The Role of Turkish Diplomats in Saving Turkish Jews in France: 1940-1944
Recent findings of many contemporaneous documents from the NARA, Library of Congress, and the FDR Presidential library archives attest to the fact that the intervention in behalf of French Jews with Turkish origins was not the policy of the Government of Turkey at all. Rather, it was the determined undertaking of members of the Turkish diplomatic corps who acted on their own against the extant policy of their own government and that of the US and the UK. These men of conscience risked their careers and often their lives finding no support among their diplomatic peers representing western countries including those in the US legation. With their deeds these diplomats risked the wrath and ire of their own government as well as Germany and Vichy France.
While Germany and Vichy France were anti-Semitic to their cores, Turkey was in the unenviable position of attempting to maintain neutrality while in dire fear of being invaded by Germany. For that reason and after great pressure from Germany, Ambassador Behiç Erkin was recalled to Ankara and the rate at which Jews were repatriated to Turkey was greatly diminished. Many Jews were saved by the acts of the Turkish legation in France. From March 15, 1943 through May 23, 1944, the Turkish Embassy in Vichy and Consulates-General in Paris arranged for no fewer than eight groups of former Turkish Jews averaging roughly fifty-three persons each to be returned to Turkey and to freedom by rail in sealed wagons. This is but a part of claims that all 20,000 3 Turkish Jews residing in France were saved. Looked at in reverse the known number of Turkish Jews deported from France to the death camps is 1659 4.
To fully appreciate the actions taken by Behiç Erkin and his staff, one need only look at the fate of Jews in Thesalonika, Greece. During WWII Greece was occupied by the Nazis but neutral Turkey maintained an Embassy in Athens and a Consulate in Thesalonika. Before the war Thesalonika boasted a Jewish population of 56,000, most with roots in the Ottoman Empire dating back to the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492. These Jews were no different than those in France, many of whom were saved by Behiç Erkin and his staff while the entire Thesalonika Jewish community was deported to the crematoria. Why did the Turkish legation in Greece not raise objections? They did not interfere since they had no instructions from Ankara to do so, and obviously lacked the moral compass that guided their colleagues in France.
As the war continued the Nazis began persecuting French Jews. Many “Turkish Jews” who had relinqueshed their Turkish citizenship “suddenly found it was far better to be a Turkish Jew than a French Jew, and they applied in large numbers to have their Turkish citizenship restored.”
According to a Raoul Wallenberg Foundation website:
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.
Below is a story of these diplomats.5
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.6
Pressure mounted for Turkey to recall her Ambassador from France as he was deemed unmanageable.
Was it a coincidence that Behiç Erkin “resigned” from his posting to France on the 23rd of August 1943 and three days later from the Foreign Service altogether? There is no question but that Erkin was removed from the Ambassadorial post because of Ankara’s inability to withstand Germany’s pressure and the implied threat of invasion. For Turkey, angering Berlin meant more than risking the loss of lucrative exports at a time when its economy was still in shambles. There was also a real and present danger that Germany could opt to use Turkey as a route to the Caspian area oil riches in order to hit the Soviets on another front – its soft underbelly. This was indeed a real possibility, not just conjecture. Turkey’s army stood prepared. 7
In a letter dated September 2, 2008, to Abdullah Gul, President of the Republic of Turkey, the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation’s Founder, Baruch Tenenbaum, stated “we are conducting an extensive research into the actions of the Turkish diplomats who were stationed in France during WWII, including Ambassador Behic Erkin, Consul Bedi’i Arbel and Vice Consul Necdet Kent, just to name a few.” At the time this article was written, that “research” was still ongoing. It is this author’s humble opinion that starting with Behic Erkin, the Ambassador and the “leader of the band” most if not all members of the Turkish legation in France ca 1939-1944 deserve to be honored with Yad Vashem’s “Righteous Gentile” Award.
4 Anonymous, Proceedings of the Second Yad Vashem International Historical Conference on Rescue Attempts During the Holocaust, held in Jerusalem, 8-11 April 1974
7 “Notes from the Leahy diary,” US Ambassador in Vichy, France, William D. Leahy papers, Library of Congress All diary entries for 1941: Reel 2, William D. Leahy Diaries, 1897-1956, (Washington DC: Library of Congress), microfilm. All diary entries for 1942 and letters to Welles: Reel 3, William D. Leahy Diaries, 1897-1956, Washington DC: Library of Congress), microfilm. Entries for: Jan. 1 - p.2; Jan. 8 - p. 4; March 5 - p.29; April 14 - p. 46; April 25th - p. 52. For July 18, 1941 letter to Welles - p. 2; Sept. 13, 1941 letter to Welles - p. 3.
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