The Centropa Oral History Project In Turkey


“Witness to a Jewish Century” is the name of the project devised by the Austrian based research center, Centropa; a project that is ongoing today in 16 different countries of central and eastern Europe.

This project aims at collecting the life histories of individuals who are older than 70 today, every small everyday detail that makes up an individual’s life. We are interested in everything about an individual’s life, the way he was brought up, anything he remembers from his great-grandparents, grandparents his own family, etc. etc. We are interested in all the traditions and way-of-life that made that individual who he is today. These little details make up “a life story”, more specifically “a Jewish life story”.

The basic difference between all the other countries in the project and Turkey, is that the Turkish Jewish community is the only one who did not experience the Holocaust. That is why, in contrast to the members of the other communities life did not stop during World War II and resume when the war was over. Of course, there were problems during that time in Turkey, too, like the Wealth Tax and the 20 military classes etc. but life did not take a break like in other communities.

The Turkish community is also the first Sephardic community that has taken part in this project and in that it is extremely important in documenting the Sephardic way of life.


An American research center
based in Austria

General Coordinator of the Project:





The Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation is a US federally tax-exempt, non-profit institute specializing in documenting Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. Centropa’s goal is to create an enormous, searchable data base of photographs and family biographies so in decades to come, historians, researchers and families will be able to view thousands of photographs on a variety of themes—before and after the Holocaust—and see how Jews were living.


This project aims at collecting the life histories of individuals who are older than 70 today, every small everyday detail that makes up an individual’s life. We are interested in everything about an individual’s life, the way he was brought up, anything he remembers from his great-grandparents, grandparents his own family, etc. etc. We are interested in all the traditions and way-of-life that made that individual who he is today. These little details make up “a life story”, more specifically “a Jewish life story”.


Prior to Turkey:

Centropa project was in effect in 15 countries in Central and Eastern Europe. All these countries had suffered the Holocaust during World War II and all the Jewish communities in these countries were Ashkenazi with the exception of a few cases in Bulgaria and former Yugoslavia.


The basic difference between all the other countries in the project and Turkey is that the Turkish Jewish community is the only one who did not experience the Holocaust. That is why, in contrast to the members of the other communities life did not stop during World War II and resume when the war was over. Of course, there were problems during that time in Turkey, too, like the Wealth Tax and the 20 military classes etc. but life did not take a break like in other communities.
The Turkish community is also the first Sephardic community that has taken part in this project and in that it is extremely important in documenting the Sephardic way of life.


We had to adapt the standard Centropa questionnaire to the history of the Turkish Jews. So:

We had to take out all the questions that had anything to do with the Holocaust and,

  • We had to put in other questions pertaining to the historical events important to Turkish Jews (i.e. the Wealth Tax, the 20 military classes, the Struma event etc. etc.)
  • I gave a preliminary training session to all potential interviewers so that they could go and do a Pilot Interview. All interviewers were asked to do one pilot interview in order to be allowed to the official training session.


  • We started the project in Turkey in December 2004 when the Centropa team came to Istanbul to train a potential team of interviewers.
  • 3 intensive workdays of training interviewers both in computer skills necessary to complete the project and also in interviewing techniques.
  • All pilot interviews were studied in detail and interviewers were given extensive feedback on how to conduct their interviews.

centropa 8


As members of our community are usually reticent to talk about personal and political events that might be misconstrued by people whose intentions are to misconstrue things, we thought it a good idea to formulate a community letter to be given to each interviewee at the start of the interviews. The letter, written on Chief Rabbinate paper and signed by the President of the Jewish Community, the vice-president and myself, tells the interviewees how important their contribution is for the archives of the community and that the administration is fully behind this very important project. There is no doubt that this letter has helped the interviewers a lot. Below you have a copy of the letter itself as presented to interviewees.

mektup centropa


The Interview has 3 basic outputs:

A detailed biography of the interviewee in the form of a life story

A family tree section

A photo template section with the photos of the interviewee and his family and the stories of each photo


The Bio comprises a very detailed account of the interviewee’s life and that of his family as far back as he can remember. We try to get him to build for us a picture of what his life was like in the past and through his narrative we get a fairly accurate image of a past way of life and also of the individual himself.


We write editor’s notes for every place name or anything in turkish, judeo-spanish, french etc., that the interviewee mentions.  Editor’s notes are written in square brackets.


They spoke French amongst themselves.  I remember being very young and tell them when I heard them speaking French “avlaremos en ‘oui’” [“avlaremos en” are words in Ladino that mean “let us speak in” and of course “oui” is the French word for “yes”].  I didn’t know French but as “oui” was a word I had heard frequently I told them I wanted to speak in “oui”.  I wanted to learn this language.

We never wore the “fez” [the old Ottoman head gear for men]. 

I was born on 23rd March 1914 in Ortakoy [a Jewish district at the beginning  of the 20th century on the European coast of the Bosphorus].


We had to construct a turkish glossary and it keeps growing with every interview that we do. The extremely valuable books of historians like Rifat Bali and Naim Güleryüz have helped construct the glossary items.

Glossary items are those that need a much longer explanation than an editor’s note, and also those that will tend to come up again and again as they are part of the turkish jewish culture.


The 20 military classes: In May 1941 non-Muslims aged 26-45 were called to military service. Some of them had just come back from their military service but were told to report for duty again. Great chaos occurred, as the Turkish officials took men from the streets and from their jobs and sent them to military camps. They were used in road building for a year and disbanded in July 1942. 

El Jugueton: Four-page Ladino weekly satirical newspaper, published by Elia Karmona in Istanbul, between 21st April 1909 and 27th June 1931. On 25th April 1914 it was temporarily closed as it used a certain style considered inappropriate when talking about the Chief Rabbi of the time, Rav Hayim Nahum Efendi. Later it resumed publication until a month before the death of Elia Karmona.

Wealth Tax: Introduced in December 1942 by the Grand National Assembly in a desperate effort to resolve depressed economic conditions caused by wartime mobilization measures against a possible German influx to Turkey via the occupied Greece. It was administered in such a way to bear most heavily on urban merchants, many of whom were Christians and Jews. Those who lacked the financial liquidity had to sell everything or declare bankruptcy and even work on government projects in order to pay their debts, in the process losing most or all of their properties. Those unable to pay were subjected to deportation to labor camps until their obligations were paid off.

Shalom: Istanbul Jewish weekly, founded by Avram Leyon in 1948. During Leyon’s ownership, the paper was entirely in Ladino. Upon the death of its founder in 1985, the newspaper passed into the hands of the Jewish community owned company Gozlem Gazetecilik. It then started to be published in Turkish with one or two pages in Ladino. It is presently distributed to 4,000 subscribers.


We get short answers about the close family members of the interviewee. The Family Tree is like a short summary of the Bio in terms of pertinent details of close family members.


The Template is a photo album saved in the Filemaker program with each photo telling its own story.


SAMI COYAS born in Kuzguncuk, in 1923:

centropa 10       SAMI COYAS

That year, my mother started to work for an Armenian dress-maker in Uskudar, for one lira a day (our monthly house rent was 4 liras), in order to make a living for us. She would leave home in the mornings, and go to work on foot, in order to save money. (The distance between our house and her work was 3 km) She would prepare our lunch, before she left.  I was 10, and my brother was around 8 years old. We would play with the ball or marbles in the street all day long till my mother came home. We would play with the ball reluctantly, fearing that our shoes, which were already old, would wear out more as we played. My mother, who had become desperate once, cut the upper parts of her boots, which were left from her teenage years, and gave me the cut boots to wear. I often saw my mother crying, and cried also because I couldn’t bear to see her cry. We had a lot of difficulty getting by. We bought our coal from the coal seller, Anastas [Greek name], either weekly or in kilograms. We couldn’t afford to buy the good oranges, and bought from the rotten fruits called “tokadikas” [meaning “touched” in Ladino] so that they would be cheap. Whenever my mother was hard up, she would cut a piece from her “kolana” [gold chain necklace in Ladino], which my father had bought her in his health, and sell it, in order to be able to pay the rent. The necklace was one meter long.

ELI PERAHYA born in Haydarpasa in 1913:

centropa11 ELI PERAHYA

My mother came from a family who loved music, singing and dancing and she played the piano herself. She very much wanted me to take violin lessons, but my paternal grandfather, with whom we lived wasn’t very keen on the idea, saying that music was unnecessary and that it was a futile activity. My mother arranged for an Italian, Mr. Romano and his daughter, who were living nearby, to give me violin lessons secretly. I studied my music at our porter, Ms. Eliza’s house so as not to make my grandfather, who represented the patriarchal authority, suspicious. This went on for about nine months, until I learned and fully played a song that my grandfather would like. Finally the important day came and I was able to play in my grandfather’s presence. Although he never expressed it openly, he must have appreciated it, since he never raised any difficulties again.

One of the important memories of my childhood was the famous fire in Haydarpasa. In the summer of 1922, I was a nine-year-old child playing football with my friends. On the evening after the day I had bought myself a beautiful new football a very big fire broke out in our district. Shortly after, it spread all over the neighbourhood with the impact of the wind. Everyone was trying to evacuate their houses and with the help of the relatives who came to help, our belongings were carried from the balcony of our house to the garden and from there to the shore of Haydarpasa-Kadıkoy.

The only thing I had missed in between the hurry of saving the goods was my new beautiful football. “Kada uno mete la mano ande le ruele”. [Ladino for ‘One puts his hand where he is hurt’] The fire continued the whole night and we spent the night at the shore like everybody else. The following day, when we headed back home to determine the losses, we found out that our house was the only one remaining intact in the whole street. We moved the furniture back and started to reside again.

IZAK SARHON born in Ortakoy in 1914:

centropa12 IZAK SARHON (in the middle at the back)

I remember, when I was quite young, there was war.  After World War I [2], there was the Turkish War of Independence [3].  I was about 6 at the time.  They had recalled my father to the army.  He was at the military base in Selimiye.  My mother used to give him vinegar to drink every day so he would be too ill to go to war.  She succeeded in making him ill enough to get a medical report saying he was too weak to go to war, and he didn’t.

I had an older brother, Albert Sarhon and an older sister, Anjel Sarhon.  There had also been another brother before me, Nisim Sarhon, who died.  I do not know anything about him.  Our eldest, Albert left for France when he was 20, came back for his military service, then left again and settled in France.  He got married there and died there.  When World War II started, he was in France; and then the Germans invaded France.  He was in danger and had to hide.  He couldn’t write anything to us at that time.  There was a girl he knew there, a Christian girl who lived in Avignon.  She took him out of Avignon, to a village where her relatives were.  She hid and protected him throughout the war.  When the Germans came, even the little children in the village came to warn him to hide and not be seen walking around.  My brother was saved thanks to that girl.  He spent all the years of the war in that way.  Then after the war, he married that girl, Raymonde Charhon. [Charhon is the french spelling of the Turkish Sarhon] He owed his life to her.

What can I tell you about the 20 military classes [9]?  Well, the Turkish government did not trust its minorities, the Jews, Greeks and Armenians.  They were scared that in the event of war, these minorities would turn traitors.  So they gathered all of them in the guise of serving in the military, but we weren’t really soldiers.  They made us build roads.  They gave us brown uniforms, which were not soldier uniforms.  These were special uniforms for us.  I did not present myself until the last day we were supposed to give ourselves in.

Anyway, they called these road builders the ‘Nafia’, which meant “road building”. They sent all of us to different places.  I was sent to a place near Balıkesir.  They called in 20 classes, and I was in them.  There were even fathers and sons going together as it was 20 classes.  They were all given these brown uniforms and asked to build roads.  It lasted about 2 years.  We worked in building roads, but we did not do a good job really.  In fact, we did a terrible job.

HARUN BOZO born in Urfa in 1928

centropa13  HARUN BOZO

My mother cooked wonderful meals.  That was life for women in Urfa.  She and my sisters would cook and clean all day long.  My mother spent all her time doing the housework.  She very rarely went out.  Our women did not go out unless it was necessary.  They used to treat minorities badly in Urfa.  They used to throw stones and swear at Jews.  That is why the women had no life outside their homes.  They spent all their lives inside their homes.

The Urfa Events occurred in 1947, the year I was in Istanbul.  There used to be a Jew from Siverek [city near Urfa] called  Hayim Sorkaya Hayamo (Haymun).  He was a haberdasher too.  His eldest son, Hayim Haymun, was a ne’er-do-well, who spent his family’s money.  He left his home in 1944.  He became a disciple of Sheik Muhammed [Urfa’s highest ranking Moslem religious man] and wanted to convert to Islam.  He took the name of Ahmet Kemal.  The people in Urfa did not like this situation because they were very religious and did not look well on converts.  This boy’s family was not very well off and they say, they tempted him by offerring him money.  Anyway, after a while this boy goes to Ankara to do his military service.  During his military service he fell in love with a Jewish girl.  The boy’s parents went to Ankara to see him.  The girl accepted to marry him on condition that he re-convert to Judaism. He agreed and told his family the good news.  His parents went back to Urfa very happy and they spread the news.  The Moslem people of Urfa got very angry at this news.  In the fall of 1946, Hayim (Ahmet Kemal) came to Urfa on leave.  His sheik tried to brainwash him into not re-converting to Judaism.  Hayim was indecisive and went back to Ankara.  Hayim’s wanting to reconvert caused a great hate to come out into the open against the Jews and especially against the Sorkaya family.

On the night of 30th December, 1947,  the rabbi of Urfa, Azur, the rabbi Yusuf Kohen and Isak Hayim gathered to chant the kaddish for the soul of Sorkaya’s father-in-law.  After dinner, the rabbis left.  There was a maid working in that house, called El Medeh.  There was a terrible rainstorm that night.  After the household had gone to bed, El Medeh opened the door to unidentified murderers and became the cause of the murders of the whole family.  El Medeh disappeared after this event.  Of the 7 members of the Sorkaya family, Isak Hayim Sorkaya, his wife Mazal, his sons Yosef, Yaakov, his daughters Rashel and Ester and his mother-in-law Semha were all stabbed to death.  Then the murderers went out into the street and started shouting, “The Jews killed the Jews”.

The police took in all the Jewish men for questioning.  My father, who was 68, had gone to other villages on business at that time.  However, the murderers accused him and Yusuf Kohen (65) of killing the Sorkaya family while staying at their house.  So when my father got back from the villages, they caught him.  My father, Ezra Azur Bozo, Nesim Binler, the shochet Davut Hıdır, the rabbi Azur and Yosef Hamus were all caught and tortured with the bastinado for days and nights.  My father did not accept the accusations.  He was so terribly beaten up that he could not stand on his feet.  When they took him to hospital, he was bleeding all over, and when he got better they threw him to jail again.  Our family applied to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, but they did not answer.  We wrote the President letters but there was no answer from there either.  We even went to the American Consulate.  My father could not wear any shoes because his feet were bleeding all the time. [During interrogations his feet were beaten. It is an old method of torture, applied in the Ottoman Empire.] My poor father, may his soul rest in peace, would tell us that they would cover their heads with sackcloth and then start the bastinado on his feet shouting, “Confess, confess!”  My father would say, “What shall I confess?  Why should I confess to something I did not do?”.  My father would not kill a fly.  They transferred him to Malatya [a city in Southeastern Anatolia] for the trial.  We sent him lawyers.  After these events, the Moslems of Urfa started boycotting the Jews in Urfa.  They would not do business with them, they would not pay their debts to them and nobody would sell them anything.  However, during the trial, with the good lawyers and pressure from everywhere, the officials realized they would look really bad and they decided in favor of my father and he was released.

“Kubbe” was a special “ichli kofte”, which was a Jewish dish blended with Arab culture. Kubbe was the long, narrow type of meatball special to the Jews.  Normally Kubbe is made from bulgur [boiled and pounded wheat].  It can also be made from rice and pounded red meat and you add boiled water and tomato sauce.  This you do not find in the Turkish cuisine.  My sisters used to make this.  My elder sister still makes it.  It is really very difficult to make.  The new generations do not know how to cook these dishes.  The Urfa cuisine is slowly disappearing.  It is during the festivals that all the family gets impatient to eat everything that my elder sister cooks in the old way.  For example there is another dish called “kaburga” [rib], which we love and which is very very hard to make.  You get lamb meat and stuff it with almonds, pine nuts and rice.  After you stuff the meat you sew it up and close it off.  Then you bake it in the oven with black pepper.  You can serve it with potatoes or broad beans.  My elder sister makes it once with potatoes and once with broad beans.  These dishes are only cooked on special days every year.  They are made on special occasions.  The Arab stuffed vegetables are something else.  When my elder sister makes stuffed squash [stuffed with meat] she adds tomato sauce and garlic to it and cooks them with dried apricots.  The apricots kind of get soft and the meal has a soury taste.

LINA FRANKO born in Ortakoy in 1929

centropa15 LINA FRANKO

When he retired from the Banco di Roma, my father was given a medal, depicting Romulus and Remus, symbols of Rome. Only, my husband went to that ceremony. Neither the wives nor the daughters were invited to such ceremonies at that time. The women did not take part in the social life fully yet. They didn’t participate in business relations either. I have kept the medal for years and have given it to my son now for it to be passed on to future generations. My son placed it in a nice corner at his house. My father went to my husband’s office for long years after he retired. He took care of the correspondence work in my husband’s office. And my husband benefited from my father’s banking and foreign language knowledge. My father regularly took his lunch box with him. He never ate outside. Eating outside would be an unnecessary expense and also harm the stomach. When the meals were prepared the amount of food needed for the lunch boxes the next day was taken into consideration. Very rarely, when food was not available, then he would eat a rice pudding from the sweet shop.

I would go to Beyoglu with my mother to buy the glassware we needed at home when some money was left in the purse from which our monthly expenses were paid. We especially couldn’t resist the crystal items. We would also go into the cloth shops to buy cloth to be made up by our dressmaker Diamante, who came to our house each season for a whole day of sewing. The day our dressmaker came was almost like a party day. Our neighbors would also come and help, and we would prepare special menus for that day. If the dressmaker was skilled enough, she would even sew more than the number of dresses she first promised. My mother would always keep extra material for a skirt at hand.  “Diamante me vas a kuzir i una fustika” [Ladino for “Diamante, you will sew me sew one more skirt, OK?”] “Si madam Fortune, si me ayudash un poko, deke no” [“Of course madam Fortune, why not if you help me a little bit”]. We would realize that the dressmaker needed a little help from these conversations. We had neighbors who were like siblings. They would come to help. We felt more close to our neighbors than our siblings.


 There are a few points I would like to make to conclude my presentation:

The Turkish Jewish (mostly Sephardic) culture has always been basically an oral culture with very little documentation or archiving. This is one of the reasons why the Centropa project is so important for our community’s archives. We are finally able to have the testimonies of people for a time span of about a century.

Of course getting these testimonies is never very easy. People are not usually very comfortable talking about their past lives mainly because they deem them as being totally unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Our interviewers have to convince their interviewees that all the small details of their past lives are very important for us in the building up of a comprehensive picture of what life was like for the Jews of Turkey in the past century.

Members of our community have always been reluctant to talk about any conflicts that may have arisen between Jews and Muslim Turks. It was particularly difficult to get them to talk about the few famous incidents that occurred in the last century, like the 20 classes of military service and the Wealth Tax etc. The community letter has been very helpful for that.

At the beginning of the last century there were many different jewish communities living in many different parts of Turkey. This project provides invaluable documents about life in those different places like Urfa, Bursa, Çanakkale, Edirne etc., where today no jewish communities exist.

Individual life stories reflect a past life style that is in complete contrast with what we have today and it is extremely important for the young to get to know how their ancestors lived. Without this project all this knowledge would have been lost to us forever.