The Muslim Country that Saved Jews During the Holocaust

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Turkey, a Muslim country, surprisingly did more to spare European Jewry from the Holocaust than the United States or Great Britain, saving the lives of approximately 15,000 Turkish Jews who were living in France, 20,000 Eastern European Jews, and 190 Jewish scholars either by providing safe haven directly in Turkey, or facilitating passage between Europe and Israel.

“In 1933 a select group of scholars from Germany with a record of leading-edge contributions to various scientific disciplines and professions were forced to leave their homeland found refuge in Turkey, helping to transform its university system and the entire infrastructure of the new Turkish state,” Dr. Arnold Reisman described the relationship between Turkey and the Jewish people, even in the years preceding the outbreak of the war.

“The invitation extended by Turkey to the persecuted Jewish scholars saved the lives of more than 190 prominent émigrés. Albert Einstein played a role in these invitations when on September 17, 1933, he wrote to Turkish Prime Minister İsmet İnönü (1884–1973). Einstein pleaded with the Turkish Prime Minister to allow ‘forty professors and doctors from Germany to continue their scientific work and medical work in Turkey.’”

Many Turkish ambassadors and consuls stationed in Turkey’s embassies in Budapest, Prague, Varna, Paris, Marseille, Hamburg, Rhodes, and other European cities also worked tirelessly to save the Jews from their plight under the Nazis.

“... It has been a great satisfaction to me personally to have been in a position to have intervened with at least some degree of success on behalf of former Turkish citizens in France of Jewish origin,” one ambassador told the Turkish government in Istanbul. “As I explained to you yesterday, while the Vichy government has as yet given no commitment to the Turkish Government, there is every evidence that the intervention of the Turkish authorities has caused the Vichy authorities to at least postpone if altogether abandon their apparent intention to exile these unfortunates to almost certain death by turning them over to the Nazi authorities.”

This work by these ambassadors and government officials involved issuing the Jewish people Turkish passports allowing for safe passage out of their countries, or literally pulling Jewish people off the trains destined for the concentration camps. Istanbul was established as a safe haven for the Jewish people of any nation to access by train.

"The Jews were in need of help, and they were in a position to help them," Bahadir Arliel explained when asked why Turkey would help the Jews. "It's a very Turkish trait."

Turkey was also critical in saving many Jews in Greece. The Greek city of Salonika is referred to by some as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans,” and the cosmopolitan city maintained a majority Jewish population under Ottoman rule, though Greece has maintained a Jewish history back to antiquity. United with Israel cites the Kehila Kadosha Ioannina Synagogue and Museum as reporting that out of all the nations in Europe, Greece’s Jewish population was the most decimated by the Holocaust with upwards of 87 percent of Greek Jews, 60,000-70,000 people perishing, primarily at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

“The Turkish consuls at Athens, Salonika, and Gümülcine as well as on the islands of Midilli and Rhodes provided the same sort of assistance that the Turkish consuls did in France,” Dr. Reisman continued.

“They organized boats to carry Jews to safety in Turkey and intervened with Germans to exempt Turkish Jews from persecution and extermination. The most exceptional example is Consul Selahattin Ülkümen in Rhodes. He pressured the Nazis into sparing the lives of the Turkish Jews on the island and was subsequently imprisoned by the Nazis after his consulate was bombed and his pregnant wife killed by the Germans.”

Written by Erin Parfet

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