82 years ago, from April 1941 to July 1942, Jewish, Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian/Syriac men in Turkey were gathered in labor battalions in which no Muslim citizens were enlisted. This policy is also known as “the conscription of twenty classes” (in Turkish, “yirmi kur’a nafıa askerleri” or “soldiers for public works by drawing of twenty lots”).
Instead of active service, they were forced to work under terrible conditions constructing roads and airports. Some lost their lives or caught diseases. In other words, these were concentration camps for non-Muslim, male citizens of the country.
It was one of the many discriminatory policies by the Turkish government that aimed to impoverish and eventually annihilate non-Muslim citizens of the country.
After being forced to work in labor battalions for over a year, they were finally released on July 27, 1942.
Historian Ayşe Hür describes 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 during the 1939 Erzincan earthquake. They were sent in extreme hot weather as soldiers to camps, with no infrastructure and a shortage of 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 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 that shed light on this incident through his several articles and books is Rifat Bali.
Turkey was established in 1923 by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which governed the country until the first free national elections in 1950, paving the way for the coming to power of the Democrat Party (DP). During this period, the CHP was the only legal party in the country and minorities suffered high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith and/or ethnicity.
According to a 1998 article by Bali, in May of 1941 the ID cards of non-Muslim men were checked by police officers in the streets across Turkey and those who were recorded as “non-Muslim” were conscripted right away. 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 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 health of the conscripted was never taken into account during the process of conscription. For example, a Greek citizen named Teohari was blind, and Arslan Yorgo was mentally handicapped. The conscripts were not even allowed to contact their families or even bring their clothes with them. The families who later heard about the conscription, went to where their loved ones were taken and gave them their packages of underwear from behind bars.
Jewish businessman Vitali Hakko described in his memoirs that the police detained him in his store, telling him he was going to the army. Hakko was shocked, with many unanswered questions on his mind:
“Why am I conscripted for the third time a week after my disbanding? Why are we collected suddenly and have not been able to even inform our families? Why do they not tell us where we are being taken?”
“The fact that there were no Muslim Turks among us further increased our concerns,” he wrote.
Jewish journalist İzak Yaeş wrote in his memoirs that the conscripted soldiers were first stripped completely naked and put under an ice-cold bath. They were then taken to hairdressers completely naked and had their heads shaved. They were made to stay at the barracks in Istanbul for three days and were infested with lice during their stay there. They were then taken to camps in cities across Anatolia.
Yaeş was sent to the Malatya province to work at the airport construction there. He writes that the non-Muslim soldiers there were threatened by the Turkish corporal:
“Sons of bitches, 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 whipped the non-Muslim soldiers who could not walk fast enough with their leather belts. They were also made to sleep on sacks filled with grass and bushes, according to Yaeş.
Jewish journalist Dr. Eli Saul also wrote that the soldiers who were guarding the camps shouted at Jews, saying: “Dirty Jews, you will never see Istanbul again. Forget your wives and children.”
Yaşar Paker, a Jewish man born in 1897, 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 carcass. 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 five hundred people. I was one of the twenty who did not catch typhus. There were fourteen people in my tent; twelve became ill.”
“There were sixty-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 he was forced to work at:
“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 done his compulsory military service before, wrote in his memories:
“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 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 got desperate. The words “Forget about Istanbul!” were imprinted on the memories of all minorities who went through this period.
These fears were 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 when Nazis exposed Jews in Europe to genocide, the conscription of twenty classes in Turkey affected Jews the most, according to Bali.
“Turkish Jews started to believe that they too would be exposed to genocide like their brethren in Europe. The greatest factor of that was that just like Jews were sent to concentration camps in Nazi Germany, only non-Muslims were conscripted as a caution 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 command was announced to the conscripts, Jewish conscripts were greatly 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 in 1942. The clear majority of them immigrated to Israel after the Jewish state was re-founded in 1948.
“We were, of course, happy,” wrote Hakko about their release. “But who would have guaranteed that we would not be conscripted again after 3 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 20-draw draft:
– To detract non-Muslim citizens from their businesses for a while, to weaken them commercially and thereby to facilitate the creation of a Muslim bourgeoise.
– To intern non-Muslims at camps in order to prevent their possible “fifth column” activities in case of Turkey’s entering the war because the Turkish state did not trust its non-Muslim citizens.
– To intern minorities at camps upon the demands of Nazis to the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs.
Yervant Özuzun, the former deputy mayor of the district of Bakırköy, stated that the reason for the practice was “. . . to keep them [non-Muslims] in a difficult situation in the commercial sense by removing them from their jobs, to make them close down or transfer their businesses, and to damage their emotional ties to the country . . .”
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. Before that it was common practice for non-Muslim conscripts but they were scattered around the army. After 1941, they were systematically concentrated in specific groups and used the same way that they were used before without any consideration of death to them.
Discrimination against non-Muslims is systematic in the Turkish military. Throughout the entire history of Turkey, non-Muslim citizens have never been allowed to be military officers or generals. In 2011, the Bali published a book entitled “Non-Muslim Soldiers: Memories – Testimonies” as to how non-Muslims were harassed, threatened, or even exposed to physical violence while carrying out their compulsory service in the Turkish army.
However, there is still a strong stigma around voicing critical opinions about these issues in Turkey. By law, it is a punishable offense to speak publicly against the Turkish army or conscription. Article 318 of the Turkish Penal Code, for example, states that:
“discouraging people from performing military service shall be sentenced to imprisonment from six months to two years. If the act is committed through press and publications, the penalty shall be increased by one half.”
Hence, Bali said he needed a lawyer to 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 towards military. And it is extremely flexible. So, my lawyer read the book. And based on his recommendations, we softened or removed some parts.”
Despite all these facts, the official line of the Turkish government that has firmly established itself in both Turkish and foreign public opinion is that neither antisemitism nor hostility to Christians has taken root in Turkey, and that Jews as well as Christians have lived within a free and tolerant atmosphere in Turkey. But this is simply just a myth. Today, only 0.1 percent of Turkey’s population is Christian or Jewish. They did not leave Turkey because they did not enjoy the weather. They were either murdered or forced to leave due to various forms of persecution throughout the decades.