Istanbul Love Story

The unlikely love story of a Jewish-Greek couple that met and married in Istanbul over fifty years ago. (Click here for the full article.) An excerpt:

Fortuna was a teenager when she noticed Yani, five years her elder, a fishmonger working in the Grand Bazaar in the heart of old Istanbul. She was Jewish. He was Greek. They met on the boat that crosses the Bosporus. When she told her family about Yani, her mother locked her out of the house. These were observant Sephardic Jews whose ancestors had been forced to leave Spain in 1492. They were active in their synagogue, determined in those first years after the terrible cataclysm of World War II to assert their cultural and religious inheritance…

Fortuna, 17 and love-struck, knew only the village where the handsome Greek man lived, nothing more, not even his last name. She went to Gengelkoy, asked for “Yani” and was soon directed to the house where she could find him. She knocked on the door.

“I came,” she told the Greek, uncertain whether he would accept her.

Fortuna’s family, meanwhile, went to the police, and Yani was briefly incarcerated. The judge told him matter-of-factly that if the couple married, it would be OK for them to be together (despite the objections of her parents) and he could be freed from jail. They had a municipal wedding…

Sixty years ago, Istanbul’s population included a significant Greek community, 100,000 or more, and a similar number of Jews. Kuzguncuk was mostly Jewish and Greek, with two synagogues and one Greek Orthodox Church. Synagogues and churches dotted Beyoglu and other areas, too.

One dark night — Sept. 6, 1955 — something terrible happened: a massive, citywide assault set against a backdrop of internecine hatred over the island of Cyprus. Organized by Turkish authorities, armed mobs were trucked into Istanbul. They marauded up and down Istiklal Avenue, into Kuzguncuk and other areas inhabited by “gayrimuslim” — non-Muslims. It was an event later coined “the Istanbul Pogrom.”

They were incited by the false claim that Greeks bombed the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki, destroying the nearby birthplace of Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey. In fact, it was a Turk who planted the bomb (which did not damage the Ataturk residence), and the Turkish authorities and press knew it, but chose to perpetuate the myth of Greek antagonism, according to Turkish news reports published years later.

For two days, the Turkish mobs ransacked thousands of Greek shops, tortured Orthodox priests and killed 15 people, according to witnesses and government reports. Windows were shattered and goods destroyed. Priests were dragged through the streets, their beards cut off. Some were circumcised forcefully. As many as 200 women were raped.

The riot was not contained to the Greek community; Jews and Armenians also suffered the wrath of the mob, documentation shows. In the aftermath of the violence, the Greek and Jewish populations dwindled. Fortuna’s brother and sister fled to Tel Aviv. But she and Yani, survivors of the pogrom, chose to remain in the city.

Five years after the pogrom, a military coup ushered in a new Turkish government, and the former prime minister and acting foreign minister at the time of the anti-Greek riots were arrested and convicted of instigating the violence.

Now, Greeks number perhaps 2,000. Jews number around 25,000… As this generous couple told us their story, it was difficult for Fortuna to maintain her poise. She wiped tears from her eyes. She stepped out of the room, then returned only to shelter herself in the doorway, as if its frame could provide needed emotional stability….

The Turkish government has become more responsive to what’s left of the Greek and Jewish communities, Yani said. Cemeteries have been restored and are kept clean and safe. The churches and shops of Turkey’s ethnic minorities are protected…

“Now is the best period in our lives,” Yani said, offering my daughter another sweet…

3 Responses to “Istanbul Love Story”

  1. That’s a gorgeous piece Jenny, thank you for posting it.

    As for Kuzguncuk, it’s a special little enclave. I wish there were more magical places like it in Istanbul – synagogues, churches, mosques situated together with old houses, all under a canopy of trees. Are there such places?

  2. [...] Istanbul Love Story by Jenny White [...]

  3. Is Yani by any chance the headmaster of a Greek school in Istanbul today? Just curious.

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