WENDY ELLIOTT Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad: Humanitarianism in Talas, Turkey, 1908–1923. Reviewed by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
The early 20th century saw terrible suffering as the Ottoman Empire came to an end; these accounts of American and Canadian relief workers bear witness to events in Turkey during this period, including the Armenian genocide.
The Young Turk Revolution succeeded in wresting control of the Ottoman Empire in an almost bloodless coup in 1908. It was an optimistic moment for many citizens of the vast multi-ethnic, religiously diverse territory. The Young Turks promised a new era of brotherhood and democracy for the empire.
Within 15 years, the Ottoman Empire would cease to exist.
The empire’s final years, which culminated in Mustafa Kemal’s Nationalist uprising and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, were ‘bloody and costly’, as Canadian author Wendy Elliott writes. They included ‘two coups d’état, four regional wars, a world war, a war of independence, and a crippling national debt’.
Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad traces the last years of the Ottoman Empire through the eyes of Canadian and American missionaries and relief workers present in central Turkey at the time. As part of the group that formed the Near East Relief organisation, these humanitarians saved thousands of orphans from starvation and disease.
Elliott’s first book, The Dark Triumph of Daniel Sarkisyan, was a young adult novel set during the Armenian genocide. In 2014, an Armenian friend approached Elliott about a trunk of documents that belonged to the great-niece of Susan Wealthy Orvis, an American Near East Relief worker. It contained over 450 letters, photographs and other documents. On one of the envelopes, Orvis had scrawled, ‘Very valuable. A record of the sufferings and faith and loyalty of Christians in Talas, Turkey during the World War 1914-1918. Keep this.’ This, combined with a copy of Orvis’s journal detailing her travels on the Trans-Siberian railway through the turmoil of the Russian Revolution in 1917, convinced Elliott to write the story of Orvis and her colleagues.
Throughout, Grit and Grace shifts from the geopolitical to the personal, juxtaposing complex historical events with individual experiences and recollections, many drawn from missionaries’ personal writings. Orvis provides a particularly sympathetic perspective on the abysmal conditions in the war-torn towns and villages, and the extraordinary efforts of the humanitarian workers and volunteers, who built orphanages, hospitals and factories in order to feed and clothe tens of thousands of refugees. Orvis describes the efforts of herself and her colleagues with a humble matter-of-factness. ‘I am glad to be so well and happy in the work,’ she writes to her family. In another letter, she notes she that had the opportunity to stay in her room and ‘enjoy tonsillitis’.
Orvis first arrived in Talas, central Turkey, in 1902, to a crowd of ‘at least a hundred people … carrying flowers and wearing smiles, the children laughing and clapping, so happy to see them’. But the happiness and optimism felt across the empire faded into trepidation as early as 1909, when massacres led to the death of an estimated 25 000 Christians in the Cilicia region. The tension increased as the Balkan Wars began in 1912 and the Committee for Union and Progress, a faction of the Young Turks, seized power in Constantinople. One missionary described the pre-World War I years in the Ottoman Empire as ‘sitting upon the top of a volcano with the feeling that at any moment an eruption may occur’.
Leading the Committee for Union and Progress were three men. Eliott describes Talat Pasha, Minister of the Interior, as ‘powerfully built, rather like a boxer … His frame matched his forceful personality, quick mental agility, and large appetite.’ Minister of War Enver Pasha was so fervently militaristic that friends nicknamed him Napoleonik, ‘little Napoleon’. Along with Djemal Pasha, Minister of Public Works, Talat and Enver orchestrated the Armenian genocide. It was the first genocide in which modern transportation and communications technologies were used in the eradication of civilian communities.
Following the orders of the CUP government, the Armenian genocide began on 24 April 1915. Other Christians, including Ottoman Greeks and Assyrians, were also targeted. The genocide was systematic. In many cases, Armenian men were called to military service, then executed. Their families were ‘deported’ town by town, marched off toward the Syrian desert to die, or sometimes forced to convert to Islam and kept as wives or slaves. When government officials questioned the thinly veiled deportation orders, they were removed from authority and replaced by hardliners.
Hearing that a nearby town was to be deported, Stella Loughridge, one of the Talas missionaries, arrived in time to bear witness:
… Stella watched the Armenians prepare for their journey. They sold whatever possessions they could … Turks from surrounding villages were buying the household goods at the lowest possible prices, though Stella saw some stealing too. ‘The next day we saw them start away, over the white, dusty roads under a scorching July sun, guarded on all sides by gendarmes, going they knew not where. A few days later we heard where. After a day’s journey the men were separated from the women and children, taken down into a ravine and brutally murdered. The women and children were carried off by the Turks and Circassians to their harems. As the days went by we saw and felt these horrors creeping upon us there in Talas.’
Another missionary commented that the violence had given her new insight into the Old Testament.
In part, the Christians of the Ottoman Empire were being punished for the Balkan Wars, which led to the loss of much of the empire’s European territory. As a result, more than a quarter of a million Muslim refugees fled into the empire’s diminishing domain. An independent enquiry found that the infamously gruesome violence in the Balkans was more or less evenly dispersed among Christians and Muslims. Regardless, public opinion was manipulated by the Turkish press, which focused on stories of the atrocities committed against Muslims.
Though the events of Grit and Grace took place a century ago, many resonate with current headlines. The closest Elliott comes to addressing this directly is in her description of a pamphlet titled ‘Especially for Muslims’, written in simple language and distributed in 1913, that:
… reminded readers of the atrocities committed by Christians during the Balkan Wars (omitting mention of any committed by Muslims), of the loss of imperial territory, and of children reduced to begging on the streets. The message was very clear: To make the Ottoman Empire great again, buy only Turkish goods.
Yet, as Elliott notes, drawing on the aid workers’ recollections, there were also many Turks who ignored the propaganda and saved Armenians and other Christians, though the punishment for doing so was death.
By the end of 1918, World War I had ended. The British attempted to restore order in Constantinople and Anatolia while claiming Ottoman territory for themselves through the treaty process. They also organised courts-martial for those responsible for the genocide, precursors to the Nuremburg trials of 1945.
During the worst of the war, the missionaries had been forced to leave Talas. They returned in 1919 to discover, as Elliott describes, ‘In total 88 000, mostly women and children, needed aid, and 10 000 of them were orphans – who needed everything.’
The violence was far from over for Ottoman citizens, however. In May 1919, the Greek army landed in Smyrna. Mustafa Kemal, who later took the name Ataturk, formed the Nationalist army to seize control from the British and those Turks aligned with them. Ataturk’s forces also continued to push eastward, into Armenian territory abandoned by Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. The newly formed Democratic Republic of Armenia would likely have been destroyed had it not signed a treaty with Russia in 1920, becoming the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.
In 1921, as fighting between the Greeks and Nationalists raged, one of Orvis’s colleagues wrote, ‘Here we sit at the foot of a smoldering volcano, and no one knows when it will pour its fire upon us.’ Nearly a decade had passed, and still the threat of destruction remained.
When Kemal’s Nationalists finally seized power in 1922, they granted Christians ‘permission’ to leave Turkey by 13 December, including the missionaries who had so tirelessly worked to save the lives of Ottoman citizens. To ensure the safety of the 3000 orphans in their care at the time, Orvis and her colleagues quickly organised an exodus involving a convoy of wagons and passages by train and ship.
On their departure, Orvis and her colleagues protested all they had witnessed in a manifesto, describing the actions of Kemal’s new government towards ‘their subject peoples’ as ‘cruel, unrighteous, and unjustifiable … having resulted in unnecessary wholesale suffering and death by massacres, deportation and starvation’.
Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad is a powerful testament to the humanity of those who risked their lives to help others amid the brutal conditions of war and genocide, and the lessons of their efforts. As Orvis wrote in one of her many letters home:
All people are really much alike at heart, wherever they may live … The school girls I taught in Turkey and Japan and China and America are all just schoolgirls, not so very different one group from another when you look beyond the strange dress and features to the desires and hopes and difficulties they all have in common. There are good ones and naughty ones, and never any all good or all bad. They are just human. Like the rest of us.
Wendy Elliott Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad: Humanitarianism in Talas, Turkey, 1908–1923 Gomidas Institute London 2018 PB 426pp $55.00
AshleyKalagianBlunt is the author of My Name is Revenge, a finalist in the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. Her writing appears in Griffith Review, Sydney Review of Books, the Australian, the Big Issue, and Kill Your Darlings. Find her at ashleykalagianblunt.com
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