Some took the risk of forcibly getting on Nazi ‘death trains’ as they were to set off for death camps, prying Jews on them from the hands of the SS officers. Others saved many people from concentration camps by taking them to safety in their private cars. The Israel-based International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and the Israel Union of Jews from Turkey in Israel are collaboratively searching for witnesses and documents to convince the Israeli state to honor a number of Turkish diplomats who saved many Jews from death during the Holocaust
The smell of death permeated the streets of Europe during the dark years of World War II. Nazi Germany, under the regime of Adolf Hitler, was hunting Jews in the countries it had occupied and their fate anywhere in the world seemed simply hopeless.
As the macabre dance on the streets continued, some Turkish diplomats serving in Europe at that time saved thousands of Jews from the cruel hands of the Third Reich.
Very nearly lost to the foggy corridors of history, these gallant Turkish diplomats have been remembered as part of a joint initiative by the Israel-based International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and the Israel Union of Jews from Turkey in Israel. The two associations have begun searching for witnesses and documents to enable Turkish diplomats to be honored officially by the Israeli state. It is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, that will confer the honorary titles on the diplomats.
But in order to do so, it asks for corroborating documents and testimony of at least three people saved by the heroes. The two Israeli organizations now request that people who have information on the diplomats come forward.
The biggest advantage that Turkish diplomats enjoyed in Europe in the 1940s was Turkey’s neutrality in the war. That enabled them to save thousands of Jews from the Nazi genocide in Europe and to help Turkey to serve as a bridge between Eastern Europe and Palestine for Jewish refugees.
Germany, aware of all these factors, began to put severe pressure on Turkey. But despite the pressure and dangers awaiting them, Turkish diplomats continued to help Jewish refugees in different parts of Europe and saved thousands of them, many of who were originally Turkish Jews. These diplomats also served as a bridge between the refugees and institutions that wanted to help them. Moreover, Turkey, the only remaining route for Jews in Europe to flee to Palestine, refused to close off its straits to refugees in transit.
Once arrived in Istanbul, Jewish refugees could pass into Palestine if they had visas. Those who did not have visas were put in small boats in the resort towns of Marmaris and Bodrum and sent to Palestine illegally. About 100,000 Jewish refugees fled from Europe to Palestine via Turkey by the end of the war. About 75,000 of them were saved by Turks.
France was one of the countries where Turkish diplomats worked to save Jews. About 10,000 of 300,000 Jews living in France at the beginning of World War II were Jews from Turkey. Turkish diplomats serving in France at that time dedicated many of their working hours to Jews. They provided official documents such as citizenship cards and passports to thousands of Jews and in this way they saved their lives. Below is a story of these diplomats.
Selahattin Ülkümen / Turkish consul general on the island of Rhodes
Saves Jews, loses wife
Germany occupied the island of Rhodes in 1943. A total of 1,800 Jews were living on the island at that time. Nazis decided to gather all of them and send them to the concentration camps in Auschwitz in 1944. They told them to gather at the Italian headquarters on the island and allowed them to take supplies for 10 days. At the headquarters, the Jews were told they were going to be taken to another island. Selahattin Ülkümen, Turkish consul general serving on the island at that time, objected to the deportation of 50 Turkish citizens among the 1,800 Jews and saved them from being taken to Auschwitz.
The Germans ultimately sent 1,673 Jews from Rhodes to Auschwitz; only 150 survived. Soon after, Turkey took sides with the allies and declared war against the German alliance. Germany bombed the Turkish Consulate General to Rhodes. Ülkümen’s wife, Mihrinnisa, who was pregnant at that time, and two officials at the consulate died in the bombardment.
Nam?k Kemal Yolga / Turkish deputy consul general in Paris
Carries Jews to safety in his own car
The Turkish state appointed Nam?k Kemal Yolga to his first international post in Paris in 1940. Two months after he took office, Germany occupied France. Following the occupation, Jews in France were sent to concentration camps in the suburbs of Paris. Yolga helped many Jews to acquire Turkish citizenship and therefore saved them from being sent to the concentration camps. He also saved many Jews who were arrested by Nazis even though they had been provided Turkish passports by taking them to safety in his private car.
Yolga, recounting those years in his memoirs, recalled: ”Throughout its history, Turkey has never set the scene for anti-Semitism, which was seen at different levels in many countries. The Turkish state has never discriminated against its Jewish citizens. One of the tasks of our consulate general is to protect Turks, Turkish citizens of Jewish descent and citizens of other faiths.”
Necdet Kent/ deputy consul general in Marseille
Working hours given over to saving Jews
Necdet Kent served as deputy consul general in Marseille and Grenoble in France between 1941 and 1944. Kent, also a former ambassador, tells about those years:
”When the Nazis occupied northern France, Jews living there fled to the southern part of the country, to Vichy France, which had not been occupied at that time. But when it was occupied too, everything went further bad. The first thing the Nazis did was to fill trains with Jews – as many as they could find – and send them to Germany.
”Some Jews who were also Turkish citizens asked us to help them. We provided them with certificates of proof of Turkish citizenship and protected their businesses. We put signboards on facades of their workplaces that Turkey protected those places. As time went by, the Gestapo officers changed and Nazi attacks increased. We used to go to the Gestapo headquarters three or four times a day to save Turkish Jews that were detained or arrested.”
Kent recounts another episode:
”One night in Marseille, Sidi ??can, who was working as a translator at the consulate, visited me. He was nervous. He told me the Germans were rounding up 80 Jews, also Turkish citizens, and putting them in train cars for animals and sending them to Germany. He was almost crying. We immediately went to the train station. The scene at the station was unbelievable. There were humans crying and groaning in the animal cars. Each car read that it could haul 20 large cattle and half a ton of hay. And in each of them were crammed 80 people.
”I told ??can that we should also get on the train. I pushed a German officer trying to block me and got on the train together with ??can. The train stopped when we arrived in Arles or Nimes. German officers got on the train. They came over to me and told me that there was a mistake and those who caused it would be punished. I told them that 80 Turkish citizens were arrested and stuffed into animal cars simply because of their religion and I would not leave my citizens alone. All women, men and children in the train were shocked and watched the game being played over their lives. The Germans then let them all free as a result of my resolve.”
Kent continues, ”Every day, Germans used to find new ways to arrest Jews. They even used to stop a Jewish man on the street, surround him, and force him to lower his pants to see if he was circumcised or not. But Nazis mistakenly arrested many Muslim men too, for they were circumcised as well. I used to go to the Gestapo headquarters and tell the Nazis that Muslims get circumcised too. When they did not understand what I meant, I told them that a medical doctor could examine me. In this way, I saved many innocent people.”
Behiç Erkin/ Turkish ambassador to Paris
Helped former French PM’s son
Behiç Erkin was the Turkish ambassador to Paris when France was under Nazi occupation. In order to prevent the Nazis from rounding up Jews, he gave them documents saying their property, houses and businesses, belonged to Turks. He saved many lives in this way. He also saved many Jews who were sent to the Nazi camps.
Former French Prime Minister Leon Blum’s son and his friends were among the Jews that Erkin helped. The original letter of thanks that Blum sent to Erkin is preserved at the Republican History Museum at the language, history and geography department of Ankara University. Erkin reportedly saved about 20,000 Jews by putting them on trains to Turkey.
NOTE: This story is compiled based on the research of Stanford J. Shaw, professor of Turkish history and Turkish-Jewish history at the University of California at Los Angeles, and the information provided by the Israel Union of Jews from Turkey in Israel.
Jewish community in Turkey indifferent to issue
Emir K?v?rc?k, grandson of former Turkish Ambassador Behiç Erkin, said he has met witnesses to incidents of Turkish diplomats saving Jews from Nazi genocide. Three of them live in Turkey and 15 live in France. He said that although he has informed the authorities that he has found witnesses, Turkish diplomats have still not been honored because the decision to grant the honorary titles needs to be made by Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem under the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority after listening to the testimonies of the witnesses or written statements made by them. K?v?rc?k said it would not be a proper if he, as a family member of one of the heroes, transmitted the written statements of the witnesses to Yad Vashem. He believes the Jewish community in Turkey should carry out such a task. But it has not made any attempt so far.
Other Turkish diplomats that helped Jews during the Holocaust
- Ali ?evket Berber, served in Paris between 1943 and 1944.
- Numan Kurtulmu?, served in Paris between 1944-1956.
- Saffet Ar?kan, served in Berlin between 1942 and 1944.
- ?nayetullah Cemal Özkaya, served in Athens between 1940 and 1945.
- Burhan I??n, served in Varna between 1942 and 1946.
- ?rfan Sabitakça, served in Prague between 1939 and 1943.
- Pertev ?evki Kantemiz, served in Budapest between 1939 and 1942.
- Abdülahat Birden, served in Budapest between 1942 and 1944.
- Fuat Aktan, served in Köstence between 1942 and 1945.
- Rag?p Rauf Arman, served in Köstence between 1942 and 1945.
- Kudret Erbey, served in Hamburg between 1938 and 1942.
- Galip Evren, served in Hamburg between 1942 and 1944.
- Cevdet Dülger, served in Paris between 1939 and 1942.
- Fikret ?efik Özdo?anc?, served in Paris between 1942 and 1945.
- Bedii Arbel, served in Marseille between 1940 and 1943.
- Mehmet Fuat Car?m, served in Marseille between 1943 and 1945.
“The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation”.
The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF) has been conducting a thorough and worldwide research into the role played by Turkish diplomats in France and in other countries, during WWII.
So far, the IRWF has not reached any conclusive findings.
There are no evidences as to the role played by the said diplomats vis-à-vis Turkish Jews whose Turkish documents were not in order (also known as “irregular Turks”).
Likewise, to date, it was not possible to receive any independent, objective third party corroboration to the self-testimony of Mr. Necdet Kent, regarding his having boarded a Nazi deportation train and released a number of Turkish Jews from deportation or death. No single survivor or survivor’s descendent, has ever come forward verifying this account. All the IRWF attempts to get access to the official Turkish Archives have been ignored.
For the record, it should be noted that from the date of Mr. Erdogan’s article till June 2010, around 800 women and men have been declared Righteous of the Nations (including Poles, Dutch, Belgians, Armenians, Russians, etc). No Turk has been declared Righteous among the Nations ever since 1989, when Ambassador Selahattin Ulkumen was awarded the title for his heroic life-saving efforts.