When Turkish Diplomats Saved Jews From the Nazis

Documentary about little-known heroism screens at Jewish film festival in Ashkelon.

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Between 1941 and 1944, a group of Turkish diplomats helped hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of European Jews escape near certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

It is one of the lesser-known stories of Holocaust rescue. But 70 years after the fact, details of this extraordinary saga are beginning to emerge with the release of the new documentary film, "The Turkish Passport."

The 90-minute film, which premiered in Israel last week at the Jewish Eye World Jewish Film Festival in Ashkelon, chronicles the efforts of a group of close to 20 Turkish ambassadors and consuls - stationed in Paris, Marseille, Budapest, Prague, Varna, Hamburg and Rhodes - to save the lives of Jews of Turkish descent in Nazi-occupied Europe. Among these diplomats was Necdet Kent, the Turkish consul in Marseille from 1940 to 1945, whose son, Muhtar Kent, is today the chairman and chief executive of Coca-Cola.

The film, which had its world premiere at the last Cannes Film Festival, incorporates survivors' testimonies, interviews with children of the diplomats, government documents, and staged reenactments to relay the dramatic events of those years.

It reveals how these diplomats took advantage of Turkey's neutral status during most of World War II to assist their country's Jewish nationals, who were scattered at the time throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. In some instances, that meant issuing them Turkish passports to provide them with protection during routine identification checks, and in more extreme cases, it meant pulling them off trains headed for the death camps.

When it became clear to them that the Nazis were determined to murder every last Jew in Europe, the Turkish diplomats, in one of their most daring exploits, summoned Jews to their headquarters, put them on trains and transported them to safety in Istanbul. Twelve such trains made their way across Europe in late 1943 and early 1944.

What motivated them? "The Jews were in need of help, and they were in a position to help them," says Bahadir Arliel, the film's producer, matter-of-factly. "It's a very Turkish trait."

Arliel, who attended the screening in Ashkelon, says the original intent was to produce a documentary about Behic Erkin, the Turkish ambassador to Paris between 1940 and 1943. "One of my co-producers discovered Erkin's grave near a railroad in Anatolia," recalls Arliel, who runs a commercial film production company in Istanbul with his brother Burak, who directed the film. "He became intrigued and started looking for information about him. As we learned more about his story and started digging deeper and deeper, we discovered that he wasn't the only one. There were other Turkish diplomats out there helping the Jews."

The rescue operations, he says, were not a coordinated effort. Neither were they sponsored or supported by the Turkish government. Rather, each diplomat engaged in these activities on his own. In quite a few instances, according to Arliel, the diplomats also reached out to help Jews who were not Turkish nationals, issuing them forged passports.

"The Turkish Passport" was screened twice at the Ashkelon film festival, which opened last Tuesday and closes this Wednesday, its focus this year on movies about Jewish rescue. These included the opening night film, "Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu Story" (2012 ), a documentary by American filmmaker Ari Daniel Pinchot; "Children of Villa Emma" (2008 ), an Italian documentary about a group of Jewish orphans rescued in Italy and then smuggled into Switzerland; and "The Glass House" (2005 ), a Swiss docudrama about efforts to save the Jews of Hungary during the Holocaust. Most of the films were Israeli premieres.

The producers of "The Turkish Passport," who began working on the film in 2006, were able to track down close to 20 Jews who were put on the trains destined for Istanbul in 1943 and 1944. Three of them still live in Istanbul, but most of the others have since returned to France. Robert Russo, the oldest of the survivors interviewed in the film, passed away several months ago.

The filmmakers also relied on testimonies from the children of the diplomats, since none of those behind the rescue operations are alive today. "Most of the children had no idea for many years what their fathers had done," notes Arliel. "Some of the diplomats only started talking about it in the final years of their lives."

Arliel says there is no consensus about the exact number of Jews saved by the Turkish diplomats, though some estimates have put the figure at "close to 2,000."

The only known case of a Turkish diplomat who was punished for his actions is that of Selahattin Ulkumen, the consul-general in Rhodes, who was put under house arrest for six months by the Nazis in Piraeus and then deported to Ankara for attempting to save 80 Jews on the Greek island. Ulkumen is the only one of the Turkish diplomats who to date has been honored as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Arliel and his production team recently began production work on a second film - this one a narrative about Ulkumen.

"The Turkish Passport," Arliel's first non-commercial film, cost $1.3 million to produce. The money was put up mainly by his own production company and by many small individual contributors.

"We all felt that it was our duty to tell this story, and that everyone should know about this," he says.

A scene from 'The Turkish Passport.' Courtesy.

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