You’ve heard of Carl Lutz and Oskar Schindler — both widely recognised for having saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust — but have you ever heard about the story of the Turkish man that apparently saved almost 20,000 ethnic Jews in occupied France during WWII?
This man was Behic Erkin, who at the time, was the Turkish ambassador in France. Erkin provided citizenship papers and passports to thousands of Jews that had a connection to Turkey, no matter how little. They were in danger of being captured by Nazis and sent to concentration camps, so Erkin devised an evacuation plan to transport them from France to Turkey.
The Turkish embassy in France is always sought to look out for their nationals irrespective of their ethnicity. In the early days of the German occupation in France, the Nazis forced Jewish enterprises to state that they were Jewish owned by putting up signs on the windows of their businesses. In an attempt to save these businesses from going bankrupt and to protect their owners, the Turkish embassy encouraged Turkish Jews to counteract these signs by posting notices of Turkish nationality next to them. The embassy hoped that as Turkey was still neutral in the war at this point, the Germans would not bother Turkish nationals. They also encouraged anyone with any Turkish connections to obtain a Turkish citizenship.
As the war went on, Turkish officials made an attempt to work with Germany in order to protect its Jewish citizens. However when Xavier Vallat was appointed Head Commissioner for Jewish Affairs in France in 1941, anti-Semitism intensified. In those next few years, the Nazis in France gathered and deported the most recent Jewish immigrants, then those that came to France after 1933 and lastly the French Jews that have lived in France for generations.
At the end of 1942, the Germans developed a scheme to transport all Jewish nationals of neutral countries to their respective home countries. Erkin took the chance and immediately arranged the first train for the evacuees. It is important to note that historical evidence suggests that the Turkish state was not involved in this activity, but rather that numerous Turkish diplomats acted on their own accord.
When news of the evacuation train spread, a large number of Turkish Jews gathered outside the consulate to apply for Turkish citizenships. It was a risky operation as the Nazis could take away those outside the consulate at any given moment or stop the evacuation process at any of their borders, as their actions towards the Jews were becoming more punishing. The fact that some of those that applied did not have any connections to Turkey made this situation even more dangerous, yet Erkin ordered the Turkish embassy to aid those that they could.
The train carriage that carried the evacuees was decorated with the crescent and star of the Turkish flag, an attempt to further protect those inside from the Nazi checks across the various borders. One of the passengers was the son of the former French Prime Minister Leon Blum. The original letter that Blum sent to Erkin is preserved at the University of Ankara.
There have been questions over the actual number of Turkish Jews that were saved and some claim that Erkin’s efforts have been exaggerated and that the number is more likely to be around 3,000. Whatever the real number of those he saved was, he deserves to be remembered for his courageous actions during a challenging time. This is exactly what an Israeli association of Jews with origins in Turkey have been trying to do for years, which applied to have Behic Erkin included in the “Righteous Among the Nations” in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
Erkin was not the only Turkish diplomat that saved numerous Jews during the Second World War. There was a string of Turkish officials posted all over Europe that worked hard to save as many people as they could. Whether they pulled people out of Nazi concentration camps or took them off the trains that were taking them to the camps, they fought against racial injustice until the end — even if it meant going against their country’s commands.
This article is written by Diyora Shadijanova.