Turkish Diplomats Save Thousands from the Nazis

Who knew? In spite of all the books on the Holocaust and Hitler’s war that I have read, I did not know about this. Between 1941 and 1944, the Turkish legation in France saved thousands of Jews from deportation and arrest by the Nazis. Yes, Turkish diplomats, representatives of the same country that during World War I brought us the first recognized genocide of modern times with their massacre of Armenians.

I recently read the historical novel, The Last Train to Istanbul, by Ayşe Kulin. Originally written in Turkish, but now available in English translation, the novel is based on true events. It recounts the story of a handful of Turkish diplomats who rescue a large group of Jews, some, but not all, of Turkish origin. On their own initiative, these diplomats, assigned to the Turkish embassy in Paris, issue updated Turkish passports to Jewish families and intellectuals, then arrange for a special train to transport them across the German heartland and back to Turkey. The main characters in the novel are two wealthy Muslim sisters, their husbands, and the diplomats who help them. Raised in a privileged Istanbul family and given a modern education, one sister marries a man highly placed in the government in Ankara. The younger sister defies her family, marries her Jewish sweetheart, and in the mid-1930s, moves with him to France to get away from the rancor their marriage has caused.

The heart of the story rests on the bravery of a few members of the Turkish Foreign Service. In the turbulent years of the 1930s and 1940s, the new Republican government of Turkey struggled to remain neutral, a feat they managed until February of 1945 when they finally joined the Allies in the closing months of the war. As the government juggled demands from Hitler on one side and the Allies on the other, they allowed their French legation a free hand to save Jews who could verify their Turkish origins. Without any authority from their government, these diplomats also managed to produce Turkish passports for many Jews whose connection to Turkey was tenuous or even fabricated.

In the early years of the twentieth century, many people thought of Paris as the cultural center of Western civilization. Artists, writers, and musicians from America (think Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the “Black Pearl” Josephine Baker) moved to Paris. Communities of ex-patriots that included Americans, émigrés fleeing the Russian revolution, and many Turkish Jews lived in Paris and in other cities as well, including Marseilles. This is where the younger sister of the novel settles with her husband. When the Nazis occupy France in 1940, the Turkish Jews, as well as many others who had arrived more recently from Germany, Austria, and German-occupied parts of France, were trapped. Soon the arrests began even in Vichy, France, and Jews, regardless of their nationality, were being rounded up, sent to labor camps, and inevitably to the death camps in Germany and Poland. Against all odds, Turkish diplomats stepped up to the task of rescuing Jews from the clutches of the Gestapo.

The Last Train to Istanbul is well researched and a fascinating read because of the little known true story it reveals. One of the characters is based on a real hero named İsmail Necdet Kent who, after learning that 80 Turkish Jews from Marseilles had been loaded into cattle cars for transport to Germany, went to the train station and confronted the Gestapo officer in charge. The character in the novel acts as Necdet Kent did in historical fact. He demands that the captured Jews be released to him because they are all citizens of Turkey, a neutral country. When his demand is refused, the diplomat joins the frightened men, women, and children in the crowded cars as the train steams out of the station. An international incident is avoided when German officers hold the train at a later station and release all the prisoners into the custody of the representative of the Turkish government. The actual event this portrays was the beginning of the secret process that rescued upward of 15,000 Jews from occupied France, returned them to Turkey, and in many cases actually assisted them to proceed to Israel. In 2012 a “docudrama” titled Turkish Passport about this same subject was making the circuits of film festivals, doing well at Cannes in May of that year. However, other than the trailers available on the film’s website (www.turkishpassport.com), I have been unable to locate it or view it. If anyone has any knowledge of how to view this film, I’d love to hear.

I found it ironic that there is not a single mention in The Last Train to Istanbul of the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1918. At that time, with World War I as a lethal backdrop, the Turkish government forcibly removed the bulk of the Armenian population from Armenia and Anatolia, which together make up much of modern Turkey. The deportation of the Armenians was accomplished with the help of torture, murder, rape, starvation, and massacre. If you are interested in a fuller picture of these events, I recommend the novels The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian and Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasorian.


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