TURKEY AND THE HOLOCAUST: How Turkish diplomats saved Jewish lives


“An overlooked part of history that will help shift the paradigm . . . “

By Alan Simons

SEPTEMBER 2, 2009 –  Arnold Reisman is a distinguished American scholar and author. His latest book, Shoah: Turkey, the US and the UK,” due to be published late September by BookSurge and available on Amazon, addresses the little known role that the Republic of Turkey played in saving Jewish lives before, during, and for three years after WWII.

Reisman explains that the job of the historian is to write about history. By reproducing a multitude of archival documents and testimonies, most of which have been unexamined by historians, he articulately sheds light on “an overlooked part of history that will help shift the paradigm which has prevailed for over half a century in the relevant literature.”

He acknowledges that although Turkey fascilitated the transport of Jews from Europe to Palestine, they could have done more as a place of refuge and as a transit country.  Nevertheless, Reisman says Turkey did more than historians, educators, and the media have reported. In fact, he is emphatic in his argument that Turkey did significantly more than the US and the UK in saving Jewish lives during the Shoah (Holocaust).

In a systematic manner, Reisman sets out to give us documented evidence of how Turkey’s diplomats and consuls in several German occupied countries used their diplomatic status to intervene on behalf of Jews. In addition he explains that, “In spite of veiled threats, Turkey steadfastly refused Nazi pressure to deport its own Jewry to Eastern Europe for extermination,” and at the same time, “continued to assist European Jewry to escape from the Holocaust and in most cases go to Palestine.”

Behiç Erkin

Behiç Erkin

He adds, “While six million Jews were being exterminated by the Nazis, the rescue of some 15,000 Turkish Jews from France, and approximately 20,000 Jews from Eastern Europe might be considered relatively insignificant in comparison. To those who were rescued and their offspring. . .  Turkey’s attitude showed that, as had been the case for more than five centuries, Turks and Jews continued to help each other in times of great crises.”

Reisman informs us that, “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.

“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.”

Necdet Kent

Necdet Kent

And in Marseille, Reisman sites the courage of Necdet Kent, who served as Turkey’s Consul-General from 1941 to 1944.  He tells us that at enormous personal risk, he intervened to save around 80 Jews who had been forced to board a wagon on a train heading for a Nazi concentration camp.
“One day a man came into the consulate and told Kent that Turkish Jews had been rounded up and were being put on the train. Kent went immediately to the train station, boldly approached the German guards and demanded that these Turkish citizens be released. When the guards refused to comply, he got into the wagon with them. A German officer ordered him to get off but Kent refused to leave unless they let his Turkish citizens off as well. Angrily, the officer said no, you can go with them and closed the door. After three hours of extreme cold and filth, the train arrived at the next station.  Obviously realizing a possibly explosive international incident had to be quickly diffused, the German officer who opened the door to the wagon apologized profusely and allowed Kent to leave and take all the people in the wagon with him, never looking at papers, never checking to see if they were Turkish citizens or not.  Kent called his office in Marseille and ordered that vans be sent to pick up all the people and return them to Marseille.”

Reisman also points out that Turkey’s role in saving Jews began long before the start of WWII. He writes:

“In 1933 a select group of scholars from Germany with a record of leading-edge contributions to various scientific disciplines and professions were forced to leave their homeland found refuge in Turkey, helping to transform its university system and the entire infrastructure of the new Turkish state. The invitation extended by Turkey to the persecuted Jewish scholars saved the lives of more than 190 prominent émigrés. Albert Einstein played a role in these invitations when on September 17, 1933, he wrote to Turkish Prime Minister İsmet İnönü (1884–1973). Einstein pleaded with the Turkish Prime Minister to allow ‘forty professors and doctors from Germany to continue their scientific work and medical work in Turkey.’ ”

Selahattin Ülkümen

Selahattin Ülkümen

In 1943, Reisman tells us that Turkey also attempted to help the Jews of Greece. “The Turkish consuls at Athens, Salonica and Gümülcine as well as on the islands of Midilli and Rhodes provided the same sort of assistance that the Turkish consuls did in France.

“They organized boats to carry Jews to safety in Turkey and intervened with Germans to exempt Turkish Jews from persecution and extermination. The most exceptional example is Consul Selahattin Ülkümen in Rhodes. He pressured the Nazis into sparing the lives of the Turkish Jews on the island and was subsequently imprisoned by the Nazis after his consulate was bombed and his pregnant wife killed by the Germans.”

There’s a Turkish proverb: Bir kahvenin kirk yil hatiri vardir. (A cup of coffee commits one to forty years of friendship). It could well be that over a cup of coffeeShoah:Turkey, the US and the UK will help to extend a hand once again in friendship between all Jews and the Republic of Turkey.

Arnold Reisman received his PhD in engineering from UCLA and is a retired professor of operations research from Case Western Reserve University. As an independent scholar he authored Turkey’s Modernization: Refugees from Nazism and Atatürk’s Vision (Washington, DC: New Academia Publishers, 2006). Two companion books by Reisman, Classical European Music and Opera: The Case of Post-Ottoman Turkey, and Rejection and Acceptance: The Impact of European Culture on Turkey: 1933- 1950, are both due out in 2009 (Charleston, SC: BookSurge Publishing, 2009). 

Arnold Reisman died April 11, 2011 at the Cleveland Clinic from complications of quadruple bypass surgery. He was 78.

(Photo credits: Behiç Erkin-Facebook; Necdet Kent-Tallarmeniatale; Selahattin Ülkümen-Rodas)

* * *

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5 comments on “TURKEY AND THE HOLOCAUST: How Turkish diplomats saved Jewish lives

  1. My great appreciation and commendation to Alan Simons and to the late Arnold Reisman.

    Life is a life, whether one life or one million. Saving of one life in the times of the Nazi regime is and should be unforgettable and special. The Turks should not be persecuted in current times for events which happened in times of war and turmoil and in which Armenjans collabortaed with Turkish enemies during the war.

  2. There’s been a slow trickle of books about diplomats from a number of countries who helped Jews to escape, and how wonderful to see Turks involved too. My family were Jews living in Istanbul, integrated, dedicated to their country. Respect to the Turkish Republic, and the Ottomans before it!

  3. What a great story…thanks for sharing it…there were Righteous Gentiles all over Europe who deserve praise for their actions.

    (Indiana, USA)

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