Daily Archives: 5 May 2005

The Port of Salonica in 1912

Salonica … is a paradise for Jews. When you are rowed ashore there, your boatman is an Israelite masquerading in Turkish fez and trousers. On landing, you are hustled by porters in turbans and red shoes; but they are Jews. You enter the Customs-house: the mobs of officers, with their continuous gabble, are Jews. Jews in turbans and Jews out of turbans; Jews as builders of houses and Jews as barbers–the children of Israel are everywhere, in every kind of work.” –Samuel S. Cox, Diversions of a Diplomat in Turkey

In 1912, at the end of its life as an Ottoman city, Salonica was flourishing as a major industrial and transportation center. Railroads that first reached Salonica in the early 1870s, as well as the telegraph linkages that came in the next decade, played crucial roles in the growth of the city. Before the end of the century, railroad lines connected Salonica to the Ottoman capital, Istanbul, as well as to the Serbian network and thus to Europe. Salonica boomed as the railhead of three lines that redirected the import-export trade of the southern Balkans through the city. As a result, ship tonnage at the port of Salonica doubled to two million tons by 1912. At this time Salonica was tied with Beirut as the third-largest Ottoman port, surpassed only by the much larger ports of Istanbul and Izmir.

Despite these huge increases in sea-borne commerce, improvements in Salonica’s port facilities came very slowly. Financed by European capital and carried out by Western corporations, construction of more modern facilities was retarded by two quite different forces. The first was the Ottoman state itself, concerned that Western development of ports would lead to increased foreign control of the Ottoman economy and, perhaps, as in China, to extraterritorial port zones. In addition, merchants’ efforts to streamline operations were checked by the Salonica porters’ guilds. These workers, who were overwhelmingly Jewish, saw modernization neither as a blessing nor as progress, but rather as a threat to their jobs of manually hauling freight. As in other Ottoman ports, the porters’ guilds at Salonica prevented real improvements until the end of the century. Finally, in 1897, the Ottoman state yielded to foreign pressure and granted a concession to a French firm. The expansion of the port was completed by 1904. A few years later, the porters’ guilds were curbed further. In 1909 the Salonica Quay Company, the Oriental Railways Company, and the Salonica-Constantinople Junction Railway Company signed an agreement making it possible for trains to run all the way onto the quays, directly discharging to vessels in the port. Previously the trains had stopped at the railway station, where porters picked up the goods and manually carried them over one kilometer of bad road to the port. The new arrangement certainly did make handling more efficient. But the porters who had hauled the goods over that bad road now lost their jobs.

SOURCE: “The Industrial Working Class of Salonica, 1850-1912,” by Donald Quataert, in Jews, Turks, Ottomans: A Shared History, Fifteenth through the Twentieth Century, ed. by Avigdor Levy (Syracuse U. Press, 2002), pp. 194-195

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Escaping the Gulag with a "Walking Supply"

Generally, memoirists agree that the overwhelming majority of would-be runaways [from the Gulag] were professional criminals. Criminal slang reflects this, even referring to the coming of spring as the arrival of the “green prosecutor” (as in “Vasya was released by the green prosecutor”) since spring was when summer escapes were most often contemplated: “A trip through the taiga is possible only during the summer, when it is possible to eat grass, mushrooms, berries, roots, or pancakes baked from moss flour, to catch fieldmice, chipmunks, squirrels, jays, rabbits…” In the very far north, the optimum time to escape was the winter, which criminals there referred to as the “white prosecutor”: only then would the swamps and mud of the tundra be passable.

In fact, professional criminals were more successful at escaping because once they had gone “under the wire” they stood a far better chance of surviving. If they made it to a major city, they could melt into the local criminal world, forge documents, and find hiding places. With few aspirations to return to the “free” world, criminals also escaped simply for the fun of it, just to be “out” for a little while. If they were caught, and managed to survive, what was another ten-year sentence to someone who already had two twenty-five-year sentences, or more? One ex-zek remembers a woman criminal who escaped merely to have a rendezvous with a man. She returned “filled with delight,” although she was immediately sentenced to the punishment cell….

Not all escapes involved clever flights of fancy. Many–probably the majority–criminal escapes involved violence. Runaways attacked, shot, and suffocated armed guards, as well as free workers and local residents. They did not spare their fellow inmates either. One of the standard methods of criminal escape involved cannibalism. Pairs of criminals would agree in advance to escape along with a third man (the “meat”), who was destined to become the sustenance for the other two on their journey. Buca also describes the trial of a professional thief and murderer, who, along with a colleague, escaped with the camp cook, their “walking supply”:

They weren’t the first to get this idea. When you have a huge community of people who dream of nothing but escape, it is inevitable that every possible means of doing so will be discussed. A “walking supply” is, in fact, a fat prisoner. If you have to, you can kill him and eat him. And until you need him, he is carrying the “food” himself.

The two men did as planned–they killed and ate the cook–but they had not bargained on the length of the journey. They began to get hungry again:

Both knew in their hearts that the first to fall asleep would be killed by the other. So both pretended they weren’t tired and spent the night telling stories, each watching the other closely. Their old friendship made it impossible for either to make an open attack on the other, or to confess their mutual suspicions.

Finally, one fell asleep. The other slit his throat. He was caught, Buca claims, two days later, with pieces of raw flesh still in his sack.

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 395-398

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