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Series highlights multicultural Istanbul

Pelin Ünker
January 13, 2022

The Netflix hit, "The Club" revisits a forgotten chapter in Turkish history, a time when the city of Istanbul had a flourishing multicultural and multi-faith society, including a Jewish community.

Pressefoto Netflix | Der Club
Image: 2021 Netflix, Inc./Foto: Mehmet Ali Gök

The Netflix series "The Club" has become an instant hit in Turkey. The plot revolves around a nightclub in Istanbul in the 1950s and the characters of Matilda Aseo, a Turkish Jew, and her daughter Raşel, who grew up alone in an orphanage.

It was inspired by a true story. The once colorful, multicultural, multi-lingual and religiously diverse district of Beyoglu in Istanbul takes center stage. The area used to be known as Pera and was the pulsating heart of the city. The series also showcases the life of Sephardic Jews in Istanbul, which was almost entirely destroyed in part by an astronomical wealth tax.

Sephardic Jews true heroes of the series

The majority of Jewsin Turkey are Sephardic Jews. They arrived in the country from 1492 onwards after being expelled from Spain by its Catholic monarchy. They were called Sephardim after Sefarad, the Hebrew word for Spain. The exiles brought their language, Ladino with them. Turkish and Greek words were incorporated over the years. 

Still shot from The Club
"The Club" tells the tale of a Jewish woman and her daughter who grew up in an orphanage while her mother was behind barsImage: 2021 Netflix, Inc./Foto: Mehmet Ali Gök

Ladino had been largely forgotten in Turkey. "The Club" has raised its profile again among viewers and breathed new life into the language. Jews, Greeks and Armenians played a much greater role in 1950s Turkey than they do today. Many districts were shaped by non-Muslims. They often ran music and dance establishments.

"It's a lovely feeling to see Ladino being spoken," Virna Banastey from the Turkish-Jewish newspaper Şalom said. The daily has existed for 74 years. "It's a milestone that Jewish life, Jewish traditions and Jewish customs are being shown in a series," she told DW.

Discriminatory taxation and labor camps

The 1940s and 1950s were a pivotal period for the Christian and Jewish community, in particular, in Istanbul. It was a city in which people of different faiths lived together harmoniously. Non-Muslims in the cosmopolitan city were also cultural trailblazers.

A turning point came with the introduction of a wealth tax by the Republican People's Party (CHP) in 1942. It was a time in which Turkey was beset by economic troubles and discontent was growing in the population. In the media, non-Muslims were frequently associated with theft, black market racketeering, robbery, and price rigging. 

Illuminated decorations in Istiklal Street in Istanbul
Istiklal Street in the Istanbul district of Beyoglu is not as multicultural as it once was, but it still draws crowdsImage: Arife Karakum/AA/picture alliance

The new tax mainly affected non-Muslims because they generally were expected to pay far higher tax rates than Muslims. Anyone who couldn't pay the taxes, or were found to be in default, were sent to labor camps. Thousands of homes and businesses of non-Muslims in detention were confiscated and sold — a de facto expropriation of Jews, Greeks and Armenians.

The pogrom of Istanbul

The wealth tax was part of a 1950s policy known as Turkification, according to the sociologist and writer Ayhan Aktar. It brought an end to multicultural life in many spheres.

Things came to a head when mobs attacked Jews, ethnic Greeks and ethnic Armenians and other non-Muslims on September 6 and 7, 1955. This pogrom is regarded as a disgraceful episode in Turkish history. The violence was sparked by fake news — allegations that there had been a bomb attack on the house where Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was born in Thessaloniki.

Thousands of homes and stores owned by ethnic Greeks were plundered, orthodox churches were set alight and graveyards were vandalized. According to human rights watchdog, Helsinki Watch, 15 people lost their lives. The Istanbul district of Beyoğlu was no longer the place that it once was. 

Still from Neflix series The Club
"The Club" is proving to be an unexpected hit in Turkey, reawakening buried cultural memoriesImage: 2021 Netflix, Inc./Foto: Mehmet Ali Gök

Nowadays, there are very few Sephardic Jews left in Turkey, says Silvyo Ovadya. He is the president of a foundation that runs the Museum of Turkish Jews. Located next to Israel's biggest synagogue, Neve Shalom, it presents the history and culture of Jews in Turkey. In 1927 the community numbered more than 81,000 people, now it is barely 17,000 strong, Ovadya told DW. The majority of them live in Istanbul, he said. "Some 1,200 Jews live in Izmir. And then there are small communities in cities like Bursa, Ankara, Antakya and Adana."

Netflix advised by Jewish experts

The makers of "The Club" approached members of Turkey‘s Jewish community for advice — to ensure that Sephardic traditions were accurately represented in the series. Mois Gabay was one of those advisers and he told DW how he gave input on the actors‘ dialogues and made suggestions of how they could research historic facts relating to the property tax and the pogrom, for example. "The director showed a high degree of sensitivity in terms of wanting to avoid making any errors in the series. That, in particular, is very important to our community."

Silvyo Ovadya from the Museum of Turkish Jews is pleased that the Netflix series has received much more attention than expected. Turkish Jews felt they were visible again, he said, and it broke with negative portrayals, which had been customary in the Turkish films of the 1970s.

"The Clubwhich is directed by Zeynep Günay Tan and Seren Yüce, presents people in Turkey with a new opportunity to revisit the history of their country after World War Two. "Where did all these people go?" is the question that many viewers are asking themselves.


This article was originally written in German