In the traditional Ladino language of her Sephardic Jewish ancestors, Güler Orgun tells us how her family found a new home in the Ottoman Empire after being expelled from Spain in the late 15th century.
We learn why her parents converted to Islam, and how Güler herself later came to find her Jewish roots again - before she married a Muslim man
Guler traces her story back 500 years – to Spain in 1492 when Christopher Columbus was sailing west from Port of Palos. Columbus departed from this relatively unknown seaport as the larger ports were clogged with Jews departing from Spain.
King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile had just introduced the Expulsion Decree – also called the Alhambra Decree – that declared that no Jews would be allowed to remain within the Spanish Kingdom. The edict drove out 20,000 Spanish Jews, among them Guler’s ancestors.
The Spanish Jews became known as Sephardim. As Guler explains, “Sepharrad” means “Spain” in Hebrew. The term, however, leaves room for debate.
Many of the expelled Jews left for the Ottoman Empire, which, as Guler informs, was relatively tolerant toward Jews. There they were welcomed by Sultan Bajazet II, who was known for his compassion toward the arriving refugees.
Jews in the Ottoman Empire were not only welcomed to settle, but were encouraged and even assisted. The peaceful atmosphere allowed Jewish life and culture to flourish. Jews were prominent members of Ottoman society.
Guler worked as editor for the Turkey-based monthly Ladino magazine, El Amaneser, which reaches Ladino speakers worldwide. This book contains the story of another Turkish/Sephardic couple as well as traditional Turkish and Sephardic recipes.
During the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, the Empire lost all of its European territory to Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Albania.
In 1914, the Ottoman Empire joined the fight in World War I between the Central Powers (most notably the German Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and the Allied Powers (France, Great Britain, the US and others). Guler’s grandfather served in the Ottoman Army.
By the end of the war in 1918, the Central Powers - and with it the Ottoman Empire - were defeated by the Allied Powers. This defeat spelled the end for the Empire.
During the First World War, the Allied powers had made a series of agreements that outlined the dismantling and partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. The remaining sections of the Empire, which included Istanbul and part of northern Anatolia were overseen by Allied administration. At this time, a Turkish national movement under the leadership of Atatürk began to grow.
In 1920, Guler’s father came to what is now Turkey from the Romanian city of Constanta, a port on the Black Sea. The year before his arrival a nationalist congress, presided over by Atatürk, met to discuss protocol for the establishment of an independent Turkish state.
Guler’s mother’s family lived for generations in the Turkish city of Çanakkale. This seaport is famous for, among other things, being the mythical location of the war of Troy.
Turkey is considered to be a very safe and tolerant country for Jews. It has not had the same anti-Semitic history that has plagued most of Europe. This essay by Sule Toktas discusses perceptions of anti-Semitism in Turkey.
Guler Orgun was born in Istanbul in 1937, when Turkey officially became secular. Two years later, the German invasion of Poland triggered World War II, which led to the destruction of the vast majority of European Jewry, planned during the infamous Wannsee conference in January 1942.
Turkey's neutrality during World War II saved Guler’s family from the tragic fate met by the majority of Europe’s Jews. Though Turkey did not declare war on Germany until February 1945, their troops were mobilized for the majority of the war in Europe. Guler’s father was conscripted into the army.
Guler learned later about the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe – many Jews had sought refuge in Turkey. In fact, Turkish authorities also worked to actively save Jews.
She mentions that during the war, non-Muslim families were financially ruined because of the Wealth Tax – also known as Varlik Vergisi.
Guler’s parents converted to Islam as her father wanted to become a Turkish citizen. He then changed his name to Avni Tunçer
To do so they visited a Mufti. A Mufti is an interpreter of Islamic law.
Guler was born Muslim, but converted to Judaism in order to marry her first husband, Ceki Karasu. They were married in Istanbul’s Neve Shalom Synagogue.
Istanbul used to be known as Constantinople. In the 1920s Atatürk officially changed the name to Istanbul.
In 2010 Istanbul was named the European Capital of Culture.