Crimean Tatar Novelist Emerges from the Shadows Cengiz Dağcı

“The War was not our War! And this war of not ours had found us somewhere, somehow. It took us by its severe storm and threw us where we are right now!” Cengiz Dağcı said and added, ‘Fifty years! Fifty years away from my homeland, it became a wound that never heals…That wound never healed, even when the Crimean Tatars started returning to their homeland’.

My meeting with him in his old age in his house London

Cengiz Dağcı is one of the most underestimated Second World War novelists. He was a prolific author. With over 22 books about his beloved Crimea and its long suffering through world wars and Soviet oppression, he, like all Crimean Tatars of the time, suffered greatly. He was forced to leave his home and his family when he was only twenty two. Although interned by the Nazis he managed to survive the prison camps and after liberation made the arduous journey to London through a war ravaged Europe. He would not return to his home in Crimea ever again. Although he made a life in London, his heart was in Crimea. He was a refuge when he was 27 years old and made United Kingdom as his home until he died at the age of 92. When he passed away, his body was transferred to his beloved homeland through the cooperation of the three states; Turkish, Ukrainian and British. He was eventually laid to rest on the shores of the Black Sea at the foot of Bear Mountain.

I had the honour of meeting this great man in his old age, and later I had the sad privilege of escorting his funeral to his beloved homeland. This September was the fifth anniversary of his death and this article pays tribute to the noble man.

So, who is Cengiz Dağcı and what makes his work so important?

Although little known in the West, Cengi Dağcı is a household name in Turkey. He is a recipient of countless accolades and awards from the Government, Universities, and Literary societies. Mistakenly many people in Turkey believe that he is a Turkish-speaking author and that he wrote his books in Turkish. He admitted several times personally, and in his memoirs, that he used his mother tongue, Crimean Tatar. The confusion arises due to his use of language. There are three dialects in Crimea and the dialect of Crimean Tatar Cengiz Dağcı used is the closest version of Tatar to Anatolian Turkish. He sent his books to be published in Turkey and there he became the voice of “exiled peoples” of Crimea.

He was a Second World War veteran who fell as a prisoner of war into the hands of the Germans. When the war finally ended he tried to return to his homeland but to his dismay the roads were closed. He wanted to go back to his home, he wanted to finish his studies and be a good school teacher. He always felt his life was on hold and he always had the hope to return to his homeland to resume his life. Unfortunately this never happened but his longing to return his homeland inspired him to write.

Even though he is more well known in Turkey than the ex-Soviet Countries, he shared the Soviet people’s history rather than Turkish people’s history in Turkey. He was born in the newly established Soviet Union, he witnessed the Soviet collectivisation, he was schooled in Soviet institutions. He was a second year university student when he was enrolled into Soviet Army and fought shoulder to shoulder with Soviet citizens, consisting of ethnicities such as Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and so on. When he became a prisoner to the Nazis, he refused to collaborate with Germans.

I had a pleasure to meet him in his London house, well into his retirement. I had read couple of his books when I was a high school student. When he opened the door to his South London home, there was a sweet old man standing proudly with the help of his walking stick. A warm smile spread across his face; his manner was like a child meeting a much loved friend. He reached out to hug me. It felt he was embracing, in that moment, his beloved Crimea, his mother, his sisters, and long gone friends. He led me to his living room not letting go of my hand. He had prepared snacks for us to have with our tea. I was moved by his hospitality, by his patience and his willingness and enthusiasm answering my seemingly endless stream of questions.

He watched me while I was looking intently around the room my eyes darting, trying to discover some artifact that would help me unlock the mystery of this great man. There were many tapestries, all nature scenes. As I studied them, he said, “they are all my wife’s work, Regina’s. Bless her soul, she loved doing needle works. While I was busy, typing my novels in this type writer (he pointed to an old green colour type-writer on a corner desk) she would be lost in her world and do this fine art. You know, I miss her so much! She was my best friend! I really miss her!” There was sadness in his voice but when he started to talk about his beloved motherland, Crimea; it seemed to me his body was here next to me but his soul was running in the hills of Kızıltaş.

Cengiz Dağcı was born, the fourth of eight children on 9th of March in 1919, in Gurzuf, Crimea. His family moved to Kızıltaş from Gurzuf when he was a small boy. This house still stands in Kızıltaş, it has a beautiful big, tranquil garden facing Ayı Dağı (Bear Mountain) . The house is on the Simferopol – Yalta route.

During one of meetings with Cengiz Dağcı, I mentioned that I had visited his childhood house in Crimea. I showed pictures of the house and the garden to him while talking about the condition of the house and his village. I barely mentioned to him the three families living in the house, and I showed a picture of a Russian man who lives with his family in the basement. I remember so well the confusion on his face. He could not comprehend what I was saying, he said; “we kept the animals in there! You know, the farm animals. Oh dear Lord! They made people live where we used to keep the animals? Dear God, dear God!”

After the Bolshevik Revolution and establishment of the Soviet Union, private houses were confiscated. The Dağcı family house was taken and three Russian families were settled in it. It was the law that one family could not occupy a big house. The house would be shared among two- three families and the rooms would be distributed according to the size of families.

Cengiz Dağcı completed his primary education in 1931 and the year his father Seyt Omer Dağcı was arrested. The reason for his father’s arrest was due to complaints made by a neighbour after a small dispute between them. The complaints were put forward as the family was not cooperating with the collectivisation policy of Stalin and they had hidden goods from the Soviet. Under the law of Five Year Plan ‘The Collectivisation’ had the right to own any land, animals or goods. If somebody had been caught with small plot of land or a fruit garden, they would be labeled as an enemy of the state and sent to the Gulag camps. This collectivisation and mismanagement of the sources lead to one of the biggest famines in Ukraine from 1931 to 1933. Cengiz Dağcı’s family survived this famine by selling his mother’s jewellery. He was half smiling when he was telling me this story “my mum was a coffee addict and she even managed to get coffee during that time.”

A year later C Dağcı’s father was released from prison but his father decided to move his family to Akmescit (Simferopol) from Kızıltaş to avoid the humiliation of his imprisonment. There, he rented a small hut where the whole family had to fit into one room. The family’s new squalid and miserable lodgings are mentioned in the memoirs ‘Letters to my Mother.’ In it he writes: “ I see you mother, how you are saddened. This move to a miserable place reflects on your face. But how brave you were in there and turned to God even more. You were reminiscing about Kızıltaş and I could see how much you were yearning to return to our big house with a beautiful garden. But you always put a brave face and you were genuinely happy when you see me reading something or writing something. You treasured them, you kept my writings, my notebooks until the day I had to leave Crimea! ….”
Cengiz Dağcı continued his schooling in Akmescit (Simferopol) and started writing short stories. He loved poetry and became interested in writing poetry. His early poems were published in 1936 in Crimea’s Youth Journal. In his early writings, we see that he wrote one poem to praise Stalin and the Soviet regime, however later on in his memoirs, he admits that he was asked to write in such a manner. Another poem he wrote about Hansaray (the palace of Crimean Kahanete between 1449 to 1774) in Bakçesaray which titled ‘Walls talk to us’ was published in Literary Journal in Crimea. This poem was manipulated by the Soviet authorities. Unfortunately, we do not have any of his written poems even if they have survived to this day.

He was enrolled to Akmescit (Simferopol) pedagogy Institute in 1938, but could not graduate as he was called into the army. Before he was sent to the front line by the Soviet Army, he was given two months training with poor equipment. Almost inevitably he was captured and became a prisoner of War, in August 1941.

These were deeply unhappy times. He told me, with tears in his eyes: ‘for about three, four years of my life I witnessed thousands of people dying in front of me of hunger, thirst, and cold, first in the Kiravograd and then in the Uman prison camps”.

He was sent to Poland by the Nazis where he met his future wife, and love of his life, Regina. She had a day job assigned by the German Government under the Nazi occupation of Poland, but in secret she was working for the underground resistance group against German occupation. They got married in 1945 and with a Polish emigre group they escaped to United Kingdom.

It was a difficult and long journey to London where he built a life for himself and his family. He says in his memoirs ; ‘I created a new home away from home. A home, which I and my wife could take sanctuary and feel safe.”

He worked long hours in the restaurant during the day and wrote only at night. In his writings, he told me, he could be free, run through the streets of Crimea, swim in the sea and be with his family and friends. He kept writing about his beloved Crimea and the tragedies that the Crimean Tatars faced until his wife was taken ill and became bedridden. His love for his wife was immense, they had only each other in this home away from home. Several times he mentioned that his wife could not have read what he wrote but she knew every novel by heart. Later, when Cengiz Dağcı lost her, he wrote the novel Regina in her memory.

As mentioned earlier, all of his books were published in Turkey. During the Soviet Union, in the 1980s Moscow had sent a KGB agent to get copies of his novels. These novels were examined by the authorities and his books were classified as foreign and spetsiany (restricted from the public).

The most important theme running through all of his works is the national identity of the Crimean Tatars. He evokes a clear picture of how Crimean Tatars lived, their everyday life, customs, beliefs and the structure of their lives revolving around the seasons and their land. The Crimean Tatars lived a double life, having to outwardly demonstrate fealty and loyalty to the Soviet Regime, a regime that was actively trying assimilate and erase the Crimean Tatar identity, yet within themselves, their families and communities hidden texts of resistance kept their identity alive. The Crimean Tatars had been resisting Russian rule since 1774. Cengiz Dağcı’s works illustrates how Crimean Tatar identity and individual characters were maintained, transformed and adapted under this oppressive regime.

One example, from his book, ‘The man who lost his land,’ illustrates the arbitrariness of the repression and the manner in which the community responds to it. In the following example we can see both, how the Crimean Tatars lived daily lives and how they responded to their colonial oppressors. Russian officials came into the village, measured the lands and started building a windowless featureless building. The villagers started gossiping about this strange building. They found out that this peculiar building was to be a prison. Those people had never known the meaning of a prison and could not comprehend why Russia wanted to keep their criminals in their village. Eventually they found out that this prison block was built for the people who lived in the Crimean peninsula, in other words, for them. This was the end of freedom of beliefs, with closures of prayer houses, mosques and synagogues and arrests of all who frequented them.

The other prominent theme in his books is the importance of education. In a number of his novels he implies that if the Crimean Tatars were well educated, they would not have suffered to the extent they did. And, in other novels Dağcı suggests that only after the Crimean Tatars become well educated, only then they could ask for, and eventually receive, justice. The Soviet government’s ban on use of their language made getting education in their mother tongue impossible and this fact drove some Crimean Tatars to seek higher education in the Soviet regime which led to the establishment of Crimean Tatar National Movement to strengthen their Crimean Tatar roots.

Cengiz Dağcı is today resting eternally in his beloved hometown in Crimea, while his legacy lives on. His novels reflect the most important part of Crimean Tatar history during the Soviet period. The only regret is that his books are only available in Turkish. There have been a few attempts to translate them into Russian, and, sadly none, as yet, into English. With translations of this much beloved author into Russian the Russian speaking people across Central Asia, Ukraine and Crimea can read and learn about an important period in Soviet colonial history that is currently being replayed on the world stage. The world’s ignorance of the Crimean Tatar’s repression, ethnic cleansing and exile has lead to an indifference to their fate. This indifference needs to be rectified by an understanding of this proud and vibrant culture. Cengiz Dağcı s novels offer a unique path to this understanding. I can only hope that translations of his profound and moving works will be forthcoming.

by Melek Maksudoglu

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