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כפר אמנים עין הוד

מרץ 05, 2010

The Donme, Jewish Converts

Marc David Baer, The Donme, Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks, 2010.

Review by Yitzchak Kerem*

This fascinating work on the internal character of the Donme after their transfer in ca. 1923 from Salonika to Turkey; to primarily Istanbul, and the identities of many of their elite fills in many gaps about their identity throughout the 20th century. Baer traces earlier migrations of affluent Deunme to the Ottoman capital, Istanbul, in the late 19th century; already establishing businesses and settlement patterns. Affluent Salonikan Deunme like the Kapanci family set up commercial networks in Central and Western Europe in the early 20th century. Baer depicts their active role in tobacco business in Salonika, Kavala, Germany, and Turkey. After the fall of Salonika to the Greeks in 1912, many Donme migrated to Istanbul until the end of WWI.

He depicted in Salonika the Donme school of Semsi Efendi, where Mustafa Kemal Attaturk studied, and the school set up by Yakubi sect Salonika mayor Hamdi Bey called Selimiye. Initially in 1873 Semsi Bey set up a school in the tiny mosque of the Karakas Donme neighborhood of Sinancik, but was later assisted by Governor Galip Pasha to build a new building. He moved later to another location, but had to close due to attacks by bigoted Muslim mobs in 1891 and declined enrollment. He opened another school and it closed after being attacked. He finally continued instruction at night in the homes of students. He also paved the way for educating Donme girls, starting in pre-school. Previously, the Donme of Salonika were viewed as a static population, which was scorned by the Muslims, but not afflicted. His pedagogical model inspired the founding of the Donme Terraki (by the Kapanci sect) and Feyziye schools (by the Karakas sect in 1883-4).Baer adds much to our knowledge of the Deunme settlement in Ottoman Salonika; also using Ottoman street names; many previously little known or unknown.

The Terraki and Feyziye schools modernized the Donme, furthered commerce, modern education, literature, and civil service, and produced a new path for reform and morality. The Donme would be a part of the Young Turk movement, and part of the national leadership after the ousting of Sultan Abdulhamid. Journalist Osman Tevfik, editor of Mutalaa (Contemplation) was Attaturk’s teacher of calligraphy and penmanship at the military preparatory school in Salonika. Tevfik’s son Ahmet Emin Yalmin also studied at the military preparatory school and had been a student of Semsi Bey at the Feyziye in the 1890s. Yalmin would be a noted journalist and newspaper editor in Istanbul by the 1920s and would come under attack as a traitor to Turkey as a Donme and after publishing numerous articles in the press explaining the nature
and identity of the Deunme.

Baer noted the rivalries between the Kapanci elite merchants and how this led to splits in schools, but they came back for the common good. This was particularly noticeable after the Donme was transferred to Istanbul in the early 1920s.

Baer did not deal extensively with the actual transfer of the Deunme to Istanbul and hardly depicted an extensive account or testimony, but he noted Donme efforts prevent it and some stastics and details. He noted that there were efforts to send them as far as Samsun and elsewhere, but eventually most gravitated to Istanbul. He minimalized how the Salonikan rabbis refused to recognize them as Jews, and omitted rabbinical fears and rulings against them for alleged wifeswamping and problems of mamzerut (bastardization).

While using Turkish and Greek sources on the Donme, he didn’t use the main known articles and books published in Israel or by Israeli scholars on the Donme by Barnai, myself (Kerem), Benayahu, Liebes, and even Chernish, Gad Nasi and Recanati. In depicting attacks against the Donme in the press in Istanbul in the 1920s, he brings up allegations of wifeswamping amongst the Donme and limited it to the Karakas sect.

He noted that those two hundred Donme who showed Albanian or Serbian citizen or origin could stay in Salonika. A few noted Kapanci merchants and bankers were enabled to remain, and overcame legal and economic obstacles, but most were transferred to Istanbul. Baer’s references to Deunme in Monastir and elsewhere in the ex-Yugoslavia confirmed past rumors or theories, and pointed to their settlement and professional activities there.

Baer showed how the Donme organized in Istanbul in the 1920s, and the problems they had in Turkish society. The journalists Yalman and the Sertels (the couple Mehmet Zekeriya and his wife Sabiha) faced arrests, shutdowns, censorship, lawsuits, and imprisonment. The Sertels founded Resimli Gazete (Illustrated Monthly) which existed between 1924 and 1930. Like Yalman, they were very critical of the government, and came into great conflict with the government. In 1934 Yalman and Sertel collaborated in the publishing of Tan (Dawn) for two years, and clashed with Kemalists and the nationalist Cumhuriyet newspaper.Tan accused its rival of defending fascist propaganda in Turkey and Cumhuriyet accused Tan of spreading ommunist propaganda.

In WWII Yalman restablished Vatan, was closed in 1942 for discussing Charlie Chaplain’s The Great Disaster which mimicked Hitler, criticized facism, and sided with the persecuted Jews of Europe. In 1944 the newspaper was closed again for protesting the Varlik Vergisi, the wealth tax, which played a devastating role against the Donme; as well as against the Jews, and other minorities.

In Istanbul, Baer depicted the settlement of Kapanci in the Nisantas and Tesvikye neighborhoods. The Deunme took the homes of Greek-Orthodox transferred to Greece. He noted how the Karakas, Kapanci, and Yakubis left Salonika at different times and settled separately in Istanbul. Those Donme who excelled in fabrics, timber, and tobacco in Salonika found adverse available opportunities in Turkey, but adjusted. He noted details of the Karakas Feziye school in Nisantas, and other details of Donme settlement in those neighborhoods. He also interviewed descendants of the leading Kapanci merchant family Akif in Niantas. He also noted that the Karakas mainly settled in Bakirkoy, Bayezid, and Sultanahmet. He gave some details of the Karakas, Kibar, Dilber, and Balci merchants.The Kapanci Terakki school in Istanbul was established in Sisli. Girls were not allowed to wear head scarf coverings there. In 1925 Sabiha Sertel became general inspector at that school. The Kapancis were not only affluent tobacco and textile merchants, but ambassadors.

In the political sphere Mehmet Cavid of the Karakas sect was Finance Minister in the 1910s and Kapanci Ahmet Tevfik Ehat served as Finance Minister from 1920 until 1923.

In the 1920s, Istanbul Donme Karakas journalist Rustu turned against the Donme and wanted to reveal their true identity to Turkish society, and unsuccessfully incited the parliament to promulgate laws against them. In defense of the Donme Yalman published depictions of the Yakubis, their preservation of the fate, and active Sufi affiliation.

Baer noted depictions of Galante and the Karakas Gorva of the Donme in the 1930s.
His depiction of the Karakas and Kapanci sections of the main Donme cemetery of Bulbuldere in Uskudar, Istanbul, is extremely valuable and vivid. The Kapancis, unlike other Mulsims and Donme, had photos on their tombs. They refer to themselves as Salonikans and in the 1930s, many died in their early 50s. The tomb inscriptions reveal many biographical details of personalities. Contrary to this, the Karakas tombs are very simple and modest. Unfortuantely, he did not consult my research in that cemetery and in others that was published in historical scholarly and genealogy publications, and it would have been of interest to see how other finds complemented and contrasted what he found.

In WWII, many Donme merchants dealing in commerce with Germany were rejected and considered by the latter as Jews.During the imposition of the 1942 Luxury Tax, the Donme faced much public scrutiny and were attacked in the press. In Salonika, Mehmet Kapanci’s villa was taken over by the Nazi administration.

In Salonika the Donme were active in Ottomanism. However in the Turkish Republic, they were challenged as true Muslims, and discriminated as Jews and foreigners. The minority group the Alevi were discriminated against under Ottoman rule, but in Turkey they thrived and have undergone a renaiisance. In modern Turkey the Donme ave dissipated.

Yalman was severly injured in an assassination attempt in 1952, but survived. In his memoirs, he downplayed his Jewish/Deunme background and all the articles he wrote in the Turksih press in defense of the Deunme.

Baer utilized effectively sources he found in Greece and contemporary Turkey, but overlooked significant prior research and publications from Israeli scholars. Nonetheless, this is an important and revealing work that should be consulted and purchased by all those interested in Sephardic, Greek, Ototman, and modern Turkish studies.


* Yitzchak Kerem is an historian on Sephardic Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has been the editor of Sefarad, the Sephardic newsletter, since 1991. He is also a former radio moderator of "Diaspora Jewry" (Reshet Bet and Aleph, 2004-2007), section editor for Encyclopedia of the Holocaust and New Encyclopedia Judaica, and is now visiting Israeli professor of Sephardic Studies at American Jewish University of Los Angeles

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