WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 (JTA) — The risks Selahattin Ulkumen took to save Jews during World War II led to his wife’s death.
The Turkish diplomat’s confrontation with the Nazi occupiers of Rhodes saved 42 members of the Greek island’s Jewish community, including Bernard Turiel and his parents.
When, within weeks of Ulkumen’s intervention, the Nazis bombed the consular residence in retaliation, it cost him his wife — the mother of his son, Mehmet.
Sixty years later, Turiel and Ulkumen’s son, Mehmet, met in Washington for the first time at a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum commemoration for the diplomat and shared their vast admiration for Selahattin Ulkumen.
”Mr. Ulkumen was responsible for four generations,” said Turiel, who attended last week’s dedication with his wife, daughter and newborn granddaughter. His 95-year-old mother, Mathilde, was too frail to travel from New York.
Mehmet Ulkumen said he struggled for years with the consequences of what his father did. After Nazi planes strafed the consular residence, his pregnant mother lived long enough to give birth to him — and then died within days. His grandmother, hearing of her daughter’s death, killed herself.
He was brought up by his father’s mother while his father continued his career in the Turkish diplomatic corps. He remembers asking his father often, as a child and a young man, whether it was worth losing his wife, his mother-in-law — almost losing his only child.
”’Son,’ he would say,” the younger Ulkumen recalled ”’in Islam, it is like in Judaism: to save one life is to save humanity. I know your mother was very proud of me and I would do exactly the same again.’ ”
Selahattin Ulkumen, then just 30, arrived in Rhodes with his pregnant wife, Mihrinissa, a mathematics professor, in early 1944, just months after the Nazis assumed control of Rhodes following fascist Italy’s surrender to the allies.
The Germans were still hoping to revive the World War I Turkish-German alliance, or at least keep Turkey neutral — Turkey eventually joined the Allies — and they allowed the Turks to maintain a consulate on the island to serve Turkish nationals.
The island had been an Italian holding since 1912, but the 1,800 Jews there — a community dating back to the 16th century and the Spanish expulsion — had remained relatively untouched throughout the war.
By 1944, however, the Nazis registered the Jews and ordered them to report once a month. Selahattin Ulkumen immediately understood the gravity of the situation and he and his wife discussed ways of protecting the Jews.
The Jews of Rhodes were then part of a relatively homogenous Sephardi community that maintained ties with Turkish Jews. They shared traditions and a language, Ladino, and cross-border family ties. Young suitors frequently sought brides in its far-flung towns even after territories were redrawn and the Jewish communities answered to different sovereigns.
That was how Bernard Turiel’s father, Daniel, an Italian citizen from Rhodes, met and fell in love with Mathilde, a Turkish woman from Izmir.
On July 19, 1944, the Nazis rounded up the Jewish men for deportation. The women and children were told to report within 48 hours.
That’s when Selahattin Ulkumen went into action. He insisted on responsibility for the Turkish-born Jews among the deportees. Not only that, he said truthfully, their offspring were also considered Turkish nationals. He finagled a little and told the Germans that spouses were also considered Turkish.
A day layer, Bernard Turiel, then 10 years old, was standing in line with his mother and brother to be registered at the detention center.
Ulkumen, who recognized Mathilde from a desperate meeting the day before, came running: ”Go home,” he said, ”I’m going to get your husband out.”
The 11th-hour rescue was almost too much for a little boy. ”It was terrifying,” said Turiel, now 70 and living in Westfield, N.J.
The Nazis, apparently still hoping to keep the Turks on their side, gave in. But the local Nazi leadership on the island was furious with Ulkumen, especially with his persistent efforts to save the island’s Jews — by paying fishermen to smuggle them to Turkey and by fashioning connections with Turkey to grant them diplomatic protection.
”The authorities told him he would pay dearly if he did not stop,” Mehmet Ulkumen said.
The Nazi commanders invited Selahattin Ulkumen to join a hunting party, but local Jews warned him not to go, the plan was to stage a ”hunting accident” that would solve the Nazis’ Ulkumen problem.
Some mornings, Ulkumen’s mother opened the consulate’s door to find a mutilated body — a local person who had crossed the Nazis.
Finally, one night in August, Nazi planes strafed the consulate — the residences were on the top floor. Mihrinissa Ulkumen was mortally wounded, but lived long enough to give birth to Mehmet.
His sacrifice made Selahattin Ulkumen the first non-Christian to be declared a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, in 1990; Mehmet said the visit to Jerusalem to plant a tree was a highlight for his father, who died last year at 92.
Ulkumen was not the only Turkish diplomat to strive to save European Jews from the Nazis.
”During the Second World War, many Turkish diplomats and individuals acted to help European Jews find refuge from persecution,” O. Faruk Logoglu, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, said at the Oct. 26 Washington ceremony.
But no one lost so much in the effort. Mehmet, who took his son Altug to last week’s memorial, followed his father into a diplomatic career and is now chief of protocol at the United Nations office in Geneva.
His father’s example guides him, he says. ”Behind the scenes, I try to be the devil’s advocate,” he said. ”Always challenge the powerful and stand up for the underdog.”
He has made peace with the decision that cost him his mother.
”My father would tell me an old Turkish saying,” he said: ”Do a good deed and throw it into the sea; If the fish do not recognize it, God will.”