During the Armenian Genocide, various methods of punishment and violence were used against Armenian orphans in Turkish orphanages. This again indicates that Islamization and renaming were carried out by force.
The first important condition for admission to an orphanage was renaming. Almost all orphans mention this in their memoirs.
Garnik Banyan who had lived in an orphanage in Antura for about two and a half years told us that the orphanage had given him the number 549 and the name Ahmed. A foster-child at the same orphanage named Melkon Petrosyan had been given the name Necipe and the number 8. Harutyun Alboyadjyan had been renamed twice – first in Dere and then in Antura where he had received the name Sukri and the number 535.
Khoren Glchyan from Aleppo was taken to the Gharbiyye Central Military School in Constantinople. Here, everyone was given copper stamps with their new Turkish names. Glchyan received a seal with the name “Ali Oglu Islam”, which, by decree of the leadership, was always to hang from his neck.
Mari Grigoryan, a foster-child of a mixed (boys and girls) Turkish orphanage in Mardin, had been renamed Ayşe. She told about the renaming ceremony: “… Each of us was given an identification card in which the fathers of everyone without exception were named Abdullah and mothers Saliye…”
Yervand Postaldzhyan, a foster-child who lived in the orphanage of Adana for about six years and received the name Mehmed Ogli, writes in his memoirs: “In order not to forget our names, we wrote them on leaflets and hid them on ourselves.”
Newcomers were divided into classes and appointed a foreman who was responsible for the group. A few hours a day, the groups did sports. Any wrong move was punished by beating.
One of the cruel punishments used in Antura was falakh. A loose belt was attached to the ends of a stick, and the legs of the punished were pushed through the belt. Two people then rotated the stick, tightening the belt around the legs, while a third person was beating the feet of the punished till blood.
Harutyun Alboyadjyan writes about the punishments used: “If someone spoke Armenian… they were severely punished. They were either beat up or forced to stand on the roof of the canteen and watch the sun for three to four hours.”
Often, children who had run away from the orphanage to the woods in search of food were locked up for 24 hours, were not given food, and were subjected to falakh during dinner. For the use of falakh, each orphanage had a special “index” where it was noted how many falakhs each “crime” was punished with.
Each lesson was accompanied by reproaches, offensive words, with heavy stones laid against the wall, with sticks of various sizes behind the door, and with the presence of a tool for the falakh.
Turkish “pedagogy” used almost all possible techniques. At Mardin’s orphanage, noise during the lesson was a pretext for the teacher to beat the children with a “sacred stick” and then lead them out into the yard under the pretext of a roll call.
In such orphanages, lessons on Islam were also obligatory. Melkon Petrosyan gave several examples of these lessons in his memoirs.
Speaking of Christianity, Feyzi Pasha noted: “… Little ones, your religion is obsolete just like paganism, your prophet Jesus is also obsolete. When a shirt wears out, it is thrown away, and a new one is put on.”
In the orphanage of Mardin during lessons on Islam, children learned by heart excerpts from the Quran. In parallel with this, they also learned how to wash and do salah (essentially pray) in accordance with Islamic laws.
Circumcision was also mandatory in orphanages. While children, albeit feigningly, somehow resigned to the fact of renaming or Islamization, they fiercely opposed the ritual of circumcision. When rumors of this procedure spread in orphanages, many boys escaped.
A foster-child in an orphanage in Adana Yervand Postaldjian writes in his memoirs that the director of the orphanage placed an advertisement in the newspaper, urging believing Turks to take part in the ceremony of circumcision of the orphanage’s Armenian children.
Khoren Glchyan recalled that at their orphanage, by order of the directorate, all Armenian orphans had been taken to Constantinople and subjected to circumcision.
Turkish leaders occasionally carried out checks in orphanages which were always accompanied by a solemn feast with applause. In childhood memories, this event has always been associated with delicious food and a festive but fake atmosphere of friendliness. Djemal Pasha has visited the orphanages in Antura several times, and Enver and Talaat have done the same in Gharbiyye.
To reduce the number of orphans in some orphanages, the Turks resorted to poisoning. They often “naturally” poisoned the water when corpses were thrown into wells that supplied water to orphanages. In the orphanages of Mardin, poisoning cases were associated with the use of bread.
At the end of 1918, before the departure of the Turkish personnel of the Antura orphanage, Rza Bey, the pharmacist, was instructed to poison all orphans during the last dinner. But Rza Bey did not agree to such a crime. It is noteworthy that when he talked to Armenian children sitting in the dining room, everyone remembered their Armenian names.
Thus, the strategy of the Young Turk government was reduced to the goal of depriving Armenian children of their own biological and racial characteristics, that is, taking away their identity by gradually turning it into another identity.
The government consistently carried out this policy until the conclusion of the Mudros Armistice in 1918. After that, Turkish orphanages were transferred to missionary, foreign, and Armenian organizations.
The process of assimilation of Armenian orphans was carried out in several stages, the first of which was their collection and resettlement. The Ottoman government was in a hurry to gather them as it feared that missionary and charitable organizations would manage to do this earlier than them.
The second stage was the concentration of Armenian orphans in orphanages, where the process of renaming, circumcision, and Islamization began. The Turkish side avoided any trifles that could remind the Armenian orphans of their past. They preferred to contact the children by their numbers, depriving them of not only their national identity but also their individuality.
There were cases when, even in the event of a shortage of staff in the orphanage, the directorate dismissed Armenian women working there, fearing that their presence could be a stimulus for the recovery of the Armenian orphans.
The atmosphere of fear and the application of the method of punishment at first glance seemed successful. The orphans stopped talking to each other in Armenian. But in the memoirs, all the authors noted that before going to bed, they had always crossed themselves under the blanket, repeated excerpts from the Lord’s Prayer heard from their parents, and, sometimes not remembering prayers, had repeated their names and the names of their relatives not to forget them.
In the process of implementing this policy, the Turkish government has always been afraid and wary of Islamized Armenians. It should be noted that an order was received from Constantinople, according to which permission to Islamization was granted only after the approval of the central authorities or to women married to Muslims.
In orphanages, it was easier to control the process of Islamization. However, this policy did not last long. In 1919, in the first six months after the end of hostilities, significant measures were taken to return the Armenian orphans.
During the “Orphans’ Gathering”, Armenian and international organizations were able to withdraw from the orphanages and save numerous Armenian orphans who were on the way of Turkification. However, it should be noted that most infant orphans, not remembering their identity and sometimes fearing a repetition of the experiences of the past, chose to remain silent about their nationality and thus were eventually assimilated.
Candidate of Historical Sciences Narine Margaryan