The Magazine

The Ambassador

How a Turkish diplomat saved 20,000 Jews during the Holocaust.

Feb 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 21 • By ONUR SAZAK and ZEYNO BARAN
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Turkey's reaction to the recent Israel-Hamas war in Gaza has scared many of us who believed that anti-Semitism could never take root in our country. The mass protests outside the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, the defacing of a synagogue in Izmir, the anti-Semitic graffiti and newspaper articles have raised a frightening prospect. It is tragic that a country that had been the savior of so many Jews--first during the Spanish Inquisition and later during World War II--has been transformed into one whose Jewish minority lives in fear.

This eruption has been building. For several years this decade, for instance, Hitler's Mein Kampf was a bestseller in Turkey. Such facts make all the more important the appearance in 2007 of The Ambassador, Emir Kivircik's biography of his grandfather, Behic Erkin, the courageous Turkish diplomat who saved 20,000 Jews in France from the Holocaust. Too few have heard of his gallantry or his righteous actions during one of humanity's darkest times.

Behic Erkin fought in both World War I and the Turkish war of independence. He was the Ottoman army's expert on railroads, and his logistical gifts proved critical during World War I, earning him five medals from the German government. The Iron Cross First Class was awarded to him personally by the German commander Liman von Sanders, and it would prove instrumental in Erkin's later effort to save Jewish lives.

Erkin was a close friend of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, who entrusted him with the transportation of troops and ammunition to the front lines during the war of independence. Atatürk's confidence in Erkin was complete. "If you agree to transport our troops to the battlefront, I assure you I will win this war," the Turkish leader said to Erkin. After the formation of the republic, Erkin served in parliament, representing Istanbul, and later as minister of transportation and development. He was appointed Turkey's ambassador to France on August 1, 1939--a month before Nazi Germany declared war on Poland.

From this perch, Erkin witnessed the complete collapse of the Allies on the continent. Paris fell on June 15, 1940. In July, Marshall Philippe Pétain declared himself president of what became known as the Vichy republic and pledged his government's collaboration with the Germans on all issues, including the fate of his fellow Jewish citizens. (The Turkish embassy moved to Vichy, though Erkin kept a consulate open in Paris.) Early on, Erkin sensed that something was not quite right. A census conducted solely among the Jews living in France in July 1941 troubled him deeply. He recognized it as part of a broad campaign by the Vichy government to confiscate Jewish-owned properties and businesses.

He determined to oppose the subjugation of the Turkish Jews living in France. On July 31, 1941, the Turkish embassy asked the Vichy government to exempt those Jews who were Turkish citizens from anti-Semitic legislation:

The Republic of Turkey does not discriminate among its citizens on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, or other elements. Moreover, the Republic of Turkey is concerned about the laws by which the French government is forcing our citizens to abide. Therefore, we hereby inform [the French authorities] that we reserve all of our rights with regard to our Jewish citizens.

The Vichy authorities ignored the Turks' letter until Erkin took it up with German officials in Paris, who ordered the French to comply with every request from the Turkish consulate concerning the businesses owned by the Jews with Turkish citizenship.

As Vichy France increased its collaboration with the Nazis on the "Final Solution," Erkin doubled his efforts. He ordered the consul-general in Paris to issue birth certificates to Turkish expatriates living in France who had given up their citizenship before 1940. (Turkey had enacted new citizenship laws in 1935, and, if you did not register as a Turkish citizen, you were stripped of your citizenship.) Many of them lacked proper documentation to prove their ties to Turkey. In one of his orders to Paris, he said, "I do not care if they do not have the necessary papers. Teach them to recite 'I am Turkish. My relatives live on Turkish soil' and issue a birth certificate to anyone who can repeat these ten words in Turkish."