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  • Writer's pictureÖzlem Atik

A Letter to Jean Améry by Özlem Atik

Jean Améry by painter Félix De Boeck (1898-1995)

Jean Améry (1912–1978) was born Hans Meier in Vienna, Austria. He was a philosophy and literature student in Vienna and participated in the resistance against the Nazi occupation of Belgium. He was detained and imprisoned for several years in concentration camps, surviving Auschwitz and Buchenwald and finally Bergen-Belsen, until he was liberated in 1945. He settled in Belgium after the war and wrote several renowned works, including At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities (1966), On Aging (1968), and On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death (1976).

I wish I had the chance to meet you in person. This was the feeling I had when I first read your book At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities. It may sound very strange, unusual or even awkward … that forty years after your death, someone who lives far away from the geography that you were born in and were exiled from, the geography in which you were tortured, you suffered and eventually committed suicide… wants to talk to you, share memories and feelings. You may be thinking of how lonely I am, and you are right. I feel lonely but I know I am not alone. It would be more bearable to feel this way if it was just for myself, but I think there are others like me, which is even more depressing. You were one of the first ones to write about this kind of loneliness - ‘collective loneliness’ as it is called nowadays.

At the Mind’s Limits, you wrote about the reactions of the later generations of your time in the German society towards the Holocaust. Some of them were so fed up with this “overwhelming part of the history” [1] and, they were not the only ones to want a clear road to walk on by leaving the unwanted pages out of history: “First the pariah Germany was accepted into the community of nations, after that it was courted, finally it had to be dispassionately reckoned with in the power game.” (Améry, 1980, p.66) You were emphasizing how important it is to undertake the responsibility of knowing, acting, behaving with respect to what happened in our cultures regardless of the unpleasant feelings, such as shame. I think this was the point where I felt so close and connected to you.

I come from a background that has never been a welcoming part of the official history in Turkey. It can be searched for Dersim ’38 [2], Dersim massacre [3], Dersim Tertele [4] in the modern resources, although according to the official discourse it is called Dersim rebellion [5]. Because the culture in Dersim was based on the oral transfer of memory, the massacre narrations were told (at first only) among the members of the community.

So, even though brokenly and in pieces, we still had the knowledge of the past by virtue of oral history. On the other hand, It was a publicly muted massacre for almost seventy years until 2009, the speech of an MP in the CHP (the leading party in 1938; now ‘opposition’ party – but not when it comes to the Kurds), which was based on legitimizing the massacre violence [6]. So, his speech caused a lot of people to break their silence and raised their voice, claiming to know their lost relatives' graveyards like Serafettin Halis [7]. However, even when it was publicly recognised for the first time, it became part of a political accusation race between the today’s murderer (AKP-the governing party) discussing responsibility with yesterday’s killer (CHP). The recognition still gave us some relief.

Finally, we were more than just some crazy people who made up a disaster. For the majority of the population here in Turkey though, it was already enough to talk about this unpleasant event. It was not fair to relate this disaster to our daily presence and habits but most importantly to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, even though the massacre of Dersim ’38 was committed under his control and approval [8].

Several days of the year are dedicated to commemorating Ataturk such as his birthday, death day, the time he landed on Samsun (a city in the black sea region), the time he founded the republic, the time he opened the parliament, and of course the times he introduced his ‘reforms and revolutions’ for men, women and children. The problem is that all these ‘reforms and revolutions’ were designed towards building a Turkish identity, even for children.

One could have all the benefits of these if they embraced this Turkish identity. It reminds me of Judith Butler's emphasis on “sovereign interpellation” (i.e. ideology, rule) which never “succeeds to (fully) form the field of the human according to itself. (because) No interpellation is without limits” (Sari Roman - Lagerspetz, 2009:276) [9]. It is obvious that the interpellation to Turkish identity had and has its own limits. Ziya Gökalp was one of the very well-known republicans of Kurdish descent who wrote The Principle of Turkism showed us those limits. Therefore, even generations after generations we are still and will be carrying with us the traces of our ancestors in different ways and nuances.

Returning to the celebration of those nationalist days on the behalf of a leader who wanted to assimilate us, feels the least uncomfortable. Some Kurds may be ignoring this conflict in order not to be left out of their comfort zones, not to get offended in public, or maybe it seems unimportant after all. The dynamics of assimilation works differently on each individual depending on the social and economic factors. Nevertheless, I think for most of us being part of this kind of public nationalist days still creates a sense of guilt of betraying our ancestors for all the things we learned from our parents, in fact for our own existence. Unfortunately, taking part in those celebrations was such a ’normal’” routine we were exposed to throughout our education lives in Turkey. This partly explains where my resentment is coming from.

Turkish Republic’s assimilation policies were implemented not just on the Kurds/Kırmancs, but also on Armenians, Greeks, Syriacs, Ladinos, Alevi’s (Kurds/Turks) in fact even on Muslims to make sure them they understand the republics’ way of Turkish/Muslim identity. However, although - as non-Turkish and Muslim groups – most of us have been and are being treated unjustly in the country that we are citizens of, it is quite necessary to point out that Kurdish language still has no legal status - like minority groups have - It is being used in a de facto way and the public perception towards Kurdish language keeps changing with the discourse of government. All in all, identity politics have never changed for all those years. When you read the speeches of Mustafa Kemal [10], the newspapers from the archives, or the literature of the early republic, you see how Turkish identity was built, leaving all other identities outside basically or including them on such conditions as being stripped of their native language and cultural beliefs.

He wanted to design every bit of this identity by himself, he was not tolerating anyone who got into a conflict with him. He was going to finish off the Kurds, the non-secular ones and the non-Muslims i.e. all the non-Turks according to his fantasy ‘Turkish’ identity. It did not work. It never worked anywhere in the world. There are too many redlines when you talk about the past in Turkey - you have to jump over them and pretend like they are not there. You literally grow up with an ability to learn not to learn the past. For how long can you go with the idea that the republic was marvelous when it was founded by Mustafa Kemal, but everything went crazy after he died. Most of the Kemalists live on this idea. However, the way we are now obviously has to do with this past. This history was not one of glory for all of us, and this fact cannot be ignored.

We will not let it be ignored, as we are so sick of watching it repeat in everyday lives and news. As it was seen a few months ago in the instance that two Kurdish men (farmers) were taken away in an army operation by the Turkish soldiers, tortured and thrown away from the helicopter. The brother of Servet Turgut (who is dead now) talked to the newsagent: “‘Erdoğan says we exterminate all of them’, but we are human beings how can you exterminate all of us.” I can’t help thinking of such a fair question, but also very sad that we still have to ask it.

Neither I nor my history recognised each other

As I mentioned earlier, I am coming from a background with a massacre, and I am the fourth generation. In all my school life, even at the university during my bachelor years, I have never heard this massacre being talked about in public, in a class or in a friendly crowd. My history was just not out there, like something doesn’t make sense in anything, doesn’t appear in any form. I think it was the alienation and assimilation. If you do not know your history, your history does not recognize you either and both sides just stay quiet.

Anyway, the first time I heard about our unwanted history being pronounced publicly, like came to an existence, I was in London, trying to survive and living on social media news from territory/Turkey like many other immigrants. When you are far from your roots, social media becomes more interesting, almost turns out to be an airport, where people arrive and leave continuously. So, I was in London at the remembrance day of Hrant Dink, a journalist of Armenian descent who was shot dead after a fascist attack. One of the invited speakers was Temel Demirer, who is a writer. We were just chatting randomly. I guess, I shared my homesick mood a lot so that he said, “I believe one's mind should be there with her feet.” It might not sound a lot, but to me, it triggered my motivation on coming back to Turkey, and I did.

I remember when I wanted to study the after-effects of my history with the disaster, most people said “What is left to study?” Survivors and their children have been interviewed and I suppose, since the Dersim discussions converted to a part of a political race, it became popular in the media, and maybe started to sound a bit irritating for some. Anyway, I wanted to go on, even though I was not very sure about what to study specifically. There was something involved with the past, something lost, something melancholic, something destructive, something that keeps ruining the present unexpectedly and leaving us with tense, entangled emotions. I did not want to focus on the “what it was” part, instead I wanted to ask how we could interpret those feelings, turn them into illustrations or claims without victimizing ourselves. That is why your discourse on resentment was very inspiring to me.

I have always thought the past was an issue of injustice and freedom, which are true in many ways but they are still not sufficient to explain our relationship with past. Time is passing and unsolved losses and griefs keep piling up in our memories. I used to think there is no point in feeling resentment towards the "past issues”, mainly because it is not possible to change them. After reading and suffering for a while though, I realised that there is no need to go to the past. It is already invading our present- it keeps leaking into our conversations, our encounters with the others on a daily basis.

As you said, “no one can escape from the history of their people. [...] One should not and must not 'allow the past rest' because otherwise it could be resurrected and become a new present” [11]. Our present has been a militarized land since 1938. People in Dersim have been living under modern surveillance strategies with the establishment of Turkish republic; such as surveillance, armed control points, herons, drones and banned areas. It is almost impossible to track the banned areas updates but some have never been free since 1938 [12]. They keep extending the dates of the bans. The exception has become the rule (Carl Schmitt) for so long in the Dersim case. The city itself stays as an exception compared with other cities in Turkey. And having seen the military in everyday life is definitely making the past “present”. So, I want to “actualize” and “externalize” these facts with the courage I find in your writings. Those reasons/facts are sticking onto our present. It is impossible not to touch the past while being alive. I think you knew it more than anyone else. If we do not touch it, it touches us anyway.

My language is my invader

Writing this letter in English somehow felt so comfortable from the very beginning. I was not aware of the reasons at first but it made sense later on. After university, like many parents’ children I just wanted to leave the country. I would realise years later that those parents were mostly the ones who don’t count as the “real” citizens of their own countries (because they are not Turkish/Muslims), live in a consistent unsafe mode and not hopeful for their kids’ future in Turkey. I wasn’t aware that this leaving motivation was coming from my parents at that time.

Anyway, after spending almost seven years in English-speaking countries, I even started feeling a form of belonging to the English language. I think I made English a bit homey for myself, unlike Turkish which was taught to me to make me not learn my mother tongue, Zazaki/Kırmanciki. My mom learned Turkish when she was 7 years old, and so they could not make her forget it. She was also able to speak Kırmanciki/Zazaki with my grandmother, aunts and uncles for all those years. This helped her keep her mother tongue, but not everybody had this chance.

This is another story and makes everything very complicated: I feel resentment towards the Turkish language, but still express myself the best in Turkish. I blame its existence because had it not interrupted our culture and our society; I would have been able to speak with my grandmother fluently in Zazaki today. Instead, we just say a few words to each other now. I should have the right to express this resentment and expect others to understand it- as you say, if we want to be neighbours to each other, we should understand the reasons behind our feelings: resentment and loneliness.

Today’s decisions recalling the past

Every time the ruler party (AKP) puts war to a vote in the parliament, all the parties including the biggest opposition party CHP approves it, except the only Kurdish party (HDP). They send the soldiers to kill the Kurds in Syria and Iraq (Iran already does it by itself). They do not want Kurds as neighbours and in the meanwhile, Kurds in Turkey live here with them. They may think the Kurds in Turkey do not feel attached to the Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Iran but it is not true.

I can feel the longing in Hesen Zirek’s lyrics [13], and find the traces of his exiled life in my family history. I understand how he has suffered from not being able to sing in Kurdish, how he could not have a place for himself in his home land, similar to Ahmet Kaya [14], who has been a very beloved and successful singer in Turkey until he wanted to sing a song in Kurdish. After that he was claimed a traitor and forced to leave the country. I do not see a big difference between those lives, even though one was spent in Iran and the other one in Turkey.

It is not so difficult to see which people from which backgrounds on social media support the war. People who are not friendly to non-Turks/Muslims, with full of nationalistic pride, basically supported Azerbaijani in the Gharabagh issue (Artsah). It is not happening for the first time though. Supporting a war or standing against it is related to your past and identity. The Kemalists keep reciting peaceful quotes from Mustafa Kemal, but still support every war decision in the parliament, actually just like their leaders. Because saying one thing and doing something else is such a characteristic of nationalists.

I have voted three times since 2015. All mayors of the HDP party I voted for have been removed from their positions unjustly, almost all of them prisoned without any legal process [15]. Practically I go and use my vote, but in the end my decision gets deleted, it does not count. It seems Kurds in Turkey live in a different era; we may call it a medieval era which takes place in the Turkish republic.

I wonder why the Turkish Republic of the 1930s claimed so insistently that it would bring us “modernism” - us the wild people (Dersimis’ people). Yet here we are still with no right for self-determination. All my life I have heard that “things” happened in Dersim in 1938, which was “normal” at that time, nationalism was on the rise everywhere, a new country was being born, and so Mustafa Kemal did his best. Did he really? His best decisions were death and exile for my ancestors. According to the official population records, between the years in 1936 and 1940, the ratio of the population in the Dersim area dramatically decreased from 107,000 to 94,639. It is stated officially that 13 thousand 806 people were killed, 11 thousand 683 people were exiled [16].

Those who were exiled did not know a word of Turkish, and were sent by the black carriages to 32 different western cities in Turkey. They did not let any two families from Dersim stay in the same town. It was one of the strategies of assimilating Kırmanc/Zaza people to Turkish/Muslim identity. Surviving female children were given to Turkish soldiers as they were adopted. Many of them never managed to trace their family roots or hometowns for their whole lives. Others, especially women, grew up alone and without any relatives, like Emoş Güler [17]. Her kids suffered from their mom’s loneliness, and could not understand why she had no sisters or brothers.

Some have been searched by their families for 70 years but could not be found, like the two cousins Sakine and Şemsi; some were adopted by eminent soldiers and when they found each other half a century later, they told one another the violence they were exposed to from those families, like Huriye and Fatma [18]. The assimilation policies in Dersim targeted female children particularly, this way they would not be able to teach their language/Kırmanc beliefs to their own kids.

There is a really interesting figure in the history of Dersim girls’ assimilation - her name is Sıdıka Avar, who insistently made applications to become the minister in Elazıg Girl’s Institute. After becoming the minister there (1939), she wanted to be in charge of collecting girls from their families instead of letting the soldiers do it. To her, this was less scary for the girls, and so they could willingly ‘become Turkish’ [19]. Local people called Dersim’38 “Tertele” in Kırmanciki/Zazaki which means “mass destruction of people without distinction, looting of their goods and property” (Yıldız, 2014, p.13) [20]. It was a massacre, which was planned to be carried out since 1926 [21]. This date corresponds to 3 years after the foundation of the republic.

My grandmother, Hüsniye Tunç was born in 1937. As later generations, we are all carrying the traumatic traces of this massacre in different ways. Joseph Triest states that collective trauma affects the whole way of thinking and experiencing, rather than targeting a singular thought or experience of the subject (Triest, 2016, p.60) [22]. We cannot define traumatic damage with one specific behaviour of a person. It changes with every individual.

We can say, though, that most of us lost our mother tongue, lost one special world which opens to the past. Some of us never understood why and how this happened. Some did not realise there was something missing or it was the underlying reason for those surface problems. We were also blamed by the Kurds, for not being able to speak our own language, Kırmanciki/Zazaki, as if it was our own fault.

I want to mention a public figure regarding the traces of this traumatic background. Yıldız Tilbe who is a famous pop singer of Kurdish descent. She celebrates the national days (like all the Mustafa Kemal days) and also the death anniversary of Seyit Rıza, who was a spiritual leader of the Zaza/Kırmanc people in Dersim and was executed in 1937 with the command of Mustafa Kemal [23]. Neither Kurds nor Turks recognise her conflict - her statements do not match with their fixed and proud identities. In one tweet, she states “I am not Kurdish because I do not know the language. I am the daughter of a Kurdish mother, I am Turkish.”

The way she expresses herself may sound Gokalpian [24], but still is very consistent with her past, with what she and her family have gone through. However, it is not consistent with some people’s expectations, those who unnecessarily think that after a disaster one should become an individual whose world is complete and language is not broken. It is hard not to recall Marc Nichanian’s “writers of the disaster”. To him, the traumatic past breaks one's language, and takes the ability of telling one's own story (Nichanian, 2011, p.30) [25]. I think Tilbe is not betraying her traumatic past, she is fighting with the outside world and trying to find a space to protect her subjectivity. Instead of staying quiet or vulnerable, she is showing her inconsistency politically and taking the risk in public. I saw journalists and activists reacting disrespectfully to her tweets. I am finding it very unfair and hypocritical.

In the end, my point is that we have never had the same citizenship rights as the Turks have, although we live in the same country since it was founded. I am the fourth generation of this republic and I am not talking about thousands of years ago, I am talking about a fact that is as real as something on my screen, and when I am looking at it, I cannot see anything to celebrate neither in the past nor at the present.

I want peace too, but I also want to express that I really feel the resentment of having to live with people who support every war opportunity against us, who hate us even without knowing any of us, who want to decide our presence in the parliament with grace. They show their hatred at every opportunity, so I want to hold on to my rightful resentment and tell them - such a shame that although we live together, you still marginalize our language and culture.

Such a shame that we have been living in this small land for four/five generations, your parents used to believe we did not exist, you finally agreed we have our own language but are still not convinced it is worth teaching at schools. Such a shame that the freedom of our language never became a concern of yours, as if it is something that needs to be negotiated. Such a shame that you still do not know how to read the past/history other than the ones told at school. This shame list can get longer but let’s start with those above. These are some of the main reasons behind my resentment.

My last word is for Améry. The world would be even lonelier without your resentment, Améry…It is bearable now in virtue of your reasoning it…


[1] "In a German weekly I read the letter of an obviously young man from Kassel, who, eloquently expresses the displeasure of the new German generations at the haters and the resentful, who-since they are in every respect out- of-date-are also bad. He writes: ‘... we are finally sick and tired of hear- ing again and again that our fathers killed six million Jews.’” Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits, p.75

[2] Belleklerdeki Dersim ‘38 is an oral history project based on the narrations of witnesses and later generations written by Bulent Bilmez, Gülay Kayacan, Sukru Aslan published by History Foundation. In this book, Dersim ‘38 refers to “extermination, massacre, slaughter, genocide” (p.48)

[3] The term Dersim massacre has been mentioned in many works especially for the last few years. However, it was claimed by Ismail Besikci for the first time in his book “Tunceli Kanunu (1935) ve Dersim Jenosidi” which was written in 1977 and published in 1990 due to the publication ban. The massacre in 1938 is related to the Tunceli Law in 1935, and one of the very first articles of this law was to change the name and the boundaries of the city Dersim to Tunceli, which is still the official name of the area today. The name “Dersim” is mainly used for showing the political context, which refers to the massacred past, like I do in this letter.

[4] Local people called Dersim’38 “Tertele” in Kırmanciki/Zazaki which means “mass destruction of people without distinction, looting of their goods and property” Mehmet Yıldız, Dersim’in Kültürel Etno-Kimliği, 2014, İstanbul Chiviyazıları, p. 13.

[5] Hasan Hakan Ulutin, “Dersim in Republic time”, Marmara University, Istanbul, 2016.

[7] The press release Serafettin Halis made in the parliament of Turkish Republic (TBMM), 12 December 2009.

[8] There is a part in this article which says “decision-makers, organisers and actors” shows Mustafa Kemal’s part in the Dersim 38 massacre. A popular news portal Haberturk is also giving some perspectives of the politicians, academics and directors

[9] Sari Roman- Lagerspetz, “Striving for the Impossible The Hegelian Background of Judith Butler”, 2009, Helsinki University Print.

[10] In this speech Mustafa Kemal talks about the history of Adana, he feels he needs to emphasize several times that Armenians didn’t live in this city, and never became part of this land. It was his motivation speech for Turks to make them feel they belong to Adana. It won’t be an exaggeration to think of the rest of his speeches coherent with the same goal. Date of online access: 09.12.2020

[11] Wollheim Memorial’s website, date of online access: 08. 12..2020

[12] Rudaw newsagent, date of online access: 10.12.2020

[13] Hesen Zirek has been recognised as a Kurdish dengbej (poetic singer) in Turkey around 2015 mainly through the discovery of his plagiarised song “Ey Niştiman” which tells about the longing and struggle for Kurdistan in the original form. The Turkish version is called “Ankara’nın Taşına Bak'' which speaks to Mustafa Kemal and asks for his help. It is also mentioned in one article that Ey Niştiman used to sing in Armenian in churches before the Armenian genocide. Hesen Zirek’s some other songs were also plagiarized into Turkish; such as “yallah Şöför” sung by İbrahim Tatlıses. Within the light of limited resources, it is known that his life was spent in exile, that he had to escape from the police in Iran and Iraq because of singing in Kurdish.

[14] Kaya didn’t know Kurdish properly but wanted to sing in his mother tongue. He explained his wish when he was awarded in an event, people who were congratulating, started to attack him as soon as they heard his explanation. He was exposed to a hatred company and sued for committing a crime against to Turkish government, declared as the enemy of his country. He suffered from loneliness too.

[15] It happened to all Kurdish parties in the past and it is happening to HDP party today. The very proud Turkish Republic was founded with the beginning of one-party period on October 29,1923. It is the traditional and historic politics of Turkish Republic not to give the right of free speech to others.

Human Rights Watch Organisation, date of online access: 10.12.2020

[16] Bedriye Poyraz.,” Dare to Remember: The Tertele (Massacre) of Dersim 38”, SBF Dergisi, 68 (3), 2013, 63-93, p.76.

[17] Emoş Güler told her story in a documentary directed by Nezahat Güngoğan, 2014. Here is the link:

[18] We have learnt the story of those women who were separated from their families and hometowns through the documentary called; Two locks of hair: the missing girls of Dersim, directed by Nezahat Gündoğan, 2010. Here is the link,

[19] Zeynep Türkyılmaz’s article, Maternal Colonialism and Turkish Women’s Burden in Dersim - Educating the ‘Mountain Flowers’ of Dersim (2016) is a great source to learn more about Sıdıka Avar. Ayşe Hür is also another historian who wrote about this figure.

[20] Mehmet Yıldız, Dersim’in Kültürel Etno-Kimliği, 2014, İstanbul Chiviyazıları, p. 13.

[21] In the same article about Sıdıka Avar, Ayşe Hür also mentiones the contract of the Crime of Genocide approved by the European Union and check the articles of the contract over the Dersim massacre.

[22] Joseph Triest, “Travmanın bireysel ve kolektif boyutları: bilinçdışı kabus gerçeğe dönüştüğünde”, çev: Pitey Gonca Özbay, Psikanaliz Yazıları, bireysel ve toplumsal travmalar I, 2017, p. 53.

[23] Bedriye Poyraz,” Dare to Remember: The Tertele (Massacre) of Dersim 38”, SBF Dergisi, 68 (3), 2013, 63-93, p.77-78.

[24] It was mentioned in the text that Ziya Gökalp was one of the republicans of Kurdish descent.

[25] Marc Nichanian, Edebiyat ve Felaket, 2011, Çev. Aysegül Sönmez, İstanbul: İletisim.

Özlem Atik is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Sociology Department of Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul, Turkey. Her doctoral research investigates collective trauma representations in films regarding the case of the Dersim 38 massacre. She focuses on trauma, loss and racial melancholia in the perspective of postcolonial theories and psychoanalysis, and is also interested in affect theories in sociology. She obtained her BA in philosophy at Ankara University.


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