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."
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.
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.