Late Jewish History
The main reason for the Jewish community to lose their importance in the 18th century, as the leading ethnical group of the empire, was the Jews themselves. The social organization of the congregations which had to move to other neighborhoods because of fires, earthquakes and other natural disasters was dramatically affected by those migrations. In thepast, the social organization of different congregations was formed depending the country of origin and traditions.
In 1833 there were 40 thousands Jews in Istanbul. The Jewish population continued to rise until the end of the 19th century. Even they had the majority in the Jewish community; the Sepharads could not assimilate smaller congregations. After the reforms, even under the control of the administration, the Sepharads could not assemble all the Jewish congregations. As a result, almost half of the synagogues in Istanbul were used as community centers.
The Jews were passing on all the opportunities for improvement. For example, the medical school open to all the minorities had no Jewish students for 34 years. The private school opened in Galatasaray teaching in French, had no Jewish students either. Even the modern Jewish school opened in 1854 under the supervision of the Kamondo family, had very few students because the Rabbis would consider modern education as religiously unlawful. The schools founded in 1875 by Alliance Israelite Universelle and the Rabbi School teaching in Turkish opened in 1895 had similar reactions from the Jewish community. While well educated religious men tried to improve the Armenian and Greek Orthodox communities, bigoted and narrow minded Rabbis were obstructing the improvement of the Jewish community.
At the end of the 19th century, with the intervention of the government in order to modernize the education system of the Jewish community, a class made of Jewish students was founded in the medical school.
The Jewish communities on the empire soil were protected by the Ottoman government. The Ottomans were also helping the Jews to have a higher and better lifestyle. As an example, Sultan Abdulmecid hired a Rabbi to the medical school and ordered the construction of a kosher kitchen.
The Jews of the Ottoman Empire were, many times, harassed by the different Christian groups. The most known of those accusations were the "Blood Libels". The Blood Libels, originated in the Middle Age, accused the Jews of using the blood of Christian children in the baking of their traditional unleavened bread, the Matzoth. In spite of explicit verses of the Torah such as:
"… there for I have said to the people of Israel, you shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature it's his blood, who ever eats it shall be cut off." forbidden the Jews to eat blood, this slanderous myth had the effect of inciting Anti Semitic beliefs and was, at least in part, responsible for the atrocities applied to the European Jews.
The first blood libel in the Ottoman Empire was in Amasya during the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent period. The Armenians in Amasya sent an Armenian beggar out of town and claimed that he was massacred by the Jews and his blood was used in the baking of Matzoth. Some members of the Amasya Jewish community were hanged as a result of those accusations. The truth was revealed when the beggar returned to Amasya. Again, during the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent period, the Jews of Tokat asked for the protection of the Sultan because of the blood libels. Following those incident, the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent published a law stating that all blood libel cases would be directly dealt by him and no other authority: " I would not like to see this community members attacked or treated unjustly. Such accusations shall only be handled at the Divan of the Sultan and nowhere else without my permission and consent."
Different Sultans of the Ottoman Empire issued several laws about the blood libels. The law published by the Sultan Abdulmecid in 1841 fallowing the incidents of Damascus and Rhodes, and the one published by his brother, the Sultan Abdulaziz in 1865 fallowing the libels at Kuzguncuk were put forward as strong evidence in various libels cases held against the Jews on European courts.
The Turkish Jews had also proven at several occasions their loyalty to their country. On countless opportunities they had, they showed the pride of being Turkish and the satisfaction they had of living in this country. Before the conquest of Istanbul, when Edirne was still the capital of the empire, two Rabbis coming from Germany, went to see the Chief Rabbi of the period, Izak Sarfati, and begged him to write a letter describing the conditions of the Jews in the Empire.
During the Greek revolution, the Jews were fighting side by side with the Ottoman soldiers to protect their flag. When the Greeks took Salonika, the French daily newspaper wrote that everybody including the Muslims was celebrating the Greek victory by hanging a Greek flag on their houses. Only the Jews were the exception. When the Chief Rabbi of Salonika was asked by the King of Greece to participate the celebrations, he refused saying that it would be ungratefully to the nation who welcomed them when all European nations were discriminating them.
The saddest event in the Turkish history is most probably the occupation of Istanbul. During this dark period the Jews, once more, remained loyal. They participated in the election of the parliament during the occupation, making sure to prevent the biggest propaganda of the occupying countries: they claimed that the Non-Muslims were unhappy with the Turkish government and their way of life in this country. With the active participation of the Jews to the government, the occupying countries were obliged to use the word "Christians" instead of Non-Muslims. Several times during the occupation, the occupying countries tried to organize the Non-Muslims against the Turkish government. The Turkish Jews, not only refused to participate in those organizations, but were also against them. When the Greek commissar asked, in 1919, the Jews of Istanbul to join the Greek-Armenian union to support the occupation, he was refused by all the Jewish congregations. When the Greek Orthodox patriarch Meletios visited the Chief Rabbi to ask him once more to join this union, he received the fallowing answer: "Our prophet asks us to work for the well being of the country we live in because the prosperity of that country will be our prosperity."
During the Greek occupation of Izmir, the Jews congregations were asked to publish a declaration claiming that they had a better life and were happier during the Greek occupation. Here again the Jewish communities refused to publish such declaration. Of course, the patriotism of the Jewish community was not left unpunished and every time the Jews suffered severe consequences.
The patriotism of the Jews was not unreturned. This country proved at several occasion that Turkish Jews were considered as Turkish citizens. During the 2nd World War, many Jews were saved because of their Turkish identity from extermination.
Selahattin ulkumen was the Turkish consul of Rhodes in 1943. He saved 42 Jews from being deported to Auschwitz.
On the 19 July 1944 at 3 PM, a German officer knocked on the door of Bension Menase, former president of the Rhodes Jewish community, to deliver an order from the German occupation commander. Pointing out the fact that he was no longer in charge, Menase took the German officer to Yakov salem Franko, actual president of the community. The German's order was brief:
"Every Jewish man above 16 was to assemble, the nest morning at 8, in front of the German's headquarters."
The next morning, the Jewish male population of Rhodes was in front of the German's headquarters at cesmelik. After being counted and their papers confiscated those men were locked in the basement of the building.
Meanwhile, the president of the community, Yakov salem Franko, escorted by a Greek guard who spoke very well Ladino (Judeo Spanish), was forced to ask every Jewish family to join the German's headquarters with all their personal wealth in 12 hours. The men of the families who did not obey the order would be shot to death. The Germans claimed that they wanted to move the Jews of Rhodes to Athens for strategically reasons. Most of the 1727 Jews living in Rhodes were not aware of the severity of their conditions.
Selahattin ulkumen, the consul of Rhodes, visited the German commander Kleemann on the morning of July 20, 1943….
"I was waiting at the gate of the German's headquarters not knowing what to do" said Matilde Turel, one of the 42 saved, when reciting the events of that morning. At this moment Selahattin ulkumen got of his car and saw me.
"Wait he said. Don't worry I will save you"
"What about my father" said my 8 years old sons"
"Of course we are not going to forget about him!" he replied.
During his meeting with general Kleemann, Selahattin ulkumen declared that Turkey was a neutral country; there for Turkish citizens living in Rhodes could not be arrested. Those people should be released immediately. The negotiations were long and tough. Kleemann didn't want to lose even one Jewish prisoner. But the determination of the Turkish diplomat and the risk of Turkey joining the allies had the result of saving 42 people from Auschwitz Hell.
On Monday July 24 1944, except 12 disabled and 42 saved because of Turkish nationality, 1673 Jews of Rhodes began, on a small boat, their unknown journey. Only 150 of them returned…..
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk once said:
"The strength of a country can only be measured by the strength and the determination of
The diplomats representing that country abroad."
Selahattin ulkumen, born in Antakya 14 January 1914 and died in Istanbul 7 July 2003
began his duty as Turkish consul of Rhodes 25 January 1943. He returned from Rhodes in August 1944. This humble man said about his behavior:
"This was my diplomatic duty and the responsibility of my conscience. "
A ride to freedom:
"…. In January 1945, we sailed on a small boat to join Turkish soil. A British ship pulled us until the Turkish waters. We rowed from noon until midnight and finally joined Marmaris. We were saved. We were on free soil, in a country which embraced the Jews for many centuries. We kissed the ground."
In June 1988, Selahattin ulkumen was given the "Courage to Care" award in New York. In 1989 he was given the "Righteous among the Nations" award by the Yad Vashem.
A Chinese proverb says:
"Don't curse the darkness, light a candle."
Thank you Selahattin ulkumen for lighting a candle.
Selahattin ulkumen was not the only Turkish diplomat helping the Jews in distress. The consul general of Marseille, Necdet Kent, also tried to save as many as he could. During the occupation, they were two kind of Turkish Jew in France. Those who had come after the 1st World War with the French troops. Those people either did not have any Turkish identity card or their papers had expired. The only official document they had was their birth certificate issued by the Ottoman state. Technically, the Turkish consulates regarded those people as non-citizens. Those in the second category were Jews who left Turkey with a valid passport or documentation. Those people were regarded as regular Turkish citizens.
As soon as the Germans occupied the south of France, they started to search for Jews and made preparations to send them to Germany. The Turkish consulate of Marseille made an appeal to all the Turkish Jews, even second or third generations, to come and legalize their situation. If those who applied were regular Turkish citizens, they were issued a certificate of citizenry. Those who were considered as non-citizens, regardless their origin, they were asked to fill out an application form, and issued a temporary certificate as testimony to their Turkish citizenship, which also advised the authorities that the official documents of the person concerned were being processed, and that the permanent papers would soon be issued to replace the interim certificates. These measures proved helpful and protected several Jews against troubles.
There have been times that the Turkish Consulate staff called on the Gestapo headquarters (sometimes three or four times a day) to solicit the release of our Jewish citizens who had been detained. Most of the times these efforts entailed persuasion, but sometimes we had to utter subtle threats to take up the matter with higher authorities. To make matters worse, the Italians as well had started to emulate the Germans and applied similar practices in their regions. At times we had arguments with the Italian consul to persuade him to stop this inhuman treatment of the Jews.
In one instance the anti-Jewish obsession manifested by the Gestapo reached dimensions that defied human dignity. For a while the military patrols had started a new practice to identify the Jews. This involved stopping the men whom they had suspected to be Jews right on the street, and making them drop their pants to see whether they were circumcised. This exercise led to the arrest of several Jews, as well as Muslim Turks. Many of them indiscriminately were taken to detention centers for a summary transportation to Germany. To protest and to put a halt to this ill-advised practice, Necdet Kent immediately went to the Gestapo Headquarters, and explained to the commander that being circumcised had nothing to do with being a Jew. From the empty stare in his eyes he figured that he had not understood what he meant. Thereupon, he requested that a doctor examine him to further clarify his point. This came as a revelation to the commander, and he agreed to release several people.
One night, a consulate employee, Sidi Iscan, a Turkish Jew from the city of Izmir, came to Necdet Kent's home. He appeared to be in fear and agitated. In tears, he told Necdet Kent that the Germans had rounded up some 80 Jews in the city and took them to the train. They immediately went together to the Gare Saint-Charles, the main train station of Marseilles.
The rest of the events from the interview that Necdet Kent gave to Jak Kamhi:
"We approached the train and observed the situation for a brief moment. The sight was indeed beyond any imagination. We heard crying and moaning sounds coming from inside the boxcars. Through some partly open sliding doors we saw human beings crammed in the wagons. On the side of the cars I noticed the following words:
"This car holds 20 cattle and 500 kilo of feed." My anger and desolation were overwhelming. I requested an explanation from the responsible person, whoever he was, for this undertaking. The Gestapo officer in charge came to the scene, and in an overbearing tone he demanded to know the reason for my being there. Restraining myself to remain within the limits of diplomatic courtesy, I told him that there must have been a gross error, a misunderstanding, because those people were Turkish citizens, and I demanded that he rectify this situation immediately. The Gestapo officer told me that he was merely carrying out the order he had received. Besides, he said, he was sure that those people were not Turks, but Jews. From his tone and attitude I sensed that he was adamant and not willing to make any concession.
Thereupon, I turned to Sidi Iscan and told him to follow me, and to get on the train, because we were going in that train as well. We proceeded to the train with resolve. The Gestapo chief obviously had not anticipated this move, he tried to convince us to leave the train, but I refused to listen to him. Shortly afterwards the train pulled out slowly from the station. When we arrived in Aries or Nimes the train stopped. We saw a number of German officers getting on the train. They directly came toward me. After a brief and cool exchange of salutation, the highest ranking officer said in an apologetic tone that there had been a misunderstanding when the train departed while we were still on board, and if we left the train at that time they would provide us with transportation (their own Mercedes-Benz) back to Marseilles. It was intimation to us that we had to accept whatever they offered at that time, and any further concession was beside the point. Yet, on my part I knew that the country I represented was the only hope of those eighty some innocent Jews and I could not bring myself to see them go to their sinister destiny without exhausting all efforts. With this conviction I maintained that his proposal was unacceptable to us, we had a mission which was to obtain the release of all those innocent Turkish citizens who had been crammed into cattle cars on the ground that they were Jews. This act was against the Turkish traditions which uphold that no humanitarian norms would justify such discrimination, and as a representative of the Turkish Republic my duty was to protect them to the end. This critical argument was carried on in an emotionally charged atmosphere, and was being followed intensely by some Jews in the vicinity. They were aware that the outcome of this crucial negotiation would determine their fate.
In the face of my intransigent attitude, perhaps considering the consequences of a possible political contre temps with neutral Turkey, the officer invited me to declare officially that all those in the train were Turkish citizens. I somehow felt a flicker of hope, perhaps a turning point in the whole episode. I readily and solemnly made the declaration he requested. Thereupon all the German officers left the train, a few minutes later we followed. When we at last saw them leaving the scene in their cars, we realized that it was freedom. I will never forget the emotional moment that followed. All of the freed passengers came to embrace me, held and shook my hands fervently with an unforgettable expression of gratefulness in their watery eyes. We immediately made arrangement for all of those people to return to their home. It was almost daybreak when I arrived at my home. It had been a grueling day but I slept with a deep contentment that I had never felt before. For years afterward, I received several cherished letters from the passengers of that fateful journey. Perhaps many of them are no longer living, but I remember them with deep affection."
Necdet Kent, during the time he served as consul general at Marseille, issued 14.600 Turkish passports, without any concern of their ethnical origin. He risked his life for the 80 Jews by riding the train and living Marseille. In 2001, Kent was honored with Turkey's Supreme Service Medal as well as a special recognition from the Israeli state for saving Jews during the Holocaust.
But all the operation in France was supervised by a very talented diplomat, the Turkish ambassador Behic Erkin. Who is Behic Erkins?
He is one of the rare personalities consulted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, foundator of the Turkish Republic. The name Erkin, which means in Turkish able to take a decision under any circumstances, was given to him by Ataturk himself on the 8 February 1935. He is the foundator of the Turkish intelligence Services, he was honoured with the Turkish Istiklal Medal, with the French Legion D'Honneur and the German Iron Cross. He was a commander during the Turkish salvation war and a heroic spirit during the 2nd World War.
He objected to the French Vichy government and to the Nazis. He managed to save the life of thousands as the Ambassador of the Turkish Republic.
During the 2nd World War they were 330 thousands Jews in France. 10 thousands of them were Turkish citizens. There were also another 10 thousands French Jews with Turkish roots. When France surrendered to Germany, those Jewish people started to apply for Turkish citizenship to the consulates. Most of those people had no proof of their Turkish backgrounds. Behic Erkin gave a radical order to all the Turkish consulates in France: Turkish citizenship would be accorded to all those who claim to have Turkish roots.
When the Turkish government ordered him to close down the Embassy, he refused to obey the order and kept the Embassy active. He just ordered the married staff to send their wives and children back to Turkey. The Spanish news paper "Patria" wrote later on the same year that in the tragically times, when the Reynaud government left Paris, the Turkish Consulate remained in the city to defend the rights of Turkish citizen from every ethnical background.
On the 27 September 1940, the German started to count and record the Jewish population living in France. On the 16 and 18 November 1940, the laws "Status des Juifs" (the status of Jews) were passed and published on the News Papers:
According to the laws, the Jews of France could not work in any jobs and could not own any business. A manager or a keeper would be appointed to the businesses own by the Jews. They could not collect the profit of their own business but only a monthly interest of 2%.The banks were also were confiscating the money of their Jewish customers. The safes of those people were opened and the contents were given to the Germans.
At the end of 1940, when Behic Erkin was trying to deal with the new laws, the construction of Chelmo, Belzec, Treblinka, and Auschwitz started. Sometimes a Jewish establishment was shot down by German and French authorities without any obvious reason. When this happened to a Turkish Jewish establishment, the Turkish consulate would react immediately. Most of the cases, someone from the consulate would go personally to the authorities to solve the problem.
Starting from the 28 October 1941, the French authorities started the deportation of Jews from other nationalities. In the following 3 years, 70 thousands Jews would be sent to east, to the concentration camps. 67 thousands of them would never return. None of them were Turkish.
For the Jews from Turkish background the only way to stay alive was to get their Turkish nationality back. The consulates and the Embassy in France did not have enough Turkish passports. To accelerate the bureaucracy, and by the order of Behic Erkin, the consulates were giving away citizenship papers.
In January 1942, the French authorities started to confiscate the belongings of the Jews. Their shops and their houses were sold. Very soon Behic Erkin and his crew realised that they could no longer protect the belongings of Turkish Jews. On 22 January 1942, Behic Erkin invited all non Jewish Turkish citizens to the embassy and asked them to assume the role of keeper for the Turkish Jews:
"Now days, he said, our Jewish citizens are risking of losing everything they own. In our country, there are no ethnical and religious differences. I am asking you as a duty of honour to protect the belongings of our Jewish citizens. You have no obligation to accept but if you accept, I am asking you to be the trustee of our Jewish citizens."
Most of those present in the room accepted the duty of honour given to them.
In July 1942, a massive Jew hunt started in occupied and unoccupied France. Collective arrestments and deportations were organised in every city. To prevent the Jews to run, systematic precautions were taken. The Jewish population was obliged to stay home from 20:00 until 06:00. They could not own a telephone or a radio. As the deportations were made at night, they were not aware of their situations. This series of events made Behic Erkin to realise that the duty he had to protect the Turkish Jews 'assets soon would change to protect their lives. In 1940 the Jewish population on unoccupied Vichy's France was 5 thousands. In 1942 it has raised to 150 thousands. The Vichy government's policy against the Jews was as though as the German's.
Behic Erkin could not understand the comportment of Vichy government as he could not understand why the French gave away 2/3 of their country without fighting. In the history of his country, there were tens of thousands of martyrs who gave their lives to protect the homeland. This is why he was determined to protect every Turkish citizen from any ethnical group against the Frenchs or the Germans. The apprehension of Turkish Jews was rising. Behic Erkin had to move those people to Turkey. The story that General Maugin told him consumed his patience and he decided to react. General Maugin, former French consul of Ankara, explained him that the Germans were moving the Jews in freight trains to Auschwitz. They were separating young children from their parents and were sending the rest. A mother who was going to be separated from her 7 months old baby asked the German officer to breastfeed him one last time and choked the baby against her breast.
Behic Erkin decided to put his plan of evacuating Turkish Citizens in action. First he requested an appointment from the German Ambassador, Krug Von Nidda. As the matter in hand was above Von Nidda's power, he arranged an appointment with the proper authorities.
A few days later, Behic Erkin was in the presence of 3 German officers. He told them he was there as the ambassador of the Turkish Republic. As the war would continue for a while, he wanted to extract the Turkish citizens who desire to go back to Turkey.
"You mean the Jews" said one of the German officers.
"I know very well what I said" replied Behic Erkin. "I think you did not understand me very well. Let me explain one more time for you. There are citizens of the Turkish Republic living in France who wish to go back to their homeland. But every country we are going to cross is under German occupation. This is why I am asking you to accord the necessary permit ions."
"Why should we allow this" said the German officer.
"For two reasons. First Turkey was an ally of Germany during the 1st World War. Ever the Germans lost their war; we won ours, and still were considered as defeated. Our alliance coasted us much. You owe this to an old friend and ally. And my second reason..." he said, passed a brief moment and stood up. He took something out from his pocket and put it on the table as he continued to talk: "Even I am here as the ambassador of a friendly country, I stand before you as a man honoured with an Iron Cross by the German Empire."
On one side of the table the Turkish Ambassador, on the other side 3 Nazis.
"We allow you" said the German officer. "We will let you know about the time table of the operation."
"I was sure that you would respect the historical friendship between our countries. I congratulate you and I thank you."
On the 19 September 1942 the Germans allowed Behic Erkin to send the Turkish citizens back to Turkey until 31 January 1943. One week before Otto Abetz, the German officer that he talked, sent the order to arrest 3046 Turkish Jews living in Paris.
On the same day Behic Erkin received the permission to move the Turkish citizen back to Turkey; he received a letter from the German Anti-Semitic affairs office. The letter stated that after 31 January 1943, all the Jews living on occupied territory would be deported regardless their nationality.
When the German occupied France, the only difference between life and death for thousands of people was a piece of paper; a piece of paper with a crescent and a star on top proving their Turkish citizenship.
The first train left Paris for Turkey on the November 1942. It took for the freedom train 11 days to reach Turkey. Later this train would be called by the Jews ""Behic's Train"
While Turkish Jews were riding towards life, on every station they were crossing other trains, full of Jews, riding towards death camps.
When the train reached Edirne and two Turkish soldiers entered the cabin a woman stood up and shouted crying:
"WE ARE SAVED! WE ARE IN TURKEY!"