Facing Turkey's Past: Struma and 1915

Apology, in my opinion, is secondary. First and foremost, the emphasis should be on this society's courage to face the sins of the past. We were deprived of it until today. This is a frightened society. I am not ashamed to say this: We were fed this fear, we were scared throughout all our lives. Our ruling system has been based on fear. We have to change that. The only way is to confront our past.

These are the words of İshak Alaton, a prominent octogenarian Turkish businessman of Jewish origin. After releasing his memoirs not so long ago, Alaton has become more and more vocal, calling endlessly for an end to the bloody Kurdish conflict as one of the "wise men" ready to be part of a dialogue on reconciliation, asking for the courage to face the crimes that were committed during the collapse of Ottoman rule and asking citizens to speak out.

When a ship called the Struma was dragged to the port of Old İstanbul in 1941, Alaton was a 15-year-old witness to the agony onboard. The 60-year-old vessel was the last hope of 769 Romanian Jews fleeing the Nazis, but its engines had stopped at the Black Sea end of the Bosporus. The issue led to pressure on Ankara from Adolf Hitler's regime, and after 72 days of despair, the Struma was sent by Turkish authorities back into the Black Sea, where it was torpedoed by the Soviet navy. Only one person survived.

"Those responsible for this in Ankara are, to my mind, murderers. This society, of which I am a part, has a problem with hiding from its past. We pretend that if we lock them away the problems will be gone. But the corpses that rot in there poison the air that we breathe. Is any serenity possible without confrontation? Let us do it, so that we can make peace with the past."

The Struma disaster, a hidden episode in the republic's history, is the subject of a new book written by Halit Kakınç, and its preface is written by, yes, Alaton himself.

It is not for nothing the subject of "genies out of the bottle." is to persist on the agenda of Turkey, opened up in a sort of "Turkish perestroika" by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the past decade.

And, only days after the release of the Struma book, another hit the shelves -- a potential intellectual bombshell.

"1915: Armenian Genocide" is its title and, not only due to its cover but also its groundbreaking content, it overwhelms many others on the subject that have been published. What makes the book outstanding and unique is that it was written by Hasan Cemal, an internationally renowned editor and columnist who is the grandson of Cemal Pasha.

This kinship is key to understanding the book's historic significance: Cemal Pasha was a member of the triumvirate, whose other parts were Talat and Enver Pasha, responsible for the Great Armenian Tragedy, which started with a mass deportation of Ottoman Armenians from their homelands and ended with their annihilation between 1915 through 1916.

In his account, Hasan Cemal concludes it was genocide. He does not intend, or pretend, to argue his case like a historian would. His is a painful intellectual journey that takes us through his own evolution, a rather ruthless self-scrutiny of his intellectual past that amounts to an invaluable piece of private archeology.

He has done this before. In other books, he questioned his "militarist revolutionary" past (in the '60s and'70s), confronting boldly his own mistakes -- his deep disbelief in democracy, plotting coups, his experience as newspaper editor, etc.

But this one is even more personal.

"It was the pain of Hrant Dink which made me write this book," he told the press. Dink was a dear Turkish-Armenian colleague to many of us, as he was to Cemal. He was assassinated in broad daylight on a street of Istanbul by a lone gunman in January 2007, sending shockwaves around the world.

"Look at my age; it's been years and years that I have defended the freedom of expression. But should I keep secret some of my opinions, only for myself? Should I still have some taboos of my own? Should I still remain unliberated? Is it not a shame on me, Hasan Cemal?"

In the preface, he writes: "We cannot remain silent before the bitter truths of the past. We cannot let the past hold the present captive. Also, the pain of 1915 does not belong to the past, it is an issue of today. We can only make peace with history, but not an 'invented' or 'distorted' history like ours, and reach liberty."

The pain of Dink's memory -- which scarred many of us so eternally -- may have been a crucial point for it, but by turning a "personal taboo-breaking" into a public one, Cemal opened a huge hole in the wall of denial of the state. It broke another mental dam.

This bold exercise in freedom of speech will, in time, pave the way for the correct path. It is up to the individuals of Turkey to do the same, and bow before their consciences. Perhaps this is why there has been such silence over this book in the days since its publication. It is also very difficult to find in bookstores. There are rumors that some chains are refusing to sell it. This may be true, but it cannot now be unpublished.

The genie is out of the bottle but the ghosts of the past are also very much alive. The "silent treatment" is proof of that. If anything, it shows how frightened people are. Not only does the state owe an apology for the past, but an even bigger apology is necessary for enforcing, decade after decade, a mass internalization of denialism in this country.