A Historical Record – A Greek Tragedy And Greek Amnesia By Ayhan Ozer
The Turkish-Greek friendship was conceived and realized in the 1930s by Ataturk and the then Greek Prime Minister Venizelos to promote the mutual interests of the two countries in a spirit of cooperation and harmony. Later, however, this legacy was abandoned by unscrupulous politicians in Greece, and an attitude of jingoism and belligerence towards Turkey have become currency for domestic consumption in Greek politics.
Turkey, as a firm believer of regional cooperation and stability, has all along spent lopsided efforts to nurture and keep this increasingly fragile relationship alive. Yet, these one-sided efforts have been shy of reversing the downward trend that has besieged this relationship.
Famine, as a national tragedy, plagued Greece during World War II. The Turkish nation, with altruistic relief efforts, worked heroically to alleviate the predicament of the Greek nation. The following historical record illustrates those relief efforts and the acute amnesia that pervaded the collective Greek mind afterwards.
During the winter of 1941, the German troops under the command of Field-Marshal Rommel were advancing in North Africa. To supply Rommel’s army, the Axis plan as devised by Hitler and Mussolini was to steamroll Eastern Europe, and close the pincer in Greece, which is the most convenient springboard to North Africa, and supply the Rommel’s campaign in Binghazi and Tobruk from Greece. The Balkans were a rich source of food, and the logistics operation over Greece was very convenient. The task of invading Greece was given to the Italians. Italy declared war on Greece and attacked her on October 28, 1940. However, the Italians failed to achieve this objective. Thereupon, Hitler decided to carry out this operation through his own army. On April 6, 1941, the German troops started a concerted operation against three Balkan countries, Albania, Yugoslavia and Greece. The British and Greek forces behind the “Metaxas Line” could resist the German assault only for a few days. On April 24, 1941, Germany occupied Greece which lasted for four years.
The German Army commandeered foodstuff, animals and all sort of supplies for the needs of its own troops; all kind of provisions were under the strict control of the German army. These war-time conditions brought about severe hunger, want and destitute in Greece. An exceptionally cold winter further exacerbated the situation. Tens of thousands of Greeks died from starvation during that winter.
Turkey was prompt to respond to the plight of Greece notwithstanding her own precarious situation. The country, although officially neutral, was in war-footing.
The German Army was only a few miles away. It was strongly believed that Hitler’s plan was to attack Turkey, and whereby to reach the Musul oilfields and to establish a stronghold on the South-Eastern border of Russia for his future Russian campaign. The Turkish armed forces were on alert to confront any imminent German assault. The bread was rationed, and several other staples were in short supplies.
Thanks to its neutral position, the Turkish government initiated an agreement through diplomatic channels between the Axis countries and the Allies to start an immediate relief mission to the starving Greek people and pushed this initiative boldly on the part of both sides. The first part of the Turkish aid was three ambulances, which were urgently needed. On February 26, 1941, on occasion of delivering those ambulances, a ceremony was held at the Red Cross Center in Salonica, Greece. Several civilians and military dignitaries from the both countries, such as the presidents of the Turkish Red Crescent and the Greek Red Cross, the Turkish Consul General of Salonica, Idris Cura, the Governor-General of Macedonia, Mr. Krimis, the Commander of the Greek Third Army, General Ravengos, and several officials and townsmen participated in the ceremony. Mr Zanas, the Head of the Greek Red Cross made a speech and thanked warmly the Turkish Nation for its generosity. Mr Idris Cura, the Turkish Consul General, reciprocated with similar warm feelings and goodwill. The Governor-General Mr Krimis stated that even though the vehicles were delivered with the Red Cross emblems, the Turkish Red Crescent signs were also to be displayed on the cars. This first party of Turkish aid was followed by beds, mattresses, and several other items to equip a 100-bed military hospital in the town of Dhidhimaticon (Turkish name, Dedeagac) in Greece.
In a wider scope, however, to alleviate the hunger of the Greek people, the Turkish government commissioned the Turkish Red Crescent aid organization to send emergency food relief to Greece, and assigned a freighter, KURTULUS, to carry out the mission. On October 13, 1941, KURTULUS sailed to Greece with the first shipment of wheat, rice, beans, bulghur, flour, chickpeas, and many other varieties of foodstuff. The Turkish reporter Feridun Demokan, who travelled to Greece several times during these missions was on board and gave the following account of this first voyage:
“As we were sailing out of the Istanbul harbour, people passing by the ferries were waving to us and calling out their goodwill to the Greek people. When we arrived at Piraeus the things were all the more exciting. As we were slowly entering the port, despite the strict German control, a big crowd was lined up on both sides of the narrow waterway. Workers from the docks and factories were cheering us with exhilaration, throwing their hats in the air they were shouting ‘welcome!’ to us in Turkish and in Greek. When we unloaded and started our journey back to Istanbul the parting was painful. The Greek people who gathered on the banks were shouting ‘Don’t forget us, come back soon!'”
The sentiments of the Greek people for this emergency relief operation
are expressed in a letter from the Greek Red Cross organization to the Turkish Red Crescent, dated November 15, 1941 (File No: 10673)
” With this letter, we wish to convey to you the thankfulness of the Greek Red Cross and also the deep gratitude and eternal devotion of the Greek people to the Turkish Nation, as well as to its honourable Government.
Allocation by the Turkish Government of a substantial amount of foodstuff taken from the essential consumption of its own people, and carrying it in their own vessel to rush it to relieve the Greek people are very meaningful acts as they prove the strength of the ties of loyalty between the two nations.
The Greek Nation, Mr President, will never forget the compassion and friendship demonstrated to them by the Turkish people.”
Suffering was even more severe among the Greeks in the Aegean islands. Those who could no longer bear the Nazi oppression took refuge in the friendly Turkish shores. Cyprus, located far from mainland Greece, was a safe haven, and thousands of Greeks were transported to Cyprus by the Turkish boats!!
KURTULUS made two more monthly trips to Greece, but unfortunately, January 19, 1942, marked the end of KURTULUS. That day a violent storm and a fierce cold wind ripped across the Marmara Sea. Yet, KURTULUS had to sail notwithstanding the elements. Because, there was an agreement between the warring countries that permit Turkey as a neutral country to provide relief work to the civilian population of Greece on a set schedule, and missing one trip could have jeopardized the relief efforts entirely. Struggling huge waves, the ship made her way to the nearby Marmara island. Around 4:00 a.m. the vessel began drifting and finally hit the rocks at the shore. The Turkish reporter Feridun Demokan was on board, his account of what had happened goes as follows:
“We heard a big cracking noise, and we were thrown off our bunks. We rushed to the deck and faced a strong blizzard; the ship had run aground on the rocks near Marmara island. She had a list to starboard and violent waves were washing the deck. On the deck, the ropes securing some of the cargo snapped one by one, and they were shifting dangerously. It was impossible to stop them.
Miraculously, everyone was rescued, but to salvage any portion of our cargo of 2,000 tons of food supply was impossible. As we watched in desperation, the ship sank slowly, taking along the hopes of the starving masses in Greece. Athens was informed immediately by a wireless message. Later, we learned that the day of January 20, 1942, was declared a mourning day in Athens.”
During all its trips, KURTULUS carried to the Greek people besides wheat, rice and flour, 298 tons of onions, 168 tons of potatoes, 528 tons of chickpeas, 393 tons of beans, 90 barrels of salted fish, and 2000 boxes of various foodstuff and eggs.
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However, the end of KURTULUS was not the end of the Turkish emergency relief operation to Greece. A bigger and stronger vessel, DUMLUPINAR, took over the mission and was dispatched to Greece without missing a beat. DUMLUPINAR ran between Istanbul and Piraeus for about one year and carried 30,000 tons of foodstuff to Greece. According to The Greek Red Cross records, 700,000 people were served free hot meals with the Turkish food relief.
The “Aid to Greece” campaign in Turkey gained a new dimension when the Turkish press reported the following news:
“DUMLUPINAR will not return empty from Greece on her February  trip and will bring approximately 1,000 Greek children who are suffering from extreme malnutrition. These children will be cared for by the Turkish Red Crescent until the end of the war.”
A prominent journalist, Falih Rifki Atay, wrote in an editorial:
“We hear saddening stories about unfortunate mothers in Greece who do not report the death of their children to the authorities and bury them in their own yards in order not to lose their food rations. Despite our own strains, we the Turkish people will look after and raise those 1,000 children as if they were our own. Those children, as long as they live, will tell their stories about the benevolence of the Turkish Nation.” This episode is documented in the following cable sent in November 1941 by the members of the Greek War Relief Association in New York to the Turkish President Ismet Inonu:
His Excellency Ismet Inonu
President of the Republic of Turkey
The officers, directors and the members of the Greek War Relief Association are deeply moved by your country’s efforts to alleviate the inhuman suffering of the starving Greek people and express to your Excellency their deep appreciation of your humanitarian action. Please be assured that the American people are lauding your good-neighbour policy toward a gallant race.
Signed by: Harold S. Vanderbilt, Honorary Chairman ( prominent philanthropist)
The Most Reverend Athenagoras, Chairman (later Greek Orthodox Patriarch of
Istanbul) Spyros P. Skouras, President of the Greek War Relief Association in the United States (and the President of the 20th Century Fox Movie Company)
Mr Skouras, a Greek himself, indebted, in the late 1950s or early 1960s wanted to give a chance to a Turkish movie star to make it in the United States. The then leading star “jeune-premier” Muzaffer Tema was invited to Hollywood and given a small part in a movie with Joan Fontaine. He had a language problem, and needed extensive training and coaching; therefore, the plan did not work out.
Later, in 1943, the former president of the United States Mr Herbert Hoover wrote in the Reader’s Digest:
“When disaster overtook Greece and starvation spread, Turkey considered it had a moral obligation to its neighbour and a former enemy.
The Turkish Ambassador [in London] was instructed by his government to urge the British government that the relief operations be allowed for the Greek people. Yet, he received the customary reply [from the British] enumerating the usual arguments against any help for populations under the Nazi occupation [fearing that the aid operation would benefit the Nazis]. A short time later, frustrated by the inaction of the British Foreign Office, the Turkish ambassador in London received instructions from his own government to inform the British that ‘on such and such date and such and such ship loaded with foodstuff will sail from a Turkish port for Greece.’ That decision was a courageous act; as no neutral county’s ships dared or allowed to go through that hellfire. Later, the experience proved that the operations had not at all benefited the Nazis. Later, the volume of relief was increased and the additional facilities were provided by Great Britain and the United States to make this venture work better. Civilization here will be grateful to the Turks for opening the door to reason and compassion.”
Today, in Greece the older generation must have lived through those bitter times, and no doubt, many of them and their family members or relatives did subsist on the Turkish food relief. Yet, lo and behold, what Turkey gets from Greece in return for her sacrifice, generosity, goodwill and a time-tested, genuine friendship? Only a decade later the Turks had rescued the Greek Nation from famine and shared their food with them, the Greeks began massacring the Turkish population in Cyprus. In Greek history books, the Turks are portrayed as an implacable enemy and cultivate an “institutionalized” hatred towards Turkey. Greece is always behind every hostile move — overtly or covertly — directed to Turkey, and is the champion of undermining Turkish interests around the world.
How one characterize this attitude? Ingratitude or amnesia is too innocent a characterization. The Greek soul is inflicted with more deep-rooted defects, or how a nation who claims to be the cradle of civilization can stoop so low?