- Category: History & Archives
- Published: 16 February 2009
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By Stanford J. Shaw*
"While six millions Jews were being exterminated by the Nazis, the rescue of some 15,000 Turkish Jews from France, and even of some 100,000 Jews from Eastern Europe might well be considered as relatively insignificant in comparison. It was, however, very significant to the people who were rescued, and above all it showed that, as had been the case for more than five centuries, Turks and Jews continued to help each other in times of great crises."
The large-scale movement of Jewish refugees to the Ottoman Empire from Spain and Portugal and elsewhere in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries as a result of persecutions engendered by the Inquisition largely came to an end during the centuries of Ottoman disintegration that followed since the decline of political stability and economic unity within the Ottoman Empire made it impossible for the sultans to provide their Jewish subjects with the same sort of protection against Christian bigotry and persecution within the Empire which had enabled the first great wave of Jewish emigrants to prosper. The Ottoman revival under the stimulus of the 19th century Tanzimat reform era changed all this, however, so that during the last century of Ottoman existence, new influxes of Jewish refugees once again placed the Turks in the forefront of the nations providing refuge and succor to the Jews of Europe.
The second great wave of Jewish immigration into Ottoman Turkey began in the early years of the 19th century hen the Greek Revolution originated modern 'ethnic cleansing' by carrying out massacres and persecutions of its Muslim and Jewish population in order to create a homogeneous basis for the new independent kingdom of Greece. The resulting influx of refugees into the shrinking boundaries of the Ottoman Empire was followed by similar events in the remaining Ottoman provinces in Europe as Serbia, Bulgaria, and Rumania achieved their independence by following the Greek example of persecuting and/or murdering their non-Christian minorities, who in turn fled to the empire which had given their ancestors support and protection over the centuries. This influx reached its peak as a result of the Russian pogroms which began in 1881, followed by the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), when Greek assaults on the Jewish community of Salonica and other parts of eastern Macedonia led thousands of Jews, who previously had consttuted a majority of its population, to flee eastward into Ottoman territory, settling mostly in Istanbul and Izmir, where they contributed significantly to the revival of their industry and trade that took place during and after World War I.
Most of the Jews coming from the former Ottoman provinces of Southeastern Europe fitted in very well with xisting Jewish community practices and customs since most shared the Sephardic religious and cultural practices which had dominated Ottoman Jewry since the late years of the 15th century. They were followed, however, by hundreds of Jewish refugees from the political upheavals and repressions which followed the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars in Europe, and again the revolutions of 1848, when Jewish liberals, many of whom were wealthy merchants, industrialists and bankers who had emerged folloing the emancipations of the French Revolutionary era, were subjected to large scale harassment by the reactionary monarchies of Europe. Thse brought to the Ottoman Empire the talents, experience and capital which they had built up in Europe during the previous decades, and applied it to creating banks, factories, and model farms through Anatolia, contributing significantly to the development of Ottoman indusry and agriculture during the later years of the Tanzimat. Unlike the immigrants from Southeastern Europe and Russia, however, they did not fit in with the established Ottoman Jewish society, part of Middle Eastern civilization, but instead strengthened the Ashkenazi Ottoman Jewish community to the point where it was able to break away from the cultural dominance of the Sephardim and develop its own synagogues, schools and social institutions, thereby stimulating divisions within Ottoman Jewry which previously had not been significant.
Whereas the Ashkenazi immigrants from Europe who came to the Ottoman Empire were well-established intellectuals, industrialists, merchants and professionals, bringing with them a well developed cultural life as well as capital and knowledge which they were apply freely in the Ottoman dominions, very much as the Sephardic immigrants had done in earlier centuries, the Ashkenazi Jews who entered Ottoman territory in flight from the pogroms in Russia and subsequently from the terrors of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War that followed came out of the ghettos of the Russian Pale and brought with them few skills and a ghetto mentality. As a result, they fitted in neither with their Ashkenazi brothers from Central Europe or with the mass of Sephardic Jews who dominated the Ottoman Jewish establishment, and constituted more of a burden than an asset, both to the Empire and to the Jewish community which had to take care of them. These reacted to their impoverished situation as well as to their sgregation from other Ottoman jews by moving away from the centers of Ottoman political and economic life and following the early Zionist idealists to Palestine, where they settled during the last quarter of the 19th century in what has become known as the first Zionist Aliyah. Most of the new immigrants from Russia supported Zionism, since, unlike the Ottoman Jews, they had suffered severe persecution and at the same time had little experience with the advantages of Ottoman life, and looked down on their Middle Eastern brothers as much as they did on their Muslim neighbors. Most Ottoman Jews, both Separdim and Ashkenazim, on the other hand, therefore reacted negatively to the Zionist efforts to establish Palestine as a center of Jewish life, and opposed Theodore Herzl's efforts to convince Sultan Abdülhamid II to turn Palestine over to the Jews, rightfully fearing that the establishment of Jewish domination in Palestine would inevitably destroy the good relations they had maintained with their Muslim neighbors over the centuries. Ottoman Grand Rabbi (1909-1920) Haim Nahoum Efendi, reflected his community's opposition to Zionism, though because of the tremendous burden imposed on his community in Istanbul by the continued influx of thousands of refugees from South-eastern Europe and Russia, he was compelled to cooperate with the Zionists by helping send these refugees on to Palestine before and during World War I, thus helping to fulfil the Zionist ambition despite his fears for the future of Ottoman Jewry.
A new era of Turkish assistance to Jewish refugees began in the early 1930's, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his Minister of Education, Hasan Ali Yücel, took advantage of Hitler's dismissal of Jewish educators and scientists to bring hundreds of them to Turkey, where they contributed significantly to the development of Turkish universities and scientific establishments as well as to the fine arts and music before and during World War II. Turkey remained neutral during most of the war. Though it was in a military alliance with Great Britain and France concluded in 1938, and openly sympathised with them in opposition to Nazi Germany, neither was able to assure it of assistance in case a declaration of war led to a German invasion from Greece and Bulgaria. In addition, most Turks vividly remembered the suffering which all subjects of the Ottoman Empire experienced as a result of the disasters of the Balkan Wars, World War I, and the Turkish War of National Liberation, and did not want to go through that agin unless their country's interests were directly threatened. Turkey therefore remained in a perilous state of neutrality through most of the war, though suffering considerable economic and financial difficulties as a result of its need to maintain a very large army against the possibility of a German attack at a time when most of its imports and exports were cut off Turkey most certainly did not remain out of World War II to help the Jews, but Turkish neutrality put it into a unique position where it could and did provide major assistance to Jews who were being persecuted, imprisoned and exterminated throughout Europe during the Holocaust and World War II. Its diplomats and consuls in Germany and German occupied countries used their diplomatic status to intervene on behalf of resident Turkish Jews who otherwise would have been subjected to the same persecution as that suffered by Jews who were citizens of the European countries occupied by the Nazis. In France, where we have most information, this work ws carried out by the Turkish Embassy to France, which was located at Vichy starting in 1941, as well as by the Turkish consulates-general at Paris and Marseilles, the latter moved to Grenoble after Germany occupied much of southern France following Italy's withdrawal from the war late in 1943. The Turkish diplomats who were most involved in this work, and who went to great lengths to protect Turkish Jews, often at the risk of their own lives, were at the Paris consulate, Consul-Genrals Cevdet Dülger from 1939 until 1942 and Fikret Sefik Özdoganci from 1942 until 1945, and Vice Consul Namik Kemal Yolga, who remained in Paris throughout the war. At Marseilles there were Consul Generals Bedi'i Arbel from 1940 until 1943 and Mehmed Fuad Carim, from June 1943 until 1943 and Vice Consul Necdet Kent, who like Ambassador Yolga remained in France until the end of the war.
The Turkish consuls regularly applied to the German and French authorities to exempt Turkish Jews from the anti-Jewish laws introduced by the German occupying authorities, and im imitation, and sometimes even more severe, by the Vichy government of unoccupied France. The Turkish claims for exemption were always based on the same principle, stated over and over again, that Turkey made no distinction among its citizens of different religions, and that under treaties maintained between Turkey and Germany, the latter therefore had no right to distinguish between Muslim and Jewish Turks. These diplomats intervened in all sorts of ways to assist Turkish Jews during the Holocaust. First and foremost they kept their Turkish citizenship in force and up to date by getting them to register and informing the authorities that they were entitled to protection as Turkish citizens whenever it became necessary to help them evade or escape Nazi and Vichy persecution. This was not as easy as it appears on the surface. At the sart of World War II, there were about ten thousand Turkish Jews living in France, and about an equal number living elsewhere in Europe. Some had left Turkey as long before as 1921, in the company of the French army that evacuated the country as the rersult of the Franklin-Bouillon Treaty of Ankara, by which France abandoned its effort to occupy Southeastern Turkey in alliance with Britain against the Turkish War of National Liberation (1918-1923), and began to help the Turks drive the British, Greek and Armenian invaders out of the country. Turkish Jews left Turkey at that time not because they opposed Turkish resistance to the Allied occupation-most Turkish jews supported Turkish integrity, as they had supported Ottoman integrity against the Christian nationalist revolts that had taken place during the 19th century and World War I. They left, rather, because they were afraid that despite the French withdrawal, the Turks would be unable to win the war against both the British and Greek invaders and that as aresult, most of western Turkey would be occupied Greece, which had a long history of persecuting and massacring Jews. The Greeks had burned down the Jewish quarter of Jewish Salonica in 1917, and when the city was being rebuilt right after the war, it had refused to allow the Jews to return, instead turning what was left of Jewish houses and land over to Greek refugees from Anatolia. Other Turkish Jews had gone to France during the 1920's, during the early years of the Turkish Republic, when the future seemed very uncertain as Atatürk was just beginning to put his secular reforms into place, and when residence in France seemed to offer far more comfort and prosperity. By 1940, many of these Turkish Jews in France had married French Jews, had children and even grandchildren who were French citizens, and in many cases had taken up French citizenship themselves. Some had retained their Turkish citizenship by registering with the Turkish consulates in France at least once every five years, as was required by Turkish law, but others had neglected to do this, and had as a result lsot their Turkish citizenship accrding to the terms of a Turkish law passed in 1935 which provided that Turks resident abroad had to register regularly or lose their citizenship. The situation did not seem important for most Turkish Jews in France, because for most of them it seemed far better to be a French Jew than a Turkish Jew. When the Nazis occupied the country and began persecuting French Jews, however, these Turkish jews who had given up their Turkish citizenship suddenly found it was far better to be a Turkish jew than a French Jew, and they applied in large numbers to have their Turkish citizenship restored. This took time, however, since each application had to be referred back to Ankara, and since the applicants had very little documentary proof, in many cases no more than birth certificates issued in Ottoman times. In the meantime, these Turkish Jews were subjected to increasingly severe Nazi persecution unless they could produce Turkish papers. The Turkish diplomats responded to this situation in two ways. On one hand, they ured their superiors in Ankara to speed up the process of restoring citizenship as much as possible. On the other hand, they invented what they called Certificates of Irregular Turkish Citizenships (Gayri muntazam vatandaslik tezkeresi), and gave them to Turkish Jews who were in imminent danger of being shipped off to forced labor, or to a concentration camp, or who were being threatened with eviction from their houses, apartments or ships, stating to the Nazis and the French authorities that even such people had to be considered as Turkish citizens, entitled to all the protections and immunities provided to other Turkish citizens in France. The paper work was immense, but somehow the Turkish diplomats worked tremendously hard to handle all these cases and to protect those Jews who needed protection by giving them papers when they needed them most.
On 2 November 1940, the Turkish Consulate General in Paris sent the following note to the German Embassy in protest against a regulation applying to Turkish jews a law that forbade all Jews from owning and operating businesses:
To the Embassy of Germany: The Consulate General of Turkey at Paris, basing itself on the fact that Turkish Constitutional Law makes no distinction between its citizens regardless of the religion to which they belong, has the honor of asking the German Embassy to give instructions to the competent department that the decision that has begun to effect certain merchants of Turkish nationality, because of the regulation of 18 October 1940, be reconsidered.
The German replies generally accepted the Turkish argument, for example on 28 February 1941:
Despite the general regulations..., the German Embassy is ready to support individual requests for exemptions of Jews by the Turkish Consulate General when they have Turkish nationality.
The French government of unoccupied France based at Vichy in many ways was more devious and difficult regarding Jews after the Vichy law enacted on 16 June 1941 required all Jews in unoccupied France, including Turkish citizens, to register themselves and their property, with the threat of their being sent to concentration camps for refusal to do so. The Turkish Ambassador to Paris (Vichy) objected to this in a statement to the French Foreign Ministry:
The Embassy of Turkey has the honor of informing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that its Government, having been informed of the text of law no. 2,333 of 2 June 1941, which under menace of penal sanctions, orders the inscription of Jews on a special register along with a declaration which they must make regarding their properties, feels that the measures which it dictates are also applicable to Turkish citizens of Jewish origin established in France. Turkey itself establishes no discrimination among its citizens according to race, religion or anything else, and therefore feels with unease such discrimination imposed by the French government on those of its citizens who are established in France, so that the Turkish government can only reserve entirely its rights in what concerns those of the latter who are of the Jewish race.
In its response, Vichy insisted that a Jew was first and foremost a Jew, regardless of his nationality, and that Turkish Jews therefore had to be treated equally with all other Jews, as in the note from the French Foreign Ministry to the Turkish Embassy (Vichy) on 8 August 1941:
The Ministry has the honor of informing the (Turkish) Embassy that in establishing themselves in France, the individuals in question have implicitly agreed to submit themselves to the legislation of the country in which they are guests. This principle has sufficient force that the measures regarding people of the Hebrew race apply to all jews regardless, both those who are of French allegiance as well as those who are nationals of foreign countries.
It is interesting to note that the United States Embassy at Vichy advised American citizens resident in France to accept this argument, and thus not to expect protection from the United States, on the grounds that France did not discriminate among Jews and was treating Jews of American nationality no worse than it was treating other Jews. Turkey, however, absolutely refused to accept this argument on the grounds that such treatment violated the treaties signed between Turkey and France, according to which the nationals of Turkey had the privilege of enjoying the same civil rights in France that French citizens enjoyed in Turkey, and that it therefore did not have the right of discriminating among Turkish citizens because of their religion. A Turkish reply to this message, dated 9 September 1941, thus rejected the French claim:
While it is natural enough for foreigners to accept the laws of a country in which they live, in accordance with the strenuously expressed view of the French Foreign Minister that a foreigner who has settled in a country can be assumed to have accepte dthe attachment of his state and future to that country's laws, your answer must be that we reserve our rights in regard to a law which discriminates among Turkish citizens of different religions.The Turkish consulates in Paris and Marseilles continued to strongly protest against discriminatory laws issued both by the Nazi occupying authorities and the Vichy government, such as those which required Jews who were unemployed to join forced labor gangs; prevented Jews from having telephones or radios in their hosues; required that Jewish businesses by Aryanized by being turned over to non Jewish administrators or sold to Aryans; and which caused the arrest of Jews on the most minor sort of protests, with their apartments and businesses turned over to French adminitrators or sealed, their contents appropriated, and their occupants sent to concentration camps in France or death camps in Eastern Europe. In such cases, the Turkish consuls wrote official letters of protest and made personal contacts with the German Ambassador in Paris, Otto Abetz, and with French and German police officials, concentration camp commanders, S.S. and Gestapo officers and the like. Though there was a good deal of stalling by the Nazis as well as by the French officials, ultimately in most cases they received the answer that if they could document that the Jews in question were in fact Turkish citizens, they would be released, under the condition that they be sent to Turkey as rapidly as possible. At times, the Turkish consuls actually went into the concentration camps to deliver these messages and secure the release of prisoners who had the fortune to have Turkish nationality.
Most of the Jews in France were sent to the concentration camp at Drancy, in the outskirts of Paris, from which they were sent on to Auschwitz for extermination. The situation of Turkish Jews at Drancy, as at other concentration camps in France, was not easy, since they were scorned and persecuted, not only by the Germans and the French police that guarded the outskirts of the camps, but also by the French Jews who were prisoners, who felt superior to the foreign Jews, who felt that while they were true Frenchmen, the latter were not, and who used their domination of the Jewish camp bureaucracy to favor their own in distributing food, assigning work, and the like, and also to arrange that when the Germans called for a thousand Jews a week to be shipped East to the concentration camps, most of those selected were foreign Jews. I have put together accounts of the situation at Drancy written by different Jews who were inmates there during the war:
There were there Frenchmen, Poles, Turks and the like. I was chief of the room, and I never succeeded in being able to place myself between the yiddishists and the hispano-turcs, who constantly intrigued for a few more bits of bread. They lived by nationality, by groups, by compatriots. Each looked after only his own interests and not those of his neighbor....
The internees deplored that there was little solidarity among them. The most striking manifestation of this seemed to be the frequent discussions which opposed some to others, in particular French and foreign Jews. The French Jews reproached the foreigners for being the cause of their misfortunes, and the latter complained about France. Perhaps it is necessary to lay the responsibility at the door of the French Jews, many of whom came to the camp saying that they were superior Jews and that they would be released before the others. But one must recognize that their bitterness was justified, particularly when they were war veterants who had performed their duty for their country and could not understand how they could be treated differently than their fellow citizens....
to be followed...
*Professor Emeritus of Turkish History, University of California Los Angeles and Professor of Turkish History, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey