On June 5, 1934, violent actions against Jews of several towns in the Turkish region of Thrace began. Although no Jews were killed, the extensive destruction of property, and the very fact of the attacks in a country that was always known for its hospitality to Jews, led to many of them moving from Thrace, or emigrating from Turkey altogether. Recent historical research has led some scholars to conclude that this was the goal of the government in the actions it took in the weeks prior to the pogroms, and which seemed to indirectly encourage the violence.
Turkish Thrace is the eastern section of a region that takes up parts of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, bordered on the northeast by the Black Sea and on the southeast by the Sea of Marmara. As a border region, Turkish Thrace had been occupied by the armies of Bulgaria and Greece, in the Balkan Wars and the Greco-Turkish War, respectively. Hence, Turkey was especially sensitive to matters of security in the area, in particular in the period following the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, which ended the state of war between newly independent Turkey and the Allied powers of World War I.
One consequence of the treaty was the demilitarization of the Straits of Dardanelles, Turkey’s channel from the Marmara to the Aegean Sea. It was also accompanied by a massive population exchange between Turkey and Greece. In the wake of the departure of the Christian population from Turkey, the Jews became a more prominent minority group in Thrace, and took over many of the positions in business and trade that had previously been held by Armenians and Greeks, although they constituted only some 2 percent of the population.
Just prior to the outbreak of the rioting, in May 1934, Ibrahim Tali Ongoren, the inspector general of Thrace (the highest state official in the region) undertook a 33-day tour of the province. Although the 90-page report he prepared for the government and for the Republican People’s Party covered a wide range of topics, the author seemed to be, according to the historian Corry Guttstadt, “outright obsessed with the ‘Jewish problem,’ which comes up in nearly every chapter.” According to Tali’s report, “The Jew of Thrace is so morally corrupt and devoid of character that it strikes one immediately.” The Jews, he determined, possessed a “fawning, deceitful character that hides its secret intentions, always applauds the powerful, worships gold and knows no love of the homeland,” and they were “intent on making Thrace the equivalent of Palestine.”
Thus, while there is no evidence of an explicit government plan to expel the Jews from Thrace, an action that was prohibited to Turkey under the Treaty of Lausanne, Guttstadt, author of the 2013 book “Turkey, the Jews, and the Holocaust,” suggests that “the Turkish authorities had apparently opted for the strategy of putting the Jews under such pressure with boycott activities and anonymous threats ‘from the population’ that they would leave the area ‘voluntarily.’”
Beginning on June 5, 1934, the Jews of Canakkale, Tekirdag, Edirne and Kirklareli faced the boycott of their businesses. That was followed by physical attacks on Jewish-owned buildings, which were looted and set on fire. It is estimated that 15,000 Jews fled their homes in the region, many of them to Istanbul, but some also leaving the country for Palestine or Rhodes.
Turkish historian Rifat Bali has suggested that incitement against the Jews – which appeared in the popular press of the time, too – fell on fertile ground because of the prominent economic role played by the Jews in Thrace, including as moneylenders, and also because of their tendency to speak Ladino rather than Turkish, at a time of strong Turkish nationalism.
Although the government of Mustafa Kemal condemned the violence, and the cabinet issued a statement that “anti-Semitism is an ideology alien to Turkey,” it did not offer any reparations to the Jews whose property was destroyed, or attempt to restore property that had been stolen.
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