Episode In The Dark

Episode In The Dark

As the evening dusk settled over the city of Istanbul and blue waters of Bosphorus, a young fellow was treading along the winding asphalt road towards Yenikoy, an isolated borough of Istanbul on the European side. He had been walking for more than two hours, for he didn’t have enough liras in his pockets to buy his fare on a bus. The time was hard, because it was not long ago that the Second World War had started.

From the way he dragged his feet, he looked quite tired. No doubt his clumsy walking was natural result of hunger rather than lack of physical sufficiency. Food was scarce, especially bread which was the main diet of the people of this country. Most of the commodities were rationed and one could only was allowed to consume a little more than half a pound of bread per day.

Searchlights have just started to sweep the darkening sky when this young kid disappeared in the thickening dusk towards his destination.

Six years later, right after the war, in a balmy summer evening a decent looking young man was telling his adventures to a group of people who were listening to him with a kind of awe on their faces. They were sitting on backless straw chairs and sipping their tea or coffee in the garden of a tea-house in Yenikoy. And I happened to be one of the listeners that night.

What I heard that night has never left my mind in peace and never will unless I make it known to the world, for I feel it a human duty to let many others hear it from those who read this narrative. I am sure no one has ever told this episode, either most of those who survived are dead or unwilling to tell it. Many stories of escapes and attempted escapes from Hitler’s wrath and his mass liquidation of early years of World War II have been told. But this is neither fictional nor a twice told one. And I will try to be as faithful to what I heard from him as I can best.

“If one happened to be on the same route that evening, one would see me dragging my legs along the dark asphalt road towards Yenikoy in the dusk. I didn’t know that it was such a long distance, but an impulse within me was urging me and I had, even if faint, an instinct that I would be able to find a job to earn just enough for my food. I had knocked at every door that promised the slightest hope of getting a job that suited a young student who didn’t go to his hometown in order not to be a burden on his family during his vacation that summer. My father was not going to have one more mouth to feed. I was granted permission to sleep at school but the kitchen was closed down until that September. “

“I had only one more hope left after I spent my few remaining liras and that evening I was going to look for a fisherman who used to be one of my father’s old friends. He knew me when I was about ten years old. I only knew that he was living in Yenikoy and had a team of fishermen and a couple of fishing boats. I thought he could, at least, put me in one of his boats and thus I could earn enough for my food, let alone clothing and other necessities. I could sleep in a boat or in a shack, it didn’t matter. “

“As I had guessed the man was playing a card game called sixty-six with some other fishermen in the tea-house common for the sailors in Yenikoy. He didn’t recognize me, but I salaamed and he took a chair and asked me to sit by him while he continued his game. As it was the custom, he ordered a tea for me, his guest, and saluted back pretending that he knew me, but his eyes told me that he couldn’t recollect where he had seen me. Nevertheless the tea with a few grains of sugar in it considerably revived me. “

“As soon as he terminated his delightful game I told him who I was and he admitted he hadn’t recognized me, for it had been years since he last saw me. Then I told him what had brought me to him and that he was my last hope. He contemplated for a few minutes, than told me that there wasn’t even a single place in his boats. They have already been overcrowded with men with families and fish was getting scarce. He said, he could not employ any of them at the moment, but maybe later. This was almost like any other answer I had been given in the city. “

“As I rose to leave I could not tell him that I had not eaten anything since the dinner the day before. It was probably my countenance that made him pull me down on my chair before I could say good-bye. He took a dirty five lira note from his pocket and forced it into my breast pocket, telling me that I could sleep in one of his boat sheds that night. A very tired and hungry young lad doesn’t have too much pride left in him, besides I knew the man, so I took the money and accepted the offer with thanks. How could I walk such long distance back to the city? I felt weak and sick. He told a young fisherman to take me to a shed and help me to take a place to sleep. Before we left I asked him if he could find something for me to do elsewhere, just for my food. Anything that may help to survive a few months. “

“He seemed to be thinking for a few seconds and then he said;

“- I will look around son, don’t worry. See me before you go back tomorrow. “

Then I had a new hope, a very faint one though. I do not know why I didn’t feel ashamed to tell the young fisherman that I was dying of hunger. Perhaps he was closer to me by his age. He didn’t say anything which at the beginning made me feel disgraced, but when he reached the shed he opened its door and lit an oil lamp on a rough wooden table. He left me for a few minutes and came back with a squarely out piece of corn bread. I think I had grabbed it before he had time to extend it to me. I was gobbling it while I tried to thank him in gasped words. He left me alone. I looked around, there were sacks on the ground they could make for my bed.

Somebody was shaking me by the shoulder very gently. I opened my eyes and saw the darkened shape of man standing by me. For a few seconds I couldn’t understand where I was, but soon I noticed the oil lamp which I had extinguished and realized that I was still in the shed. The man standing by me was my father’s friend.

Two hours later I was in a small row boat with some other approaching a two masted sail boat silhouetted against a weak light cast upon the earth from a half moon behind some clouds.

My benefactor, after waking me, had taken me to the tea-house and introduced me to a middle aged sea man who looked quite daring and had weather beaten face.

“Well, son, I heard that you are looking for a job. I’ve got one for you, provided thank you ask no question. It will pay you well and you will have plenty to eat. “Pointing to some other men sipping their tea, he continued:

“These men also will come with us. All you have got to do is to give a hand to my men on a two hundred ton sail boat. My friend, meaning my father’s, told me a lot about you. It’s for his sake that I am offering you this job and you shouldn’t worry. “ he said.

Who could question such a man? Without thinking a minute I had given my consent and off we had gone. Of course, I didn’t forget to thank my benefactor as we drifted out into the darkness.

The boat was anchored in the Buyukdere Bay which harbors all the ships and sail boats of all sizes that are unable to sail out into the Black Sea during storms.

This was how I happened to be in that small row boat. The moment we were over the gun walls I didn’t fail to notice the laboring breathings of the men who had come with me in the row boat. That plainly meant that they also were weak and hungry like myself.

Soon after that we heard curt orders from our captain and an old diesel engine started to shake the whole structure of the boat. A sailor told me to go along with him and help to heave in the anchor. There wasn’t a single light on the boat, not even starboard or lee board lights.

The dawn found us far off in the Black Sea. How did the captain slip through the submarine nets without any light or pilot is still a puzzle to me. Half an hour after leaving the Bosphorus behind I sensed a change in our course, but I was to tired to be concerned with our destination at the moment. Before the sun was over the horizon I was in the forecastle sleeping peacefully, unable to feel the monotonous vibration of the boat.

The next day no one bothered me for work and when I woke up it was almost noon. It was during that day that I learned we were bound for Kostenze, a port in Romania. The cargo or purpose of this sailing was to remain secret for some time to come.

After two days of sailing we arrived to our destination. Before we entered the harbor a small motorboat came alongside, two men climbed onto our deck and began to converse with the captain. Their easy familiarity gave me the impression that they have been working at this job for a while. Under their instructions our boat was berthed at a quiet place along the quay.

Soon trucks began to bring lumber to the boat. Naturally I though that this would be the cargo until a group of carpenters start to build cabin like shelters on both sides of the deck. I couldn’t help asking the captain why these structures were being erected. He answered;

“ – Well, son, we’re going to carry a carfull of Jews who are trying to reach Palestine without being molested by the Germans. “

I had tremendous change of feelings which would be very difficult to describe. It was certainly difficult to speak for some time.

It took the carpenters two and a half day to finish their work. Everything was rough and done carelessly, but time was of essential importance. On the third morning people of all ages and description began to arrive. There were some very old ones, some were young, mothers carrying their babies in their arms, sick being carried by their friends, many were poorly dressed, and all of them looked tired and hungry. I felt that they were terror-stricken and that they must have suffered a lot.

It was at this stage that our captain told us openly the mission of our ship. He said that these people were a few of the Jews who were trying to escape from Hitler’s gas ovens and reach Palestine where they hoped to have a free and a happy life. And we were to transport them safely to their destination. We had to carry as many as possible because of the lack of the vessels available by their secret organization, especially this time of the war when everyday news of torpedoed boats was heard everywhere.

All the roughly made cabins, both on the deck and below, were filled. There was not a single square foot of open space on the boat and as a result, the boat looked like a tin of sardines. When it was decided that we could have no more, at the end of the fourth day after our arrival, we sailed off.

I noticed that we were sailing very close to the shore rather than taking a direct cut which would shorten our course. At first I thought it was because the captain didn’t know the waters well, but it wasn’t very long before I learned why this was so.

The next day passed without any event noticeable. We just did the routine work and tried to help those who were seasick and washed away vomit. I, on my part, couldn’t help throwing glances at pretty young girls. That day I made a friend with one of the boys, about ten years old. His name was Josef and he had lost his mother two months after his father had been dragged off from their home by the Gestapo. What I gathered from his words I could understand that he also had a beautiful sister who had disappeared one evening. He was an orphan and absolutely lonely. People who knew his family had been dragging him alone with them in their escape.

With all the sails and old diesel engine we were making a good way and we were not more than two miles off the shore. It was not a moon lit night, but heavens were full of stars under which our masts and a considerable distance were visible. None of the lanterns were lighted, and men were told to smoke their cigarettes in the cup of their hands. Both Josef and I were looking at the distant shore line which was just a shadow darken than the sky. I am sure we were thinking of different things. It was quiet but a strainful night. The crew were told to keep awake, for it was our last night of the trip on the Black Sea. The following day before evening we were supposed to enter the Bosphorus.

A sudden voice in broken Turkish from somewhere in the distance made my blood curdle in my veins. I didn’t understand it at first, but the second time I did when it was repeated.

“- Kaptan motoru istop ettir ! ( Captain have your engine stopped ! ) “ and then “ If you want to live take your men in the rowboat and abandon the vessel, you have five minutes. “

As soon as the captain heard this warning he turned the head of the boat towards the shore and after about a minute told the man in the engine room to stop and come up immediately. We had no time to take the sails down nor had the captain any intention of doing so, because as I guessed he wanted the boat get as close to the shore as possible. The small rowboat which we had been pulling behind us was brought alongside. I think every soul on the boat was asleep except Josef, I and the crew. When the engine stopped the routine vibration also ceased and this caused some stirring among the sleeping people.

A strange feeling forced me to take the boy along with me, for I felt what was going to happen to the others. I didn’t know what to tell him, so I half dragged him and he half willingly obeyed my motive. I am sure he also had the instinct to feel the danger. We were in such a hast that no one of the crew noticed the boy. Soon the small boat was overcrowded, I with the boy, chose the for bow and squatted down with the boy between my knees. Everyone was thinking of his own life. We left the boat in a hurry and in silence so that none of the Jews know what was happening.

We were about two hundred yards away from the boat on the leeward that a searchlight shone on her and immediately the first shell hit the front mast and brought it down sail and all. We heard screams from the boat. I was trembling with fear and excitement and the boy between my knees became so frightened that I felt him shaking all over. The second shell must have made a big hole at the sea level in the fore part that she began to tilt forward. From the gun fire it was easy to see the U-boat. A dark whale-like figure, not farther than two hundred yards away from us, was visible. I also noticed dark figures plunging into the sea from our sail boat. Cries, screams and shouting were heard, but who could help those luckless people whose begging for help were lost in the dark waters and night? The third shell stopped everything when it exploded in the middle part of the boat which rose into the dark air with a yellowish flame and came down in little fragments.

As soon as the noise died down we heard a machine gun rattling. The search light began to sweep the sea and after locating us sat on our rowboat. I had to close my eyes under such a strong light. I heard men hissing on the oars. With the machine gun noise, I heard two of the crew men scream and fall down in the boat. Undeliberately I wanted to save the boy and myself. As I was just about to hide the boy under the bow I felt him jerk. I wanted to lift him, but saw that his head had fallen on his chest like a dead flower under a very hot sunlight. He was hit and was lifeless. I felt his stick blood wetted my fingers. Without thinking any longer I threw myself into the dark waters and began to tear away my overall. This was pure dishonesty. The rascals had promised not to fire on us, I understood that they wanted to leave no proof of their crime. I left nothing on me except my pants. I have dived a couple of times when I heard the bullets whistling over my head, and a little by little I got away from this horrid scene.

Dawn was breaking when I felt the bottom of the sea under my feet. My legs could hardly carry me some distance from the edge of the water and I fell on dry sands like a dead dog. The sun was along way up when I came to and forced my body to move. I vomited a couple of times and thus got rid of the sea water I had swallowed. I felt better and began to walk along the shore and look at the sea where I guessed the horrifying episode had taken place. Then I noticed broken plunks, boxes and splinters floating on the sea.

About five hundred yards away from me on my left side somebody was coming towards me. I turned and began to walk towards him to see if he was one of the crew. I was almost trotting when something strange but close to the water’s edge caught my eyes. When I went near it, to my surprise, I saw that it was the head of drowned man. A little ahead I noticed something else and going closer it revealed to be a dead child. As I walk on I saw more corpses. I felt nothing but something from within me told me to look at the sea to see someone alive.

The man happened to be one of the crew as I guessed, and I saw that he had nothing on. Then I realized that I had only my under pants on me. We couldn’t talk very much, only asked each other if we had seen some of our friends and the captain whom we hadn’t. We decided to walk eastward and look for others.

After about half a mile’s walk we saw a woman about fifty yards away from the shore holding a plunk on which her head was falling from time to time. I rushed to her help and pulled plunk to the shore. She had no strength left to swim the last fifty yards. Then we carried her out and we noticed that she was pregnant and guessing from the way she looked, my friend told me that her time was very close. Her white face and moaning terrified me, and I was at loss to know what to do. We made rough stretcher and put her on it and began to walk again. I believe we were acting just on impulse.

It was the hardest walk I have ever had, for we were weak and hungry. Soon I felt my throat beginning to get dry. A little ahead we saw some dark object on the water and labored our way to come level with them. Closer we went, clearer they became. And we saw that they were people holding different buoyant objects, such as boxes, plunks etc. Putting the pregnant woman down we clumsily walked to their help, for we couldn’t run. We both had very little strength left but we did our best. They were three men and two women who were crying. We later learned that one of the women had lost her husband and her two children. We tried to give them some comfort which we ourselves terribly needed. After resting for some time during which pregnant woman opened her eyes and gained consciousness, we began to walk. My friend had found a piece of cloth somewhere and had wrapped it around his lower part. We led them eastward, because it was the only direction that would bring us to the Turkish border.

We thought we were on the Bulgarian soil, but it was near noon that we saw some fishermen pulling nets from the sea. They had a long boat at the of the net in the sea. When we went close they all stopped pulling the net and stared at us with some sort of awe. We, men, were almost naked but women had their underwear on. We went nearer and to my astonishment I heard that they were talking in Turkish.

The first thing I remember I did was ;

“ – Turk musunuz? ( Are you Turks? ) “

“ To this they replied “Yes”

My friend, on hearing this answer, rushed forward and asked for a cigarette. They gave us whatever they had, water, food, and cigarettes. They also roasted some fish for us over a fire they kindled with the drift wood on the shore. While we ate we told them our story which they listened with interest. They, in return, told us they had spotted submarines far out in the sea a couple of times but had received no harm. They also told us that we were on the Turkish soil about a few miles away from a small village.

They took us to this village in their boat. As soon as the boat touched the ground a fisherman ran to the village, for the pregnant woman was having a great pain. I thought she was going to die!

We were shown a warm hospitality during our few days stay in this village. The muhtar, head of the village, sent a horseman to Midye, a small town on the Black Sea, to ask for help for our transportation to Istanbul. He also collected some clothes for us the first evening we reached the village.

The pregnant woman was taken to muhtar’s house and early that night she gave a birth to a bony baby, a boy. A new life had come forth, a new hope, a cause for the mother to live. The news of our bad fate had reached Istanbul and I am sure the help we received first was from the underground Jewish organization. A truck sent with a mattress in it for the pregnant woman in the child bed. we didn’t know how to thank the muhtar and the villagers when we had to leave, but tried each in his turn to say something to show our gratitude.

When the truck left the village I looked at my friend and the Jews who had survived and saw that they were just a like bunch of villagers and I was no different, a young farm lad.

In Istanbul the survivors were taken care of and later, I learned that they were shipped to Israel. I was very glad to be alive after such a horrible experience. For a long time the images of the blown up boat, the rattle of the machine gun, saving of floating bodies, the meeting of the fishermen, the pregnant woman and the hospitable villagers remained with me day and night. I felt ten years older and kept to myself for a long time.

Today this human drama is completely forgotten, maybe it is not recorded anywhere. I haven’t seen any sign of this episode in any magazine or any newspaper, so my conscience urged me to make a forgotten crime known to the world.

Niyazi FIRAT

May 10, 1965

 

 

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