The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep Page 5

And the old woman’s story was a classic. It had happened in 1922, she told me. She had been but a girl then, a girl just old enough to seek a husband. “And there were many who wanted me, Mr. Tanner. I was a pretty one then. And my father the richest man in Balikesir…”

Balikesir, a town about a hundred miles north of Smyrna, was the capital of Balikesir Province. She had lived there with her mother and her father and her father’s father and two brothers and a sister and assorted aunts and uncles and cousins. Her father’s house was one of the finest in Balikesir, and her father was the head of the town’s Armenian community. A fine house it was, too, not far from the railroad station, built high upon a hill with a view for miles in all directions. A huge house, with high columns around the doorway and a sloping cement walk down to the street below. Of the five hundred Armenian families in Balikesir, none had a finer house.

“The Greeks were at war with the Turks,” she told me. “Of course, we were on the side of the Greeks, and my father had raised funds for the Greeks and knew many of their leaders. There were thousands of Greeks in Balikesir, and they were good friends with the Armenians. Our churches were different, but we were all Christians, not heathens like the Turks. At first my father thought the Greeks would win. The British were going to help us, you see. But, then, no help came from the British, and my father learned that the Turks would win after all.”

It was then that the gold began to come to the house in Balikesir. Every day men brought sacks of gold, she said. Some brought little leather purses, some brought suitcases, some had gold coins sewn into their garments. Each man brought the gold to her father, who counted it carefully and wrote out a receipt for it. Then the man left, and the gold was put in the basement.

“But we could not leave it there, you see. The bandits were already at the gates of Smyrna, and time was short. And my father had in his hands all the gold of all the Armenians of Smyrna.”

“Of Balikesir, you mean?”

She laughed. “Of Balikesir? Oh, no. Why, there were only five hundred families of our people in Balikesir. No, they brought all the Armenian gold of Smyrna as well because they knew that Smyrna would fall first and they knew, too, that my father was a man who could be trusted. Just a few sacks would have held all the gold of Balikesir, but the riches of Smyrna-that was another matter.”

Her father and his brothers had worked industriously. She recalled it all very well, she told me. One afternoon a man had come with news that Smyrna had fallen, and that very night the whole family had worked. There was a huge front porch on their house, wooden on the top, with concrete sides and front. That night her father and her uncle Poul broke through the concrete on the left side. Then the whole family carried the gold coins from the basement and hid them away beneath the porch.

They made many trips, she told me. They carried big sacks and little sacks, and once she had dropped a cloth purse, and the shiny coins had scattered all over the basement floor, and she had to scurry around picking them up and putting them back into the purse. Almost all the coins were the same, she said-a bit smaller than an American quarter, with a woman’s head on one side and a man on horseback on the other, and the man, she remembered, was sticking something with a spear.

British sovereigns, of course. The head of Victoria (Vicki Hanover, that usurper) and the reverse was St. George slaying the dragon. That had been the most common gold coin in the Middle East, I knew; the most trusted gold piece, the coin one would choose to hoard as family or communal wealth.

At last all the coins were in place, Kitty’s grandmother explained, and they filled the space beneath the porch to capacity. And then her father and her uncle mixed cement and carefully patched the opening in the concrete by the light of a single lantern. After the cement set, they rubbed little bits of gravel into it to give it an aged appearance and they dusted it with dirt from the road so it would be the same shade as the rest of the porch cement.

Until then the Turks in Balikesir had been peaceful. But now, once they had heard of Ataturk’s victory a hundred miles to the south, they suddenly grew courageous. The next morning they attacked, overrunning the Greeks and Armenians. They burned the Greek quarter to the ground and they butchered every Greek and Armenian they could find. The violence in Balikesir had not made the history books. Smyrna, sacked at the same time, overshadowed it, and I don’t doubt that similar massacres were taking place in enough other Turkish cities to keep Balikesir out of the limelight.

Kitty’s grandmother, however, had been only in Balikesir and had seen only what took place in Balikesir. She spoke calmly of it now. The burnings, the rape, the endless murder. Children pierced with swords, old men and women shot through the back of the head-screams, gunshots, blood, death.

She was one of the few to survive, but her words indicated that Kitty had been right: “I was young then, and pretty. And the Turks are animals. I was ravished. Can you believe this, to look at me now, that men would want to have me that way? And not just one man, no. But I was not killed. Everyone else in my family was killed, but I escaped. I was with a group of Greeks and an old Armenian man. We fled the city. We were on the roads for days. The old Armenian man died. It is funny, I cannot remember his name. We were crowded together aboard a ship. Then we were here, New York, America.”

“And the gold?”

“Gone. The Turks must have it.”

“Did they find it?”

“Not then, no. But they must have it now. It was years ago. And no Armenian went back for it. I was the only one of my family to live, and only the people of my family knew of the gold. So no Armenian found it, and so the Turks must have gotten it all.”

Later Kitty said, “Damn you, why did you have to go and talk Armenian with her? I couldn’t understand three words out of a hundred. If you think it’s a picnic to sit listening to two people talk for hours and not catch a word-”

“She’s a wonderful woman.”

“She is, isn’t she? You seemed interested in her story. Were you?”

“Very much.”

“I’m glad. How on earth did you learn to speak the language, Evan? No, don’t tell me. I don’t even want to know. It made her whole day, though. She cornered me on the way out. Did you hear what she asked me?”


“She wanted to know if I was pregnant.”

“Are you?”

“God, I hope not. I told her I wasn’t, and she said I should get pregnant right away so that we would be married.”

“She said that?”

“That’s not all. She said you have a better chance to get pregnant if you keep your knees way up and stay that way as long as you can. She’s a dirty old lady.”

“She’s grand.”

“You’re a dirty old man. Are you coming to the New Life tonight?”

“Around midnight.”


I took the subway back to my apartment and sat down at my typewriter and wrote up everything I could recall of Kitty’s grandmother’s story. I read through what I had written, then roamed the apartment, pulling books from the shelves, checking articles in various pamphlets and magazines. A broadside of the League for the Restoration of Cilician Armenia alluded to the confiscation of the wealth of the Armenians of Smyrna. But I could find no reference to the cache in Balikesir. Nothing at all.

A few days later the League was meeting on Attorney Street on the Lower East Side. The League meets once a month, and I go when I can. Sometimes a guest speaker discusses conditions in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Other times reports will be read from branches in other cities, other countries. Much of the time is devoted to general socializing, discussions of the rug business, gossip. As far as I know, I’m the only member who isn’t Armenian. At the meeting I looked up Nezor Kalichikian, who knows everyone and everything and who, I knew, had lived in Smyrna. We drank coffee and played a game of chess which he won, as usual. I asked him about the gold of Smyrna.

“The Armenian treasure of Smyrna,” he said solemnly. “What do you want to know about it?”

“What happened to it?”

He spread his small hands expressively. “What happened to everything? The Turks got it, of course. Since they could not rape it or eat it or kill it or burn it, they probably spent it. They couldn’t have kept it long. They managed to rid themselves of the Armenians and the Greeks and the Jews, the only three groups in Turkey who had the slightest idea how to manage money. Yes; I know of the Armenian treasure. Are you really interested in this, Evan?”


“Any particular reason?”

“Some research I’m doing.”

“Always research. Yes.” He sipped his coffee. “The Armenians pooled their wealth, you know. It was all kept in gold. One did not keep money in paper bills in those days. Not real money, not one’s savings. Always gold. The money was pooled and tucked away for safekeeping in a basement in Smyrna.”

“In Smyrna?”

“Of course. And then the Turks must have taken it, because no one succeeded in getting it out of the country. The whole city was burned, you understand. The wretched Turkish quarter remained-that was the one section that might have profited by a burning-but everything else was destroyed. Ataturk’s troops fired the city, and then, of course, they said that the Greeks and the Armenians had done it. Typical. I’m sure the gold was discovered during the fire. They looted everything.”

“So they would have found the gold.”

“Undoubtedly. If you move there, you’ll lose your queen.”

“Let it go, I moved it. Another game?”

“You resign?”


We set up the pieces for another game. Later he said, “There was an earthquake in Smyrna a few years after. Nineteen twenty-seven, I think.”

“Nineteen twenty-eight.”

“Perhaps. If the gold had not been found before, it would have been discovered then. So I’m sure the Turks have it.”

“Would there have been much?”

“Oh, yes. Our people in Smyrna were quite wealthy, you know.”

“And the gold was hidden right there in the city? In Smyrna?”

“Why, of course,” old Nezor said. “Where else would it have been hidden?”

There were no records anywhere of the discovery of the treasure of Smyrna. It was taken for granted by everyone that the Turks had found the gold, but no one knew this for a certainty.

And there were no records anywhere to indicate that the gold had been cached in Balikesir. There was one woman’s memory-and she claimed to be the only survivor who had known of the cache. Balikesir had not burned to the ground. Balikesir had not suffered an earthquake. Balikesir had suffered its private hells, but I could see a house on a hill, a porch with concrete sides and front, surviving through the years, its contents unknown and undisturbed.

That night I told Kitty. “I think it’s still there,” I said and explained it to her.

“Maybe it was never there in the first place. She’s an old woman. She went through a big shock back then. Who knows what she remembers? Maybe she really lived in Smyrna all the time-”

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