How a Turkish diplomat saved 20,000 Jews during the Holocaust.
The ambassador also ordered his staff to produce a list of non-Jewish Turkish citizens living in France, looking for individuals with clean records and employment histories. On a cold winter night in February 1942, he summoned a group of people from this list and asked them to volunteer to take custody of the businesses and properties that their fellow Turkish citizens were being forced to give up and to pledge to return everything when this ordeal finally came to an end. He called them the "Turkish Custodians of the Properties of our Jewish Citizens" and presented the list of volunteers to the leadership of the Turkish Jewish community in Paris for its approval.
When Erkin could not get the Vichy authorities to agree to transfer the custody of the Jewish properties to non-Christians, he went to the German-controlled Jewish Affairs Commission and got it from them. This victory was a testament to Erkin's tenacity. While French leaders simply fell in line behind the wishes of their German occupiers, Erkin fought on.
Few foreign missions in France shared Erkin's outlook at the time. The American embassy in Paris, for instance, denied that discrimination was even taking place and called on American Jews living in France to continue to "obey the voluntary laws administered by occupied France." Kivircik quotes a letter sent to his grandfather by the first secretary of the U.S. embassy, Maynard Barnes, on -October 17, 1940. Barnes wrote that "we do not consider the current practices discriminatory. The laws are applied to all individuals of the Jewish faith who live in the occupied territories, without discriminating on their nationality."
Erkin recognized the danger he faced in standing up to the Germans and defending the Jews. Kivircik quotes Erkin saying,
You need to deal with [the Nazis] as if you are playing chess, calculating the possible outcome of every single move you make. You have to continue on your path by calculating the next 2 to 3 moves in advance. So long as you do not take up arms, your most powerful weapon is diplomacy. Diplomacy is a craft of patience and intelligence. I must have practiced it quite well that these Germans kept complaining about me all this time, yet they always awarded me with medals.
Erkin's campaign to grant a Turkish birth certificate to every Jewish applicant who had ever been a citizen of Turkey received increased scrutiny after November 1942, when Vichy authorities discovered that many Turks living in France had likely lost their citizenship when Turkey's new citizenship law was enacted. The Vichy government's investigation revealed that nearly 10,000 Turkish Jews were indeed French citizens in 1940. Vichy officials passed this information to their German counterparts.
Erkin realized that it was time for the Turkish Jews to leave France if they wanted to survive. He knew that convincing the Germans to grant safe passage for Jews en route to neutral countries would be a difficult task. In April 1942, he traveled to Paris to meet with the German consul-general Krug von Nidda. He claimed that since the war seemed to be lasting longer than expected, many Turks were increasingly concerned about their safety in France and wanted to return home. He told von Nidda and the other German officers in the room that he had made arrangements to transport back to Turkey those who wanted to leave. He needed the Nazi government to grant these refugees safe passage through occupied territories.
When von Nidda sarcastically wondered why Germany should comply with such a request, Erkin replied, "for two reasons."
"First of all, Turkey was the most important ally of the German Empire in World War I. If you recall those days, we rescued two of your battleships. We harbored them in our straits. In return, they bombed Russian ports--and we found ourselves in a war in which we did not wish to take part. While Germany lost its war on land, we won ours. Yet, we were forced to share the same destiny with the defeated because of our alliance with you. This is the first reason. As for the second reason"--at this moment Mr. Erkin reached deep into the left pocket of his jacket, pulled out an object and placed it on the table. From that moment on he continued his speech standing: "I am requesting this from you not only as an ambassador from a friendly country, but as someone who has been awarded with the Iron Cross of the First Degree--the highest military honor conferred by the German Empire. For these two important reasons, you should grant my wish."
The Germans gave in, but granted Erkin only until the end of 1942 to arrange the evacuation. Erkin knew that this was simply impossible, and, protesting unrelentingly, successfully got the deadline extended through 1943.