SABIHA Sertel (1895-1968) was a woman of firsts. One of the first Turkish women to work in journalism, Sertel bore witness to a tempestuous age, spanning from the fall of the Ottoman Empire to the foundation of the Turkish Republic and the struggles of the fledgling state to establish itself internally and on the world stage. Throughout her career, Sertel wrote against imperialism, authoritarianism, and exploitation, but never in an abstract, detached way, preferring to highlight concrete examples of injustice and extrapolate from them to the broader social and political issues.
As a direct result of her engagement, Sertel also became one of the first Turkish women to be imprisoned for her writings, and, ultimately, to end her life in political exile. Her long history of persecution by the Turkish state culminated in 1945, when a state-sponsored mob raided Tan, the newspaper she ran with her husband Zekeriya. No longer able to publish, subject to constant police surveillance, and facing the risk of further attacks, the couple went into exile in 1950. Sertel wrote her autobiography in Baku, where she died in 1968, the same year the book was published in Turkey.
Surprisingly, the seeds for this life of activist journalism were sown not only in Turkey but also in the USA, where Sertel and her husband studied in the early 1920s. It was at Columbia University in New York City, on a scholarship from an American businessman, that Sertel first encountered—in English translation, no less—the work of authors such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, August Bebel, and Karl Kautsky. The ideals of socialism, filtered through the harsh realities of immigrant working-class existence in the USA, were to guide her for the rest of her political and intellectual life.
Sertel recounts these American experiences in the following excerpt, reproduced by kind permission of I. B. Tauris / Bloomsbury, which published our English translation of Sertel’s autobiography in 2019 under the title, The Struggle for Modern Turkey: Justice, Activism and a Revolutionary Female Journalist. In early 2020, we were invited to the USA by New York University to discuss our translation. On that occasion, we had the pleasure of holding a public reading from this excerpt, thereby restoring Sertel’s voice to New York City exactly a century after her stay.
After being tossed to and fro on stormy seas for an entire month, we finally made it to the USA. America was completely uncharted territory to me; the only thing I knew about it—from books—was its prosperity. This wealth, which grew especially after World War I, was dazzling. The USA had joined the war in its final years and seen no combat on its soil. It had lent its allies money and sold them weapons, ships, and other military equipment. It had obtained cheap goods from colonies and passed them on to the warring states at a handsome profit. In the process, the country had accumulated immense sums of capital.
New York was a city divided in two. The rich lived in the upper part, called uptown, while downtown, the lower part, was mired in poverty. My first encounter was with rich America: Columbia University and Barnard College, where we’d be studying, were uptown. In order to attend Barnard, I first needed to learn English. It wasn’t easy getting a college degree in a language I didn’t know, with a small child in tow and no help around the house. But nothing could stop me. In the mornings, I left Sevim at Columbia’s nursery division, the Horace Mann School. I picked her up again around lunchtime. In the process, I learned a great deal about the new educational methods used at American nursery and primary schools.1 At night, Zekeriya and I took turns going to the university library: I went one day, he the next.
Sabiha Sertel, her husband Zekeriya, and their daughter Sevim in Central Park.
I wanted to study sociology and started taking courses at Columbia, from Professors Giddings and Ogburn. Giddings was the leading American sociology professor of his day. His courses were taken not just by students, but all kinds of people. Among these were the rich misses of high society. Most of them came just so they could brag about it afterward. Every morning, their fancy cars lined up at the university gates.
I’d attended Ziya Gökalp’s2 talks on sociology at the Turkish Hearth3 in Istanbul, so I knew a bit about Durkheim’s sociology. But Giddings opened up a whole new world for me. He taught a theory called “consciousness of kind” and used it to explain not just social and historical events but interpersonal relations as well. He argued that the separation (or antagonism) between races—such as black, white, and yellow—was based on kind. Regardless of continent, he said, blacks united in solidarity against whites because they’d achieved consciousness of kind.
According to Giddings, religious hatred was also due to consciousness of kind. The wars of religion that fill history books, the animosity between Christians and Muslims—all of this came about because members of a given religion shared a consciousness of kind. Whenever people attained this consciousness, they united and fought against those who didn’t belong to the same kind.
Giddings dismissed conflicts of interest between individuals, nations, and races, as well as the struggle between capital and labor. He said these were secondary antagonisms that could be addressed by ensuring social justice. They did play a role in rifts and alliances between nations, but ultimately, it was consciousness of kind that united members of one nation against others. The main human conflict was conflict of kind. This theory took over my thinking, and I found myself interpreting every event according to it.
One day, in Professor Ogburn’s sociology class, the subject was women and the family. After we discussed Morgan and Le Play’s work on this issue, the professor recommended that we also read Engels’ The Origin of the Family and August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism. When I did, I was dumbfounded. My worldview shifted again. Apparently, in addition to consciousness of kind, there was also something called “class consciousness.” Engels and Marx used a dialectical method to analyze society. Conflict and convergence between people weren’t due to kind but to class interests, and these were tied to relations of production.
Woman and Socialism became a defining book for me. Fascinated, I started reading more books on socialism by Marx, Engels, and Kautsky. At the same time, I devoured the novels of Jack London and Upton Sinclair. They reshaped my views, introducing me to ideas about social relations and a whole new world of thought.
At the School of Social Work
The New York School of Social Work was part of Columbia University.4 It conducted research on social issues, using the “case method” to identify types of unrest in the lives of workers and families. The goal was to develop scientific methods to fix these problems through welfare initiatives. At this school, I studied applied sociology.
The school was located downtown, on Lexington Avenue, in a poor, squalid neighborhood similar to Harlem or the Bowery. This was where the immigrants lived: Italians, Czechoslovakians, Spaniards, Greeks, Armenians—people from all over the world. One of the school’s aims was to adapt these immigrants to the American lifestyle or, in other words, to Americanize them.
Every district had community centers that studied the problems experienced by workers, families, and children. The centers kept people under constant scrutiny and compiled records on issues that arose. Those who registered with a community center could benefit from welfare aid. These organizations weren’t just funded by the state. Major capitalists donated large sums of money to the centers. The boards of institutions like the School of Social Work always included a few millionaires’ wives.
To a certain extent, this system addressed the needs of the workers and the poor. It used science to make social welfare more efficient, providing jobs for workers, treatment for the sick, and protection for children. As an added benefit, it yielded plenty of data for sociologists to analyze. But ultimately, its purpose was to restrict the activities of labor and stifle any emerging workers’ movements or revolutionary tendencies.
American capitalism had thrived magnificently, especially during the war. While the upper city bathed in wealth and abundance, the masses dwelled in downtown slums, positively eager to be exploited in exchange for a slice of bread. The wealthy did all they could to cripple socialist movements: they bought off union leaders like Gompers5 and supported moderate wings of leftist parties. During our time in the USA, socialist parties were always weak, some of them fading from the scene altogether.
The most hotly debated issue at Columbia and the School of Social Work was the Soviet Revolution. In those days, American intellectuals were still able to discuss such topics without fear. Columbia was a wealthy school, so most of its conferences defended capitalism. But the School of Social Work was deeply involved with the plight of the workers and common people. Its conferences were more objective and featured thinkers from across the political spectrum. Even William Foster, the head of the Communist Party, was able to give public lectures there.
At the Lexington Community Center
Through the School of Social Work, I became familiar with downtown New York and the people who lived there. Most of them were recent immigrants. Each street in the fringe downtown neighborhoods was a veritable microcosm of an immigrant’s home country. One recognized Italians by the strings of pasta hanging in the streets, Muslims by their oriental embroideries, and various Balkan populations by whichever national characteristics they still hung on to.
All immigrant groups set up their own vending stalls, chattering away in their native languages. Sometimes, one even heard the heart-rending folk songs of fishermen from Capri, their hair gone white in exile, their hearts still yearning for the soil and hot sun of Italy. None of the groups was Americanized yet, and the little English they spoke could hardly be understood. The apartments were jam-packed with people. Black and white children quarreled in the streets, and the white ones made the black kids cry.
I worked at the Lexington Community Center and had access to the files of the people who were registered there. What a find those files would have been for a novelist! The immigrants’ tales filled entire volumes: how they’d come to America, the hardships they’d endured, their struggle with joblessness and exploitation, how they yearned for their homelands and regretted having left.
They’d come from Europe expecting an El Dorado, braving the ocean with their families in the hope of getting rich. But America had turned them into slaves, working at factories day and night, barely making enough to buy food. They didn’t speak the language and had no technical skills, so they were given the hardest jobs. Their labor was exploited ruthlessly. Women and men, children and elders—they were all like mules at a mill, endlessly turning the wheel.
Some of them borrowed money, defaulted on their debts, and moved from town to town. They toiled on the farms of big landlords, the orchards in the north, and were left with nothing to show for it but their daily bread. They worked in gardens of Eden but never touched the fruit. There was no way out. There was no way back. They’d burned their bridges, sold their homes and livestock, just to get here. Now, they were resigned to poverty and hunger.
I didn’t just read about these people—I visited their homes, listened to their troubles, and kept records on them. I saw organizations try to heal this social disease, and I can say without a doubt that in a capitalist society, welfare cannot prevent social misery, no matter what means it employs. As long as the causes of the disease—the terrifying gap between labor and capital, the injustice in their relations—are not addressed, even legions of welfare organizations would only be curing symptoms.
Among the Turkish Workers
Scattered across the cities and towns of this vast and endless country, there were a number of Turkish immigrants as well. Almost all of them were workers; the small number of electricians, technicians, and engineers, who were more educated, didn’t live among the workers and had nothing to do with them.
In New York, the Turkish workers had no gathering place other than their local coffee house. Zekeriya sometimes went there, but he always told me I shouldn’t go. Even though these Turks lived in America, their mindsets were still Anatolian. Nevertheless, I wanted to mingle with them. As a matter of fact, I needed to.
At college, I was specializing in community organization, and the professors who read my papers kept chiding me again and again: “Your theoretical work is perfect, but where is the application? How can we trust your ability to apply these theories in real life if you’ve never organized a community?”
They were right, of course; I couldn’t give them a good answer. Was there no Turkish community in the United States, they asked, and I told them that there was, but that I couldn’t work among them. When I told them why, they said: “Your task is to work in and for society, regardless of the hurdles you may face. How can you give up without even trying?”
Finally, I resolved to take action, no matter what the cost. Perhaps I couldn’t organize all the workers in the United States, but I would organize some. I spoke of my ambition with some acquaintances.
“You couldn’t even get through the door of that coffee house,” they said. “You’d be an alien to them. They don’t like intellectuals; they’re all from Anatolia, from the villages. It’s even worse that you’re a woman; they’ll never tolerate a woman mixing with men. This isn’t a regular New York coffee house we’re talking about. It might as well be in a Turkish village. And there’s so much cigarette smoke in there, you won’t even be able to see what’s in front of you.”
I knew there was some truth to these words. Why didn’t these people like intellectuals? I’d learned the answer while studying other communities. They hated how selfish intellectuals were, how arrogant, and how aloof from the rest of the community. Most intellectuals looked down on workers and didn’t regard them as equal human beings. It wasn’t surprising that workers were offended by them.
Still, I didn’t pay heed to these objections. I wanted to work among a Turkish community and employ the new methods I’d learned for its benefit. Zekeriya knew some of these people. He recommended that I meet up with a Turk called Ahmet Osman.
“Talk to him,” he said. “He’s a very smart man. Maybe he can help you make some inroads.”
Ahmet Osman was a tall, dark-skinned man from Eğin.6 His eyes shimmered with intelligence. Like the others, he’d come to America to find work and had braved many misfortunes. After struggling with hunger and unemployment for years, he’d partnered with a former Turkish civil servant called Refik Bey and opened a workshop that produced electrical batteries. I called him up, and he came to see me, together with Refik Bey. Refik Bey was an Ottoman gentleman of the old school, a bureaucrat who’d served at the Sublime Porte. With his slender figure, his pale, narrow face, and his blue eyes, he still had all the bearings of a civil servant. He hadn’t become Americanized in the least. I laid out my thoughts to them.
“You can go and talk to them,” they said. “But organize them? Never.”
“Supposedly, they already have an organization. But they never pay their fees or attend any meetings. And even when they do, all they do is fight.”
Clearly, this wouldn’t be a walk in the park.
“Put me in touch with them,” I said, “and I will try to bring them around. I don’t want to just walk into their coffee house unannounced; they would shun me. Talk to them in advance about me and my ideas.”
A Letter from Ankara
Meanwhile, in Anatolia, Greeks and Turks were engaged in heavy fighting.7 The Greeks had advanced all the way to Sakarya. On the eastern front, Turkish forces were clashing with the Dashnak Armenians.8 Around then, I received a letter from a friend in Ankara. It outlined the situation in the homeland and the calamities of war, and described how Atatürk had abolished unruly armed bands and established a regular army.
From the hunger and misery in Anatolia, the letter went on to describe the plight of orphaned children: droves of children whose parents had been killed on the eastern front were languishing in the streets. “There are 90,000 Turkish orphans,” it said. “The orphanages can only hold around 12,000. The Americans just accept Armenian children in their orphanages and turn away the Turkish and Kurdish orphans. If you could convince the Turks in America to help these children somehow, it would be a great service to the homeland.”
This news made it doubly urgent for me to organize the Turks. It was our duty to support the War of Independence, even if modestly and from afar. Ahmet Osman and I agreed to visit the coffee house one night.
On a rainy winter evening, the two of us walked through the dark streets of the Bowery9 until we arrived at a decrepit clapboard building. We climbed a creaky flight of wooden stairs up to the second floor where the coffee house was located, and opened the door. Inside, the smoke was really so thick I couldn’t see anything. They knew I was coming and had cleaned the stone tables. Ahmet Osman introduced me and talked a little about my interest in them and their lives.
They listened. When he finished, nobody said anything. Finally, I was compelled to break the silence myself. I got up.
“I came here from our homeland,” I said. “Right now, a war of independence is raging back there. Our Anatolian brothers have put their lives on the line for this cause. We must support them as best we can. It doesn’t have to be money; we can help them in many different ways. We can send them our old clothes. We can stage events to support the cause. But above all else, we need to get organized. We need to have a society that will improve our lives in America and aid the homeland in any way possible.”
Again, there was no response. Some mumbling could be heard among the tables. Finally, a dark-skinned man, neither short nor tall, got up. Apparently, this was the leader of the workers here, and the owner of the coffee house. He spoke in a faint voice.
“So, a sister of ours has come from the homeland. Well, we welcome her. She says she cares about our living conditions. We sure are grateful for that. Then she talks about getting us organized, about raising our standards of living. With all due respect, I don’t see how it can be done. How can our sister help us? Will she find us jobs? Is that possible? Will she help us get a raise? What can she do? We’ve met many do-gooders like her. They come, fret over us for five or ten days, and then we never see their faces again.”
They wanted concrete answers. I said that in order to help them, I first had to learn about their needs.
“Once we’re organized,” I said, “we can tackle the issue of finding jobs.”
Now, a few men spoke up at the same time.
“We have countless needs,” they said. “But first, let’s see you figure out our graveyard problem. We’ll talk about the rest later.”
I had no idea what the graveyard problem was. An old, white-haired man stood up.
“Every community here has its own graveyard,” he said. “But us, we’re scattered like pebbles. They bury our dead in Christian graveyards. We go before Allah as blasphemous infidels. If you want to do something for us, relieve us from this shame.”
I thought about it for a second and decided I could solve this issue with help from my school.
“I will solve your graveyard problem,” I said with a resolute voice.
They looked at me in astonishment.
“It’s not about the money, sister. No one will sell us land here.”
“You come up with the money,” I said. “I’ll get you the land.”
They didn’t seem convinced, but we parted amicably. They accompanied me to the door and even asked me to come again.
Poor souls, I thought to myself. Stranded in some foreign land, rotting in hunger, poverty, and joblessness, and they think their biggest problem is a Christian burial.
The graveyard problem proved easy enough to resolve. I told Walter Pettit, my advisor, about the meeting and the demands. He called the municipality. Apparently, a formal application had to be filed. We prepared it, and I had the community leaders sign it. A month later, a piece of land was surrounded by an iron fence and allotted to the Turks. I don’t quite remember where it was. It might have been in Brooklyn.
Sabiha Sertel in 1919, within days of arriving in New York City.
This feat boosted my credibility with the Turks, and it became much easier to work with them. I’d found their sweet spot—in community organization, finding this spot was the key to success. They eagerly attended the meetings now. Still, holding the meetings in the coffee house was quite unpleasant; we needed a proper gathering place. Once again, I asked my school for help, and we were given a decent-sized room in a community center. The meetings took on a more formal tone, with the workers airing their complaints one by one. By then, the Turkish workers living in other US cities had heard of our work and wanted to organize as well. Almost all the Turks living elsewhere were workers. I conducted a survey to determine their numbers and occupations, and received enthusiastic responses from every direction.
The conclusions of the survey were quite interesting. The Turks hadn’t immigrated to America as a group. They’d come over one by one, or sometimes in groups of three or four, and settled all over the country. The immigrant wave had started in Anatolian cities like Van, Erzurum, and Sivas, spreading from there to other cities, towns, and even villages. There were Armenians who’d moved to the States but still went back and forth, and they’d spread the word that everyone in America was rich and jobs were easy to find. They’d enticed many others to join them in the USA. Others had been impelled to move by letters from friends. The number of immigrants had spiked during World War I.
Since this immigration was neither collective nor systematic, there was no common reason behind it either. Some had come to escape Greek oppression in Macedonia;10 others had come simply to make money. There were Turks, Kurds, Albanians. Those from Anatolia said they’d come to escape landlessness and unemployment. Immigration to the States had spiked again in 1920; most who’d come around then were Cypriot Turks fleeing British subjugation.
Only few had married and started families in the United States. Differences in religion and language made things hard for them. They said they were unable to get along with American girls or immigrant girls from Europe. Some Turks would receive photographs of girls in Turkey, bring them over, and get married.
This crowd of around 9,000 Turks, Kurds, Tatars, and Albanians mostly worked in factories producing soap, furs, gramophones, electricity, and cars, as well as in steel foundries. Of those who had a trade, most were shoemakers, hat cleaners, laundry owners, producers of electrical batteries, greengrocers, and middlemen in import and export. A Tatar in New York owned a silk factory, while a Turk called Hafız Efendi had a soap factory in Worchester.
The laborers’ working conditions were extremely harsh. Not knowing English and having no special skills, they were given the toughest jobs. The lives of the Turks and Kurds who worked in Ford’s automobile factory in Detroit were a special kind of hell. Back then, US technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and laborers had to work steel furnaces where one couldn’t endure the heat for more than a minute. Changing shirts each time they went to the furnace, these laborers were as close as one could get to hell on earth.
Some worked at the factory for ten to fifteen hours a day. Most came in at night and slept during the day. Often, they didn’t see any daylight for months. Industry-related diseases were common among those working in chemical and tobacco factories. Wages were high compared to Europe, but the workers had turned into robots, and even these higher wages weren’t enough to humanize their lives.
The survey showed that Turkish workers were clustered in the cities of New York, Detroit, Worchester, Lawrence, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.
Thanks to this survey and the ongoing success of our work in New York City, younger and more urbane people started joining the society, such as Rahmi Kolçak, who was attending college in New York; Seyfi, an engineer; and the projectionist İsmail Hakkı. The name of the society was changed to Türk Teavün Cemiyeti [Turkish Solidarity Association]. Some members objected, especially the Albanians and Kurds, insisting it should be Osmanlı Teavün Cemiyeti [Ottoman Solidarity Association] instead, but the majority’s choice was accepted.
Once the society’s work became steady and consistent, we rented out a separate building and turned it into a de facto community center. This saved some of the workers from having to go to the coffee house all the time. Language courses were offered for those who didn’t speak English. Conferences were held to inform workers about the situation in the homeland, to review working conditions in the USA, and to develop class consciousness.
Unionizing the laborers took a long time and was hard work. At first, they rejected the idea. They said employers were quicker to fire unionized workers and that once an immigrant had lost his job, he couldn’t find another. We used real-life examples to show them the disadvantages of not being unionized and the advantages of joining. Eventually, most of the workers in New York joined the unions, but many Kurds at the Ford factory in Detroit couldn’t be persuaded.
After setting up some subsidiary institutions, we started using membership fees to publish a weekly bulletin called Birlik [Unity]. Prepared by Zekeriya and some students from the New York Teachers College,11 the bulletin helped establish ties with workers and associations in other US cities.
The First Fundraiser
Bad news kept arriving from the homeland. Newspapers reported the progress of the Greek armies and murders committed by Anzavur’s bands,12 hodjas loyal to the sultan, and other reactionaries. At the society’s first meeting, I passed along this news and read out the letter I’d received. I talked about how we could help: from the USA, all we could really do was send money and old clothes. We decided to stage an event to raise money, inviting association leaders from other cities and all the workers in New York.
At the fundraiser, we spoke about the atrocities committed by the Greeks and the sacrifices of the Anatolian people, be they men or women, young or old. We pointed out that the imperialist states were intent on dismantling and dividing the country. The assembled Anatolian sons, their hearts ablaze for many years with yearning for the homeland, showed such passion and concern for the cause that it would bring tears to one’s eyes. As if bidding at an auction, they engaged in a race of generosity and sacrifice. As far as I can remember, we raised $20,000 at that event.
The event also strengthened the bonds between the association in New York and workers in other cities. Zeki Bey, a delegate from the Detroit Solidarity Association, invited me to come and organize the workers there. Detroit had two societies: the Solidarity Association, founded by the Turks, and the Red Crescent Association, founded by the Kurds. I received invitations from both.
When I got off the train in Detroit, I was greeted by a small crowd. After the introductions, Zeki Bey pulled me aside.
“Sabiha Hanım,”13 he said, “we have a big problem. The Turks and the Kurds are quarreling. The Kurds say, ‘we will host our sister from the homeland.’ And the Turks say, ‘She is our sister as much as yours, so she will be our guest.’ What should we do?”
“There’s an easy way out,” I said. “I won’t stay with you or with them. I’ll go to a hotel instead.”
Zeki Bey was a short, pudgy Anatolian. He was smart and knew the mindset of the people well. He balked at my suggestion.
“Unthinkable,” he said. “They’d regard that as a grave insult. They already fought over the issue at our previous meeting. To calm the commotion, one of our members suggested putting you up at a hotel. The Kurds wouldn’t hear about it. ‘You vile, shameless people,’ they said. ‘You would dare let our sister from the homeland sleep at a hotel?’ They raised hell!”
I thought about it for a minute. My objective here was to support the independence movement. So, I needed to go wherever I could raise more funds.
“Tell me, then,” I said to Zeki Bey, “from which side can I expect to raise more money?”
“From the Kurds,” he said without hesitating. “Because they have the hardest jobs at the Ford factory, they earn and save more money than the Turks.”
“Then I’ll stay with the Kurds. Leave it to me to break the news to the Turks.”
Having quarreled the day before, The Turks and Kurds welcoming me at the station stood in separate groups. Zeki Bey took me over to the Turks. I plunged in without introduction.
“Brothers,” I said, “I know what happened yesterday. I appeal to your conscience. Our brethren in Anatolia are being massacred. 90,000 orphans are languishing in the streets. They are hungry and have no roof over their heads. In such a crisis, we can’t be discussing with whom I’ll be staying. I implore you, don’t be offended or hurt; I am your guest no matter whose house I sleep in. Permit me to stay with the Red Crescent Association. It’s for the greater good of the homeland.”
The Turks accepted without raising any objections.
Rumi Efendi, the chairman of the Red Crescent Association, was a tall, hulking mountain of a man. His long moustache went all the way up to his ears. He introduced me to the other members, who were overjoyed, and we got into some cars and drove to his house.
Rumi Efendi lived in a modern two-story house. His furniture, timeworn but clean, seemed oddly Asian in this contemporary setting. For lunch, they placed a gigantic round metal dining tray on the floor and arranged some cushions around it. Then they brought in a big tray of pilaf with meat. Everyone started eating with their hands. They’d brought some cutlery just for me, but I turned it down and joined them in eating out of the tray with my fingers. Clearly, the Americans, who claimed to have brought civilization to the colonies, had not extended this civilization to the immigrants living in their own country.
Turkish scholarship students at Columbia University, 1919. Sabiha and Zekeriya are seated with their daughter Sevim.
The meeting was scheduled for Sunday, so the workers took the day off and showed me around the Ford factory. This was a gargantuan building. Every minute, finished cars were lowered from suspended bridges. The laborers worked like robots, not even wasting a moment: the role of speed in production was such that even a second had its monetary value. The exploitation machine was in full steam as well. Foreign workers made half the money Americans made and still had difficulties finding jobs. And since they weren’t unionized, they were ruthlessly exploited by the employer.
When we arrived at the steel furnace, we had a chance to witness this reality up close. The furnace was in a small room encircled by glass. Workers ceaselessly fed the furnace with coal, and the molten steel flowed like a crimson flame. It was so hot in there that they said the devil’s own hellfire couldn’t be hotter. I was told that no workers except the Kurds could make it into this chamber. They would enter the furnace naked like wrestlers and take turns by the minute.
No one working under these harsh conditions belonged to a union. They received no social aid whatsoever. And since they were ill-informed, they saw nothing wrong with this state of affairs. When I tried to explain that they should join the unions, they all objected at once.
“We don’t take part in strikes,” they said. “Whenever there is a strike, the factory is surrounded by Ford’s private policemen and soldiers. Ford has a private army that he uses against the workers. We enter the factory and work under their control.”
I saw how the capitalists took advantage of these naïve, hard-working people and their lack of knowledge and consciousness. They exploited them and used them as strike-breakers against their fellow laborers. But it was hard to make them understand the evil of this situation. An organization was needed, and much work had to be done, I reasoned, for such an awareness to even become possible.
Next, there was a debate about which association would hold the first fundraiser. “We won’t go to the Turks,” the Kurds said. “We’ll host the first meeting, and they can come to us if they want.”
To prevent a row over precedence and location, I made a proposal. “Neither you nor the Turks should host the meeting,” I said. “We’ll rent out a hall and everyone can go there. That way, we won’t need to hold two separate meetings either.”
The Kurds rejected this offer in one breath. The discussion went on for hours. They insisted that their association should meet first and stonewalled the matter, saying that the meeting would either be held by them or not at all. Finally, I ran out of breath from arguing with them. Clearly, Kurdish obstinacy could not be overcome.
“Fine,” I said. “Tomorrow night, we’ll gather at the Red Crescent Association. If the Turks don’t come, we’ll hold a separate meeting for them at a later time and I’ll speak there as well.”
They accepted. The next morning, I sent for Zeki Bey. I told him about the previous night’s discussion and asked him to convey my greetings to the Solidarity Association. It was meaningless to start a quarrel between Turks and Kurds with the homeland in such a predicament, and I hoped they would understand my decision. Zeki Bey accepted my proposal, saying that since the main objective was to help the homeland, everyone else would be on board as well. The Turkish Solidarity Association would hold its own separate meeting.
The next evening, we gathered at the meeting hall of the Red Crescent Association. Most of those in attendance were laborers at the Ford factory, and almost all others were factory workers as well. Not a single one of them was trained in a profession. The hall was wide and long, and they’d set up a table for me at one end. Those who couldn’t find seats sat cross-legged on the floor.
Before I could begin talking, a commotion broke out. People started hurling abuse at each other across the hall. One of them jumped up and rushed at a young man sitting by the door.
“Get out,” he said, “I cannot be in the same room as you!”
“No, you get out!”
They started raining blows on each other. In a flash, they both drew knives from their coat pockets. And before I had a chance to find out what they were fighting about, they were stabbing at each other.
I brought my fist down on the table with all my strength.
“Is this how you show respect for your sister from the homeland?” I asked. “You didn’t want the Turks to host me, so I came to you. You insisted on holding the first meeting, so I met with you. And now you draw your knives to drive me out? Well, goodbye.”
All hell broke loose. They were screaming and yelling. Some tried to separate the brawlers while others clung to my hem, begging me to take the high road and stay.
I turned to the brawlers right away.
“Throw away those knives,” I said.
They let go of the knives as if compelled by a magnet.
“Rumi Efendi, pick them up.”
The knives were gathered up. But the atmosphere was so tense that no good could come from giving a speech. First, we needed to clear the air.
“Countrymen,” I said. “I came here today to tell you about the wretched state of our homeland. Your brothers in the east were martyred on the fronts of Erzurum and Van,14 and their children were left on the streets, destitute and hungry. But I see it’s impossible for you to consider this matter today. You’re angry and resentful of each other. Let’s postpone this meeting until tomorrow.”
At once, shouts of “No!” rang out. A dark-skinned, pockmarked old man shot up from among the assembly.
“Sister,” he said, “surely, your arrival is a good omen. Don’t mind their fighting. They have respect for you. Please, won’t you reconcile these two?”
The thought hadn’t occurred to me. The old man went on.
“Mehmet is bitter at Derviş over a money affair,” he said. “They fight like this wherever they go. They both said they wouldn’t come if the other was here. But the Red Crescent decided it wouldn’t close its doors to anyone, and so they both got in. Please, won’t you reconcile them?”
I turned to the brawlers again.
“If what the old man says is true,” I said, “and you have any respect for me, you’ll embrace each other now.”
Mehmet and Derviş had been at each other’s throats for seven years, but that day, they kissed and embraced. And that was just the beginning. All those who’d quarreled were brought to me in pairs, and it fell upon me to reconcile them all.
Finally, the atmosphere eased, and I was able to address the real issue. They listened to my words in shock and dismay, and they wept openly. It was astounding to see these towering men cry. I could only assume that my words had conjured up visions of their villages, mothers, and children—places and loved ones they hadn’t seen in years.
After talking about the homeland, I addressed their own situation. I brought up the dreadful conditions in which they lived, scattered across the big cities of this boundless country, and told them this was due to their lack of organization. I stressed that all workers, whether Turkish, Kurdish, or Albanian, needed to unite and join the unions. I said that even if the Red Crescent and the Solidarity Association remained separate, they had to join forces to defend workers’ rights against their bosses.
I pointed out that strike-breaking was against their own interests. I proposed that the Red Crescent Association form a commission to deal with this matter, and that it cooperate with a similar commission from the Solidarity Association.
Rumi Efendi, the chairman, asked that workers’ issues be discussed in a separate meeting. He proposed that today’s meeting continue with a fundraiser for the homeland, the children, and Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers. This met with great enthusiasm, and the ensuing fundraiser became a true race of chivalry and largesse. If one of them gave $50, the other, not to be outdone, donated $75. We ended up collecting over $50,000. And later, we raised nearly as much from the Turks’ Solidarity Association as well.
Requesting an Ambassador from Ankara
After I returned to New York, we held an administrative council meeting and discussed bringing someone from Ankara over to the United States. A person with first-hand experience of the country’s plight could be of great help with our fundraising. We contacted the Association for the Protection of Children in Ankara, and the Ankara Central Committee decided to send over Dr. Fuat Bey, the chairman of the Association.
Fuat Bey arrived on the steamer Gülcemal,15 the first Turkish ship to come to America. Gülcemal’s arrival in the New York harbor turned into a major event. All associations sent representatives to welcome the ship. The Turks weren’t the only ones in attendance. Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and other people from Turkey were present as well, trying to catch a glimpse of the ship’s captains.
On the day of Fuat Bey’s arrival, we held a meeting in the conference hall of the Astoria Hotel and prepared a program for the welcoming ceremony. We also made a list of the cities Fuat Bey would be visiting. It was decided that I should serve as his travel companion and interpreter.
The first meeting was held in New York, where we rented out a big hall. Fuat Bey reported on the tragic state of the homeland. I gave an emotional talk. Poems were recited. Throughout the meeting, sobs could be heard from among the audience. After the speeches, we started accepting donations. The table was covered with piles of dollars. A middle-aged man of medium height, his eyebrows thick and black and his moustache so long that it touched his ears, made his way through the crowd and slowly approached the table. This was the Kurdish Sergeant Yusuf Gülabi. He started out by kissing Fuat Bey’s hand.
“You brought me the scent of my soil, my village,” he said. “Thank you so much for that. Surely, my own children are among those starving back home. I’ve been working in America for twenty-seven years. I worked as a laborer in the mines. I worked in the automobile factories and the Fruit Company’s16 orchards in the north. I slept in garages and public parks. I saved ten thousand dollars—you can have it all. I’ve decided to return to the homeland. All I want from you is a ticket on a ship and some help with finding a job back home. Here is my gold watch. Here is my gold belt-buckle. Take them to the homeland with my blessings.”
Everyone was in tears. We raised more than $100,000 that day.
In each city that Fuat Bey and I visited, we encountered men like Sergeant Gülabi. They brought us all the money they’d earned with their blood, sweat, and tears in bitter exile, and they poured it out before us like so many pebbles. All they asked in return was for their photos to be hung at the orphanages and hospitals that would be built back in the homeland. It was impossible not to be humbled by their magnanimity.
Thanks to these efforts, over 1,000,000 Turkish liras were sent back home. The first children’s centers, nursing homes, hospitals, and kindergartens set up in Ankara by the Society for the Protection of Children were built with this money. But no job was found for Sergeant Yusuf Gülabi. And no workers’ pictures adorned the walls next to those children’s beds.
Leaving New York
By the end of 1923, I’d completed my last year of college and earned my diploma, so we decided to accompany Fuat Bey back to the homeland. He asked me if I’d like to work for the Society for the Protection of Children, helping its board to address children’s issues. I wasn’t too fond of the idea. True, I’d dealt with children’s issues, along with other social issues, in America. But I wanted to work in my field of specialization, which was community organization. My ambition was to move to an Anatolian village and establish a community center. Still, I didn’t reject Fuat Bey’s proposal out of hand, telling him I’d decide after our return.
My experience among the Turkish workers in America had given me first-hand knowledge of the laborers, the villagers, the people of my homeland. Initially, they seemed difficult to work with, but once I found their sweet spots and addressed their specific needs, they weren’t difficult at all. It would be a major service to the country to enlighten these people, giving them the knowledge to defend their rights and the ability to determine their own fate.
The day of our departure came. We were leaving with Fuat Bey, Yusuf Gülabi, and some other workers. The laborers with whom I’d worked over the past three years came to see us off, even from other cities. People made their way to the harbor in a crowded throng. They were shaking my hand and kissing it, telling me they wouldn’t forget me.
I was in tears. They gave me a gold pen as a parting gift, and I gave them my word that I would use this pen to advocate for workers’ rights. I didn’t realize at the time how hard a promise that would prove to keep.
Waving at them from the deck of the ship, I couldn’t help but wonder how long the organizations I was leaving behind would survive.
I kept in contact with the New York organization after my return. But as many years of struggle started weighing on my shoulders, the letter exchange broke off. Still, from time to time, Fuat Bey told me that the US organizations remained active and made regular donations.
A dozen years later, in 1937, I visited the USA to see my daughter Sevim, who was studying there. The board of the Solidarity Association was full of young people. The connection between the New York organization and others around the country had been lost. Most of my old acquaintances had moved elsewhere, and some had died. The youngsters invited me to their meetings. I learned that the workers belonging to the association had become unionized, and that some youngsters had joined socialist organizations. They took me to a meeting of the Renters’ Association, which had been set up by the workers. The film Chapaev was being shown at the association’s movie theater, and we watched it together.17
They asked me about Nazım Hikmet.18 They wanted to know everything about him. They recited his poems, telling me they’d received them from their friends back in the homeland.
Some of these young people joined the Lincoln Brigade, which went from the United States to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. The youngsters I met in 1937 were no longer the workers of the old days, unaware of why they were exploited and meekly bowing down to their fate. They had acquired the conviction to fight for their rights. They participated in strikes and joined forces with workers from all other nations. I was delighted. These were the fruits of the seeds we had sown.
1. After I returned to Turkey, I wrote a series of reading primers under the title Yeni Kıraat [New Reading]. They followed the Thorndike method and were accepted for use by Turkish primary schools.↑
2. Translators’ Note: Ziya Gökalp (1876–1924) was a founding ideologue of Turkish nationalism.↑
3. T.N.: An early and influential Turkish nationalist society.↑
4. T.N.: Sertel is referring to the Columbia School of Social Work.↑
5. T.N.: Samuel Gompers (1850-1924) was the founder of the American Federation of Labor.↑
6. T.N.: A town in eastern Anatolia. The name, deriving from the Armenian word for spring, has since been changed to Kemaliye.↑
7. T.N.: Sertel is referring to the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923). Following World War I, the Ottoman Empire was occupied and partitioned by the Allied Powers. However, many Anatolian segments of the Ottoman army were still intact and regrouped under the command of the renegade Ottoman officer Mustafa Kemal (1881–1938). After driving the (mostly Greek) occupation forces from Anatolia, Mustafa Kemal proclaimed the Republic of Turkey with himself as its first president and assumed the name Atatürk, often translated as “father of the Turks.”↑
8. T.N.: The Dashnaksutyun, or Federation of Armenian Revolutionaries, was a leading force in the struggle to emancipate the Armenian population within, and later from, the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey.↑
9. In those days, the Bowery was the area of downtown New York where the homeless, the unemployed, and the poorest immigrants lived. Here, one could have a man killed and all traces of the murder removed with a five-dollar bribe to the police.↑
10. T.N.: Writing from a Turkish nationalist perspective, Sertel often refers to Greek “oppression” or “atrocities” during the War of Independence, but has little to say about atrocities committed against non-Turkish and/or non-Muslim populations, including Greeks and Armenians.↑
11. T.N.: Sertel is likely referring to Columbia University’s Teachers College.↑
12. T.N.: Ahmet Anzavur (d. 1921) was the commander dispatched to Anatolia by Ottoman sultan Mehmed VI (r. 1918-1922), who sided with the occupying Allied Powers against the renegade armed forces under Mustafa Kemal. Mehmed VI was to be the last Ottoman sultan; the sultanate was abolished with the proclamation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.↑
13. T.N.: Turkish equivalent of madam.↑
14. T.N.: It is notable that in addressing a Kurdish audience, Sertel highlights the conditions in areas heavily populated by Kurds.↑
15. T.N.: Literally, “Rose-Faced.”↑
16. T.N.: Sertel gives the company’s name as “Fruit Company” in English.↑
17. T.N.: Chapaev (dir. Georgi and Sergei Vasiliev, 1934) is a classic of early Soviet cinema.↑
18. T.N.: Nazım Hikmet Ran (1902-1963) is widely considered to be the greatest poet of the Turkish Republic. He features prominently in later chapters of Sertel’s autobiography.↑