Turkey performed an elaborate, potentially dangerous high-wire balancing act during much of World War II, hewing to neutrality, like Sweden, Switzerland and Portugal, in an attempt to curry favour with the Allies and the Axis powers and to protect itself.
Having lost a large chunk of its territory in World War I, when it was aligned with Germany, Turkey – the successor state of the Ottoman Empire – adopted neutrality so as not to jeopardize its sovereignty and independence. In true Realpolitik fashion, Turkey displayed skill in preserving its neutral status until almost the end of the war.
In October 1939, just a month into the war, Turkey signed a mutual assistance agreement with Britain and France. On the eve of Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, with the German army occupying Greece and positioned only 60 kilometres from the Turkish border, Turkey signed a friendship treaty with Germany under which it supplied the Nazi regime with chrome, a vital ingredient in the production of weapons-grade steel
During this period, when the antagonists sought to draw Ankara into the war and a German invasion of Turkey loomed as a possibility, Istanbul became a centre of espionage and intrigue as the Holocaust inexorably unfolded.
In 1944, Joel Brand, a key member of the Aid and Rescue Committee, went to Turkey on a secret mission to save Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied Hungary. Brand, associated with a still-born scheme to barter one million Jews for 10,000 trucks to be delivered to the Nazis, was arrested in Istanbul at the behest of Britain.
With Turkey turning a blind eye, the Jewish Agency office in Istanbul helped Jewish refugees holding valid visas to use Turkish territory as a transit route to reach British-controlled Palestine, said Ertan Tezgor, Turkey’s representative at the Task Force for International Co-operation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research.
Jewish refugees who did not have visas were sent to Palestine illegally, writes Turkish scholar Eyup Erdogan.
In 1942, however, Turkey turned away the Struma, a dilapidated ship commissioned by Romanian Zionists to transport Jews to Palestine.
The Struma, filled with hundreds of refugees, was eventually towed from Istanbul through the Bosphorus to the Black Sea, where it was sunk by a Soviet submarine, resulting in the deaths of 768 passengers, one of the worst naval disasters in World War II.
Turkey’s refusal to allow most of the Jews to disembark is ascribed to British pressure. Britain, in keeping with the provisions of its 1939 White Paper, was determined to uphold its policy of restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine.
“We did not want to get involved in the war, so we had to be good chess players,” said Tezgor. “It was a tragic incident. We have to see it in the correct context of the times.”
In other important respects, Turkey was exceedingly helpful in saving Jews threatened by Nazi oppression.
From the autumn of 1933 onward, the Turkish government of President Ismet Inonu permitted more than 200 German academics, mostly Jewish, to settle in Turkey. These Jewish refugees played a stellar role in developing Turkish universities and in designing such buildings as the ministry of defence and parliament.
In Europe, Turkish diplomats issued life-saving passports to 25,000 to 30,000 Jews of Turkish origin, noted Pinar Dost-Niyego, a historian based in Istanbul.
Approximately 12,000 of the Jews rescued by Turkey held Turkish passports and/or nationality, said Dost-Niyego, who is affiliated with the Institut Francais d’Etudes Anatoliennes and teaches a history course on World War II at Galata-Saray University.
Behic Erkin, Turkey’s ambassador to France, as well as Namik Kemal Yolga, Turkey’s deputy consul in Paris, were instrumental in plucking Jews from the Nazi jaws of death. And in Marseilles, the Turkish consul, Necdet Kent, also provided assistance.
On the island of Rhodes, Turkish consul Selahattin Ulkumen is credited with having saved 50 Jews, a feat that earned him recognition by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations.
Turkish diplomats in Berlin, Athens, Varna, Prague and Budapest also extended help to Jews, says Erdogan.
Corry Guttstadt, a German scholar who has explored Turkey’s policy toward Jews during the Holocaust, claims that some Turkish diplomats were motivated by bribes rather than humanitarianism.
No one seems to know exactly how many Jews were saved by Turkish diplomats, the subject of a Turkish documentary, Turkish Passport.
“There are no precise figures,” said Tezgor, who added that upward of 10,000 Jews owe their lives to Turkey’s intervention. “That question may be answered when our archives from that era are opened.”
According to Tezgor, the Turkish government, fearing German retribution, did not issue explicit orders to its embassies and consulates to extend a helping hand to Jews in distress.
But Turkish diplomats could not have acted without official permission, he said. “Ankara had to know what was happening. This could not have happened without the consent of Turkey’s government.”
The Turkish government, too, laid on special trains to transport some 2,000 Jews to Istanbul following a German ultimatum in 1943 to Turkey and other neutral powers to repatriate their Jewish citizens.
In August 1944, with the Red Army pushing into Bulgaria and severing land links between Turkey and the Axis powers, Turkey broke diplomatic relations with Germany. On Feb. 23, 1945, Turkey declared war on Germany.
Dost-Niyego – a Muslim whose husband is a Turkish Jew – believes that Turkey should incorporate Holocaust-related events into its educational curriculum.
“In high school, I learned next to nothing about the Holocaust,” said the 33-year-old scholar, adding that contemporary Turkish high school texts virtually ignore minorities, whether Jews or Christians.
Dost-Niyego, who is currently working on a paper on a new curriculum, intends to present it to the ministry of education once it is finished.
Her interest in the Holocaust was sparked by a colleague, Sila Cehreli, a Turkish political scientist at Marmara University who specializes on the Holocaust in Poland. “She asked me to attend a conference on Holocaust education, and since then, I have been interested in the Holocaust.”