The Turkish Rescue Nobody Remembered

A new French book attempts to grapple with a Turkish operation to save 476 Jews from France during the Holocaust. Many of those rescued spurned their saviors thereafter and the episode has virtually been lost to history.

While I waited for French author Ariane Bois in the lobby of the Dan Accadia Hotel in Herzliya, I could not fail to notice the excitement in the air. Jews of North African extraction had come to the hotel to celebrate the marriage of their children. They were holding seven days of banqueting - ostentatious events heralded on a gold-plated board at the entrance to the lobby that seemed like something out of "Cinderella."

I thought to myself, "How has Israel, within only a relatively short period of time, been transformed from an arid wasteland that drew Zionist pioneers in the pre-state period to fulfill their idealistic vision, into a gigantic film studio that provides a lovely natural backdrop for the realization of these and other crazy religious fantasies of Jews from various parts of the globe?"

In any event, I waited for my meeting with Bois like someone waiting to meet a long-lost relative - although, officially, as I learned from reading her biographical details on the Internet, we are not really related. Nonetheless, a slight change in historical circumstances could have easily led to our paths crossing at some point.

Ariane Bois was born, just as I was, to a Jewish couple from Turkey whose family was half-Sephardi and half-Ashkenazi and who, when the Ottoman Empire began to collapse, decided to seek shelter in Europe.

Whereas my family opted for Vienna, Berlin and Paris, her family chose only Paris, settling in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods in the 11th and 18th arrondissements. From the mid-1920s until World War II, these neighborhoods were largely inhabited by Ladino-speakers from the Middle East who brought their colorful customs and lifestyle from the "old country."

The Holocaust would totally erase these primarily Jewish neighborhoods.

The Turkish government was adamant about protecting 476 souls, a small fraction of the country's ill-fated Jewish community, which numbered tens of thousands and which had seen France as a safe place of refuge. However, France abandoned these Jews and Turkey demanded that those 476 people be placed under its aegis, thereby granting them immunity from the Nazi decrees.

Those Jews who possessed a valid Turkish passport were permitted by the French authorities to return to Istanbul by rail in cars that bore the Turkish crescent and star. The journey across Europe was fraught with danger and its successful completion hinged on the fact that Turkey stuck to its position that all its citizens, regardless of origin or religion, were equal and deserved protection.

Ariane's grandfather, grandmother and mother - who was 10 at the time - were among the passengers on these rescue trains, which are largely unknown in the annals of Shoah history. One of the reasons why this mission is not given greater historiographical prominence is the fact that, for many years, Sephardi Jews were not considered among the victims of the Holocaust.

Creating a monument

Today, 70 years after this little-known rescue operation, Bois has created a monument to it in her novel, "Le Monde d'Hannah" ("Hannah's World" ), recently released by French publisher Robert Laffont. The book, written in a seemingly effortless manner, is actually the product of painstaking archival research that took the author several years, including interviews with people who traveled on those trains to Istanbul. On the basis of the research and the interviews, she constructed the plot of her novel which, while fictional, faithfully depicts the spirit of that era.

When the war ended, Bois' family returned to Paris. My family immigrated to Palestine. Here the paths of our two families separated. My mother, who always dreamed of becoming a journalist, in the end chose a profession that would be more practical for the new land she now found herself in: She became a family physician. In France, Bois' mother became an investigative journalist for the prestigious magazine L'Express and traveled on many dangerous assignments around the Far East.

While I followed my mother's dream and became a journalist with Haaretz, Bois followed in her mother's footsteps; today she is an investigative journalist with the Marie Claire group of magazines. She remembers her mother taking her to the editorial offices of L'Express and remembers being pinched on the cheek by columnist Raymond Aron. She also remembers how impressed she was by the regal figure of the magazine's editor, Francoise Giroud, as she passed through the corridor. All these people were Mizrahi Jews who had returned to France and who once more placed their trust in that country after the war.

Turkey recently revived the story of the rescue trains, as part of its bid to cozy up with European Union in hopes of admittance. Two products of those efforts are the impressive Turkish documentary film, "The Turkish Passport," which was screened at the recent Cannes festival, and a novel that appeared somewhat earlier by Turkish author Ayse Kulin.

Kulin's historical fiction, "Last Train to Istanbul," is commonly thought to have exaggerated the dimensions of the operation. Her story recounts the actions of a courageous Turkish diplomat who, according to local legend, was the Turkish version of Raoul Wallenberg (the Swedish diplomat who was instrumental in the rescue of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the death camps during the Holocaust ). This legend is viewed by many with a considerable degree of doubt, and to this day, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has refused to recognize that Turkish diplomat as one of the righteous gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Bois' story is much more modest in its heroic depictions and is thus far more persuasive.

The testimony that she obtained from Jews who traveled on the Turkish rescue trains to Istanbul and who returned to France after the war is far less dramatic than in Kulin's novel. As can be seen in "Hannah's World," many of the passengers on these trains had no inkling as to the gravity of their situation and considered their repatriation to Turkey as something that was natural.

Bois describes how a number of Jewish women who were passengers on one of the rescue trains from Paris took advantage of a stop in Vienna because of a malfunction, got off the train and took a leisurely stroll through the Prater gardens. The children on the trains considered the entire journey to be a thrilling adventure.

Only when they returned to Paris after the war did these lucky Jews become aware of the dimensions of the Holocaust from whose claws they had been rescued. Their homes were now occupied by French citizens who were amazed to see the returnees. Several violent episodes erupted between the latter and the squatters, who claimed that they had every right to live in the homes of the Jews who were absent during the war. In fact, one sometimes even heard the following cynical statement from the Jews' French neighbors: "While you were vacationing in Istanbul, we were suffering over here."

"Hannah's World" recounts a tale that, up until now, has not been told properly or has been distorted for a variety of reasons. This is the tale of Jews who, in the period of the Holocaust, were given a new lease on life thanks to the Turkish government. But this is actually a story of loyalty and betrayal. The rescued Turkish Jews never considered it their basic obligation to thank Turkey for rescuing them; furthermore, when the war ended, they abandoned the country that had saved them and returned to France. None of them ever said to themselves: "We are alive today thanks to Turkey."

Ironically, France - the country that betrayed them and, with satanic cynicism, handed them over to the Nazi murderers - was the place they longed for and where they hoped to resume their lives and integrate into society.

Bois is a striking example of a Jew of Turkish origin who has successfully integrated into French society. Nonetheless, she notes how the Jewish anxieties that her family passed on to her are vividly apparent in her day-to-day behavior. For example, she always makes sure that she never leaves the house without identifying documents, lest she be apprehended even now and sent to a death camp. In addition, whenever she enters an elevator, her heart skips a beat because she always remembers the story her mother told her when she was a child about a wheelchair-bound neighbor whom the French police threw down the elevator shaft when the Nazis were rounding up the Jews.

Bois has attempted to heal these wounds of memory in her book.