How a Turkish diplomat saved 20,000 Jews during the Holocaust.
His posting in France was approaching its end, and Erkin instructed all embassy and consulate personnel to continue his work and to save as many Jewish lives as they could. Erkin's associates proved more than capable. When the deputy consul-general in Marseille, Necdet Kent, heard from Sadi Iscan, a young Jewish translator at the consulate, that Turkish Jews were being loaded onto a train for deportation, he immediately went to the station to ask that they be released. When the German soldiers refused, both Kent and Iscan boarded the train themselves. Upon hearing what had happened, Erkin demanded to see von Nidda. When the German sarcastically asked, "What could be so urgent? Is Turkey entering the war?" Erkin responded, "Thanks to you we are about to enter the war."
He poured out a torrent of threats:
A diplomatic scandal is about to break out and this is the mildest way I can put it. . . . If you do not correct this mistake, a crisis between the two countries will be inevitable. . . . When I tell my president what happened here tonight, I am sure Berlin is going to reevaluate the career of every official who did not take the initiative to avoid a crisis between Turkey and Germany.
To avoid a diplomatic incident with Turkey, von Nidda agreed to the release of all the Turkish citizens in the train. When the train was stopped and Kent was told to leave with all the Turks on board, he informed the Germans that everyone aboard was Turkish.
Erkin met von Nidda for the last time shortly after this incident. The German consul-general remarked: "Now I understand why the German commanders who served in the Ottoman Empire during the war both hated and respected you. I see that the Iron Cross was given to the right person."
When World War II erupted, 330,000 Jews lived in France: 10,000 of them were Turkish citizens, and another 10,000 had previously been Turkish citizens. Erkin managed to get Turkish citizenship for the latter 10,000 Jews and then convinced both French and Nazi governments to allow them all to return to Turkey. Behic Erkin saved the lives of 20,000 innocent souls during Europe's darkest moment.
Zeyno Baran is a senior fellow and the director of the Center for Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute. Onur Sazak is a research associate at the center.