Aristidis Tsilfidis with his wife Aionia Tsilfidou in Australia (circa 1970)
I was born in 1915 in a village called Gölcük in the Pontos region of Asia Minor. Gölcük was in the province of Tokat and the jurisdiction of Sivas. My earliest memories of Gölcük were mostly good ones. Our village consisted of 100 families all of which were Greek. Most of the neighboring villages were Turkish although I do remember Armenians, Circassians and Laz living close-by or having close family connections with us.
Gölcük had a school which I attended for about a year. The teacher was Greek. Gölcük also had its own church, the church of Saint George. I can still remember the church bell ringing on Sundays and everyone gathering at the church to socialize. There was no requirement to attend; whoever wanted attended. I also remember Easter in our village how we painted the eggs red and took part in the Greek 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 usually involved music and dance. Dancing was always accompanied by a musical instrument called the kemenche. Everyone gathered around the kemenche player who would play his instrument while they all danced around him. As for marriage, it was either done in secret or it was arranged by the parents. Our village had various fruits such as pears, and vegetables like potatoes and corn. We owned two cows that supplied us with milk which we drank and also for making pasketan (strained yoghurt) and foutari, a very nice tasting cheese. There were two water mills in the village and they were used to grind wheat to make flour. The water mills sat on the side of the river and the force of the current spun a spindle which turned a large plate around. We used the flour to make bread and pita (pie).
There were no doctors in our village. The closest doctor was too far so we had to treat the sick using natural remedies. It involved using plants to make medicines which we either drank or applied to the skin. Our village was mostly agricultural. The president of the village had the title of mukhtar. He was also the agricultural officer of the village. The village paid him from its funds. We did our shopping at a town called Erbaa which was four hours away by foot. Another town close to us was Tokat which was ten hours away by foot.
My father's name was John Tsilfidis. He was a carpenter. He could make 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 build houses in the Summer. There was also this particular plant in the forest which we made tea from. We called it European tea. My mother's name was Maria Kouklidou. She did the housework. She used to make string from cotton which she then used to make socks, jumpers and other clothing. I remember how she also made brooms or ligur as we called them. My paternal grandfather was Efstathios Tsilfidis and my paternal grandmother was Despina. They lived in Gölcük too. I had one sister who was two years older than me. My mother gave birth to 12 children. 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 Gölönü. She too was expelled from Pontos in 1923.
There was a village close to ours called Canbolat. It was about an hour away by foot. Most of my father's friends who were Circassians lived there. So too did my father's brother Nikos Tsilfidis. Nikos worked for a man who held the rank of captain. I assume he was a military captain since we called him lokhago, a Greek word for military captain. This man owned a lot of sheep; roughly 200 of them and uncle Nikos would tend to them. During Summer, uncle Nikos would bring the sheep to a mountain close to our village called Yiagletsouk. Among the herd was a wild ram. I remember how uncle Nikos would bring the sheep to our village and the ram would run after all the children. It used to make us cry. We ran away every time it went near us. But uncle Nikos did everything he could to protect us. He would put his arm around me and wave his stick at the ram to scare it away. He would always protect me first.
At a village called Evereon (probably İverönü) 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, two gendarmes (policemen) came to the village on horseback. They went straight to my father and shouted at him, "You haven't done your military duty!" Within the blink of an eye they mounted him on their horse and took him away. The chiflika soon learned of this and was very angry. He mounted his horse and went looking for them. But first he stopped at the priest's house and the house of a relative of ours, a man who we called Teli Hatzi. The three of them then rode into town to find the gendarmes and my father. They eventually found them. The chiflika asked the gendarmes why my father was taken away and what they could do to release him. The gendarmes said that my father had to do military duty. At the time, military duty for Christians was just another form of hard labour. They said that in order for my father to be released they would have to pay 3 liras. The chiflika paid them and my father was released. The chiflika knew the gendarmes were easily bribed.
On another occasion my father wasn't so lucky. He was caught by the gendarmerie and was sent to do hard labour. Everyone knew that if you were sent to these hard labour battalions (Amele taburu as they were called ) you would never return. Only Greeks were sent there. Most men died because they were forced to do difficult work somewhere in the depths of Turkey under terrible conditions. They were made to break rocks in preparation for the building of railroads. It was a death camp for Greeks. One night my father decided to escape from the battalion. While the gendarmes were asleep he made a run for it. He ran for days. But one night two Turkish officers caught him. They immediately held a gun to his head and were about to kill him when luckily a Laz man intervened. The Laz man asked why they were about to kill my father. They said because he was Armenian. This happened around the time Armenians were being persecuted. The Laz man told the Turkish officers that my father was not Armenian but Greek. They didn't believe him. The Laz man said that he could prove it and told my father to quickly recite the Pater Imon which was a hymn that Greeks sang in church. My father quickly sang it. He also recited a few more Greek hymns, ones that he would usually sing at church on Sundays. They reluctantly released him. From that day on, the gendarmes regularly passed our village looking for my father. They knew he'd escaped so they kept a close watch on us. So my father decided to hide. He didn't want to die in the labour battalions so he resorted to hiding in the attic of our house. He did so for six months. My mother gave him food and water up there and also string and knitting needles so that he could make socks and jumpers for us.
I was around 5 or 6 when I recall trouble brewing in our district. Even before this, the Turks would often intimidate us but we avoided confrontation by fleeing to neighboring villages until things settled down. Then we'd return and get on with our lives. But this time it was different. My father used to work in a Turkish village close to Erbaa and he heard that Greeks were being killed. Word was going around that a soldier by the name of Topal Osman had encircled Erbaa and was systematically killing Greeks. He didn't care what age they were. He was killing the old and the young too. As soon as our village heard this everyone began to panic. The decision was made to flee to the mountains so we fled to nearby Yiagletsouk. Everyone left Gölcük in a hurry. Some didn't take much clothing with them. They didn't realise they would be gone for a long time.
We stayed on the mountain for two and a half years because we were being hunted by Turkish forces. We survived by digging large holes in the earth to make temporary housing. We slept in there to hide from the Turks and to protect us from the elements. 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 placed branches of wood over the top and then sand which formed an almost watertight seal. It kept us dry in winter and warm at nights. It was a kind of camouflage too. The snow during winter was our main obstacle especially for the women, children and the elderly. At nights we lit fires in our little homes to keep warm. It wasn't easy living like this but we had to. Those who didn't bring enough clothing suffered the most. We did whatever we could to support them but unfortunately these people were the first to die. Many also died of hunger and disease, especially the elderly and the young. At nights our men went looking for food and brought back whatever they could. Water was also in shortage and I remember seeing a man drinking his own urine to survive.
To defend ourselves our men took up arms. While we were hiding in the mountains, Turkish soldiers were trying to find us. They wanted to kill us. But our men protected us. They did everything they could to protect the women and children first and foremost but also the group as a whole. The leader of this group was a man called Anastasios Papadopoulos. He was a relative of ours. He often visited my parents at our village. His nickname was Gotsa Nastas which meant Big Anastas. He was a big strong man with a very deep voice. Gotsa Nastas gave the orders and the others followed. Whenever the Turks tried to make an assault on the mountain, we sent signals to Gotsa Nastas and his men and they would immediately come to protect us. We had an intricate system of communication where we all participated in sending messages whenever help was required. On many of these occasions there would be an exchange of gunfire. But our men always found ways 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 forest on the mountain was very dense and it worked in our favour too. No one would fire a shot unless ordered to do so by Gotsa Nastas. Even when Turks were firing at us, Gotsa Nastas always waited 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 to defeat him but they couldn't.
Around 1923, word had got around that an exchange of populations had been organized between us and Greece. Our two and a half year ordeal on the mountain had come to an end. But those who took up arms against the Turks were still being hunted. Many of these men made secret exits from Turkey via small boats and fled to Russia. Gotsa Nastas was a wanted man. He traveled from one location to another so that he wouldn't be caught. At times, the Turks sent him messages via their messengers telling him that he was safe and that they wouldn't harm him, but he knew they were bluffing. They told him that Greeks and Turks were now friends and 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 outside. A group of Turkish soldiers were hiding behind a bush near the toilet. They waited for him to enter the toilet before firing numerous shots at him and killed him. The following day I remember hearing commotion in the street so I went to see what all the fuss was about. I saw a large crowd of people around a pole making a lot of noise. I was only small so I made my way to the front to see better. When I got to the front I saw Gotsa Nastas with a noose tied around his neck hanging from the pole. They had taken his shirt off to expose his bullet wounds. In all I counted 7 bullet holes in his chest. They were all shouting and spitting at him and hitting him with whatever they could. Then they took his body and paraded it from one village to the other and shouting in Turkish that they had killed the "father of the Pontian Greeks".
A decision had been made that we had to leave Turkey; the place where we were born and the only place we knew. We were being forced to leave. And so began our journey. Our first stop was Canbolat where we stayed for a week. Then we went to Tokat. We got there by horse and carriage which we had to pay for. Our carriages were loaded with the most valuable things we owned which was just our clothing. From Tokat we began our long journey to Samsun which took 2-3 days. Not only were we leaving our homes, businesses, church and everything else we owned but we were being forced to pay for the transport. To make matters worse, we had to endure hardships along the way. I remember on one road, a Turkish man approached a lady who was wearing a new pair of shoes. He made her take her shoes off and grabbed them off her. He then threw his dirty old pair at her in return. We were being demoralised. 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. It was chaotic. The child got sick and died. We didn't want it to die without being baptized so we asked a passer-by to baptize the child just before it died.
The last time we saw my father's brother Nikos was in Samsun. With all the chaos and the desperation to leave we 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 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. The Red Cross fed us biscuits. We were hungry and exhausted from the long journey. They also fed us some kind of flour which tasted sugary. We mixed it with water and ate it. I often wonder what would have happened if the Red Cross wasn't at Constantinople. The nurses gave the children injections to ward off disease but every day 50-100 people died. A vision that hasn't left me to this day is that of my hands being cupped as I waited in a long queue to be fed. A man who had two large sacks of flour was giving each of us a small amount. I waited in line with my hands cupped and outstretched waiting for my turn to be fed. I can still remember the flour as it struck the palms of my hands. This vision will never leave me.
We boarded another ship and set sail for Thessaloniki, Greece. We had no idea where they were taking us. We were just following orders. At Thessaloniki we were placed onto trains under military escort. We passed though Veria which at the time was a barren expanse of land full of mosquitoes. Today it's a thriving city. From Veria they loaded us onto military vehicles and took us to Kozani. At Aminteo, 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 who were also involved in the exchange of populations. They were sent to Turkey some time after we arrived. 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 lived for 3 months after our arrival then passed away, probably from the torturous journey and hiding up on the mountain. It took its toll on her, as did the death of 11 of her children. My father died seven years later in 1930 at the age of 48.
Aristidis Tsilfidis passed away in Melbourne in May 2006 at the age of 91. His wife Aionia passed away in 1992 at the age of 76.