Out of Their Way: Turkish Rescuers in Armenian Genocide

Against the backdrop of World War I, the Young Turk authorities of the Ottoman Empire planned and perpetrated a Genocide of their Armenian subjects. But amidst the devastation and violence, there were people who opposed the forced deportations and mass killings of Armenians and voiced their protest, at a time when many considered the slaughter to be beneficial for the Turkish nation. 
They were governors, villagers, community leaders and friends who managed to save the lives of many Armenian men, women and children in dire circumstances. 
They risked not only being labeled as “traitors,” but also being executed along with those they were trying to help. 
In an attempt to unveil untold stories of rescue and solidarity, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF) commissioned in-depth research on the subject. While recognizing that studying the atrocities and informing the world about them is vital, the IRWF also realized that this mission is being undertaken by many other institutions and chose to focus on stories of the rescuers instead, with the goal of “shedding light on their stories; researching their feats; instilling their spirit of solidarity in the hearts and minds of the young generations who are eager to embrace positive role models.”
Eduardo Eurnekian and Baruch Tenembaum, the leaders of this New York-based NGO, believe that a positive approach is the most productive in both honoring the historical truth and creating opportunities for building bridges of understanding between young people. “Highlighting the feats of the rescuers is, from our perspective, the most suitable tool to achieve this double goal,” they say.
The IRWF Report was produced by Burçin Gerçek under the supervision of Professor Taner Akcam, the Kaloosdian/Mugar Chair in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was published as an e-book and is available in Turkish, Armenian, English and Spanish. The report sheds light on 180 “unsung heroes,” Turks and Kurds, including local government officials, clan chiefs, religious leaders, notables and ordinary persons who lent a helping hand to Armenians a century ago. Below is a summary of the report’s main highlights.
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Those who could not stand by idly

Those who could not stand by idly
The document mentions Mehmet Celal Bey, who was the governor of Aleppo at the beginning of World War I and of Konya a few months after. It took little time for Celal to realize that the purpose of mass deportations was the extermination of Armenians. He shared his concerns with the U.S. and Italian consuls in Aleppo and asked them to convey the seriousness of the situation to their governments and to prevent massacres using the influence they had on the Ottoman government. “Otherwise, you can be sure that the entire Armenian nation will perish,” he declared. 
Celal sent numerous telegrams to the Ottoman government in which he criticized “the treatment of the Armenians.” He wrote in his memoirs that he sent a “secret and personal” letter to Talaat Pasha, the minister of the interior and one of the main perpetrators of the Genocide, containing these words: “Working toward the destruction of Armenians will be a loss for the country, which will be impossible to compensate for ages. If all our enemies of the world came together and pondered for months for the best way to harm us, they could not imagine a greater evil.”
As long as he was in Aleppo, Celal did his best to “soften” the harshness of the orders. Meanwhile, the local club of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) tried to remove Celal from his position, hurling charges at him that went as far as “treason against the motherland.” Celal was removed from the vilayet (Ottoman province) shortly after.
After a while Celal was appointed to the prefecture of Konya. Every day, trains carried thousands of Armenians to Konya, while orders arrived to speed up their transfer to the Syrian deserts. Celal tried to delay the departure of the convoys, claiming lack of wagons for loading so many people. But he didn’t merely hide behind pretexts: he stated clearly that he “could not take part in such an undertaking that he considered harmful to the country.” He was then threatened by the Committee of Union and Progress through a deputy of Konya: “The transfer of Armenians being necessary for the national ideal, one must sacrifice his personal opinion. If you oppose these views…Konya will be left without you.”
Celal continued to withstand pressures and succeeded, “taking advantage of every single opportunity” to keep nearly 30,000 Armenians in Konya. However, despite his efforts Celal failed to put an end to the death marches. On October 3, 1915, he was removed from office. 
Among those also mentioned in the report is Hüseyin Nesimi, kaymakam (governor) of the Lice District in the vilayet of Diyarbakir. According to the memoirs of his son Abidin, when Nesimi noticed that the deportation order referred not just to those who lacked loyalty to the Ottoman state, but to the entire Armenian population, he tried to protect as many Armenians as possible by delaying the caravans’ departure. He also tried to prevent attacks by accompanying the first group of deportees in person. Moreover, he convinced old men in Lice to enter into “fake marriages” with Armenian women, presenting them as Muslim in order to save them.
When the news about Nesimi’s disobedience reached Dr. Reşid, the Diyarbakir governor, a lively correspondence began between the two. Nesimi said Dr. Reşid was as cruel as Genghis Khan. Eventually, he was called to Diyarbakir to discuss his ideas concerning deportation. On June 29, 1915, a Circassian gang ambushed and killed Nesimi near the Karaz village in Lice. The murder was blamed on “Armenian rebels" and his body was not returned to his family.
The leaders of the Party of Union and Progress were put on trial after World War I, and Nesimi’s murder was on the agenda. Previous Diyarbakir governor Hamid Bey testified “about two kaymakams that were exterminated because of their opposition to the deportation.”
Another hero mentioned in the IRWF report is İzzet Bey, gendarme commander of the Kastamonu province and the deputy sub-governor of the Chankiri District, “a beacon of hope” for the local Armenian community and exiled Armenian intellectuals during their days in Chankiri. 
For a time, İzzet Bey managed to keep a group of exiled Armenian intellectuals, Grigoris Balakian and 18 friends of his, in Chankiri. Another group of 11, Dr. Sevag Çilingiryan and poet Daniel Varoujan among them, left the town but ran into a trap and were killed savagely. Izzet Bey went to the crime scene to investigate the events and caught the perpetrators. The assailant confessed to having acted upon the orders of the Party of Union and Progress.
However, it soon became more difficult for Izzet Bey to protect Armenians in the city. One hundred and fifty families from Taşköprü, which made a living as rope-makers, were deported to Der-ez Zor. In Peter Balakian’s words, İzzet Bey, who “openly opposed the deportation,” learned about the incident after the convoys had set off, and was mad because the gendarmes in his command were used in this operation without his knowledge. The convoy, made up of 850 people, included women and children and had advanced for approximately four hours when he made it turn back. He also made sure that a group of 400 people, who were sent to Der-ez Zor via Ankara, returned to their homes.
Eventually, Izzet Bey was removed from Kastamonu and was appointed as Chief Regional Inspector of the Mamuretülaziz vilayet. Unsurprisingly, İzzet Bey, who could not tolerate what happened in a small town, could not idly watch the large-scale massacres that took place in Mamuretülaziz. Sâbit Bey, the governor of Mamuretülaziz, forced İzzet Bey into retirement on September 3, 1917.
Another great supporter of Armenian refugees was the Circassian Emir Pasha from the Sivas vilayet. Himself a son of refugees, he revolted against the injustices around him. He employed Armenians working in the Kizilirmak Valley on his farm and hid 150 young people on his large farm in Gemerek. 
When he heard that a group of Armenian resistance fighters had set up in the hills of Mount Akdağ, he gave them new guns and encouraged them to “fight bravely” and “save unfortunate brothers and sisters.” 
“My children, you are Armenians and I am a Muslim. May you be cursed if you do not protect your people,” he said. 
Four thousand people who hid in the caves of Mount Akdağ with their families resisted until 1917 with the help of Emir Pasha. They stayed in the region until 1922, leaving upon the arrival of the Kemalist forces.
The report speaks of many other heroes:
- The governor of the Ankara vilayet Ali Mazhar Bey, who, upon hearing of the extermination of Armenians during deportation, said: “I am a governor, not a bandit. I cannot do that.” He was discharged from office shortly after.
- The vice-governor of Diyarbakir Hamid Bey, who protected Armenians during his six months in office and declared: “I do not want to be involved in this illegal operation.”
- The sub-governor of Mardin Hilmi Bey, who, in response to the orders, wrote: “I am not so heartless as to take part in the massacring of Ottoman citizens that I know well to be loyal to the state and innocent.” He was soon discharged from his position.
- The sub-governor of Bayezid Bagh Efendi, who saved East Bayezid Armenians by informing them of the upcoming massacre after his meeting with the representatives of CUP.
- The Yozgat sub-governor Cemal Bey and military recruitment office chief Salim Bey rejected orders to carry out a massacre during the deportations. “I cannot act without my conscience,” Cemal Bey said. Cemal was relieved of his duties; Salim Bey was forced to resign as well.
- Faik Bey, müdür (town administrator) of Talas who was killed by a CUP adept for opposing the deportation and massacre of the Armenians.
- Gumek villagers, who fed Armenian refugees hidden in nearby forests.
- Ergan villagers of Erzincan, who endeavored to save their neighbors from deportation by hiding them in their houses.
- Ali Seyit Agha and other Kurdish clan chiefs from Dersim, who gave Armenians food and showed them to higher places in the Dersim mountains, which became an important hiding place. 
- Kangozade Mehmet from the Karabal Clan, who became the best-known name in “escape operations.” 
- The Dersim clans, which not only provided Armenians with a place to stay, but also organized their escape from many regions, primarily from the Mamuretül Aziz Province, to Dersim.
The report names many other saviors: Turkish, Kurdish and Cirkassian officials, villagers, friends, neighbors and anonymous individuals whose stories deserve to be told.
Read the full report here.
Header image: Baruch Tenembaum, Robert P. Morgenthau, Taner Akcam and Eduardo Eurnekian.
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Highlights of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation Report on Turkish saviors