The Author's Family

A Love Story Lent a Helping Hand by Kemal Atatürk

Tribute to General Kemal Atalay

by Bulent I. Atalay


June 23, 2006, the cruise ship, Crystal Serenity, on which I am serving as a special topics lecturer, docks in Thessalonica, Greece’s second largest city.  At the turn of the 20th century, as “Selanik,” it was the Ottoman Empire’s second largest city. The streets of the ancient city are poorly laid out; there is no grid with a north-south and east-west bearing. Like most old cities, it has evolved according to the natural topography of the land, with a citadel perched on its acropolis. Worse yet all the signs are in Greek, and although, as a physicist, I know the Greek alphabet and can sound out the words, I have no idea of their meaning.

My wife, Carol Jean, and I, along with two friends from the Serenity, Stephen and Linda Young, are in search of Atatürk’s birthplace, located next to the Turkish Consulate. To get our bearings, we drive up to the acropolis of Thessalonica, where the ancient Byzantine walls still stand, restored; but with time running out to return to the ship, we are nearing a frenzied state. Quite suddenly we happen upon a young boy, an apprentice to an automobile mechanic, who senses our frustration, and in lucid English, asks if he can help us.  When we tell him the address, he responds that he does not know the place himself.  But then he strolls over to his boss. They discuss our plight. When he returns, he tells us that they will lead us in their own pickup truck.

BirthhouseThe distance turns out to be no more than a mile through serpentine streets, but it takes twenty-minutes to negotiate the distance through the virtually impenetrable rush-hour traffic.  Then as Stephen shoehorns the rental car into a tight spot, I jump out and begin a mad jog up the street, in search of Number 17. Midway up the next block, perhaps a hundred yards away, is the two story frame house that I have seen in old faded pictures, the upper story cantilevered over the lower, evocative of the 19th century houses one sees in Istanbul. Atatürk’s house at last, 17 Apostolou Pavlou! And the narrow street, where my grandfather, Ismail Hakki, as a young boy, played with Mustafa Kemal, his closest childhood friend, who would go on to rescue Turkey, then set on a seemingly inexorable course to disintegration.  A grateful parliament of the republic he created would later bestow on him the appellation, Atatürk, “Father of the Turks,” then proceed to retire the title permanently, lest someone else try to adopt it.  

Later that afternoon the Serenity sails east, on a course south of the Athos Peninsula, with its splendid monasteries. Early in the morning the following day the ship slows down to allow a pilot to board and guide us up the Dardanelles. I stand on the top deck, surveying the magical panorama. Sailing up the 46-mile straits, it is impossible not to be moved by the spirit of these hallowed lands, witness to spectacular drama.  On the starboard side, and not more than a few miles away, lie the ruins of Troy, the legendary city destroyed in the mid-13th century BC by the Mycenaean Greeks. Almost eight hundred years later the Persian King Xerxes lashed his ships together, creating a pontoon bridge, and crossed the Dardanelles on his way to invading Greece.  And another hundred years later still Alexander the Great repaid the favor, constructed his own pontoon bridge, and crossed over to Asia, taking the first step in his relentless bid to conquer the world. Six hundred years ago the Ottomans began their isolation of Constantinople by stretching chains across the straits.  Finally, a mere one hundred and seventy years ago at the same spot the Romantic poet Lord Byron, an exceptionally strong swimmer, crossed the Dardanelles, known for its treacherous currents.  Consumed with classical Greece and its fertile mythology, Byron was reenacting one of Leander’s nocturnal crossings, in order to visit his lover, Hero, living on the other side.



BulletsThe Serenity enters the Dardanelles and sails in a northwesterly direction. Prominently visible near the the tip of the Peninsula are the monuments of the Turks, the French, and the British, each honoring an unknown soldier lost in the Gallipoli Campaign. The Australian and New Zealand monuments are tucked away on the western shore of the peninsula and cannot be seen from the straits. The land is literally pockmarked with numberless trenches.  It is on this sliver of land that hundreds of thousands of troops — Turkish and Allied — faced each other in 1915. Australian and New Zealand troops, mobilized into the "Australian and New Zealand Army Corps," or "ANZAC." When it was all over, a half million young soldiers, approximately evenly divided between the two sides, had been wounded or killed. The smoke of battle — bullets and cannon shells — turned the sky opaque at midday.  Perhaps because of the shared misery, the two sides came to respect each other to the point where, it is said, a daily coffee and smoke break would take place, allowing the soldiers to climb out of their bunkers in relative safety. But when they returned, if as much as a hand showed, it would be shot off. No doubt, this was rare. Indeed, another story has it that Turkish soldiers soldiers threw small boxes of hand-rolled cigarettes from their trenches to the soldiers occupying enemy trenches. The ANZAC soldiers would throw tins of their food in exchange. The Turks would open and taste the canned food, then throw them back. Note: When individual lives are concerned, it is never fair to round off numbers. Accordingly, it behooves us to present the most detailed figures available: Turkey sustained 164,617 wounded and 86, 692 killed. The allies — Australia, Britain, France, India, Canada and New Zealand — saw 96,937 wounded and 44,092 killed. (These are figures from the Australian War Memorial.)Bullets

The brilliant pioneer in atomic physics, Henry Moseley, was here. Having performed ground breaking research in x-ray spectroscopy, he resigned his research position at Oxford University to volunteer fighting for the Crown. Then in August of 1915, still 27 years old, he was killed in action. Here also was another Oxford man, Rupert Brooke, poet. Having romanticized, warfare in his earlier poetry, he died not in battle, but on the way to battle, of sunstroke just two days before the Battleship Hood delivered the troops to the area.  “Rupert Brooke is dead… [his] life has closed at the moment when it seemed to have reached its springtime." wrote Winston Spencer Churchill, in his obituary for the young poet. And indeed, Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, who had originally masterminded the scheme — to sail up the Dardanelles, take control of Istanbul, and then strike at Germany from its “soft underbelly.” The failed campaign led to Churchill losing his job. On the facing hills on the portside, one sees a flat white figure — an image created in limestone of a soldier clutching his rifle with one hand, signaling his comrades to follow him into battle with the other.  Next to it, spelled out in limestone markers, “Pause Traveler.  This ground on which you unwittingly tread marks the spot where an era came to an end."


last_anzacAbove: A group portrait of the Australian 11th (Western Australia) Battalian, 3rd Infantry Brigade posing in front of the Great Pyramid of Gizeh. The dramatic photograph, dated 10 January 1915, shows several hundred troops during a break from their training in Egypt. The battalian, among the first to land at ANZAC Cove on the Western shores of the Gallipoli Peninsula, suffered 378 casualties, or one-third of its strength. (My gratitude to Cem Ozmeral for making the photo available.).

Left: Alec Campbell (1899-2002), the longest living Anzac and the longest living veteran of Gallipoli. Having enlisted at age 16, he lived to be 103.





And then one also remembers the deeply comforting, profoundly generous words with which Ataturk addressed the families of the fallen Aussies and Kiwis:

ataturk_w_kalpak"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.  Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours... You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.  After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."  — Kemal Atatürk

Atatürk’s poignant message is inscribed in the Turkish Memorial to the Unknown Soldier in Gallipoli, and inscribed also at the Atatürk Memorials in Canberra, Australia and Wellington, New Zealand. It is no wonder that in distant Australia and New Zealand, there is still a sense of kinship for Atatürk and the Turks — enemies, but fellow witnesses to the unspeakable horrors of trench warfare — and, conversely, a resentment of the British politicians who sent a generation of their young men to fight and die in a land half-a-world away.  For the Turks, the Australians, and the New Zealanders Gallipoli would forever be regarded as the moment when they gained their national identities. 

An integral part of Anzac Day Services in Australia and New Zealand during the past nine decades has been a reading of the third and fourth verses from For the Fallen, composed by the Oxford educated Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

(I was introduced to the last verse when the Right Hon. Mike Moore, the Ambassador and former Prime Minister of New Zealand, read it at the Anzac Day Service at the National Cathedral, Washington, DC on 26 April 2011.)

Through the generations, my family has demonstrated an almost idolatrous admiration and affection for Atatürk.  His pictures abounded in my parents’ home in Istanbul, although only in one picture is my father, then a young second lieutenant, seen with Atatürk himself.  Certainly a unique, iconic national hero, he made a small, but critical contribution to my family.  He served as catalyst in the marriage of my own mother and father.  


I have been through the straits, as well as on both storied shores many times, but the visit just the day after seeing Atatürk’s birthplace in Thessalonica makes the experience of sailing the straits on this occasion utterly unforgettable.  I remember a visit in 1967, when Carol Jean and I, accompanied by my mother and father, drove down the Gallipoli Peninsula from Istanbul.  My father, General Kemal Atalay, the Undersecretary of Defense, had taken his annual holiday so that he could be with us. I was visiting my parents with my wife and two very young children. Just three years earlier on a visit to Washington, DC my father had seen our daughter, Jeannine, then not quite a year old and just beginning to walk. This time in Turkey he would meet our son, Michael Kemal Atalay, who had just turned one and was beginning to walk.  But on this excursion to Canakkale, we left the children with my grandmother at the army resort in Fenerbahce, Istanbul, which we were using as home base.  And it was on our lengthy drive down the Gallipoli Peninsula that my father first told us the story of his father, Ismail Hakki, and the family’s “Atatürk connection,” how he and my mother met, and the circumstances of their marriage.

My grandfather fought in those trenches for eight months, through the better part of 1915. A photograph was taken of his company during a break in the action. Immediately after the cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of the ANZACS, he briefly traveled to Edirne (Roman Adrionople) on assignment, and while there, on January 1, 1916, had a photograph taken of himself.  He inscribed on the back of the photograph in old Turkish (right-to-left), “Sevgili Teyze" ("Dear aunt"), I have survived eight months of action in Gallipoli. I will soon leave for the Eastern Front, there to face the Arabs and their recalcitrant English leader.”

Ataturk group

Group portrait of my grandfather's company during the Gallipoli Campaign. He is seen standing in the rear row and approximately two-thirds of the way from left (an oblique dark line identifies him). The photograph hangs in the Naval Museum in Çanakkale (1915).

Just before leaving for the Eastern Front, he visited the small town of Biga, lying to the east of Çanakkale and Troy.  He went to see his young family, ensconced in the town since Ataturk Portraitshortly before the war began. There were his wife and three young children, two years apart in age – the oldest, a daughter; the middle, a son; and the youngest, another son — my father, “Mustafa Kemal”— named after Ismail Hakki’s childhood friend, and in accord with his wishes. (Last names were not introduced into Turkey until 1934. It can make genealogical research a hopelessly difficult task.) 

After only a day or two with his family, however, Ismail Hakki had to leave again, this time to fight on the Eastern Front.  There he would die, fighting against the Arabs and their “recalcitrant” English leader, T. E. Lawrence, who would become known as Lawrence of Arabia.  My grandfather’s body would presumably be interred somewhere in southeastern Turkey.  According to the tradition prevailing in the family, Atatürk had his aide-de-camp carry my grandfather’s handgun and sword back to Biga and presented to my grandmother, along with Atatürk’s promise that after the war he would find the family and see to their needs.  But even before the war ended, my grandmother and her children moved to Istanbul, where they could get help from close relatives. 


Growing up in Kadiköy on the Asian side of the Bosporus, my father and his older brother, Muammer, both aspired to make their careers in the military, following in the footsteps of their late father. Just a few weeks apart they reported to the military recruiting office, had their interviews, took the military college’s entrance examination, and they both passed. My father presented some dubious documentation showing him to be two years older than he actually was. When they underwent physical examinations, my uncle passed with flying colors; my father, however, was told that he suffered from a heart murmur and could not be admitted.  His hopes dashed, he staggered around dejected, tears streaming down his cheeks.  After wandering listlessly for some time, he found himself at a ferry dock.  The ferry was just pulling away from the dock.  My father used to say, any other time, he would have just jumped onto the ferry, as he had done numerous times before, but that day it was not be — it was not “written on his forehead!” That day it was not his fate to take the ferry and go home.  He was a lifelong believer in fate – “If it is written on your forehead, it will come to pass,” he would always say.  He sat on a bench on the pier, utterly disheartened. Then suddenly an elderly gentleman appeared, and sensing my father’s despair, stopped and queried, “What is the matter, son?”

My father answered that he had always hoped to become an officer, but he was denied admission to the academy.  The man appeared genuinely sympathetic. Attempting to console my father, he remarked, “There are so many different professions, and a good looking, clean cut young man like you should be able to become or do anything you set your mind to.  You could become a doctor, an architect, or even a diplomat. You have a distinguished demeanor.” My father, his voice breaking, responded, “My greatest wish in the world was to become a soldier, just as my father had been.” Without raising his eyes from the ground, he continued, “But I’ve just been told that I am suffering from a heart murmur that will keep me out of the academy.” He still had the x-ray film in a folder tucked under his arm, which the older man suddenly noticed.  At this point, the man revealed to my father that he was doctor — a professor at the medical school.  “May I see the film,” he asked. Then removing the film from its sleeve, he held it up to the sunlight, and studied it for a full minute, squinting, scanning. Then, with a smile, he told my father, “Let’s go together to the hospital.”

When they got to the hospital a medical board was in session. That did not stop the old man.  He barged into the room, my father right behind him. Again, he removed the film from the sleeve and held it in front of a light box. “Gentleman,” he announced, “…you have made the same mistake again. There is nothing wrong with this young man’s heart.”  He went on to explain their misdiagnosis. To make his point, he placed his stethoscope on my father’s chest and listened for the characteristic sounds of a heart murmur. “There is no swishing or whistling, beyond the normal ‘Lub-Dub’ sound.” He reiterated, “Classic misdiagnosis!” It turned out that this remarkably kind man was in reality one of the most senior physicians on the medical school faculty and a one-time instructor to most of the other physicians in the room.

The peaks and valleys of that day’s emotional roller coaster ride — missing the ferry, meeting the professor of medicine, having the faulty diagnosis corrected, and being admitted into the military college — “were all written on his forehead!” Thereafter, my father would always have an abiding admiration for physicians, and especially for those in cardiology.  He lived into his nineties, and he spoke with bursting pride of his grandson, Michael Kemal Atalay, who would earn combined MD/PhD degrees at Johns Hopkins in cardiac imaging, in advent of doing medical internship at Harvard as “Dr. Dr. Atalay.”

Built in 1845 on the Asian Shore of the Bosporus, the military college, Kuleli, is an unusually prepossessing building that derives its name from the two prominent flanking towers (Figure 4).  KuleliThe years at the academy were successful for both brothers.  They enjoyed their time, they studied hard, and they made lifelong friends.  Many would also accompany them in their rise through the military ranks. Both brothers were successful athletes, starters on the school’s soccer team, my father as left wing, his brother as the high-scoring center forward.  Father would often speak of his brother, about his extraordinary prowess on the soccer field. But in academics it was my father who would excel and leave a mark. He graduated in the class of 1930. Not long afterwards, at an engagement party for his close friend, Nüzhet Bulca, he would meet the guest of honor, none other than Kemal Atatürk, the beloved President.

As my father recalled the memories of that day thirty years ago, Carol Jean and I remained transfixed. My mother, who must have known the story all along, was just happy that we were hearing about it. But then I interrupted, asking rhetorically, "You told him then that you and your brother were the sons of his oldest friend, Ismail Hakki?”  “No, I couldn’t…” he said, “I didn’t want any favoritism.  If Ataturk had found out who I was, he might have taken me as an aide, and I would never have been able to prove myself.” (He was modest. He was shy.)

A few years later he would take the examinations that would gain him acceptance into the Army War College and the status of Kurmay. He could now realistically aspire to attain the highest ranks in the army.


My maternal grandfather, Bahattin Kökdemir, born in Sinop, on the Black Sea, was a young physician who had received his medical degree in Istanbul. Shortly after graduation in 1915, he married my grandmother, Refika. They had three children — the first child, a son named, Ertugrul Pertev, was born in 1916; their second child, my mother, Nigar Esma Atalay, would be born three years later; the third child, Hüsrev, would come almost a generation later,Kokdemir Family in 1938. (My grandfather had, however, been married once before, but that marriage had ended in divorce. From that marriage he had also a son and a daughter.) The family posed for a portrait in Istanbul (ca 1921), my uncle approximately five, my mother just two. My grandfather is seen wearing the customary fez, my grandmother a scarf over her head.

Then in 1926 when my grandfather was awarded a Rockefeller fellowship to undertake postgraduate work in medicine at Harvard, he would journey to the United States with his family, and spend the next three years on the East Coast of America. After a year at Harvard, he was given an extension of his fellowship and allowed to transfer to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, ostensibly to receive additional training at America’s other great medical institution.  Accordingly, the family moved to Baltimore for the next two years.  In 1929, with my mother and uncle — ten and thirteen years old, respectively — my grandparents returned to Turkey and settled in Ankara.  The children had learned to speak flawless English, a skill that would serve them well the rest of their lives. Shortly after they returned to Turkey with some newly acquired western social habits — they found that Turkey was amidst some of Atatürk’s social reforms, launched during their absence. Western style clothing was in, the traditional Middle Eastern garb — fez, turban, veil — was out; the Ottoman-Arabic script, written from right-to-left, was being replaced by the Roman alphabet, written from left-to-right — reforms that my grandparents welcomed, reforms that would make their own adjustment in returning to Turkey so very much easier. 

In Ankara my grandfather was to become a successful physician, an internist, Grandparentsas well as a specialist in public hygiene.  As a physician he was well known to administer to rich and poor alike, but especially the poor!  As a child I remember occasions when patients would pay him with a pot of yogurt, a live chicken from their chicken coop, or not at all.  And as a public hygienist with a pair of books that he had published on the subject and in the late 30s he would serve as a member of parliament, a mebbus, after being nominated by Dr. Refik Saydam, the celebrated Minister of Public Health.  But disillusioned by politics and politicians after just one term in office, he returned to his medical practice. 

When my parents first met, my mother was only seventeen years old, my father 26.  She was a student in a local school, and my father, a young officer on temporary assignment, teaching military science at a nearby high school.  It was not long before they became enamored with each other, but maintained a proper distance.  Much, much later my father would confess to me, rather sheepishly, that they had once met secretly, having arranged to meet in front of the movie theater in the downtown square, Ulus Meydani. There they would see a film together, come out of the theater, still maintaining the most proper decorum, and then bid good-bye. But they would not forget each other.

One day a few months later, my father, uncommonly bashful, made an unusually brazen move.  He telephoned my grandfather, the physician, and arranged for a private visit – not seeking any professional service.  He was there to ask for my mother’s hand in marriage.  He explained to my grandfather that his own father had died in WWI, that he himself was a military officer who received a modest, but dependable salary, but that each month he faithfully gave a portion of his salary to his widowed mother.

My grandfather was impressed by the personal visit —Mother untraditional in that no go-betweens were involved.  He had seen during his years in America that intermediaries were not involved in asking for a girl’s hand.  But about giving his blessings to the marriage, he admitted his reticence, “I don’t want my only daughter to be married to a soldier who might get killed one of these days, and leave her a widow. I must take this under advisement. I will get back to you.” Then after a pause, he continued, “Please, call us in a month.” He even gave a date for my father to call again.

In discussing the dilemma with my grandmother, there was agreement: he was very polite, he was deeply devoted to his mother.  And he was handsome — “Eli yüzü düzgün” ("his hands and face are in order").  But there was that seemingly insurmountable barrier, he was a soldier!  And surrounded by hostile neighbors, the country seemed continually on the brink of war.  There was also another factor to take into account: a successful and well-heeled engineer had also asked for my mother’s hand, and a man not in constant jeopardy of being inducted into the military.  The conundrum was not trivial.  My mother expressed privately to my grandmother that it was the young officer that she distinctly preferred.

After my grandparents discussed the issue between themselves, they decided that my grandfather should consult his own mother, then living in Sinop. Accordingly, he wrote a letter to my great grandparents, expressing his own uncertainty. The answer, however, would not come for several weeks.


A ball was held in 1937 in Ankara at the Halk Evi with members of my father’s military company assigned to serve as guards and ushers.  Among the guests would be Maresal Fevzi Çakmak, five-star general and Secretary of Defense; Ismet Inönü, Vice-President, perennial “Second Man” of Turkey, and future president; and the incomparable Kemal Atatürk himself.  My father was standing near an entrance, when Atatürk entered the grand ballroom of the Halk Evi followed by his retinue comprised of Ismet Inönü, Fevzi Çakmak, and other leaders.  When he saw my father, Atatürk gestured to him, appearing to have recognized him.  After a short pause, he actually started walking over to my father, who immediately ran over to greet him. Atatürk asked, “Weren’t you introduced to me at commencement ceremony at the Kuleli a few years ago?” My father answered nervously that he was. “Then young man, come and sit with us at our table.”

As my father’s friends, the other young officers, all looked on in puzzled silence, my father was shown his seat — between Atatürk and Inönü.  His anxiety must have been palpable.  Atatürk then asked him, “Do you take raki?”  (Raki is the familiar anise-flavored ataturk_statesmanliquor in the Eastern Mediterranean, variously known as “ouzo” to the Greeks and “arak” to the Arabs. The clear liquid turns translucent, milky white, when water is added. It is believed that over two thousand years ago, the powerful relative of liquor was already known in the area. According to tradition, Aristotle, the legendary philosopher and teacher of Alexander the Great, offered his pupil the drink telling him that it was “lion’s milk.”) My father had never tasted raki before, but he nodded that he did, “After all, it was Atatürk asking him.” After he gulped down one glass, a kadeh, he was immediately offered another, and another. And he was in no position to refuse.  

Then as dinner was being served, Atatürk asked, “Are you married?  Do you have any children?” My father, his tongue now altogether liberated by the raki, mentioned being smitten by a beautiful young woman, but that her father, an eminent physician, was reluctant to let his daughter marry a military man.  He also mentioned that he was still hopeful, after all, the father had not said, “No!” The normally unflappable Atatürk became noticeably quiet; then he gestured to his yaver, his aide-de-camp, to approach. He whispered something in the man’s ear, and the man departed.  All very baffling! 

But just then the musicians started playing Harman Dali, a folk dance of Ankara.  The dance is evocative of the Jewish folk dance, the Hava Nagila, where the participants form a chain, but in this instance the dance is performed by a group of men only. Atatürk stood up, and as if on cue, the other members of the high brass all rose. Then Atatürk turned to my father, “Kemal Bey, won’t you join us?” (the honorific "Bey" is equivalent to "Mr".)  By then, my father was entirely overcome with emotion, honored to be sitting next to Atatürk at the high table, imbibing raki with his hero, and now participating in a folk dance with him and the other commanders.  His friends, all lined up along the periphery of the room, watched in utter disbelief!  Atatürk led the dance, holding a handkerchief in his raised right hand, and my father’s right hand with his left.  My father, in turn, held onto Inönü’s right hand with his own left hand, and so on. There appeared to be a hierarchy in the chain, from Atatürk down to the lower commanders, except for my father, who was distinctly out of place, so junior in age and rank to all the rest. 

After the Harman dali the men returned to the table and began to sip their coffee.  Afterwards, some of the men reflexively turned their cups over, if or when a fortuneteller appeared and read their fortunes from the ground coffee deposited on the inner wall of the cup. 

The foregoing represented my father’s narration during the drive down the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1967, of an incident that took place thirty years earlier, in 1937.  In hearing this, I remember asking rhetorically, “Of course, you told him then that you were the son of his old friend, Ismail Hakki, didn’t you?” And, again I heard my father’s familiar refrain, “No, no, I could not bring myself to tell him.  I didn’t want even the appearance of favoritism.”  “Favoritism,” I said in frustration, “…it would have made him so happy to hear that you were his childhood friend’s son.”

It has now been over four decades since that memorable drive to Gallipoli (Gelibolu) when my father first narrated the story, and certainly it conformed with my mother’s recollections of subsequent year.  But a sequel may exist, unhappily one that I remember hearing just once — again on that trip along the historic peninsula.  In this version, right after the men drink up their coffee, Atatürk’s aide-de-camp reappears and whispers something in his boss’ ear.  Atatürk acknowledges the message, but takes a few more sips before standing up.  Again everyone at the table springs up in deference.  But Atatürk turns to my father, and announces, “‘Buyrun,’ Come, Kemal Bey, we are going to visit the doctor!

Atatürk, followed by my father and the aide-de-camp walk outside the Halk Evi, where the Presidential Lincoln sits, along with two lines of motorcycles prepared to lead the way. (Photo: Atatürk's car, 1934 Lincoln Cabriolet, Courtesy of Efser Ünsal.) With my father sitting next to Atatürk in the car, the motorcade negotiates the five or six miles to Bahçelievler, in the suburbs of Ankara.  The roar of the motorcycles brings out everyone in the neighborhood. When my grandfather steps out of his house, he cannot believe his eyes. It is my father, accompanied by his “friend.” With this kind of tacit recommendation my grandfather is not about to refuse his daughter.  I hope that this version is not apocryphal — a product of my own fertile imagination — but it is not outside the realm of possibility. Rather it is just that neither my grandparents nor my parents are alive now and I cannot inquire further.

Although, the last incident is one that I was unable to confirm, the following ‘sequel-to-the-sequel’ is entirely verifiable — repeated to me over the years by my mother and grandmother.  Just a day before the incident at the Halk Evi, my grandfather had received the much-anticipated letter from his father (it might be remembered that my great-grandmother had been asked to counsel on the choice of suitors — “the engineer or the officer?”).  This was in accordance with a traditional, perhaps centuries old practice, calling for a designated person, most likely the matriarch of the family, to go to bed, and “sleep on it,” istihare’ye yatmak.  The next morning, it was hoped, she would wake up with the answer. In my great grandfather’s letter to my grandfather there was the report:  “Your mother went to bed.  And when she woke up she announced that she had seen in her dreams ‘… a man standing at the foot of the bed… he was wearing a uniform!’”  This clinched my grandparents’ decision.  Atatürk had expressed his pleasue, my great grandparents had expressed theirs.  My grandparents were sanguine with their decision.  My mother was happy.  And my father was ecstatic! The engineer is never mentioned in family annals again.

The next time my father contacted my grandfather would be to plan the date of the wedding. It was to be in late 1938.

As it turned out, just before the wedding could take place, Atatürk passed away in Istanbul on November 10, 1938.  He died in bed in Dolmabahçe Palace on the Bosporus.  When one tours the Dolmabahçe now, the guides will point to the alarm clock by his bedside, poetically stopped at 9:30am — as if by divine intervention — at the moment of his death. Although there is an apocryphal element here, there is little doubt that the collective hearts of all the Turks skipped a beat on that day. November 10th has since been recognized as the day of mourning for the ‘Father of the Turks,’ the ‘Father-Turk.’ My parents postponed their wedding for two months, finally marrying on January 8th, 1939. 

In civil weddings performed in Turkey the protocol calls for the two most senior individuals in the room — sometimes celebrities, often officials or elders — to serve as the witnesses, one witness for the bride, the other for the groom.  I would like to think that had Atatürk not died when he did, had my father approached him and told him about his own father, Ismail Hakki, then Atatürk perhaps would personally have been one of those witnesses at the wedding. 


Before he died in late 1938, Atatürk had foreseen the war that was going to erupt in Europe, and had impressed on Ismet Inönü that Turkey was not to participate, but “to sit this one out!” In 1939 the war indeed broke out, and the countries of Europe started being pulled in one by one. Both the Allies and the Axis Powers began to apply pressure on Turkey to join their respective sides. Churchill reminded Turkey that it had been on the wrong side of the fray during the WWI, and he made it amply clear that this time around it had better stand on the Allied side. And Hitler, for the opposition, argued the converse, “…better to side with the eventual winners.” Evidently, he had even dangled in front of Inönü the possibility that the Turkic peoples in the Soviety Union, could be integrated into a pan-Turkish nation. Inönü, Atatürk’s always loyal right-hand man, however, was determined to follow Atatürk’s directive. Turkey would remain neutral.

During the years 1939-1945, father’s tours of duty included 2-3 years as an artillery officer on a small army base west of Istanbul, overlapping with a similar period serving as courier for the Genel Kurmay Istibarat Subesi ("Office of Military Intelligence in the Defense Ministry") in Ankara. The latter also included two parts: a domestic component, in which he transmitted important messages received by the Minister of Defense to President Inönü, occupying the Pembe Kösk (literally the “Pink Palace,” Turkey’s White House) and a foreign component, in which he carried diplomatic pouches between the Government and its foreign embassies.

Ours was a classic extended family. My maternal grandparents owned a private house in the suburbs of Bahçelievler, but my grandfather’s medical practice was located in the Ulus Section, in downtown Ankara. Accordingly, it was there that my parents and I lived with my grandparents in a rented apartment on Anafartalar Caddesi. The apartment was commodious for those days, occupying most of the third floor of a four-story apartment building, built early in the 20th century and owned by the widow, Refiya Köklü. Across from our apartment on the third floor, my grandfather maintained his medical office, which by 1947-’48 included an x-ray machine imported from England. Just below, the second floor accommodated the Köklü Family. The ground floor featured an “ayakabici” (a shoe store) on the right side of the main entrance and a “kuyumcu” (a jewelry store) on the left. A full terrace comprised the fourth floor and offered a 360° panoramic view of the city. An acropolis, crowned by the ancient citadel, the Kale, rose prominently on the east. Isiklar Sokak, radiating perpendicular to Anafartalar, led up to the Kale, and passed a pair of institutions of special interest for me — the Archaeological Museum jam packed with Hittite relics from nearby Bogazköy and Yazilikaya, and the “Dogum Evi” (literally, “Birth House”, the Maternity Hospital) where I was born.

I remember my father occasionally going away on business trips. Too young to understand that the world was at war, I was told that his assignments in the military called for him to carry diplomatic pouches to and fro the Turkish Government and its embassies in Europe, in countries covering the full gamut of national alliances  — Allied, Axis, neutral and occupied. The train on which he made his journeys, I would have thought, would have been the Orient Express made famous in Agatha Christie’s 1934 murder mystery featuring the unflappable Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. After all, the train’s trajectory in the 1930s included some of the same capitals — Munich - Vienna - Budapest - Belgrade – Istanbul — found in my father’s passports. But it turns out that during the years 1939-1942 the Belgian-based Wagons-Lits Company, the owners of Orient Express, had suspended the train's operations. The German Mitropa company, archrivals of the Wagon-Lit, stepped in and tried running its own Orient Express into the Balkans, but principally for the transportation of military and diplomatic personnel. These routes too were suspended after 1942, with partisans waging a guerilla campaign, especially by blowing up Mitropa’s trains. These trains, however, were still available in 1941 and 1942, and it would not be far fetched to assume that father traveled to the Balkan Countries on these trains. Because of security concerns, he was instructed by his superiors in Ankara never to share a compartment with a stranger, and always to plug the keyholes of compartment doors with beeswax, lest enemy agents administer gas, in order to get their hands on the papers he was carrying.  

Two of my father’s four surviving diplomatic passports were issued in Ankara on March 3, 1941 and July 22, 1942, respectively. Both passports, bright red in color, are comprised of 48 pages, and both specify in the two languages Turkish and French that the bearer is a “Siyasi Kuriye,” “Courrier Diplomatique” (“Diplomatic Courier”) and that the passport is valid for a single trip. The gateway for each of father’s excursions into foreign countries is Edirne, on the Turkish-Bulgarian border, although the train ride begins at Istanbul’s Sirkeci train station 210 km (130 miles) to the southeast. Ancient Roman Adrianople, Edirne is known as the site of “Selimiye Cami” (“the Mosque of Sultan Selim”) one of the defining masterpiece of Mimar Sinan, court architect of Süleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century. It must have occurred to my father at least on one of these occasions that it was here that his father, Ismail Hakki, had his only known portrait produced a quarter of a century earlier.

The 1941 passport, No. 39-118-41, is stamped with a Hungarian Visa issued on March 1, 1941 in Ankara, allowing him to make two trips into the “Magyar Kiralyi” (“Kingdom of Hungary”) before August 30. The facing page contains a visa issued on March 3rd in Ankara with permission to enter the “Kraljevine Jugoslavije” (“Kingdom of Yugoslavia”). The following pair of pages contains visas for Bulgaria and Romania. The entry and exit stamps for Hungary are dated March 11 and March 15, 1942, respectively. The 18-day trip has him leaving Turkey on March 5th and returning on March 23rd.

It is the 1942, No. 188-473-42, passport that is far more intriguing, documenting his travel all the way to the Atlantic and back. The passport, issued by the Foreign Ministry in Ankara on July 22, 1942, indicates that on the same day a visa is issued by the Royal Hungarian Legation, granting him permission to transit Hungary twice, presumably during his round trip voyage through the country. The following day another pair of visas were issued by the Romanian and by the German Chanceries. The German authorization is specific, “… permission to travel through the German ‘Reich,’ within eight days of the visa’s issue, specifically entering Germany from Eisenstadt, Austria, to travel via Vienna, Munich, Bregenz (located on Lake Constance or the Austrian part of the German Lake Bodensee). Once the center of power for the large Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austria had been reduced to a small republic after its defeat in World War I. In 1938 it was annexed by Nazi Germany. Moreover, the visa further authorizes him to pass through German occupied Croatia, Vorarlberg, Switzerland, as well as Lichtenstein. On July 24th, a hand written diplomatic visa is issued by the “Confederation Suisse” (Switzerland) that is decidedly less specific than the German visa: “…to stay ‘two or three days’ in Berne and Geneva.” The Swiss, universally known for precision, are rarely that casual with numbers. But then, individual border security officials can show a wide range of flexibility. No one is better described as the “King of his chair” than a passport control official. Frequently, it is the whims and vagaries of such individuals that can make life pleasant, or miserable for travelers… even in the 21st century.


Father's journey begins as a domestic overnight train ride at Sirkeci Train Station in Istanbul, but then becomes international as he crosses the Turkish/Bulgarian Border in Edirne on July 29, 1942. The exit stamp states, “T. C. Edirne Emniyet Müdürlügü, Hudut Emniyet Komiserligi, ‘Gittigi Görülmüstür.'” (“Republic of Turkey, Edirne Security Office, Border Security Commissioner, ‘Witness to his departure.’”) He travels through the “Independent State of Croatia” on July 31, with arrival and departure from Hungary on August 1st and 2nd, respectively. Then he enters Eisenstadt, Austria. A Swiss Passport Control official stamps his passport in St. Margareten August 4, and again on August 23, 1942 on his return, the same two days that he crosses into Germany and Austria.                        


During his visit to Austria and Germany in 1942, an extraordinary event takes place when father meets with Turkey’s wartime Ambassador to Berlin, the Honorable Safet Arikan. From a combination of my conversations with my father during the 1980s and ‘90s and the details of the 1942-passport, it is possible to piece together the story, albeit still with some unresolved questions. The meeting takes place either in Bregenze or in Berlin. The Fuhrer has invited Mr. Arikan for dinner to ask him to convey to President Inönü once again why it is essential for Turkey to join the Axis Powers. Ambassador Arikan takes along a small party, including my father, to his meeting with the Fuhrer. But my father, too young (at 30) and too junior in rank, would certainly not be seated with the principals. Even younger than my father, and witness to the proceedings, is the Turkish military officer, Kenan Evren, who in the distant future will serve as the President of Turkey (1982-’89). At the conclusion of the dinner, a package is produced by one of Hitler’s aides, and presented as a gift by Hitler to the Ambassador — a mint P-38 pistol, replete with a cache of bullets and a cleaning kit. In the photograph below, the rectangular box seen in the lower left contains a cleaning cloth still in its original cellophane wrapping, and a vile of oil to lubricate the gun. After the dinner, as Ambassador Arikan departs with my father and the rest of his retinue, he turns to my father and hands over the package, “Kemal Bey, I don’t know anything about guns. I want you to have it!” And that is how Hitler’s present to the Ambassador became a present to my father.

PassportThe P-38 was developed for use by German officers in WWII to replace the aging Lugar, primarily a WWI gun. Known for its legendary precision, the P-38 was still being used in the training of German officers decades after the war. In the horrific days of the war, however, it was not always regarded as a dependable weapon. Produced in factories run by slave labor, it was frequently the object of sabotage, making it as dangerous for the user as for the intended target.

Between August 7-21, 1942 Father's travels take him to France, Spain and Portugal. The stamp at a border crossing reads, “Entering Vichy, August 15." Also appearing prominently in the passport is a visa to enter Spain granted by the “Embajada de Espana en Vichi” (“Embassy of Spain in Vichy”). The time between the defeat of France by Nazi Germany in July 1940 to her liberation by the Allied forces in September 1944 is regarded as a dark period in French history. Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, the aging hero of France in the Battle of Verdun in WWI, is now the Head of Vichy France, the puppet government installed by the Nazis. He is on course for ignominious vilification and incarceration following WWII, just as the star of Charles de Gaulle, Head of the Resistance, is in rapid ascendancy.

August 21 father enters Switzerland at Geneva-Cornavin. He crosses the border between the Kingdom of Serbia on Sept 2 to the Independent State of Croatia, and arrives on Sept 5 in Edirne, Turkey. The 37-day Voyage from the Balkans all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and back comes to an end on September 5th in Edirne, whence he had departed on July 29th. The passport bears the stamped message, “Witness to his return.” An exceedingly devoted family man, how happy he must have been to be back in Turkey, and on his way to see his young family living in Ankara! He was blessed with a remarkable memory. During the calendar year 1993 when my mother was ill, and I made numerous trips to Istanbul, we would pull out a suitcase jam packed with photos. In seven such visits, we sorted the photos by decade, by year, by month, and on some occasions, by day. To my amazement, he could distinguish the chronological order in a pair of photos shot a few days apart. I do regret not asking about the details of those two trips as a foreign courier. Indeed, I know that there was also a visit to Moscow, which must have come in a subsequent year. More than once he recalled visiting an antique store, where he tried to purchase jewelry as a present for my mother.

During the domestic component of his assignment during 1942-'44, we lived in the tiny village of Yassiviran (since then renamed "Yassiören") in Thrace, approximately 80 km (50 miles) west of Istanbul and close to the Black Sea. Years later father told me about being awakened in the middle of the night, and rushing out with his men to help the survivors of a ship sinking off the coast in the Black Sea. Unhappily, there were only a handful of survivors, and the mission to the coast became one of retrieving bodies being washed ashore, and burying them on the beach. This had to be the wreck of the Struma on Feb 24, 1942 with Jewish refugees trying to get to Turkey, with plans to eventually get to Palestine. Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins, children of the survivors of the unspeakable calamity, wrote a poignant account in their book, Death on the Black Sea: the Untold Story of the 'Struma' and World War II's Holocaust at Sea (HarperCollins, 2004). In their book is a short passage echoing Churchill and Hitler's messages to Turkey. "The outbreak of war increased the pressure on Turkey from all sides. Its geographical setting as a land bridge between Europe and the Middle East made the country a natural haven for Jews trying to evade Nazi persecution as central Europe and the Balkans fell to the German army. The Nazis demanded that neutral Turkey not permit the immigration of Jews, and the Turks did not want do anything that would risk a Nazi invasion. Simultaneously, the British renewed their demands that Turkey halt the flow of Jews to Palestine." The mindset to provide a permanent Jewish homeland in Palestine was not even being considered seriously by the British for another five or six years, in fact, the land would be promised simultaneously to both the Arabs and the Jews.

Kemal AtalayThe most memorable message by far that my father personally remembered carrying to President Inönü from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs came from the Americans. Roosevelt urged Turkey to remain neutral in the war. The message read, “After the war ends, Turkey is needed as a bulwark against the drive for expansion anticipated from Stalin and his Communist cohorts. We will transfer to your armed forces some of the most advanced weapons we are providing to the Allied Forces.” Turkey did indeed remain neutral. After the war, the Marshall Plan was launched, as was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), inviting Turkey as a charter member. Both of these developments bolstered Turkey’s western leaning, entirely compatible with Atatürk’s vision.

Less than a year after the termination of hostilities, in January of 1946 my father was appointed assistant military attaché to London.  Just five years old, I remember well sailing from Istanbul, by way of Izmir to Cairo; then after several weeks in Cairo, flying in a British military plane to London, with a stopover in Malta. The photograph of my father, wearing his uniform, was taken when he assumed the post in London in 1946.  My sister Gülseren was born in London in 1946, but after just seven months, would be returned by my visiting grandparents to Turkey, where they would take care of her. Two years later my father was promoted to Lt. Colonel and assigned to a new post, as assistant military attaché to Paris.

After Paris, a pair of domestic assignments would follow — two years in Sivas, then an assignment in Ankara, as an assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff, Org. Nuri Yamut. These assignments would be followed in 1953, with another foreign assignment — this time to the “sweetest of all plums” among diplomatic posts.  He was assigned as the military attaché to Washington, DC.

About the time that my father’s assignment to Washington expired in 1955, I was awarded the War Memorial Scholarship, and enrolled at St. Andrew’s School, in Middletown, Delaware. Founded in 1930 by the du Pont Family, this is an academically rigorous boarding school, with an unusually beautiful campus, featured in the 1989 Robin Williams movie, Dead Poets’ Societ. (Indeed, I was serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of the school when the film was made.) During the three years I spent at St. Andrew’s, and subsequently the 9-10 years I spent doing undergraduate and graduate work in theoretical physics at a variety of institutions in the United States and England, my parents were living in Turkey. My father had assignments to Malatya, then Gelibolu (Gallipoli), followed by Izmir, where he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in 1960.


During the decade of the 60s, my father had assignments to the NATO Headquarters in Izmir.  Then he was based in Ankara, where  he served as Commandant of the Jandarma, Undersecretary of Defense, then in Istanbul as the Commander of the First Army. In 1967, when he was receiving his final promotion, I had the singular honor of pinning a fourth star on each of his epaulets.  I had missed all his other promotions through the ranks, and this would be my first and very last chance.



I have long envied the Irish who organize wakes for their dead, celebrating good lives and not just mourning for them. To be sure, we may miss immensely those departed. Leonardo da Vinci’s words, “A life well-lived is long,” resonates with meaning for both of my parents, who left remarkable memories, lived such wonderful lives. My mother died in 1993 just barely into her seventies — somewhat young for our times.  She had lived an astounding life – recognized by everyone who met her for her wisdom and selflessness, her wit and humor, the elegance and astonishing beauty. When General Matthew Ridgway (1895-1993) and his wife, “Penny,” came to visit Turkey in 1952, my mother was assigned as Mrs. Ridgway’s escort during her visit.  Indeed, this turned out to be a time of immense ambivalence for my mother – she was with the Ridgways in Ankara, when her beloved father passed away in Istanbul in September 1952. A year or two later, when my father was serving as the military attaché to Washington, the Ridgways came to visit us in our home — Ridgeway at the pinnacle of the armed forces of the United States, my father a colonel in the Turkish Army, and indeed they all maintained a correspondence for years afterwards.  Fifteen years later when Charles de Gaule came to Ankara on a visit, my mother was assigned the seat next to the great man at the official state dinner.  She exuded charisma, and she spoke French as well as English.

By any measure, my father had a long and distinguished career.  Having graduated from Kuleli in 1930, he retired in Istanbul in 1970. My sister and I gave a surprise 50th wedding anniversary party for our parents on January 8, 1989, and some of their closest and oldest friends were in attendance.  We showed slides (several of which have been integrated into this story).  My mother died in 1993 after a prolonged and debilitating illness. At the time, I tried getting in touch with her friend, Penny Ridgway, only to find out that General Ridgway had also passed away that year, at age of ninety-eight.

RidgewayMy father lived a longer life than my mother — having been born nine years earlier than she was and surviving nine years past her death — died on February 14, 2003.  He lived to see five of his eight great grandchildren. A grandson and a great grandson were named after him. His defining virtues had been his kindness and wisdom, his unassailable honesty and his legendary modesty; and above all his graciousness. He would never open a door, without insisting on someone else going through it ahead of him. He would never see guests to the door, and not wait outside until the guests had entered their cars and departed. He never spoke ill of anyone else. Finally, I cannot remember a day that passed when he did not mention Atatürk with deep veneration!

How appropriate it was that such a good and honest man, so full of love, would die on St. Valentine’s Day.  Late in the summer of 2003, as I completed the manuscript for a book on Leonardo da Vinci that I had been writing for several years, I felt the painful ambivalence in penning the dedication, of noting the terminal year of his life.

“To the memory of an extraordinary man
— soldier, statesman, father —
General Kemal Atalay (1910-2003).”



My father frequently spoke of his memory of his own father’s visit to Biga in 1916, a memory he always described as being a “dreamlike vision” — formed when he was just five years old. He would retire in 1970, but not before another transformative incident took place. In 1968, fifty-two years Hakki's graveafter his father had died, my father, now as Commandant of the Jandarma, was on a visit to the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, ostensibly to inspect troops.  One day as he drove through the small village of Silvan he was approached by a village elder. The man, after introducing himself, claimed to my father’s astonishment that he had personally known his father, Ismail Hakki. And he said that he had followed my father’s progress from a distance, through his assignments and promotions through the ranks.  He added that he knew where Ismail Hakki was buried. My father, stunned by this revelation, accompanied the old man to a nearby graveyard, where he actually saw for the first time his father’s weathered headstone, the site of his grave. The headstone was inscribed in old Turkish, right-to-left, “Major Ismail Hakki, son of Yusuf Ziya, Chief Justice of Thessalonica.” The marker also identified Ismail Hakki’s brigade as being based in Ohri, where my father was born in 1910.  Ohri was then part of the Ottoman Empire and is now a town in Macedonia.  My father had a local stonemason build a slightly more elaborate memorial, and the inscription in old Turkish replaced by one in modern Turkish (using letters of the Roman Alphabet).

I had always known that my maternal great grandfather (whom I still remember from my childhood and subsequently from a myriad family photographs) had been the chief justice in the City of Sinop on the Black Sea. But from the inscription on Ismail Hakki’s gravestone there was now the revelation of my paternal great grandfather’s name, and that he also had been a chief justice.


The following is based on three separate blogs written for National Geographic News Watch in May 2012 by the author:


This story represents the confluence of two of my lifelong heroes. First there is Albert Einstein, the greatest scientist since Isaac Newton, and Time Magazine’s choice for “The Individual of the 20thCentury.” As a professor of physics for four decades I have been intimately involved with almost every component of his work — the photoelectric effect, the special and general theories of relativity, his contributions to statistical mechanics, and much more. And I have had several stints at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, walking the hallways that Einstein traipsed the last third of his life. My first stint came during the summer of 1974, 19 years after he passed away. But then I’ve known three individuals well, who knew Einstein well. I’ve already written a pair of blogs about Einstein for the National Geographic News Watch series, and in the future will write another two or three more.

Then there is Kemal Atatürk, military hero of the Gallipoli Campaign of WWI, who went on to establish the Republic of Turkey. His creation replaced a lethargic and largely illiterate Ottoman Empire, a Caliphate, at the brink of disintegration with a Western-leaning, progressive secular nation. He was driven by a dictum of “… science and reason over superstition and dogma.” In 2002, when Arnold Ludwig, a professor of psychiatry, released his book, King of the Mountain, examining the nature of political leadership, he compared and ranked all known national leaders of the 20th century. The ranking is based on the Political Greatness Scale, PGS, that Dr. Ludwig had formulated by distilling the attributes of individuals whose names have come down through the ages as synonymous with leadership — Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Washington… Among the criteria are attributes such as military prowess; the nature, number and lasting power of the reforms; the length of tenure; the size of the population…. (Moreover, since one nation’s hero is frequently another nation’s scourge, Ludwig, made every attempt to filter out “the evil factor.”) On the PGS a perfect score is 37 points, but not one — including those leaders that define the standards — could possibly have scored a perfect 37.  FDR and Mao Zedong, both immensely effective in changing the fabric of their nations, are tied for 2nd place among the 2000+ leaders, each with a score of 30 points. Stalin and Lenin fall immediately behind them with 29 and 28 points, respectively. Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan also rank exceptionally high, with scores of 24, 23 and 22 points, respectively, all in the top 0.1%.

Finally, according to King of the Mountain, Atatürk, following his military victories against all odds, launched an extraordinary range of reforms. These reforms — social, legal, economic and educational in nature —  completely transformed his nation. His tally, a stratospheric score of 31 points, is the single highest score among all the leaders of Ludwig’s “baker’s century,” spanning 101 years. In short, Atatürk stands alone at the summit of Ludwig’s Mountain. Sadly, eight decades after the founding of his secular Republic, the political party AKP took over in 2002 and launched a program of counter-revolution, systematically reversing Atatürk’s reforms. What the future holds is uncertain, but describing itself as “a Moderate Islamic Government,” it may well be emulating Iran, or trying to revive the old Ottoman Empire.

Against this backdrop, it was just 2-3 years ago that I learned about a letter that Albert Einstein had written in 1933 to Kemal Ataturk's Turkey.


A video prepared by Çankaya University in Ankara gives the historical background to the letter. According to the narrative (in Turkish) in 1949 Einstein meets a young foreign student, Münir Ürgür, at Princeton. When he learns that Ürgür is a student from Turkey, he shows visible excitement, “Do you know,” he says, “…your nation produced the greatest leader of the century!” Einstein then goes on to reminisce about having received an invitation from Ataturk, “… to come and teach in one of our universities. However, as fate would have it,” he continues, “…it was not to be.”

[Note. In the early 1930s Einstein, already a great celebrity physicist, was serving as a visiting scholar at Christ Church, one of the colleges of Oxford, while also trying to wade through a myriad permanent job offers. He had finally narrowed his choices down to three, Oxford, Caltech and Princeton University (Princeton, it seems, was his first choice, "... they were the first  to accept relativity.”) when a brand new institution emerged to entice him. Abraham Flexner, who had made Johns Hopkins into a premier medical institution, had recently persuaded the Bamberger Family (of department store fame) to fund a new scientific 'think tank' in Princeton, New Jersey. The institution, the Institute for Advanced Study, would allow scholars to engage in research in theoretical physics and pure mathematics, to collaborate with each other, without the burden of having to teach students. Then at the Bamberger Family's insistence, Flexner had journeyed to England and convinced Einstein to join the faculty of the Institute. Einstein would be Flexner’s first faculty recruit and the nucleus around which other great scientists, many of them Eastern European Jews, could gather.]

Meanwhile, in the late 1920s and early 30s, most of the world was immersed in the Great Depression. Germany, embittered by  the suffocating terms imposed on it by the victorious allies, must have seen the future as particularly hopeless, akin to a visitation by a medieval plague. Just when things could not seem more bleak, in 1933 Paul von Hindenburg, President of the Weimar Republic, made a catastrophic decision. He appointed Adolph Hitler, the head of the socialist, ultra-nationalist  Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Nazi Party), as the Chancellor. The climate of Antisemitism, percolating for years, suddenly erupted violently under the Nazis. Unemployed young men, clad in brown shirts, became the Nazi’s Stoßtruppen (“shock troops” or storm troopers), hunting for Jews in their murderous rampage. Seen as unpatriotic, Jews were the first to be laid off from their jobs. [Illustration: Banner reading, "Boycott Jewish Capital" (1933). Holocaust Museum.]

Sami M. Günzberg, a Jewish Turkish dentist, was attending an International Conference in Paris of the Union for the Protection of the Well-Being of the Jewish Population (OSE). It was there that he would meet Albert Einstein, the Honorary President of the organization, and together hatch a plan.  Einstein would write a letter to Atatürk, “… I beg to apply to your Excellency to allow forty professors and medical doctors from Germany to continue their scientific and medical work in Turkey. The above mentioned cannot practice further in Germany on account of the laws… in granting this request your Government will not only perform an act of high humanity, but it will bring profit to your own country.” Einstein’s letter is dated September 17, 1933. By September 30, Günzberg would personally translate Einstein’s letter into Turkish, and with a cover letter in Turkish of his own, submit it to the Turkish Government. And although Einstein’s letter is ultimately meant for Ataturk, it was sent in care of the Prime Minister, Ismet Inönü. The cover letter is signed, “Dis Tabibi (Dentist), Sami Günzberg, Beyoglu, Istiklal Caddesi, No. 356.” [Illustration: the cover of Rifat N. Bali's book, The Master Dentist of the Seraglio and the Republic, showing a rare portrait of Sami Günzberg.]

Inönü’s handwritten message at the bottom of the letter reads, “Their salaries will be unaffordable for us.” He rejects the offer. Above the words, “Your Excellency,” appears the rectangular stamp: “Office of the Prime Minister,” replete with a star and crescent. A handwritten note, “Maarif Vekaletine” (to the Education Ministry) is seen just above the date “9-10-933″ (October 9, 1933). But when Ataturk hears about the letter from Einstein, he convenes a meeting with the principles, presumably the Prime Minister, the Minister of Education and Dr. Günzberg, and Einstein’s offer is accepted. The invitation is then extended to the German Jewish scientists, and the reform of higher education is underway, catalyzed by Einstein’s letter.

According to another source, Death on the High Sea: the Untold Story of the Struma, it was originally Atatürk’s idea to offer asylum to German Jewish scientists. The authors, Franz and Collins write, “Ataturk had set an ambitious course for modernizing his country along European lines. He had banned the traditional fez, ordering his countrymen to wear fedoras instead. He had changed to a Latin alphabet, introduced modern dancing and European music, and moved the Capital to Ankara… As it happened Atatürk had considerable problems with his teeth, and his dentist was Sami Günzberg. In their many lengthy sessions, Günzberg had spoken with Atatürk about the plight of Germany’s Jews under Hitler. Turkey’s leader had an idea: He could offer asylum to some of the most gifted Jews, they would help him transform his country into a modern state.”

Reminiscent of an early-day Billy Graham, the evangelist who was welcomed into the White House by 11 Democratic and Republican Presidents, from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush, Dr. Günzberg was the dentist of the Ottoman Court, treating Sultans Abdulhamid II and Vahideddin. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, he would become the dentist of the leaders of the Republic of Turkey. He treated Ataturk, who even had a dental chair installed in Dolmabahçe Palace. He lived on to treat successive Presidents Inönü and Bayar into the 1950s.

It is Atatürk’s hand that is seen in the manner in which history unfolded for the Jews in Turkey during the next few decades. His driving principles, science and reason over superstition and dogma, and diligence and merit over ethnicity and religion, fueled his secular Republic. It would be German and Austrian Jewish physicians, scientists, archaeologist, linguists who would prepare the next generation of Turkish scholars, just as it had been Armenian builders, with reputation for good construction, that had been hired to build  Ankara, the new Capital of Turkey.

In a book by Rifat N. Bali, “Sarayin ve Cumhuriyetin Discibasisi, Sami Günzberg” (“The Master Dentist of the Seraglio and the Republic,” Kitabevi, 2007 ) Günzberg is described as “Dentist, confidante of Sultans and founders of the Turkish Republic, unofficial diplomat, the acting representative of the heirs of Sultan Abdulhamid II… and a conduit for assistance to Jewish refugees from the Nazi genocide in Europe.” The author adds, “Sami Günzberg had resolved never to write his memoirs. Accordingly, it is only with painstaking research in various Turkish and international archives that the author succeeded in piecing together the life and work of the man known to so many in Turkey as simply “Disçibasi Sami Bey” (“Sami Bey, the dentist”).

Not just the forty that Einstein requested, but many scores of German and Austrian Jewish scientists, their families, and their assistants, moved to Turkey. For the next 10-15 years the medical schools, and science and technology departments, especially in Istanbul flourished. By the 1950s many of these scientists immigrated to the newly created State of Israel, and to the United States. They staffed the medical schools of Hopkins and Harvard, Columbia and Chicago. And they came to the physics departments of Princeton and Einstein’s Institute for Advanced Study.

Over the years, I met a number of exceptionally skilled Turkish physicians over the years who all spoke with pride of the world class medical education they had received at the University of Istanbul in the mid-40s. The Harvard and Penn Medical School educated cardiac surgeon, Dr. Mehmet Oz, in an interview on PBS, recounts his own father’s experience. Before coming to Cleveland from Turkey in the 50s, the senior Dr. Oz "... had received the best medical education in the world" in those heady days.


The foregoing story is somewhat evocative of a development four-and-a half centuries earlier. The Ottoman Empire had always been a polyglot, multiracial country, with wide religious tolerance. The Empire’s footprint at its peak resembled that of Rome at its peak, including Anatolia, the Middle East, the Balkans, North Africa, and lands ringing the northern coast of the Black Sea. In the 16th century the Mediterranean was referred to as the “Ottoman Lake.” In 1492, Spain, fresh from expelling the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, made it clear to the Jews they were no longer welcome, “…convert or leave!” The resulting Jewish exodus led in two directions — east to the Ottoman Empire and northeast to Eastern Europe. In the Ottoman Empire the tradition of family names would not come until Ataturk’s Republic. But in Eastern Europe last names already existed, and the newly arriving immigrants had to pay for their last names. A prevailing practice, however, created restrictions on the names. The wealthy families took names, such as “Diamond”, “Ruby”, “Gold”, ”Goldman”, “Goldstine”, “Silver”, “Silverstein”, … in descending order according to cost. Others simply adopted the names of towns and cities they lived in, Irvin Berlin, Lynda Paris… Families of modest means had to settle for more mundane names, such as “Einstein”… [This is an explanation I once heard from the Israeli philosopher of physics, Max Jammer (1915-2010).]


In October 2008, I received an email message from Bob Kerr, an artist living in Wellington, New Zealand. Mr. Kerr explained that he was working on a diorama comprised of ten horizontally conjoined panels for ANZAC Day, April 25, 2010, and planned to include a quote from Ismail Hakki that appeared in the 2005 documentary film, Frontline Experience: Gallipoli, written, produced and directed by the Turkish filmmaker Tolga Örnek. Mr. Kerr was asking me for information about my grandfather. I responded immediately, confessing that I had precious little information about him, and could point only to the foregoing tribute I had written to my father. Then in the closing days of 2010, I received a puzzling package in the mail. To my astonishment and deep gratitude, the long and narrow package contained a scaled down version (5x26 inches) of Bob Kerr's panorama. Emblazoned in the sky above the hills were my grandfather's poignant words:

I do not know these British soldiers and they do not know me, what can I say
to those who made us come here and kill each other without reason!  — Ismail Hakki

In the film, Ismail Hakki is quoted again, "I have sworn that I will not fire a single bullet without reason."   

The docudrama narrated by two celebrated actors, Sam Neill of New Zealand and Jeremy Irons of the United Kingdom, is a sobering and exquisitely balanced account of the battle fought 90-years earlier, and brought the filmmaker a distinguished award, the Medal of the Order of Australia.

Artist Bob Kerr in his studio working on his diorama depicting ANZAC Cove. Seen are seven of 10 panels.




All ten panels

Ataturkmemorial 2_plinth star

Ataturk Memorial in ANZAC Cove, Wellington, New Zealand




On December 5, 2013 Nelson Mandela died, one of the most successful fighters for social justice in history. Cut from the same cloth as Mahatma Gandhi, he helped to liberate his nation from racial and colonial oppression, and went on to unify his nation. Mandela had started his decades of struggles as a militant, though not a military hero, but embraced peace and healing in his mature years. It is that transformation that has to be regarded as the miracle of Mandela. Standing in front of the South African Embassy in Washington is a powerful bronze statue of Nelson Mandela, his right hand stretched upward in a clenched fist, symbolic of the fight that he had carried on the better part of his life. Mandela’s statue was unveiled on September 21, 2013 by his grateful nation.

A month ago on November 10, the Atatürk Society of America (ASA) unveiled a full-sized bronze statue of Kemal Atatürk. Located on the periphery of Sheridan Circle, next to the Turkish Ambassador’s Residence at 1606 23rd Street, NW, Washington, DC, this is the first public monument in the United States honoring the greatest Turk of them all. Its timing coincides with both the 90th Anniversary of the founding of the secular Republic of Turkey in 1923 and the 75th Anniversary of Atatürk’s death on November 10, 1938. He too had liberated his nation — first from occupying foreign troops and then from centuries of backward Caliphate Rule. He wanted his new democratic republic to face westward — adopt a secular system of governance with full gender equality — and he launched reform after reform that brought his nation into the 20th Century.

A full-size statue of Atatürk already stood on the grounds of the Turkish Embassy at 1625 Massachusetts Avenue, but it was not readily accessible to the public, standing on raised ground behind a massive wrought iron fence surrounding the embassy. Moreover, it was in the style of Eastern European heroic statuary, made of fiberglass, and over-painted in bronze tones. The ASA thought that Atatürk deserved better. The Turkish-American architect Nuray Anahtar drew preliminary plans for the new statue to be placed at the center of a semicircular balustrade surrounding an indentation in the wall of the Turkish Ambassador’s Residence. And she nimbly carried the applications for permits through meetings with a plethora of city officials — the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, the DC Board for Public Spaces, and the Historic Preservation Commission. What made the site unique was its location squarely on DC public space donated for the statue by the City. As such, the statue represents the first public monument in the United States honoring one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.

The consensus of the Board of the Atatürk Society was to have Kemal Atatürk depicted in a timeless realistic style and cast in bronze. The Board had to decide the age at which to depict Atatürk — as a young military officer struggling with battle strategy and wearing a uniform replete with a “kalpak” (a sheepskin fez); as the new President of the Secular Republic that he founded, and still wearing a fez; or as the mature statesman in the early 1930s, svelte, but an elegant modern man. Again there was consensus in the Committee’s decision: he would be depicted as a thoroughly modern man, determined and exuding the legendary confidence that had defined him in life. For Turks, images of Atatürk are embedded deep in their marrow. They have all spent their lives communing with images of Atatürk, and although they might have their own favorite visions of the man, they can immediately assess whether an image produced by an artist even resembles him. Finally, the finished product had to be produced in record time.


A small list of four talented sculptors was drawn up as candidates to be considered for the commission: one in Azerbaijan; another in Salt Lake City, Utah; and a pair of young local artists whose names were provided by Lindy Hart, the widow of Frederick “Rick” Hart” (1942-1999), one of the great sculptors of the last quarter of the 20th century. Rick Hart had carved the Tympanum, including his masterpiece, the “Ex Nihilo,” above the Western Entrance of the National Cathedral. Then a few years later, he had created the bronze statue of the “Three Soldiers” at the Vietnam Memorial, the full complex standing in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. The statue of the soldiers is a realistic and extraordinarily powerful portrayal of three heavily armed soldiers trudging through the jungles of Vietnam. The two younger candidates had both worked for many years as Rick Hart’s assistants.

Deciding to go with one of the two younger sculptors turned out to be a crucial decision. Jeffrey L. Hall lived no farther than one-hour’s distance from Washington, and he insisted that he could produce the finished piece in roughly six months. The committee came to realize quickly that he was always open to suggestions, and always willing to make changes, no matter how drastic. A few of the members made at least a dozen visits to Jeff’s studio in rural Virginia to oversee the work in progress and to offer new suggestions. Rick Hart’s comment that Jeff’s “…quality of work rivals any in history," became a source of confidence, tempering the fear of the well-worn aphorism, “A camel is a thoroughbred designed by a committee!” Jeff knew nothing about Atatürk before he started working on his initial clay model, a 12” high maquette. But as he immersed himself in the hundreds of photos, and even old films that captured his subject’s general demeanor and movement, he became as familiar with Atatürk’s deportment as any Turk. <a href="">"The Incredible Turk"</a>, a 1958 documentary narrated by Walter Cronkite, was especially useful for this purpose. The maquette was then rescaled to a 34” tall clay model. In this second redaction, the subject’s stance could be modified in rescaling it again to a full 6’7” model. Simultaneously, Jeff started working on a full-size bust that would be integrated into the final statue. To view a slide show prepared by the artist, click on Creation of the Atatürk.

After the full-size clay model is prepared, molds are created of the separate components: the bust, the arms, the torso... Molten bronze is then poured into the molds, and subsequently the components are welded together. Center: the details of book, entitled "Nutuk" ("The Speech") in the statue's left hand. Right: Wingtip shoes introduced in the early 1930s, the type known to have been worn by Atatürk.

In the photo above, a worker in the Laran Bronze Foundry in Philadelphia is seen applying the patina and curing it with the heat of a blow torch.

As the author of a pair of books on Leonardo da Vinci (Math and the Mona Lisa, Smithsonian Books, 2004) and Leonardo’s Universe (National Geographic Books, 2009) I could bring suggestions based on my knowledge of the Renaissance genius’s own words. Leonardo, in painting “The Last Supper,” had emphasized the importance of the hands, “The subject should speak with his hand gestures as much as with his facial expressions.“ From the beginning I frequently spoke about Leonardo’s dictum regarding the importance of the hands. In Jeff’s statue Atatürk is depicted as a reformer/teacher, giving a speech. In his left hand he is holding a heavy book with the title “Nutuk” (“The Speech”). The book is resting on his hip, but with his index finger he is holding his place in the book. The right hand captures the electric moment when he has paused to make a point with his index finger, the intensity dramatized by the bulging veins in his hand.

In the plaster cast made from the original mold the sculptor conveys the illusion of light colored eyes by making the irises especially shallow. Note also the negative slope of the stripes in the tie. [/caption]Among other details, Jeff captures Atatürk’s “renkli gözleri” (his blue-gray eyes) in a dark bronze statue. The illusion of light colored eyes, in distinction to those with dark color, is achieved by making the irises much shallower than they would otherwise be in depicting a subject with dark eyes. Among the accompanying photos, a white plaster bust, cast directly from the mold for the bronze, reveals this trick. Another subtle detail is in the direction of the stripes on Atatürk’s tie. Mathematically speaking, these stripes display “negative slopes” (lower right-to-upper left). This style of stripe is known as the “American Stripe.” In distinction, the European (and other non-American) striped ties usually display positive slopes (lower left-to-upper right). In examining photos of Ataturk wearing ties, we found that his ties of choice had the American Stripe. One can only speculate about his personal collection of ties being presented to him by the American Ambassador in Ankara, or perhaps one of the Turkish Ambassadors who once occupied the Embassy in Washington. The details of the statue also include the chain for his pocket watch, draped naturally in a parabola across his vest, and in homage to his military days, his medal, partially covered by his right lapel. Standing next to the 6’7” bronze statue, perched on a 3” bronze base, one can sense Atatürk’s figure exuding that abstract quality described in Turkish as, “heybetli,” an unmistakable heroic presence.

In a day when genuinely great statesman seem to be rare, when a priestly class (whether clerics in Iran, rabbis of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, or fundamentalists preachers in the United States) endorses taking one side or another in endless internecine warfare, it might be good to remember a couplet written by the English poet William Blake (1757-1827): “Mysteries will never cease; the Priest clamors for war, and the soldier peace.” He could not have been more prescient, or more accurate, in describing Atatürk. The unrivaled military tactician and strategist, who was undefeated in the military campaigns that had consumed the first three decades of his life, became the greatest proponent for peace once he established the Republic of Turkey. On the balustrade surrounding Atatürk’s statue, are his words in bronze lettering, “Peace at home… Peace in the World.” This is also reminiscent of the late Mr. Mandela.


The address, Sheridan Circle, is at the top of any short list of prime real estate in Washington, with the Embassy Row of Massachusetts Avenue radiating east and west from the circle. Several embassies line the rim of the circle. Along with the former Turkish Embassy (now the Ambassador’s Residence) there is the Romanian Embassy on the southern side, the Greek Embassy on the northeast, and the Embassy of Pakistan on the northwest. In front of several of the embassies stand statues of prominent statesmen, including Greece’s early 20th century Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, whose armed forces had fought Turkey until 1922, and who nominated Kemal Atatürk for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934. A statue of Gandhi stands a quarter mile to the east, and the statues of Churchill and Mandela facing each other stand a mile to the west of Sheridan Circle. The centerpiece of the circle, however, is an equestrian statue of the Union General Philip Sheridan, for whom the circle is named. The equestrian statue, weathered naturally to a green patina during the 105 years it has stood at the site, is extraordinarily beautiful in its own right. The sculptor of the statue, Gutzon Borglum, is far better known as the sculptor of the heads of Presidents at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. The most recent of the four was Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the 26th President, a good and colorful leader, but one who does not rise to the stratospheric prominence achieved by the other three. For Teddy Roosevelt, the timing was right. He was the reigning President when the monument was created, he was unusually fond of the West, and he was a friend of the sculptor.

The other three — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln — are unrivaled as the greatest among the 44 Presidents in the history of the United States. The First President, General George Washington, unfaltering military leader who ultimately defeated the British, stands as the “Father of the Nation,” The third President, Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant theorist and political writer, authored the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson also strongly believed that religion was a personal choice that should be free from government interference. Then there is Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President, who held the United States together during the dark years of the Civil War. He authored the Emancipation Proclamation. Each member of this iconic trio is honored with an impressive architectural edifice in the city, his own National Monument.

Atatürk embodies the greatest assets of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln — military strategist par excellence; social, educational and economic reformer; statesman — Father of his Country — the man the distinguished professor of psychiatry, Arnold Ludwig, in his 2002 book, “The King of the Mountain,” ranked Number One among all 2300 national leaders of the 20th century.

In the waning days of the 20th century, the Editors of Time Magazine, accustomed to selecting the “Individual of the Year,” found themselves saddled with the difficult task of selecting the “Individual of the Century.” Turks expressed their exuberance by the thousands in nominating Atatürk for the honor. The editors must have reasoned first that this was a concerted effort organized in Ankara or Istanbul. Then they must have felt, Atatürk was indeed a towering figure of the 20th century, but that his influence had been limited to a small sector of the planet. Accordingly, they must have felt compelled to eliminate him from the top spot. But others in the running, both good and bad, included FDR, Churchill, Mao Zedong and Hitler… Finally, Time Magazine announced its choice for the “Individual of the Century.” It would be Albert Einstein, symbolic of science in the Century of Science. As a physicist, I was initially surprised, but ultimately sanguine, regarding Time’s choice. As Einstein once remarked, “Politics are temporary, but equations [describing the laws of nature] are forever.”

Three of the foregoing finalists expressed private sentiments about Atatürk:
“My sorrow is that, it is no longer possible to fulfill my strong wish to meet this great man.” — Franklin D. Roosevelt
“The death of Atatürk, who saved Turkey during the war and revived the Turkish nation, is not only a loss for his country, but it is also a great loss for Europe…” — Winston Churchill
“Your nation produced the greatest leader of the century!” — Albert Einstein. (To Turkish graduate student, Münir Ülgür, at Princeton. Helen Dukas, who served Einstein as his secretary for 25 years, also mentioned Einstein’s long held sentiment regarding Atatürk to me at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1974.) See also Einstein's Letter to Atatürk's Turkey.

Flanking the 6'7" clay model of Atatürk's statue, from left to right: Sculptor Jeff Hall; the founders of the Atatürk Society of America (ASA), Hüdai and Mirat Yavalar; the author and Carol Jean Atalay.


Post-postscript: The initial "I" in my name, Bulent I. Atalay, stands for "Ismail."


The following story is reproduced from the New Zealand Herald On April 24, 2015. Written by Linda Herrick, the Arts and Books Editor at the NZ Herald

"Artist followed in soldier's footsteps"

Culverden farmhand Alfdred Cameron's diary detailing everything from his enlistment to the ordeal of battle

Bob Kerr visited the beach at Gallipoli after reading Alfred Cameron's diary covering his three-week ordeal at the battle. Some of Cameron's words appear in Kerr's multi-panel work Hell Here Now, which features on the cover of today's special publication, Letters From Hell. Bob Kerr visited the beach at Gallipoli after reading Alfred Cameron's diary covering his three-week ordeal at the battle. Some of Cameron's words appear in Kerr's multi-panel work Hell Here Now, which features on the cover of today's special publication, Letters From Hell. When New Zealand artist Bob Kerr went to Gallipoli five years ago to research a series of paintings he was working on, he walked along the stony beach where the Anzac troops first started landing in April 1915. He took his shoes off and walked into the sea, the scene of such terrible carnage 100 years ago.

"I wanted to experience what the guys had done," he says. "They waded ashore, so I took my shoes off and waded out into the sea and turned around and had a good look. I took my camera with me and took photos. It's quite a popular place now, popular with Turkish families. It's very pleasant. You can hear birds and there are poppies growing along the shore which is almost maudlinly sentimental. People are very friendly. I'd always be walking back to town and I'd invariably be invited out to dinner by a Turkish family."

Wellington-based Kerr, who explores New Zealand history in his work, decided to visit Gallipoli after discovering a diary held in Alexander Turnbull Library written by Alfred Cameron, a 20-year-old farmhand from Culverden in Canterbury, who enlisted in the Expeditionary Force Mounted Rifles in 1914.

Cameron also enlisted his horse Percy.

"I always find with all my work that I have to go to the place," says Kerr. "I can't just look at photos, it's always the actual physical place that sparks off the images."

The Alexander Turnbull Library holds dozens of letters and diaries written by men who engaged in the Gallipoli campaign. "When I got to diary number 10 - Alfred's - I thought, 'You're my man'," says Kerr. "He wrote so clearly. He just noted down what happened."

Cameron's earlier entries were gung-ho, full of optimism. He had elegant writing at first, using a fountain pen to describe the training at Lyall Bay, the ship voyage in October across the Indian Ocean, the "little battle" with a German raider, the disembarkment at Alexandria and the weeks spent in the desert marching up and down. On Christmas Day 1914, he and his mate George Ilsley visited the pyramids, then, according to the diary, "took the tram back to Cairo and had dinner at the Cafe Parisienne, a real good dinner too".

When Cameron and his mates first arrived in Egypt, they thought they were going to be sent to France to fight. "But the First Sea Lord of the British Admiralty, Winston Churchill, decided to invade the Dardanelles Strait," says Kerr.

By the time the Mounted Rifles sailed for the Dardanelles - "great news", wrote Cameron - he had started to use a pencil and the writing was losing its tidy elegance. They arrived at Gallipoli on May 12; the campaign had started on April 25. Cameron's words are replicated in Kerr's multi-panel work Hell Here Now which features on the cover of the print version of Letters From Hell, a special publication inside today's print edition of the Herald.

The words flow from left to right, covering Cameron's three-week ordeal at Gallipoli. They start on May 12: "I write these lines hoping they will be interesting to those at home ... we got ashore safely although we're under shellfire all the way ... we went straight to a bushy gulley for shelter."

The next day: "At three o'clock we started off for the firing line." Then there is a gap of just over 10 days. On May 24, Cameron notes, "Armistice arranged between both sides this morning to allow the burying of the dead." Two days later, "Trooper Skilton wounded. Trooper Hunter killed."

Monday May 31: "Going forward again tonight" and in much smaller writing, "we miss our cobbers." The same day, Kerr has blown up Cameron's words: "IT'S JUST HELL HERE NOW. No water or tucker."

His words end the same day: "Seven out of thirty three in number one troop on duty. Rest either dead or wounded. Dam the place. No good writing any more."

Cameron's friend George Ilsley had been killed, and when the diary stopped, Kerr assumed Cameron had died as well. Then he saw a little scrawl dated August 24: "Government School Hospital, Port Said. 21 today. Received cable from home."

Kerr managed to track down Cameron's grand-daughter, who lived in Wellington. Her grandfather had been blown up and buried while attempting to tunnel through to the Turks. When he eventually recovered, he returned to New Zealand in 1916 and took up farming near Fairlie.

His grand-daughter recalled him as a man who couldn't abide dirt in the house. "She said he used to walk behind them sweeping up any gravel they might bring into the house." He was most likely suffering from post-traumatic stress.

Words from another soldier engaged in the impasse at Gallipoli sweep across the top of Kerr's panels: "I don't know these British soldiers and they don't know me. What can I say to those who made us come here and kill each other without reason."

They were written by a young man on the other side, a Turkish soldier called Major Ismail Hakki who was fighting at the top of the ridge alongside his lifelong friend, Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal, the man who would later create and lead the modern Republic of Turkey, and was given the honorific title of Ataturk - Father of the Turks.

Kerr discovered Ismail Hakki's words in the 2005 documentary Frontline Experience: Gallipoli, made by Turkish film-maker Tolga Ornek and narrated by Sam Neill and Jeremy Irons. He emailed Hakki's grandson, Bulent Atalay, a distinguished physicist in the United States and president of the Ataturk Society of America, which is dedicated to promoting the great leader's ideals of science and reason, to ask for permission to use the words in his painting.

Atalay later wrote in the National Geographic, "In the closing days of 2010, I received a puzzling package in the mail." It was a gift from Kerr, a scaled-down version of Hell Here Now.

The two men have since become good friends, with Atalay visiting Wellington last year . In the photo above: Bob Kerr, Carol Jean Atalay, Hazel Kerr, Bulent Atalay

Kerr took him to see the Ataturk Memorial on Wellington's south coast, "which is curiously very much the same kind of landscape as Gallipoli. He was very moved."

What happened to Ismail Hakki who wrote those powerful words? After the Gallipoli campaign, and the withdrawal of the Anzacs, he sent a photo of his company with a message to his aunt: "I've survived eight months of action in Gallipoli. I will soon leave for the Eastern Front to face the Arabs and their recalcitrant leader."

The "recalcitrant leader" was Lawrence of Arabia. "There he would die," wrote his grandson, Bulent Atalay. "My grandfather's body would presumably be interred somewhere in south-eastern Turkey."

• Hell Here Now is on show at Whitespace Gallery, 12 Crummer Rd, Grey Lynn.

- NZ Herald