Region: Tokat (Pontus region)
Aristidis Tsilfidis with his wife Aionia Tsilfidou in Australia (circa 1970)
I was born in Pontos, Asia Minor in 1915. The name of the village I was born in was Kolcuk but it was also referred to as Yulcuk. Kolcuk was in the province of Tokat and the jurisdiction of Sevasteia (Sivas). My earliest memories of Kulcuk were mostly good ones. Our village consisted of 100 families. All the inhabitants of our village were Greek. Most of the neighbouring villages however were Turkish but I do remember Armenians, Circassians and Lazes living close to us or having close family ties with us.
Kolcuk had a school. I went to school for just one year. The teacher was naturally a Pontian Greek. Kolcuk also had its own church. It was called Saint George or Ayios Giorgios. I can still remember the church bell ringing on Sundays and everyone gathering around the church to socialise and talk. There were no requirements to attend church; whoever wanted to attend did so. I also remember Easter in our village and how we used to paint the eggs red and then take part in the Greek cultural tradition of hitting other people's eggs with ours to see who would have luck throughout the remainder of the year.
Celebrations in our village would usually involve music and dancing. Dances were always accompanied by the lyra or kemence as we called it. Everyone would gather round a kemence player who would stand in the middle playing while everyone else danced around him.
Marriage in our village was either done in secret or it was arranged by the parents.
Our village had various fruits such as pears, and vegetables such as potatoes and corn. We owned 2 cows that supplied us with milk which was used to drink but also to make foutari or pasketan which was a very good tasting cheese.
There were 2 water mills in our village which were used to ground the wheat so that we could make flour. The water mills sat on the side of the river. The force of the current spun the spindle which then turned a large plate round and round. The flour was used to make bread and pita.
There were no doctors in our village. The closest doctor was too far away so we had to treat the sick by using natural remedies or praktika as we called them. It usually involved using plants to make remedies which we either drank or applied to wounds.
Our village was mostly agricultural. The president of our village was called a mouchtar. He was also the Agriculture officer of our village. The village would pay him from its funds in order to do his job.
The closest city to us was Erbaa which was 4 hours away by foot. We used to do our shopping there. Another city called Tokat was 10 hours away by foot.
My father's name was John Tsilfidis. He was a carpenter. He could make pretty much anything from wood but he mostly worked on building houses. The dense forest surrounding our village was full of pine and beech trees which were a valuable source of wood for housing. The men would always work on building houses in the Summer. In the forest there was also a type of bush which we used to make tea from. We called it European tea.
My mother's name was Maria Kouklidou. She used to do the housework. She made string from cotton which we used to make socks, jumpers and other clothing. I also remember she used to make brooms or ‘ligour' as we called them.
My grandfather's name was Efstathios Tsilfidis. That was my father's father. My grandmother's name was Despina. They lived in Kolcuk also.
I had one sister. She was 2 years older than me. In all, my mother gave birth to 12 children, but I am the only survivor.
The woman I married was Aionia Vasiliadou. Aionia in Greek means ‘eternal'.
She came from a village close to us called Κoleonou. She too was expelled from Pontos in 1923.
There was a village close to ours called Tsambolat. It was about one hour by foot from Kolcuk. Most of my father's friends lived in Tsambolat. They were Circassians but my father's brother Nikos Tsilfidis also lived there. Nikos worked for a man who held the rank of ‘captain'. We called him ‘Loxago'. This man owned a lot of sheep, roughly 200 of them and Uncle Nikos would tend to his sheep.
During Summer, Uncle Nikos would bring the sheep to a mountain close to Kolcuk which was called Yiagletsouk. Amongst the herd was also a wild ram. I remember how every time Uncle Nikos brought the sheep to our village, the ram would run after all the children and terrorise us. It used to run after us and make us cry. We used to run frantically every time it went near us. But Uncle Nikos did everything he could to protect me from the ram. He would put his arm around me and wave his stick at the ram to protect me. He would always protect me first, although he was always there to help the other kids if and when they were chased by the ram.
At a village called Evereon there was a rich farmer. We referred to him as Chiflika. My parents used to work for him on his farm. In return, he paid them and provided them with accommodation as they were sometimes gone for days.
One day, 2 gendarmes (Turkish Officers) came to the village on horseback. They went straight to my father and yelled at him, "You haven't done your military duty!" Within the blink of an eye they had mounted him on their horses and taken him away. The Chiflika soon found out and was very alarmed. He got onto his horse and went after them. But first he stopped at the priest's house and then at the house of a relative of ours whom we called TeliHatzi. The 3 of them then rode into town to try and find the gendarmes and my father.
They eventually found my father. The Chiflika asked the gendarmes why my father had been taken away so suddenly and what they could do to release him. The gendarmes said that my father had to do military duty which at the time was just another name for hard labour. They said that in order for my father to be released, they would have to pay them 3 lyras. The Chiflika paid them and my father was set free. The Chiflika had known that the gendarmes were easily bribed with money.
On another occasion my father wasn't so lucky. He was caught by the gendarmerie and was sent to do hard labour or amele taburu as it was called. Everyone knew that if you were sent to do the amele taburu you would never come back. Only Greeks were made to do it. Almost always, it would result in death because the men were forced to do hard work somewhere in the interior of Turkey under horrendous conditions. The men were made to break rocks to prepare for the building of railroads for the Ottoman Empire. It was a death camp for Greeks.
One night my father decided to escape from the Labour Battalions. While the gendermes were sleeping, he made a run for his life. He ran for days in order to return him. One night however he was caught by 2 Turkish Officers. They immediately held a gun to his head and were about to kill him when luckily a Laze man intervened. He asked why they were about to kill my father. They said that they were killing him because he was Armenian. This happened at the time the Armenians were being rounded up for slaughter.
The Laz man told the Turkish Officers that my father was Greek and not Armenian. They didn't believe him. The Laz man said that he could prove it. He told my father to recite the Pater Imon which is the hymn that Greeks sang at church. My father quickly did so. He also recited a few more Greek hymns, ones which he would usually sing at Church on Sundays. They reluctantly let me him free.
From that day on, the gendermes regularly passed by our village looking for my father. They knew he'd escaped so they kept a close watch on us. My father had no choice but to hide. He didn't want to die in the labour battalions so he resorted to hiding in the ceiling of our house to avoid being seen. He did so for 6 months to avoid the gendermes. My mother would give him food and water up there and also string and knitting needles which he used to make socks and jumpers for us. It was his only chance of survival.
I was about 5 or 6 years old when I remember trouble brewing in our district and the surrounding area. Even before this time, the Turks would often intimidate us but we avoided confrontation by fleeing to neighbouring villages until things settled down. Then we'd return home and try to get on with out daily lives.
However this time it was different. My father, who used to work in a Turkish village close to Erbaa, heard that a lot of Greeks were being killed. Word was going around that a soldier by the name of Topal Osman had encircled the whole of Erbaa and was systematically killing all the Greeks. The only people whom he spared were Turks. He didn't care what age they were either. He was killing old people as well as the very young.
Well as soon as our village heard about this, fear was well and truly running through our veins. The only thing we could do was to flee to the mountains. We chose to flee to Yiagletsouk. Everyone left Kolcuk in a hurry. Some didn't take much clothing with them. They didn't realise that they were going to be gone for quite some time.
We stayed up on the mountain for two and a half years because we were being targeted by the Turkish forces. We had no idea we were going to stay there for so long but we had to hide. We survived by digging holes in the ground to make temporary houses. We slept in these holes to hide from the Turks but also to keep warm. The sides of the walls were supported by rocks which we piled up all the way to the top to form walls. To keep the water out we used wood from the surrounding forest and placed them over the top. On top of the wood we put sand which formed an almost water tight seal. It kept us dry in winter and also warm at nights. It was a kind of camouflage also.
The snow during winter was our main obstacle, especially for the women, the children and also the elderly. At nights we lit fires in our little houses to keep warm. It wasn't easy living like that but we had to do it. Those who didn't bring enough clothing with them suffered the most. We did whatever we could to give them clothing but most of these people died first. Many also died of hunger and disease, especially the elderly and the young.
At nights our men would go looking for food. They hunted and brought back whatever they could find to feed us. Water was also a concern and it was no surprise that I saw a man drinking his own urine to survive. It was very much a case of ‘Do whatever you can to survive"
Our men had no choice but to take up arms. While we were hiding up in the mountains, Turkish soldiers tried on many occasions to get to us. They wanted to kill us. That was their intention. But our men protected us with bravery. They did everything in their power to protect the women and children first, but also the group as a whole.
The leader of this group of men was a man called Anastasios Papadopoulos. He was a relative of ours. He used to often come to our village and visit my parents. He was referred to as Gotsa Nastas; ‘Gotsa' in Greek means ‘Big' and ‘Nastas' was short for Anastasios. He was tall, well built and had a very deep strong voice. Gotsa Nastas made the orders and the other men did as they were told.
Whenever the Turks tried to make an assault on the mountain, we would send signals to Gotsa Nastas and his men, and they would almost immediately come to protect us. We had an intricate system whereby we all participated in sending messages on the mountain whenever help was required.
On many of these occasions, there would be an exchange of gunfire. But our men would always find a way to keep us safe. We were well dug in, and well positioned at the top of the mountain. And our men were well organised. The men did their utmost to keep the Turks at bay so that they wouldn't break the lines. The forest on the mountain was also very dense which worked in our favour.
No one would fire a shot unless ordered to do so by Gotsa Nastas. Even when Turks were firing at us, Gotsa Nastas would always wait for the most appropriate time to fire back.
As time went by, Gotsa Nastas had become one of the most wanted men in the region. The Turks sent their bravest and fiercest fighters on some occasions but they weren't able to get through thanks to the efforts of Gotsa Nastas.
Around about 1923, word had got out that an exchange of population was planned between us and Greece. Our two and a half year ordeal on the mountain had finally come to an end. Those who took up arms against the Turks however were still being targeted. Many of these men made secret exits from Turkey via small yachts and fled to Russia. The Turks didn't care that these men were just protecting innocent lives.
Gotsa Nastas used to travel from one house to another so that he wouldn't be caught. He tried not to stay in one place for any length of time because he knew he was being followed. At times, the Turks sent him messages via messengers telling him that he was safe and that they wouldn't touch him. He knew full well that they were bluffing. They told him that Greeks and Turks were now friends and that they wouldn't touch him.
One night while staying at a friend's house, Gotsa Nastas ventured to the outside toilet. It was very dark. A group of Turkish soldiers were hiding just outside the toilet. They waited for him to enter the toilet before firing numerous shots at him. He was subsequently killed.
The following day I remember hearing commotion in the street so I decided to go and have a look at what the fuss was about. I saw a large crowd of people surrounding a telegraph pole. They were making a lot of noise. I was only small so I fought my way to the front to take a closer look.
When I reached the front, I saw Gotsa Nastas with a noose around his neck hanging from the telegraph pole. I couldn't believe my eyes. They had taken his shirt off to expose the bullet holes in his chest. In all, I counted 7 bullet holes in my uncle's chest.
They were all shouting and spitting at him and hitting him with whatever they could. They then took his body and paraded it from one village to another shouting out aloud in Turkish that they had killed the "father of the Pontian Greeks".
We were forced to leave Turkey, the place where we were born and the only place we knew. Our first stop was Tsambolat where we stayed for 1 week. Then we went to Tokat which was 10 hours away by foot. We got there by horse and carriage but we had to pay for this privilege. Our carriages were loaded with the most valuable things we owned, which was usually just our clothing. From Tokat we began our long journey to Samsun which took 2-3 days. Not only were we leaving our homes, our businesses, our church and everything else we owned, but we were even forced to pay for the transport.
To make matters worse, we had to endure a lot of hardships along the way. I remember on one road, a Turkish man approached a lady who was wearing new shoes. He made her take her shoes off and then grabbed them off her. He then threw his old dirty pair at her feet in return. We were being demoralised throughout the whole journey.
When we reached Samsun my mother gave birth to her 12th child. We could see Turks chasing and beating up Greeks in the streets so we didn't know what fate awaited us at this stage. It was chaotic. The child got sick and we didn't want it to die without being baptised, so we asked a passer-by to baptise the child for us. It died soon after.
The last time we saw my father's brother Nikos, was in Samsun. With all the chaos and the desperation to leave Pontos, we had managed to lose him. He was only 21 years of age at the time. We can only assume that he was killed.
We boarded a ship and sailed to Constantinople. Again we had to pay for this. God only knows what happened to those who didn't have the money to pay for the ticket. When we got there, they kept us at what appeared to be an army barrack. We weren't allowed to leave the confines of the barrack at all.
The Red Cross fed us with biscuits. We were all hungry and exhausted from the long and hard travel. They also fed us some kind of flour which tasted very sugary. We used to mix it in water and we'd eat it. I often wonder what would have happened if the Red Cross were not present in Constantinople.
The nurses gave the children injections to ward off disease, but every day 50-100 people were dieing from hunger, disease and also exhaustion.
A vision that hasn't left me to this day is that of my hands being cupped as I waited in a long line to be fed. A man who had 2 large sacks of flour was giving us a small amount each. I waited in line with my hands cupped and stretched outward waiting for my turn to be served. I can still remember the flour as it hit the palms of my hands. This vision will never leave me.
We boarded another ship and we set sail for Thessaloniki, Greece. We had no idea where they were taking us. We were just following orders. At Thessaloniki we were put onto trains under the guidance of Greek soldiers. We passed through Veria which at the time was a barren expanse of land filled with mosquitoes. Today it is a thriving city.
From Veria they loaded us onto military vehicles and took us to Kozani. At a place called Aminteo I remember my sister Stavroula died. She was 10 years old. I was 8 at the time.
We finally arrived at a village called Plazomista. Before our arrival, Plazomista was inhabited by Muslims of Greece who were involved in the exchange of population. The village was later renamed Stavrodromi which in Greek means Crossroads. We were given their houses and the Greek officials gave everyone 2-3 sheep for every family. The sheep belonged to the previous owners.
My mother lasted 3 months before she died. The extreme conditions of hiding up in mountains and the tortuous travel took its toll on her. As did the death of her 11 children.
My father died in 1930, 7 years later at the age of 48.
Aristidis Tsilfidis passed away in May 2006.