined by Kurt in his book, including the fact that Aintab was a part of the province of Aleppo rather than Adana or one of the “Six Provinces” and it was not planned for the Armenians of that region to be displaced. In fact, Armenians deported from other provinces who ended up in Aintab were temporarily taken care of in the city by a committee of local Armenians. Nevertheless, Turkish landed gentry of the city (whom Kurt lists by name) actually requested the central government in Constantinople to include the Armenians of Aintab in the forced deportations simply in order to be able to confiscate their wealth. The idea that the Armenian Genocide could not have “succeeded” by the order of the Ittihad government alone without the complicity of the local Turkish leadership in the regions, including the various classes in society and not just government officials, is a key point of Kurt’s research.

The expropriation of Armenian capital took place under color of law, at least in Aintab. Kurt mentioned that in many regions outright plunder was the order of the day, while in Aintab a legal framework was drawn up to dispossess the Armenians of their property. The real estate and personal property left behind by deported Armenians was considered “abandoned property” under laws passed in 1915 and thereafter for this very purpose. The abandoned property was then sold at government auction to the already wealthy Turkish upper class at low prices. This was organized by a special committee called the Aintab Liquidation Commission, about which more below. The Turkish landed gentry became even more wealthy and poured their newfound resources into the coffers of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP-Ittihad), and later, the Kemalist movement, thus making the Republic of Turkey quite literally established with funds stolen from Armenians. Of course, this idea is commonplace among Armenians and has been a part of political rhetoric for decades, but Kurt has done the research to back it up. Kurt further explained to a one of the many queries in the Q and A portion, that even with documentation, restitution of this confiscated property is nearly impossible for survivor descendants, not just because of Turkey’s political climate, but because the legal framework set up during the Young Turk period was inherited by the Republic of Turkey, the same laws were actually re-passed, and it was purposely made impossible or any claimants to the so called “abandoned property” to succeed in Turkish courts.

One of the climactic points of Kurt’s research came when he discovered a rare document regarding the fate of the personal property of a man called Sarkis Yacoubian. Yacoubian’s descendants in Los Angeles had the document among a pile of papers written in Ottoman Turkish that they could not decipher. According to Kurt, the document shows for the first time how the Aintab Liquidation Commission worked. When the abandoned property of a deported individual was sold, a register was drawn up in triplicate of all the items, how much they were sold for, and to whom they were sold. One copy was kept by the Liquidation Commission, one copy was sent to the CUP headquarters in Constantinople, and one copy was supposed to be for the individual whose belongings were sold.

Yacoubian was perhaps one of the few to actually receive the papers. The documents also show that the family’s belongings were required to be registered with the Commission and with the Ottoman Bank before their departure from the city. Apparently, many of these families willingly registered their belongings, thinking this was the only way there would be a chance to reclaim them in the future. The belongings registered were then sold at auction after the owners were deported, and so on. According to Kurt, the Constantinople copies of these documents are still in existence, because when he went to look for them in the Ottoman Archives in Istanbul, the authorities did not allow him to view the documents because they are “not catalogued” rather than saying they don’t exist.

All of this paints a picture of a sinister, legalistic form of Genocide more akin to the Nazi Holocaust. He shows the Armenian Genocide as cold, calculated, and drawn up under a complex legal framework.

The talk was introduced by Khatchig Mouradian of Columbia University and moderated by Marc Mamigonian of NAASR. A lively Q&A session followed the talk, in which Kurt showed his enthusiasm to answer any and every question he could, engaging with the largely Armenian audience.

Copies of Kurt’s book can be purchased from NAASR:  https://naasr.org/collections/new-titles-available-at-naasr/products/armenians-of-aintab-the

. A video of the Zoom session is viewable on NAASR’s YouTube channel.

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