Turkish diplomats saved Jews during Holocaust

Gunes Celikcan

TORONTO — A little-known but uplifting and inspiring chapter in the annals of the Holocaust was unveiled last week with the screening of a film about the rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied France by Turkish diplomats.

Turkish Passport, a 1-1/2 hour documentary with dramatic re-enactments, was presented by B’nai Brith Canada in conjunction with the Federation of Canadian Turkish Associations and the Turkish Society of Canada.

It was screened at B’nai Brith’s national offices before a mixed Jewish-Turkish audience on Jan. 26, a day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 67th anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

 Turkish Passport, already shown in 17 cities in Turkey and at the Cannes Film Festival, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and the Amsterdam Turkish Film Festival, among other festivals, turns on the efforts of Turkey’s diplomats in occupied France to protect and save Sephardi Jews of Turkish origin or nationality.

The film, directed by Burak Arliel and produced by Gunes Celikcan, who personally introduced it, is based on historical data and on the testimonies of rescued Jews and the statements of the grown children of this brave band of diplomats.

“Turkish diplomacy saved my life,” says one survivor, succinctly summing up the eternally grateful views of his fellow Jews to Turkey.

In feats of quiet and until recently unheralded heroism, Turkish diplomats stationed in France worked miracles.

They prevailed upon Nazi authorities to free Jews in the Drancy concentration camp. They plucked Jews from a train bound for a death camp. They persuaded the Nazis to exempt Jews from the panoply of antisemitic restrictions imposed upon the Jews of France.

Turkey, a neutral power that declared war on Nazi Germany late in World War II, also laid on eight special trains to transport some 2,000 Jews from Paris to Istanbul in 1944.

According to the late American researcher Arnold Reisman, Turkey saved a total of about 15,000 Jews in wartime France.

In comments prior to the screening, Turkey’s consul general in Toronto, Ali Riza Guney, said Turkish Passport underscores the point that dark forces can be defeated by a combination of courage and humanity.

”Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world,” he said, quoting the Talmud and the Qur’an.

The lengths to which Turkish diplomats went to help Jews was illustrative of “the historic bonds of friendship and solidarity between our peoples,” he noted in an interview before last week’s event.

Guney singled out two diplomats for praise.

“Necdet Kent, our consul in Marseille from 1941 to 1944, boarded a train full of Jews who were being sent to Auschwitz. He refused to leave unless they were released.

“Selahattin Ulkumen, our consul in Rhodes in 1943 and 1944, saved 42 Jewish families from deportation to concentration camps.” In 1990, he added, Yad Vashem – the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem – declared him a Righteous Gentile.

Israel’s consul general in Toronto, Amir Gissin, described the Turkish rescue effort as “a piece of history that’s unknown.”

Conveying a message from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mark Adler, member of Parliament for York Centre, called it “an untold story” and thanked the filmmaker for bringing it to the attention of Canadians.

Cenk Sayin, a member of the board of the Turkish Society of Canada, hailed Turkish Passport as a shining moment in Turkey’s history of which Turks and 50,000 Turkish Canadians can be proud.

Celikcan, a filmmaker in his 30s, spent seven years researching and making the quasi-documentary movie, which was shot in France, Romania and Turkey and finished last year.

Celikcan said that Turkish diplomats, maintaining a self-effacing low profile, did not speak about their heroic deeds after the war. Kent, for example, claimed that humanitarian attitudes should not be rewarded.

Nonetheless, Turkish diplomats carved out a special niche for themselves during the Holocaust.