May 19, 2023

The Church That Became Synonymous With Hell: A True Story of the Pontic Genocide

An image of hell from the Church of Saint George in Patlama.

Perhaps the most heinous crime of the first period of the Pontian Genocide, by the Young Turks (1914-1918), took place at the Church of Saint George in Patlama of Kerasunda.

Patlama was a small seaside suburb of the city of Kerasunda (mod. Giresun), near the river of the same name, which was about two kilometers from it. During the First World War, its inhabitants were exiled to the interior of Asia Minor, where they were decimated, 80% by hunger, diseases and hardships.

25 families lived in this suburb of Kerasunda and it was known for the Church of Saint George, where a big festival was held every year. The Church of Saint George was used as a prison in 1917 for the detention of exiled natives of Tripoli and other Greeks, against whom the Turks committed horrific atrocities and crimes inside and outside its sacred space.

It is one of the most shocking chapters of the genocide of Pontic Hellenism.

The Church of Saint George of Patlama: An Image of Hell

By Georgios Lampsides

Come now to follow the story of a great church whose name became synonymous with hell.

Patlama is a small town, a quarter of an hour away from Kerasunda. It would have no value for our history if there was not a church there: Saint George. Today, when you mention to an elderly Pontian the Church of Saint George of Patlama, he looks at you for several seconds, surprised, then asks: "Saint George Patlama?" He opens and closes his eyes, thinks a little and says: "How did you remember it! We had said to forget everything."

But the historians who described the last period of Hellenic Pontus cannot forget it. They keep coming back to Saint George of Patlama to show the horror, the abjection, the degradation of human dignity. "Even the demons of hell would weep before such a scene...", Valavanis says with trembling, having experienced the events very closely. "The doors of hell were opened, because the Church of Saint George of Patlama was named such," writes the emigrant in 1965 to Metropolitan Agathangelos of Zichna and Nevrokopion and devotes most of the details about this hell in his book "The History of the Pontic Village of Hopsa and Its Destruction".

But let us return to the order of our narration. As we already wrote, the displacements and expulsions of Greeks and their families allegedly "due to war needs" were at their peak. Many escaped from the convoys and dispersed to various cities, especially Kerasunda. But there the situation changed dangerously, as reported by Metropolitan Agathangelos. Topal Osman's constant extortions and blackmails extinguished the trade of the city. There were no more jobs. Food prices increased twentyfold and life for the exiles who fled there became very difficult. In order to survive, the "bootlegging" refugees were forced to carry military food and munitions on their shoulders from Kerasunda to Kulak-Kayan, a distance normally covered by an unladen pedestrian in nine hours. But these humans laden with burdens, men and women, who carried 25 okas of burden on their shoulders, covered this distance in two days. For these 25 okas, 50 grossi were paid, while the cornbread's oka was 70 grossi. That is, two days' wages of grueling work represented less than a grain of cornbread...

But it was not only the difficulty of nutrition. Every day Topal Osman's henchmen ran through the city and cleared out refugees who were abandoned in the barns, stables and belfries. And we already mentioned the tragic nights when Topal Osman's hordes gathered children and drowned them in the port of Kerasunda. As many of these refugee families as the army and the gendarmerie managed to arrest, they immediately transferred them to Saint George of Patlama. But let's let Agathangelos, the former Metropolitan of Zichna and Nevrokopion, open the curtain on this terrible hell of Pontic Hellenism.

Topal Osman

Twelve families from the village of Hopsa, who were among the thousands of refugees who fled to Kerasunda, decided to leave secretly for Karahisar and from there for the Russian lines. Of course, their decision was extremely rash because the distance was long and the dangers on the road many. But man prefers boldness, when there is no other way out, to death. Didn't Despina Pachatouridou and her sister Soumela Kalaitzidou do the same two months ago and manage to escape to Russian territory? Did other families not do the same and be saved? What does it mean if some were arrested and executed on the spot? Each to their own luck.

And on a rainy and icy morning in April 1917, the twelve families started for life or death, without any supplies. They collected grasses and snails on the road and supported themselves with them. When evening came, they reached Tash-Khan, where they settled. There they lit a fire to warm themselves and to dry their clothes, which were soaked from the all-day rain. At the moment when the members of these twelve families were warming themselves around the fire, the door suddenly opened and a new boy of 16 entered, wet, cold and frightened. From the frost and fear he could not speak, his jaws were immobilized. For a quarter of an hour they rubbed and warmed him, until he somewhat recovered. They then gave him some grass and some snails roasted on the fire to eat because he was completely famished. Eager to know who he was and where he came from, the others had surrounded him and were waiting for him to speak.

"I am from Kapekklese of Tripoli..." the young man began with difficulty. "Let me go, I cannot tell you what my eyes saw...let me go. I'm so dizzy!” And he fell on his back again. Those around him were horrified and waited for the continuation of the narration. He looked at them all, rubbed his hands a little to warm up, and soon he got courage. "We had intended to leave for Russia," the young man continued with difficulty, "but they came and informed us that we would be displaced... So many from Kapekklese and Jal, to escape the displacement, went to the mountains with their families. There they waited ten days for the advance of the Russians. But the advance never took place." Everyone's eyes were on the young man who was breathing heavily and trying to get up.

Two or three ran to him and put him back in his seat. "Tell us, tell us, my lad, and don't torture us," pleaded an old man. The young man made one more effort, and sat more firmly in his seat. Everyone fell silent to listen... "When the fugitives in the mountains, my compatriots, saw that the Russians were not coming, they came down and surrendered to the Turks. Their food was gone and the women and children couldn't take it anymore... but what can I tell you, what my eyes saw... It was so horrific. Some were killed immediately or butchered before our eyes, and others were beaten with thick wooden rods. They stripped men and women. When this was over, they forced us all to undress, men and women, and to march... We marched like this, in these wretched conditions, for two days through the mountains. Each was ashamed before the other and our unfortunate women tried to cover themselves with the rags and sacks they found in a deserted Greek village."

The young man wiped the tears that rolled down his cheeks with his hand. He was crying. They were all crying. They wept for those who suffered and wept for their own fate. "They were taking us to Karahisar," continued the lad, after everyone had calmed down a bit. "To go to Karahisar, we had to cross Mount Eiripel which was covered in snow... Cold icy air pierced our naked bodies... That was the end... Some 450 souls froze there in Eiripel... In the morning the snow had covered them all...." The young man was crying with sobs, as everyone was crying...

"My mother, my mother," the young man shouted in his sobs. "I held her until the last moment. And Isaac, my little brother, I dragged him by the hand, until I put him down... He couldn't walk anymore... 'Nicholas,' he said to me, 'I'm getting cold... I'm freezing...' and he closed his mouth. He froze... Three of us were saved... I left and went to Jal, found clothes and went into the mountains to find salvation...." That night there was wailing and howling in Tash-Khan's inn. They were weeping and crying. What awaited them now? Death, a painful and slow death.

"That's enough," shouted an old man. "We cry for others and don't look at what we will do. And death there and death here... Wherever it is we will fight to save ourselves...." These voices brought some quiet to the inn and many settled down to sleep their restless sleep. It was raining heavily in the morning and yet they had to start. They could not stay in this inn. They would go to Karahisar even if it rains...

At the moment when they were ready to start off, two gendarmerie (Turkish guards) appeared before them and asked to see their written permission to move around. But there was no such written permission. These twelve families were leaving secretly. The gendarmerie then prevented their departure and asked for instructions by telephone from Kerasunda. And the military authorities of Kerasunda ordered the return of these families accompanied by local guards.

In the heavy rain and cold, the sad procession of the twelve families, which included the unfortunate young man, Nicholas, who escaped the frost of Mount Eiripel, were going back to Kerasunda. They marched all day and towards evening they reached the first houses of the tormented city, where they were led directly to the prison yard and there they crouched trembling to get some rest. After two hours an officer appeared before them. The Greeks, wet and fasting, were happy to see an officer. They ran to him to beg him to put them in prison to save themselves! But the prayers and fervent pleas they made to him were of no avail.

As soon as the Turkish officer saw them, without waiting for their entreaties to end, he asked them where they were from. When he was informed that they came from the villages of Argyroupolis (mod. Gümüşhane), he went into a frenzy and began to curse them and threaten them with shootings and massacres. "You will never see your homeland again," he told them angrily. "You will all be cut to pieces by Topal Osman...." He cursed them vulgarly, pushed away the women who begged him, and beat two or three men who dared to ask him for a roof to get dry and warm. "I will send you," he said to them, "to a good roof to rest for good...." He wrote a note which he gave to the gendarmerie and ordered them to take the "dirty Romans" to Patlama.

The gendarmerie with their thugs started beating them and pushing them out of the prison yard. In spite of the continued rain and darkness, which enveloped everything, the unhappy families, in a miserable condition, set out for Patlama. Somehow then they got courage. They believed that in Patlama they would find shelter, food and a little fire to warm themselves. And they hurried in the dark, dragging their feet and their children, to get there as quickly as possible. But the denial of their hopes came very soon. As soon as they arrived in Patlama, they were taken to the Church of Saint George.

The church was not very big, it could barely fit 200 people standing up and in fact, somewhat suffocating. But that didn't matter to them, they would get comfortable inside the church - it wasn't 60 people - and they would at least lie down to get warm and dry. When they entered the courtyard of the church they saw a gendarmerie standing guard at the door and holding a handkerchief to his nose. Some suspected something, but did not pay much attention. They could imagine everything, but not what they saw as soon as the door opened and the gendarmerie tricked them into entering quickly.

Into Hell

Filth, stench, noise and wailing were the first to greet them, as soon as the church door was opened. The stench of filth, the stench of death, the stench of smoke, a stench unbearable, darkness. They stepped forward, pushed by the others, on human bodies that some cursed them and others were speechless - they were corpses. They stopped at one point standing and waited to get used to the darkness somewhat. Some made it to the windows, to get some fresh air. But it was impossible. People were curled up everywhere, they couldn't lie down, get any quiet. It was overcrowded everywhere. Over 300 people - living and dead - were locked in this small space that could only hold, as we said, 200, and that factored only those standing.

Although it was night almost everyone was awake. They were shouting, crying. They begged the gendarmerie to take them out and throw them into the sea, which was there to calm them down. Others begged God to take them, to save them from this hell. Still others were cursing. "They were constantly cursing and blaspheming..." The newcomers thus remained standing and waited for their eye to get used to the darkness to see what they would do, where they would be comfortable. Soon they began to unravel the surroundings, to see the human masses piled up. Near them was an old woman who was dying of starvation. She was trying to say something, she kept asking for something to eat... After a while, she fell silent. It was dawning outside.

There was an old man to the side who had a young woman, his daughter, who was unconscious. The old man didn't know what to do, he was shaking her, talking to her. She nothing. Then, as if enlightened by an idea, he took off from one of his feet the tsarouchi (flat, hard-soled shoe), which he cut into small pieces with a small knife and gave one to his daughter. "Symela, to eat." The girl opened her eyes and began to slowly but voraciously chew the piece of tsarouchi. She asked for more and more. The old man and the girl ate one tsarouchi and started the second one. The old man was heard by others, who started the same. Those who did not have knives asked the others, who would not give them unless they received a piece in exchange. People turned into hungry jackals that devoured their carrion.

Kyriaki Tsaousis of Pavlos (a relative of the Metropolitan of Zichna and Nevrokopion, who gives us these horrible images) seeing all these terrible things said quietly: "It's a good thing that they don't eat the dead too." The woman next to her replied that they don't eat them because they stink, otherwise they wouldn't even leave their bones. "But is the tsarouchi better?" added another. Another woman intervened and told them not to shout because they might hear them and start eating the dead as well.

At that moment there was a fight in the background. A woman's voice was heard saying, “Aren't you ashamed to steal my tsarouchi while I was sleeping? Didn't you consider I have a soul too?" The other was shouting, protesting that she didn't take it from her. But then she took it out of her bosom and gave it to her half-eaten. The hunger was made worse by the indescribable uncleanliness inside the temple. No one was allowed to go out for their physical needs. Those who died were placed inside the sanctuary, unburied. The smell was unbearable. They deliberately did not allow the burial of the dead, just to cause diseases and everyone would die inside the temple.

"The Turkish doctor Abdul Vehab", mentions the Archimandrite Panaretos Topalides in his book "Pontus Through the Ages",  where he described the hell of Patlama, "ordered, in order to observe the pretexts, to visit the temple, but he could not approach because of the heavy stench and he declared in writing to the authorities of Kerasunda, that there is a massacre there."

The next day at sunrise, the door to hell opened. Immediately everyone turned their eyes to the door. Everyone expected help from the Kerasundians. But where was the help...! Terrified, the Kerasundians were not only unable to intercede on behalf of the prisoners, but they did not even dare to provide material help. The door opened and new victims entered the inferno. The entrants were twelve. The number 500, however, had not yet been completed. An order had been given by the military commander to the gendarmerie that as soon as 500 people were reached, the prisoners were to be deported to Tokat. This number could easily be completed in a single day, because there were many refugees. However, they deliberately did not supplement it in order to be decimated by disease and hunger. The commander's plan was diabolical. The number 500 could not be completed because as many who entered died inside the temple...

For a moment a small outsider who escaped the attention of the guards, presented himself at a window of the church selling hazelnuts and hazelnut bread. Those with money ran to the window, stepping over others to buy. But the noise that was made betrayed them. The gendarmerie ran to see what was happening, arrested the boy and after beating him severely took the money and the things he had with him. Then the inmates of hell cried out as if on cue. “God where are you? Do you exist or not exist? Saint George, come soon, we will all die here from hunger...." These screams continued for several minutes. The gendarmerie who was a guard, opened the door and screamed for them to be quiet or he will shoot anyone who happens to be there.

Then some women begged to be allowed to go out to quench their thirst and for their physical need. Surprisingly the wild one as if by magic, was tamed. The merciless one, softened. So about noon, he placed sentinels on the wall of the courtyard to prevent anyone from escaping, and then he opened the door and ordered everyone out. At the same time, he ordered some young men to collect the dead inside the Holy Bema and clean the temple. Unfortunately, although this order was for the good of the prisoners, it was not carried out, and all together as one man rushed out, some to the nearby river to quench their thirst, some to gather grass, some climbed trees where they ate even the leaves greedily. The jailers, observing this horrible sight, laughed merrily. After about an hour they were ordered back to hell.

The next day, they waited in vain for help from the Kerasundians. New despair. Wild voices. Enraged, the warden went in and beat many. But the refugees also threatened to beat him. He sensed their desperation and, fearing that they might break down the door, promised them that they would come out. And indeed at noon, he allowed them to go out, mainly to dry their urine-soaked clothes, since it was not humanly possible for them to keep it in for 24 hours! As soon as they came out they started looking for food... Then they lay down like animals on the ground. We could say that these people had now been dehumanized!

Those who had other clothes, took off the dirty ones, put on the clean ones and tried to wash the dirty ones in the river. The rest who had no second clothes no one could approach them. They stayed out for about three hours that day. After entering, they found that a woman and two children hid in a tree and while the guards were dealing with the entry of the rest, they escaped.

At sunset they brought a priest. The moment a woman entered before him, she died of hunger. The priest cried out in astonishment. "My God, what am I seeing!" And he began to cry inconsolably. He had not finished crying when a woman called out to him: "Come, father, read a prayer, here a woman is dying...." "Whoever enters this hell," answered the priest, "their sins are forgiven... they have no need of prayers...." From that moment, however, the priest's appearance changed and in a little while, unable to bear the terrible stench, he fell unconscious. Those around him then, started arguing about who will take his clothes. The priest in his daze said softly: "Wait until I die first...."

Not a few minutes passed and a voice was heard from the Holy Bema, where the dead were being transported: "I'm hungry, I'm huuuuungry... My God, my Panagia...." Some young people got up to see what was going on. It was a woman who had been brought there the day before for dead. But these words were also her last, her dying words. She was now dead for good....

A Child Alive in the Grave

The priest "fell asleep in the Lord" the next day. Everyone hailed him as blessed because he died without suffering much. "May his memory be eternal," they all shouted. He was lying there with a face that showed his terror. But his feet were bare. The tsarouchia at night were devoured. Who took them? Two girls were arguing accusing each other... A gendarmerie enters, takes nine young people and leads them out. There he orders them to dig three pits. They, though exhausted by hunger, prepared them. Then he orders everyone out and gave five women five brooms to clean the temple. After this work was finished, they carried all the dead to the pits where they buried them. In the largest pit, they buried four men and two women. In the second pit, three women, one young man and one young woman and in the third pit the priest, a woman and a child of about ten years, a total of fourteen people.

The child started moving when they buried him! Perhaps because he was refreshed by the fresh air. The leader, the anthropomorphic monster, however, despite the indications that the ten-year-old child was alive, ordered to bury him and thus the unfortunate one was buried alive...

One day out of desperation some young men and women decided to escape from this hell. They tried to break down the door. But in vain because the gendarmerie never moved from their position. After noon, it started raining heavily, which forced the gendarmerie to take refuge in the house of a Turk. The young people then tried again to open the door. Together with the women they exerted all their strength and finally the door gave way. About thirty people, young men and women, escaped and were saved. The gendarmerie repaired the door and vowed never to let anyone out again. So those who remained in hell suffered the consequences. In the afternoon, they put in another 70 people, 50 women, 7 men and 13 children.

How many survived the hell of Patlama? Very few. For while new ones were brought daily, the dead thinned the ranks of the living. Panaretos Topalides writes that "about 3,000 Greeks died inside the temple...."

Source: From the 1968 book by Georgios Lampsides titled Topal Osman: History of a Genocide. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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