Alekos Lamprou tells the incredible story of Greek refugees in Turkey during World War II.
Alekos is a Lecturer in the Department of East European History at Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen
As a kid, Zeki Özalay saw a train arriving at his hometown Balıkesir, some 200 kilometers east of the Aegean coast of Turkey. It was 1941 and the train carried refugees from occupied Greece. They stayed for a few days, during which time Zeki discovered that some had lived in the area previous to the 1923 Lausanne Treaty and the exchange of populations. He was astonished to witness them visiting their old houses, meeting and feasting with old neighbours in a strange celebration of their unexpected and all-too-brief reunion.
The refugees accommodated at Balıkesir were just a small fraction of the more than 70,000 refugees passing from Greece to Turkey during the war. Most fled the horrendous conditions during the occupation, with famine being probably the prime motivation. Turkey allowed only the Muslims among them (c. 17,000) to stay. Christian refugees were usually sent on within a few weeks, to Syria, Palestine and Egypt, where they spent the war in refugee camps. Nonetheless, in 1941 and 1942 several thousand remained for several months in the western part of Turkey, in towns previously populated by Greeks (Çeşme, Nazilli, Manisa, Aydın). Many Turks in these areas were Lausanne refugees from Greece. Their passing through Turkey rekindled memories of the Turkish-Greek war of 1919-1922 and its traumatic outcome.
In their memoirs, among narratives of hunger, death, and the hardships of their flight from occupied Greece, refugees also recorded people, events, and reminiscences of the previous war and the population exchange. As they disembarked, not a few of them noticed buildings abandoned since the previous war. While passing through Izmir, they did not fail to comment on the burning of the city in 1922. A refugee commented: “Çeşme, a prosperous Greek town of 40,000 people, was now a heap of rubble with only 2,000 souls. My thoughts went to the old Greek Izmir and the terrible slaughter of the Greeks.” Some saw the expulsion of the Christians as the explanation for the dilapidated state of the country and the unpopulated areas they saw from the trains taking them to Syria. In their view, Christians were energetic and industrious, while Muslims were regarded as lethargic and inept.
The people they met on their way were another stimulus to rekindle things past. A Greek conscript entering Bergama along with his unit was shocked to be met by the curses of black-clad women. A fellow soldier who knew Turkish informed him that the women’s families had been killed during ‘monstrous atrocities’ perpetrated by the Greek Army in 1919. Refugees in Manisa were advised to stay indoors at night as locals might want to take revenge for 1922.
But it was not all grim and saddening. Refugees also met old friends and neighbours they had not seen since 1923—some of them Greek-speaking Turks: “I met an old Turk from Chios who knew many older refugees. He asked me about Dimos Pitas. ‘We were friends’, he said. He had a boy and a girl and they spoke Greek at home. They were afraid to speak in public.” Another refugee recalled: “My grandfather found some Beys from Chios and thereafter we received the kindest hospitality.” Most Greek-speaking Turks were from Crete. In Manisa, Greek refugees were welcomed in Greek by the governor, a Cretan Muslim and an old classmate of the then Greek prime minister. Others were befriended by another Cretan Muslim, the imam, who “talked a lot about Crete, Chania, the White Mountains. He sang Cretan songs and we sang together Christian hymns. It was amazing to see the Imam singing out loud [a Christmas hymn].” Just like the Governor, he was also a victim of the 1923 population exchange.
Many among the Greek refugees had also been ‘exchanged’ twenty years before. Passing through their native lands, meeting old neighbours must have been a charged experience. In the memoirs of refugees, ex-Anatolian Greeks are everywhere. They acted as interpreters facilitating the interaction with locals. They used their knowledge of the area to protect other refugees from being lost. An interned soldier was even able to escape from camp because “as I am originally from Edirne, I know Turkish and I freely took the train to Ankara.”
The movement of Greek refugees to Turkey during WWII was a brief moment of ‘re-mixing’ the Greeks and the Turks. Although the peaceful coexistence of old days was repeatedly celebrated, this short moment was, from the start, saturated with the legacies of the previous war and the ‘unmixing of peoples’ the Lausanne Treaty had ratified in 1923. But in the refugees’ recounting of the WWII displacement to Turkey, the legacy of the population exchange was already overshadowed by another, more recent trauma: WWII, the occupation, and the consequent Greek civil war.
FEATURE IMAGE SOURCE: SOURCE: GREEK STATE ARCHIVES – ARCHIVE OF THE GREEK GOVERNMENT IN THE MIDDLE EAST/F.1957