Off the Cuff: Ayse Coskuner
Ayse Coskuner, an Oberlin sophomore and an international student from Istanbul, Turkey, has recently published her book, titled From Siberia to Nazi Camps. In her work, she presents interviews of the families of Crimean Tartars who were tortured and deported during and after World War II, first by the Nazis, and then by the Soviets. Coskuner personally met with several tragedy-stricken individuals and her work is commendable in its depiction of the suffering that the nation has undergone. The Oberlin Review got in touch with her, inquiring about her book and her experience.
What inspired you, and when did you start working on this project?
I just took up this project voluntarily. My grandfather was a Crimean Tartar, so I got interested in the subject. Since I was accepted on early decision at Oberlin, I had time and I really wanted to know what my ancestors had been through. So I began my project in January 2006, before college actually commenced. Initially, I read Crimean Tartar history on my own, and then I got in touch with a man from the Crimean Tartar association, and thus I started off interviewing people in Turkey.
What did you find out about the people and the suffering they had to go through?
It was quite difficult as I wasn’t able to interview the men in Turkey. Most of the men had been sent to concentration camps, and there was a particular bias against the men as the Nazis took away the strongest people, and the elites. A huge proportion of the victims sent to concentration camps died. It was terrible. Most of the people who were deported were women, children and old people. Therefore, they were naturally more vulnerable, both physically and economically.
So what is the state of these communities today?
Many of the people have still not recovered from the imprints that years of suffering have left. It was difficult for me to interview these people, because some of them didn’t even want to talk about the deportation and torture at all.
As far as their current state is concerned, even though the diaspora has come to a halt, they have faced problems in resettling in their societies. They started coming back primarily in the late 1980s, only to find their homes destroyed or occupied by strangers. Due to the strong anti-Tartar propaganda by the Soviet government portraying them as “the betrayers,” they confronted and continue to confront significant hindrances in getting jobs, etc.
But these people generally remain very closely knit. However, there is one thing that I have observed: many of these families, especially those who have come down to settle in the US, have a strong will that their next generation be able to succeed and prosper, and not endure the same oppression that they and their ancestors had to go through.
You said you started off by reading the history of Crimean Tartars. Did you have an idea that this reading would eventually take the shape of a book?
Not at all. I actually didn’t think that this would turn into a book until the start of this year. I began by interviewing people, and got these interviews published as stories in Turkish newspapers. But as my interest developed, the idea sprang to my mind that these stories, when presented collectively, would actually depict the tragedy, in fact the horrible act of genocide, that this nation went through.
How did it feel to physically observe what you had only read in books, and how was the experience witnessing this chapter of 20th century Central Asian history in person?
It was moving. I vividly remember some of the people I had interviewed, shattered individuals, who wept before me while recollecting their past, and the atrocities that they endured. The whole experience of talking to the direct victims indeed gave a variety of perspectives regarding how people saw the whole process of deportation, its demerits and in some cases, its advantages too.
Do you intend to continue this project?
I wonder whether I’ll be able to talk to all of those people again. But yes, I intend to go back to New York during fall break and see some of the people I met there. In fact, a professor from an eminent university in Turkey e-mailed me recently, and said, “I hope this is only the beginning.” That was a great encouragement for me.
I hope to go back to Crimea and learn Russian. We faced problems in communicating with these people in Turkish. Moreover, there are so many people who have crucial stakes in this crisis: the Russians, the Ukrainians who were directly affected by the deportation of the Crimean Tartars and those who I have not talked to. I plan to go and get acquainted with their perspectives and thoughts.
Is there any advice you would like to give to fellow Obies about putting their academic interests into practice?
I just want to say, if you’re interested in something, take the initiative. Be courageous, and you’ll realize that once you’re determined, things start falling into place, and people come to support you in ways you cannot imagine. Go out there, and go for it!