Originally Posted on the Huffington Post UK, 28 December 2011
In almost every memorial site dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, one finds sections honoring non-Jews who saved Jews from extermination. They are referred to as 'righteous among the nations' or righteous gentiles. The movie Schiendler's List was one account of such a story. A new book, the Lion's Shadow, recounts the story of another righteous gentile, Abdol-Hossein Sardari, an Iranian Muslim diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from a certain death.
Honouring heroism of non-Jews universalises the memory of the Holocaust and ensures that we do not simply see horrific events of WWII as an episode of evil Germans killing Jews. It helps us locate it within its historical setting and draw lessons for the future; lessons of how a continent can get carried away and lead millions of people to their deaths and how even in the most coercive settings, we human beings can rise up to a higher moral level.
Sadly, I have never seen any such section honouring Turks who risked their lives to save their Armenian friends and neighbors in all of the Armenian memorial sites I have seen. There were, however, sections honouring non-Armenians who have helped the Armenian cause in raising the issue of 1915 massacres. Only a handful of Armenian historians mention them, often in passing. Yet, we do see their traces in almost all biographies written by surviving Armenians.
Whenever I raised this with various Armenian activists and academics, I got two main responses. The most common one was relativization; well, yes, there were very few Turks who helped Armenians, but most of them did so to make money or even adopt the young kids so as to use them as free labor. Thus, their acts or their presence in the complex web of history was placed back into the neat and clear category of the eternal perpetrator Turk.
The second most common one was refusal; as long as Turks refuse to acknowledge what happened in 1915 as genocide, no one should ask Armenians to honour or sing praises of Turks; to do so will be glorifying the Turks and victimizing the Armenians further. Sadly, the same refusal to break down the a-historical category of the 'evil' Turk we see in relativization is also at play in refusal, albeit in a morally coated discourse.
Both of these responses are fundamentally flawed. First of all, the greatest portion of Armenians who survived the massacres and deportations did so with the help of people around them, may they be Turks or Kurds . And yes, while surviving children and woman might have been remarried or as it is with every orphan or poor kid in rural life worked as part of being offered shelter, there were many who simply had no motivation other than the desire to protect innocent people.
Secondly, at the pure moral level, it is a complete moral failure not being able to thank or respect or honour those who chose to do right thing and took serious personal risks. To say that one will do the morally right thing if only when someone else do a morally right thing completely undermines and destroys the morality it demands to start with. An act is moral and worthy on its own, not because another act is required in return.
Thirdly, honouring such Turks does not take away or diminish the depth and scope of hundreds of thousands Armenians who perished during the turbulent collapse of an empire. Far from it; it enables their suffering to be part of a common human history that can be shared and mourned for and remembered by not only Armenians today, but also the entire world, including the Turks. This makes sure that history does not remain the collective memory of a particular group in conflict with another's, but an episode, which we can co-process and own.
Currently the Armenian activists seem more resolved to communicate their hurts and pasts to everyone in the world but the Turkish public. Yet, they don't realize that unless the Turkish public sees their pain and urges the Turkish government to act, no Turkish government can ever address 1915 and no amount of legislations passed at world parliaments will bring us a step closer to absolution and acknowledgement. Their misguided efforts find their mimesis in over zealous Turkish activists, who see demonizaton and judgment of an entire group of people in calls for facing the past and vehemently refuse to accept it.
It is high time to bring the conversation to Anatolia, not to Washington DC or Paris, and find ways to make the past an integral part of the story of this land. And in that process, honoring Turks who saved Armenians would be a major break through. It will depolarise an extremely intense conversation and help us to discover the deep common humanity we all share.
On 27 May 1915, the Union and Progress Party government passed a legislation requiring the deportation of Armenians across Anatolia.
The government's orders were followed by some local authorities and refused by others. Here are the names few of these brave officials;
Celal Bey, Mayor of Konya
Faik Ali Ozansoy, Governor of Kutahya
Mehmet Cemal Bey, Governor of Yozgat
Hasan Mazhar Bey, Mayor of Ankara
Resit Pasa, Mayor of Kastamonu
Huseyin Nesimi Bey, Governor of Lice
Sabit bey, Deputy Governor of Lice
Mustafa Aga Azizoglu, Mayor of Malatya
Tahsin Bey, Mayor of Erzurum
The story of Faik Ali Ozansoy:
When he eventually returned to Kutahya, he found that the local police chief ordered local Armenians to either convert to Islam or get ready for deportation. Fearful for their lives, a large number of Armenians submitted petitions to convert to Islam and be registered as Muslims. The governor was furious with the acts of the police chief and fired him. He gathered the city council and with the backing of various important voices, including the city's Mufti, the governor said to the Armenians; "the reason behind your conversion is clear. Nobody will show the immorality to send you to exile. Here are your petitions, rip them to pieces before the council."
The governor also hosted Armenians fleeing deportations in Balikesir, Afyon, Izmit and Adapazari. In order to prevent a visible large Armenian population in the town centre, he relocated all of the refugees to various towns and villages. The Armenians collected 500 pieces of gold in gratitude to the governor and donated it to the Turkish Crescent. The governor distributed these gold to all of the poor Armenians who sought refuge in Kutahya and set up a soup kitchen and a school for Armenian children.
The story of Celal bey, Mayor of Konya
The story of Hasan Mazhar Bey, Mayor of Ankara
Hasan Mazhar Bey vehemently refused obeying orders from the central government. He has been reported to say; "I am a mayor, not a thug. I cannot do this job. Let someone else come, take my seat and do it." His refusal resulted him losing his seat in August 1915 and being fired from the civil service. Eventually, Hasan Mazhar Bey would be a part of the official commission tasked by the new Turkish state to look into the crimes committed against Armenians.
These stories are only short accounts of personal risks taken by Turkish officials at a truly dangerous time to do so. The untold stories include the fates of
* Resit Pasha of Kastamonu who was decommissioned after refusing to deport Armenians;
* Huseyin Nesmi Bey of of Lice, who was killed en route to a meeting in Diyarbakir he was summoned to after refusing to carry deportation orders;
* Mayor Mustafa Azizoglu, who could not stop deportations but saved many Armenians by hiding them in his house. He was murdered by his own son, who was a member of Union and Progress Party.
These and many others whose stories are awaiting to be documented reflect courage, virtue and humanity found in all of us, no matter what the circumstances are.
Tuncay Opcin, "Ermenilere Kol Kanat Gerdiler" Yeni Aktuel, 2007, Issue 142
Taner Akcam, The Young Turks' Crime Against Humanity, Princeton University Press, 2012
Racho Donef, "Righteous Muslims during the Genocide of 1915", November 2010, Sydney
My grandmother, Azniv Jebejian, was born on January 13th, 1911 in Kayseri, Turkey. We have an old picture of her parents that we treasure. In it, our great grandmother mother Gayaneh sports the most amazing hairstyle while our great grandfather father, Abraham, proudly adorns a moustache over his butterfly tie. This photo is the only thing that remained from our grandmother's "burzhuasian childhood".
She was four or five when the massacres occurred. They killed her father Abraham, then her mother Gayaneh, then many of her other relatives. Her Turkish neighbor hid her in his cellar. He gave her some unripe grapes and told her to stay there and not to make any noise until it was safe to come out.
She told me that in the cellar she took off a small piece of red velvet from her pocket and put the grapes on it. They stayed there the whole time in the cellar; she believed that the small sunbeam coming through the narrow cellar window would ripen the grapes. She was hungry apparently. Ever since then, my grandma always kept her pockets full of raisins and nuts.
She used to tell with sadness how they would later lie on her Turkish neighbor's roof at night and hear sounds like wolves crying. Her frightened Turkish neighbor would simply whisper, "Armenians are being slaughtered…"
My grandma eventually escaped to Greece on foot with her grandmother and aunt. She got married in Athens to my grandfather, Martiros Khachatryan, who was born in Erzurum. Many of his family members were also killed in 1915. Together, my grandma and grandpa eventually settled in Armenia in 1936, where they started a family.
In Armenia, my grandmother often listened to Ankara Radio, but my father didn't like this. This used to upset my grandmother, as she would remember the Turks she knew. She used to say, "a good Turk is better than a bad Armenian."
My grandfather was eventually killed in 1964 in Yerevan by his Armenian neighbor, after an argument for a piece of land. My grandmother sadly died in 1991 in Yerevan, aged 80.
*: The story has been provided by Ruzanna Khachatrian, the granddaughter of Azniv Jebejian. It cannot be used in part or full without prior permission of Project Common Humanity. It can be cited as: Azniv and her unripe Grapes, PCH-2008-03; www.projectcommonhumanity.com
The story of Aram and anonymous Turks who saved his life is taken from an article published in Missionary Herald on October 1916 by Reverend Arthur C. Ryan- a Protestant clergyman who was based in Istanbul.
Rev. Ryan starts his article by pointing out that “in these days when one hears little from Turkey but tales of cruelty and atrocity, it may be well to remember that there are good Turks as well as bad Turks.”
Following are excerpts from the article:
“In 1895 Aram was a small Armenian boy whose home was in the city of Aintab. When the Armenian massacres [of 1896] began he was living with his mother on one side of the city, while two married sisters were living on the opposite side. For a considerable time it meant death for an Armenian to show himself in the streets of the city. When the troubles in the streets had subsided slightly and after many Armenians had been killed, Aram and his mother, thanks to a friendly Turkish bey, were still alive and safe in their home. This bey was a prominent Turk who lived at the end of the street on which stood Aram's house. He had always been friendly with his Armenian neighbors. When the mob, composed largely of wild Kurds and Arabs from regions outside of Aintab, came to massacre the Armenians in that street, this Turk was prepared to show his mettle. He with servants and some friends, at the point of revolvers and guns and with no small danger to themselves, drove the mob away and guarded the entrance to the street throughout the whole time of the massacre. In this manner about one hundred Armenians were saved.”
“Now while Aram with his mother and friends were safe, they were very anxious to learn what had happened to the daughters and sisters on the other side of the city. It was finally decided that Aram and another boy should attempt to reach their homes and try to bring back a report. When evening came, Aram and his friend, by cutting across lots and by climbing over walls, succeeded in reaching the home of one of the sisters, and with great joy found that they also had-been saved.
Early next morning Aram began his dangerous return trip. All went well until he reached an open space near the street on which his house stood, As he looked over the last wall all seemed clear, and he jumped down to make a dash for the street. Just when he touched ground a group of Kurds came into view.
They saw him, and shouting, "An Armenian! An Armenian!” started after him. Aram ran frantically for the street. On the corner stood a Turkish butcher shop from which he was accustomed to buy meat. Into the shop he ran and begging for protection threw himself into the arms of the Turkish butcher. In a moment the Kurds were upon him, but the butcher ordered them to stop. At the same time he raised his hand as a protection for the boy who was clinging to him. The Kurds were furious and demanded to know why the butcher, a Turk and a Moslem, was protecting a "gahour" Armenian. The butcher simply told them to be quiet and to move on. At this the Kurds began to rage and to threaten the Turk if he should not deliver the Armenian boy, The Turk was calm and firm, and in Oriental fashion began arguing with the Kurds, and finally persuaded them to pass on and the boy was saved.”
“For days few Armenians dared to leave their houses. A week or more after Aram's experience with the Kurds and the Turkish butcher, his mother was going to the home of her daughters. The good Turkish bey had sent a trusted servant to conduct her across the city. When about halfway to her daughter's house some Arabs saw her. Although she was disguised as a Turkish woman she was suspected, and the Arabs came after her, crying: “An Armenian woman! Capture her!” The Moslem guard was faithful and told the Arabs to stand back.
They protested and threatened, as did the Kurds to the butcher, but the guard was determined to shield the woman. In the argument that followed, the guard won out by persuading the men that they could have the woman only by killing him. He said that she was "emminet" to him • that is, a sacred trust to him from his master and he was bound to deliver the woman to her daughter at the risk of more than life; for to be faithless in such a position was to lose not only the favor of his master, but was a great crime against Allah.”
*: Story of Aram and his Recuers are from the above mentioned article, which has been reproduced in full by Armenian Genocide Resource Center in 2001 and is available on various websites. PCH’s abridged version can be cited as: Aram and his Rescuers, PCH-2008-02; www.projectcommonhumanity.com
“Fabrikatör” (industrialist) Mehmet Effendi (1877 - 1932) saved most of the Piloyan family from annihilation in Malatya in 1915 by hiding all members of the family in his own house and by employing the male members of the family in his factory, which produced supplies for the Ottoman Army during World War I.
The close relationship between Mehmet Effendi and the Piloyan family began some time in 1897, when the Effendi, then 20 years old, asked Sarkis Piloyan for a loan of 20 gold lira to pay for his bedel (waiver fee) to avoid military service. The Effendi wanted to avoid going to the army because he was in a dispute with another Turk in the area over the ownership or control of a stream, which both men wanted to power the water turbines of their factories. Mehmet Effendi was concerned that he might lose control of the stream and therefore lose his factory if he were away from the area on military service.
Sarkis Piloyan was a Protestant Armenian, who was a former resident of Chungush (modern day Çüngüş), Malatya. He had worked and lived in the United States for ten years prior to his return to Malatya. During his stay in the United States, his first wife had been killed in the Hamidian massacres of 1895-96. He had returned to Malatya in 1897, at the age of 48, to marry Hripsime Hovnanian, who had also been widowed in the 1895-96 massacres. At that point, he had enough money to start a leather tanning business of his own in the Babukhti area, outside the city of Malatya. So when Mehmet Effendi came to ask him for the favor, he could afford giving him the 20 gold lira he needed. This amount of money could buy a small house in Malatya at the time.
Thanks to Sarkis Piloyan’s loan, Mehmet Effendi was able to avoid the conscription and to build a prosperous towel, linen, and clothing business in Malatya. He became one of the most prominent and influential men in Malatya at the time. When World War I started, he was contracted by the Ottoman military to make clothing, tents, and other similar supplies for the army.
Mehmet Effendi’s family and the Piloyan family maintained close social contact throughout the years between 1897 and 1915. The family regularly received gifts produced by Mehmet Effendi’s factory in those years.
In 1915, when the Armenian deportations and massacres began, Sarkis Piloyan asked Mehmet Effendi to save him and his family. Mehmet Effendi obliged readily and asked the entire Piloyan family to move into his mansion in old central Malatya to ensure round-the-clock safety for them. By this time, the Sarkis and Hripsime had five children of their own plus three children from Sarkis’s previous marriage. The eldest boy, Khachadour, had a family and home of his own. The Effendi employed all male members of the family in his factory, together with other Armenians he had saved from deportation.
The Piloyan family stayed in Mehmet Effendi’s house for about six months. During that time, Mehmet Effendi provided for all their needs and protected them from arrests and deportation. On one occasion, he had to intervene personally to extract one of the younger Piloyan boys (Setrag) from prison and saved him from certain death. Nevertheless, despite everything, he could not save Sarkis Piloyan’s eldest son, Khachadour, from getting arrested and killed. Some time in the summer of 1915, Turkish police arrested Khachadour in the street, when he sneaked out of the Mehmet Effendi compound. He was never seen again.
The Effendi also could not save Hripsime Piloyan’s two brothers (Aharon and Hagop Hovnanian) from getting arrested and murdered together with their families in Malatya. Those two brothers and their families had been hiding in a hospital that they built for a German mission but were eventually discovered and sent to their deaths.
After the deportations stopped and orders were issued that Catholic and Protestant Armenians would not be deported or killed, the Piloyan family moved out of Mehmet Effendi’s house and went back to their homes. The family stayed in Malatya, together with a very small number of Catholic and Protestant Armenians, for the next eight years.
After the end of World War I, Mehmet Effendi apparently had some political problems with the Turkish nationalists for unknown reasons. He was put on trial in Istanbul but was acquitted. Nonetheless, after the nationalist victory against Allied and the return of Ittihadists to power in the new republic, Mehmet Effendi advised the Piloyan family in 1923 to leave the country because he could no longer assure their safety.
The entire family left Malatya by caravan in the summer of 1923 never to return again. The Effendi provided armed guards to accompany the family on its trip to Aleppo, Syria, to ensure their safety. Subsequently, Mehmet Effendi sold the family house in Malatya and sent the proceeds to the Piloyans in Aleppo.The family emigrated to Mexico in 1925 and never heard from Mehmet Effendi again.
*: The story has been provided by Ara Arabyan. The picture is from the collection of Ovsanna Chitjian. It cannot be used in part or full without prior permission of Project Common Humanity. It can be cited as: Industrialist Mehmet Efendi, PCH-2008-01; www.projectcommonhumanity.com
The 20th century is full of things that we wish never happened, but they happened and nothing can undo them. Even though both Plato and Nietzsche urged us to start tabula rasa with a mighty and necessary lie that will enable the youth to forget the past completely, we know all too well that what is left in oblivion is always more present than we would ever want it to be. Forgetting is not an option, if not impossible, but mere remembering alone does not guarantee that things will happen “never again.” The battle we need to fight is not only against “too much forgetting” and “too much remembering,” both of which destroy the present and any chance of a better future, but also against how and what we remember.
I don't remember at what age I first came to learn about the Holocaust, but I vividly remember what I felt when I read each page Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl wrote. As my academic interests took me deeper into genocides and ethnic violence, my realization that normal people like me had turned out to be mass murderers has shaken my trust completely in my own and human beings' goodness. However, it was also within the same darkness that I have come to find hope in the deep and profound human potential to love and sacrifice for the other.
Hanna Arendt recounted the story of a German soldier, Anton Schmid, who disobeyed his orders and helped the rescue of 250 Jews till his execution by the Nazis. In his last letter to his wife, Schmid told her that he “merely behaved as a human being” when he risked his own life. After sharing the effect of listening to the story of Schmid during the Eichmann trial, Arendt noted; “How utterly different everything would have been in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told."
This is exactly what Holocaust memorials have tried to do. With the Jewish concept of ‘Righteous Gentiles', Jews have found the moral backbone to not only remember the destruction and brutality but also the great courage and virtue that has been showed by non-Jews in risking their own lives to save their Jewish neighbors. There is a section dedicated to them in memorial sites, and Holocaust movies almost always include helpful Gentile characters.
While remembering the human truth in all of its beauty and darkness at the same time, the memory of the Holocaust has moved from being exclusively a Jewish memory. It is now the memory of our old race, the memory of the moment that humanity failed, not just Nazi Germany. It's because it has shifted from being exclusively a memory of ‘perpetrator Nazis' killing ‘Jews', both Jews and Germans and all of us can mourn together for what has happened.
I similarly don't remember when I first came to hear about massacres of Armenians, but I remember how I cried in the memorial in Yerevan for hours for all that has happened. I still shiver with pain each time I see pictures and hear stories of families scattered around the world. However, as I continued to read and reflect on memorial practices and sites, I have come to be increasingly worried that there were hardly any mention of ‘righteous Turks'- Turks who risked their lives to save their Armenian friends or even complete strangers – in the literature and commemorations. This is disturbing, given that a significant portion of Armenians who survived deportations would testify to the roles played by such Turkish friends in their escapes.
Failure to acknowledge the presence of these people not only betrays the truthfulness of the recollected accounts, but also reduces a historical event to its darkest moment without showing us all of its complexities. This failure automatically prepares the ground for dehumanization and stereotyping, which would have us believe the opposite of what we all know about the human condition: the line separating good and evil goes through the heart of each individual and given the right set of conditions we - regardless of race, nationality, gender, education, class and religion – are all vulnerable to commit the most grotesque violence against our neighbors.
For this reason, I have personally begun a web-based initiative, named Project Common Humanity, or PCH, to gather the untold stories of courage, virtue and sacrifice. My humble and limited attempt is in no way meant to undermine the suffering of the victims or even getting involved in debates on whether or not what happened was genocide. My only desire is that as we remember not only the pain but also the human beauty, we will come to see what happened under the broken shadow of Ararat not in terms of ‘Armenians' and ‘Turks', but as ‘our story'.
So if you know any such story, published or not, please consider sharing it with all of us. Visit PCH's amateurish blog and send your stories in Turkish or English. And join me to celebrate what unites us in an age that is obsessed with fixing what separates us.
Stories of Turks who risked their lives to save their Armenian friends are not that easy to reach by merely going through secondary literature. The widespread geographical location of collections of victims’ accounts and constraints on time and resources limit literature surveys. Also, most of the stories remain unrecorded and only transmitted orally.
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Source: PCO-2008-01, www.projectcommonhumanity.org