An Interview: Life as a Turkish Jew over 70 years

By Kayla Sagiz

In this compelling interview I asked my grandparents Yaşar and Fifi to share their experiences living in Istanbul as Turkish Jews over the past 80 years. From facing discrimination and violence to navigating the Istanbul Pogrom, they provide a powerful insight into the struggles and resilience of the Jewish community in Turkey. Despite the challenges they have faced, their love for their country and community shines through as they reflect on the past, and look towards the future.

The history of Jewish people in Turkey dates back to the 15th century when Sephardic Jews were welcomed to the Ottoman Empire after being expelled from Spain. Sephardic Jews, who spoke Ladino, established thriving communities in various parts of the empire, including Istanbul, Izmir, and Edirne. Alongside Sephardi’s, other communities such as Romaniote Jews and Ashkenazi Jews also have historically had a presence in Turkey. Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey is marked by periods of tolerance and prosperity alongside discrimination and violence. This article reflects my grandparents’ personal experiences, and stories about being Sephardic Turkish Jews, however it does not reflect the views, and experiences of the community as a whole.

Could you describe your experience with the Istanbul Pogrom of 1955? 

Yaşar: The Istanbul Pogrom was very sudden and devastating. As I stepped out of a meeting with the chief rabbi, the streets were already filled with chaos and confusion. As I made my way towards the city center, the violence only intensified. I watched in horror as the Taksim church was set ablaze. My thoughts were consumed with fear for my own safety and that of my loved ones and community. I later learned that the riots were sparked by a false rumor that a bomb had caused extensive damage to Atatürk’s (the founder and thought leader of the Turkish Republic) home in Thessaloniki, Greece. This led to widespread hostility towards minority groups. In just two days, countless homes, businesses, and places of worship were destroyed.

Fifi: The chaos of the Istanbul Pogrom was truly terrifying. I remember standing at my window, watching in horror as a mob of men armed with knives descended upon our street. They were shouting and screaming, and I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Our downstairs neighbor- a Muslim woman shouted that a high-ranking military officer lived in our building, and that they should leave immediately, and the group of men left our street. I was relieved, but my relief was short-lived when I saw that they had targeted the Greek family’s bakery next door. The bakery was shattered into pieces, and their livelihood was gone in an instant. 

Could you describe the Wealth Tax of 1942 and how it affected your family?

Yaşar: The Wealth Tax was an arbitrary unbearable tax on non-Muslim citizens, based on our “imagined assets” rather than actual income. Those unable to fully or promptly pay the tax were sent to labor camps in Aşkale. Within a month, the wealth of non-Muslims in Turkey was effectively wiped out. The Wealth Tax was first disguised as the “secret recipe” to solve the economic crisis Turkey was going through, but it only served to further marginalize and oppress non-Muslim communities, and failed to improve the economy. After the law was passed, President Saraçoğlu described this tax as an opportunity to eliminate “foreign” influence on the economy and to help the Turkish people gain control of Turkey’s economic market- it was clear the law was not enacted for purely economic reasons. The wealth tax was the destruction of my family and community. One morning when the law went into effect, a group of government officials showed up at our home. They sealed all of our possessions and said all of them would be sold at a public auction sometime next week. My father’s pay was not enough, so he was sent to the labor camp in Aşkale. Luckily, my father survived the labor camps and returned home after two weeks. Nevertheless, for me the Wealth Tax was not just a policy but a personal tragedy that altered the course of my family, and community’s history.

Have you ever faced discrimination because of your Jewish identity? 

Yaşar: Yes. I’ve always been wary of revealing my Jewish identity. My birth name is actually Yehoshua – a name associated with Judaism. My name has caused a lot of trouble at school and at work. In high school, my friends used to say, “Armenian, Greek, Jewish, it’s all the same, aren’t you all gavur (a rude way of saying infidels.)” To escape the negative connotations associated with my birth name, I applied for a court order to add Yaşar – a traditional Turkish name – on my identity card. My original claim was denied, but I was able to add it in the second court order. Since then, I’ve used the name Yaşar in all my interactions, whether or not my Jewish identity is likely to cause any trouble.

Have you ever considered leaving Turkey due to religious marginalization or discrimination? 

Fifi: I personally have not ever considered leaving Turkey because this is my country, and I can not imagine living anywhere else. Although I have faced several difficulties due to my religious background, I am proud to call Turkey my home, and I do not consider moving any time soon. 

Yaşar: I have never considered leaving Turkey. This country has given me many opportunities, as well as many hardships. My community has suffered through some terrible incidents, but we have learned to find peace with them. While there are still some people who refuse to acknowledge this, Turkey is my country too. Even when discussing the more difficult parts of history, you will rarely find a Turkish Jew spreading or even tolerating hatred towards the Turkish Republic and Atatürk. I am proud to be a citizen of this country, and overall I feel welcomed here. When I was in my 20s, I had to travel to Europe for work and I was away for over two months. One day in Spain, I saw the famous MV Savarona (the presidential yacht of Turkey) from the coast and my friends and I excitedly waved our hands, and they started waving back too. It was one of the most emotional moments of my life. 

These events, which affected the Jewish community in Turkey, had a major impact on my grandparents and many others, including myself. To better comprehend the history of these events, it is crucial to listen to the voices of those who lived through it and understand the intricacies of their experiences. By doing so, we can gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of these events and their impact.

Edited by Uilson Jones, artwork by Lena Cohen Zennou