January 18, 2005

Turkey Served As Safe Haven For Jews During The Holocaust

Turkish Consul Selahattin Ulkumen’s confrontation with the Nazis in the occupied Greek island of Rhodes, during the Holocaust, helped rescue 32 Jews from the island’s Jewish community, but ultimately led to his wife’s death.

Selahattin Ulkumen was born in 1914, into a Muslim family, in Antakya, on the Mediterranean coast. After attending the university, he entered the Ministry of Affairs and was appointed Consul General of Rhodes in 1943.

A 30-year-old Selahattin Ulkumen arrived in Rhodes with his pregnant wife, Mihrinissa, just as the Nazis assumed control of Rhodes, and as the Germans began the deportation of the island’s 1,700 Jews in 1944, When the Gestapo ordered all of the island’s Jews to report for ”temporary transportation to a nearby island”, it was in fact taking them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Ulkumen realized the gravity of the situation, and he and his wife discussed ways of protecting Rhodes Jews.

He devised a variety of ways to rescue the Jews. He paid fisherman to smuggle them to Turkey and then built diplomatic connections with Turkey to grant them protection.”

Ulkumen also approached the German commander, General von Kleeman, and asked him to release 42 Turkish citizens who were Jewish. Where a Turk was married to an Italian, he said, that the family was Turkish. He only wished he could have saved more Jews.

Ulkumen explained that under Turkish law, there was no difference between a Jewish, Christian or Muslim citizen and that it would cause an international incident if the Jewish Turks were not released.

Bernard Turiel was born in 1934 in Rhodes, an island off the coast of Turkey. Turiel, his father and his brother were in prison, awaiting transport to Auschwitz. They were saved by the courageous efforts of Selahattin Ulkumen, a Muslim, who insisted that due to the treaty between Germany and Turkey, Turkish citizens, including Jews, could not be deported.

If not for the heroic measures of the Turks, none of this would have been possible. ”They were our saviors,” Turiel said. They met again in 1988, when the Anti-Defamation League of B’Nai Brith presented Ulkumen it’s ”Courage to Care” award.”

”Turkey has always been very welcoming, friendly, and accepting of Jews,” Turiel continued, ”after the Spanish Inquisition, the Sultan of Turkey opened the gates of the Ottoman Empire to Sephardic Jews . That is how the large Jewish community was established.

During the war, Ulkumen´s house was shelled. Mihrinissa was mortally wounded, living long enough to give birth to their son Mehmet. Ulkumen was deported to Piraeus, where he spent the remainder of the war in jail.

After Mehmet’s mother died, his maternal grandmother took her life, so Mehmet lived with his paternal grandmother, while his father continued his life as Turkish Consul. He suffered so much due to the decisions his father made during WW II.

When the war was over, Ulkumen remained in the Turkish diplomatic service for another 34 years. He retired in 1979 and died at the age of 89.”

In 1990 he was awarded Israel’s ”Righteous Gentile” medal from Yad Vashem. He is the only Turk to receive Israel’s highest award. His heroism serves as a source of pride for all citizens of Turkey and an example for people around the world.

Sixty years later, Mehmet and Turiel, met in Washington at a US Holocaust Memorial Museum ceremony for the diplomat, and shared their respect for Selahattin Ulkumen. In 2001 he received Turkey’s highest honor, the Supreme Service Medal.

Following in his fathers footsteps, Mehmet Ulkumen is currently chief of protocol at the United Nations office in Geneva. ”My father always challengef the powerful and stand up for the underdog,” Mehmet said.

As a young man he remembers asking his father whether it was worth losing his wife, his mother-in-law and almost losing his child. ”Son,” he said, ”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 thing again.”

”My father told 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.”