Turkey Uncensored: Enslaving Jews and Christians in the Turkish Military

Uzay Bulut | May 24, 2017

The systematic persecution of non-Muslims in Turkey is one of the least known topics in the West.

The official line of the Turkish government that has been firmly established in both Turkish and foreign public opinion is that neither antisemitism nor hostility to Christians has taken root in Turkey. In addition, Ankara claims that Jews, as well as Christians, have lived more decent lives within a tolerant atmosphere in Turkey compared to their coreligionists in other Muslim countries in the Middle East. But this is simply just a myth.

For example, 76 years ago, in May 1941, Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks in Turkey – people who are also known as “the twenty classes” or the “twenty-draw draft” (Yirmi Kur’a Nafıa Askerleri in Turkish) − were gathered in labor battalions in which no Turks were enlisted. Instead of doing active service, they were forced to work under terrible conditions to construct roads and airports. Some of them lost their lives or contracted a variety of diseases. In other words, these were concentration camps for non-Muslim, male citizens of Turkey, Nazi style.

Turkey was established in 1923 by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which governed the country until the first free national elections in 1950, which paved the way for the coming to power of the Democrat Party. The CHP was the only party in the country between 1923 and 1945.

Scholar Andrew Bostom detailed the plight of Jews under Turkish rule from past to present in his 2008 book The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism:

Turkey’s World War II flirtation with Nazi Germany included the signing of a Turco-German “friendship and non-aggression pact” on June 18, 1941. At about the same time, the Turkish government began conscripting all Christian and Jewish males between the ages of 18 and 45 into heavy labor battalions (amele tabulari). Alexis Alexandris notes the hardships incurred, and fears aroused among the minority communities by those discriminatory mobilizations:

“These men were sent to special camps in Anatolia each containing about 5,000 men. There, the men were instructed to engage themselves in non-combative capacities such as road-building. The concentration of all non-Muslim males in such camps aroused great apprehension in minority circles in Istanbul. Their fears were intensified when reports of harsh conditions and high mortality rate reputed to have prevailed in the camps reached Istanbul.”

Historian Ayşe Hür described the conscription as follows:

These “soldiers” were not given guns or military uniforms. They were made to wear clothes of trash collectors that were sent from Greece in aid following the 1939 Erzincan earthquake. They were sent, in extremely hot weather, as soldiers to camps with no infrastructure and very little water, which were infested with mosquitoes, dampness and mud, all of which spread malaria. They were forced to do heavy work such as the tunnel construction in Zonguldak, the construction of the Youth Park (Gençlik Parkı) in Ankara, as well as rock breaking and road construction in Afyon, Karabük, Konya, and Kütahya provinces. But the worst was that they were often mocked and insulted as “kafir [infidel] soldiers.”

This part of Turkish history has been under-investigated by scholars. One of the few historians in Turkey who shed light on the conscription of 20 classes in several articles and books is Rifat Bali.

According to Bali’s 1998 article in the journal Tarih ve Toplum (History and Society), the ID cards of non-Muslim men were checked by police officers in May of 1941 in streets across Turkey, and those who were recorded as “non-Muslim” were immediately conscripted. But there was a problem: Many of them had already carried out their compulsory service in the Turkish military. Those who managed to escape police checks were insistently chased and tracked down.

When non-Muslim men were conscripted that May, the Turkish officers did not allow families to visit the conscripts or take their photos until late June or mid-July. In cases of extreme emergency, the conscripts were accompanied by officials to see their families.

Yervant Göbelyan, an Armenian who was serving as a regular in the Turkish army, said that the conscripts’ health was never taken into account during the process of conscription. For example, a Greek citizen named Teoharı was blind, and Arslan Yorgo was intellectually disabled. The conscripts were not even allowed to contact their families or bring their clothing with them. Upon hearing about the conscription, families went to where their loved ones were taken and handed them their packages of underwear from behind the bars.

In his memoirs, Jewish businessman Vitali Hakko said that the police detained him in his store, telling him he that was going to the army. Hakko was shocked, and said that he had many questions in his mind: “Why am I conscripted for the third time a week after my discharge? Why are we collected suddenly and without even being able to inform our families? Why do they not tell us where we are being taken?”

He wrote, “The fact that there were no Muslim Turks among us further increased our concerns.”

Jewish journalist İzak Yaeş noted that the conscripts were stripped completely naked and put in an ice-cold bath. They were then taken – still unclothed – to barbers and had their heads shaved. For three days, they were forced to stay at the barracks in Istanbul, where they became infested with lice. They were then taken to camps in cities across Anatolia.

Yaeş was sent to the Malatya province to work in airport construction. He wrote that the non-Muslim soldiers there were threatened by the Turkish corporal: “You came here to pay your debt to the homeland. This is not Istanbul. Forget your parents. If you do not follow orders, you will never see your families again.”

The corporals used leather belts to whip the non-Muslim soldiers who could not walk fast enough. They were also made to sleep on sacks filled with grass and bushes, according to Yaeş.

Jewish journalist Dr. Eli Şaul also wrote that the soldiers who were guarding the camps shouted at the Jews, saying: “Dirty Jews, you will never see Istanbul again. Forget your wives and children.”

Yaşar Paker, a Jewish insurance producer who had to change his original name “Viktor Albukrek” due to the 1934 forcible surname law, described the conditions in his camp: “I was in the Çivril town of Denizli province. All non-Muslims were first taken to Afyon. Then a committee distributed us. When we arrived in Çivril, we smelled like carcasses. We washed in the muddy well water there and drank that water. The meals were also cooked with that water. Then a typhus epidemic spread. We were 500 people. I was one of the 20 who did not catch typhus. There were 14 people in my tent; 12 became ill.

“There were 60-year-old Greeks, Armenians, Jews among us. Even though they did not fit in these classes, they were conscripted just because they were non-Muslim. Those people were crying over their fate.”

Hakko also described the camp in which he was forced to work: “Pessimistic, desperate, half-hungry people who were sick and tired of life. Some of them said, ‘This war won’t end.’ Some said, ‘We won’t see its end.’ Others said, ‘The pogroms in eastern Europe will start here, too.’ It was as if everyone wanted to say farewell to life.”

Yaakov Mızrahi, a Jewish man born in 1904 who was conscripted during that period even though he had previously completed his compulsory military service, wrote in his memoirs:

Those were really difficult years. Of course, I had my share. I first went to Afyonkarahisar. Then I was sent to Çivril. I contracted malaria there. I lost my consciousness. Many friends of mine also contracted malaria. Four or five people died there. They were buried in the Muslim cemetery in Çivril.

All of the Jews who were conscripted were overwhelmed with fear and felt degraded, according to Bali. The more they heard sergeants and officers screaming to them “Forget about Istanbul!” the more they became desperate. The words “Forget about Istanbul!” were imprinted on the memories of all minorities who went through this period.

These fears escalated as the sergeants and noncoms shouted at the non-Muslim conscripts who were digging holes in the construction sites: “These holes will be your graves!”

At a time in which Nazis exposed Jews in Europe to genocide, the conscription of 20 classes in Turkey affected Jews the most, according to Bali:

Turkish Jews started to believe that they too would become victims of genocide like their brethren in Europe. The primary reason was that just as Jews were sent to concentration camps in Nazi Germany, only non-Muslims were subject to this conscription in Turkey. Turkish Jews saw similarities between their own situation and the situation of German Jews and believed that their end was approaching.

After a Jew called Vitali died from typhus in November 1941 in Bursa, the officials decided that a bathhouse (hamam) and a sterilization center would be established. When this order was announced to the conscripts, Jewish conscripts became very terrified and panicked. The reason was that the Jews in Nazi-occupied countries were also undressed and sent to gas chambers after being taken to concentration camps during the same period. The Jews in the camps in Bursa thought the same thing would be done to them.

The non-Muslim conscripts were released on July 27, 1942. The vast majority of the conscripted Jews immigrated to Israel after the Jewish State was reestablished in 1948.

“We were, of course, happy,” Hakko wrote about their release. “But who would have guaranteed that we would not be conscripted again after three days? No one! Partly happy, partly uneasy, we headed for Istanbul.”

Bali wrote that according to various sources, there were three reasons the Turkish government carried out the twenty-draw draft:

  • To distract non-Muslim citizens from their businesses for a while to weaken them commercially and, thereby, facilitate the creation of a Muslim bourgeoise.
  • To intern non-Muslims at camps in order to prevent a possible “fifth column” in case Turkey entered the war because the Turkish state did not trust its non-Muslim citizens.
  • To intern minorities at camps in response to a demand of the Nazis to the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs.

Approximately 3 1/2 months after the conscripts’ release from the camps, on November 11, the Turkish government enacted the Wealth Tax Law (Varlık Vergisi), which leveled heavy taxes on non-Muslims and even converts to Islam.

According to scholar Başak İnce, the stated aim “was to tax previously untaxed commercial wealth and to rein in the inflationary spiral of World War II. However, the underlying reason was the elimination of minorities from the economy and the replacement of the non-Muslim bourgeoisie by its Turkish counterpart.” Those who could not pay the taxes were sent to labor camps or deported, or their properties were seized by the government. Some people committed suicide in despair.

The mistreatment of non-Muslim soldiers in the Turkish military did not start in 1941 and end in 1942. The only difference between 1941 and before is that these actions were formalized because of the Second World War. Previously, it was common practice for non-Muslim citizens, but they were scattered throughout the army. After 1941, they were systematically concentrated in specific groups and used the same way that they were used before without consideration of disease or death.

Throughout the entire history of Turkey, non-Muslim citizens have never been allowed to be officers or generals in the Turkish military. Bali wrote about the discrimination against non-Muslim males in the Turkish military in a 2011 book entitled Non-Muslim Soldiers: Memories – Testimonies, in which he documented how non-Muslims were harassed, threatened or even exposed to physical violence while carrying out their compulsory service at the Turkish army.

But there is still a strong stigma against voicing critical opinions about these issues in Turkey. By law, it is a punishable offense to speak publicly against the Turkish army or conscription. According to Article 318 of Turkish Penal Code, for example, “discouraging people from performing military service shall be sentenced to imprisonment from six months to two years. If the act is committed in the press or in publications, the penalty shall be increased by one half.”

Hence, Bali said that he felt there was a need to have an attorney read his book before publication. He explained the reason in an interview with the Turkish newspaper Milliyet:

“You know there is a law in Turkey that punishes those who undermine people’s zeal toward the military. And it is extremely flexible. So my lawyer read the book. And based on his recommendations, we softened or removed some parts.”

Another widespread myth about Turkish history during World War II is that Turkey saved Jews from Nazi extermination. But the Struma tragedy and the limitation of Turkish visas to a handful of professors tell another story.

Attempting to escape the Nazis and arrive in the land of Israel, 781 Jews lost their lives in 1942 on the M.V. Struma, an overcrowded refugee ship with a defective engine, after Turkish authorities in Istanbul rejected its request to allow it to dock for repairs and instead cast it adrift in the Black Sea, where it would be sunk by a Soviet torpedo. Also, the few Jews who were given refugee status by Turkey were mostly professors dismissed from their jobs at German universities and handpicked by the Turkish government to raise the level of the country’s universities, which had very poor academic competency. So it would not be wrong to conclude that they were “saved” by Turkey not as an act of humanity, but out of selfishness.

Today, only 0.2 percent of Turkey’s population is Christian or Jewish. The Turkish government still has not officially recognized, apologized for or made reparations for any of these and other such incidents at any time in its history.