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Thessalonika: 1923

Copyright © by Alan Grant Copyright © by Alan Grant
Church of Ossios David - Kastra

Until 1912 Thessalonika was Ottoman, although much of its population was Jewish. The city also included Turks, Muslims, Slavs and of course Greeks. In 1912, when the city was taken by Greece its population began to change. By 1923 nearly two million citizens from Turkey and Greece were forcibly exchanged across the Aegean because they were of the "wrong" religion. Bruce Clark's book is the first accessible, modern study of this tumultuous period, which helped to radically change the face of the Balkans. Two elements of Clark's book stand out. Firstly he has tracked down the last remaining Greeks and Turks who remember this period and its aftermath. Secondly he shows that, far from being a simple exchange of "Greeks" and "Turks", as previously believed,, identities were in fact far more complex. Many of the "Greeks" from Anatolia spoke only Turkish and many of the "Turks" from Greece spoke only Greek. In some cases families from one side also moved in before the others had moved out. This is Clark's interview with Ramazan Ezer, who was born in the village of Sevindik, north of Salonika in 1917. Ezer was deported six years later and resettled in a coastal suburb of Istanbul.

Before we left, about fifty or sixty households in our village were partially taken over by incoming Rum [Greek Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire] refugees. The Rum family who lived with us spoke even better Turkish than we did. They took two rooms, and we – my parents, my grandmother, my sister and I were left with two rooms, so there was enough space for everybody. The Rum grandmother got along very well with my Muslim grandmother, who had lost her husband to the Bulgarians. The Rum grandmother used to urge us to settle if possible in Hayrebolu [a town on the coast of eastern Thrace] where she and her family had lived comfortably. At least for that short time, the Rum granny had no difficulty with us – but she did worry about some of the other Christian refugees who were settling nearby; some of them spoke Russian but not Turkish. These must have been Pontic Greeks who had spent a generation in Russia. Compared with those Pontians, the lady from Hayrebolu found it easier to talk to us. But I can also remember hearing one of the Rum ladies saying wistfully: "Your Mustafa Kemal is a warrior with a sword in each hand, and a sword on each leg" […] To a six year old it seemed an odd thing to say, and at the age of eighty-six I can still hear her words resounding in my head.

Twice a Stranger: The Mass Expulsions that Forged Modern Greece and Turkey. Bruce Clark. 2006.
[pp. 176-77 / Granta Books]

January 2007
Tim Judah

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  1. Istanbul: Pamuk's City
  2. Istanbul: Swimming across the Bosphorus
  3. Salonika and the Jews
  4. Salonica: Slaves and Trade
  5. Thessalonika: 1923
  6. Ohrid: Rise and Fall
  7. Tornado of Dust - 1944
  8. Awake Romania - 1989
  9. Novi Sad: Nest of the Serbian nation
  10. Nis: War Capital, 1915
  11. Belgrade and the Selenites
  12. 1996: Serbia Calling
  13. Belgrade Train Station - 1964
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