Turkey, the Jews and the commemorations of the Holocaust

This is certainly unfortunate that the diplomatic and political relations between Jerusalem and Ankara did not recover yet from the crises of 2009 and 2010-11. However, and remarkably, these crises did not damage the economic relations (the bilateral trade attained its historical record last year) and did not even undermine the efforts in Turkey to improve its participation to the commemoration of the Holocaust. Even if Turkey was never occupied by Nazi Germany or its allies, such participation is not new: As early as March 1947, Prime Minister Recep Peker (Kemalist) pronounced a speech at the Istanbul University (the only one of the city at that time), saying: “Anti-Semitism will remain the shame of the 20th century”—and everybody realized he was not thinking primarily to the pogrom of Odessa in 1905. However, the scope of the Turkish involvement clearly expanded in less than a decade.

Turkey has been an observer country to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) since 2008 and only increased its activities in this regard year after year. For example, in 2013, in Galatasaray University (a state school) an international conference was convened about Holocaust education and in 2014 about 20 academics participated in a Holocaust education program prepared by Yad vashem in 2014, in the framework of the IHRA. Far from being limited to scholarly circles, the commemorations received a strong official endorsement in the context of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Last year, the commemoration took place in the Kadir Has University of Istanbul and deputy Foreign Minister Naci Koru attended the ceremony. Last January, the ceremony took place in Ankara, the capital city of Turkey, and more exactly in an important university, Bilkent.

This one is private, but, in addition to the president of the university, President of the National Assembly Cemil Çiçek, Minister of Culture and Tourism Ömer Çelik, deputy Minister of National Education Orhan Erdem and the general secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were among the speakers. A message from the Prime Minister was also read. The message finished by these words: “For centuries, our Jewish citizens who have been an integral part of our culture and history have been living and will continue to live in harmony with mutual tolerance together with other elements of our society.  On this significant day, I vehemently condemn this most ruthless crime against humanity in history and respectfully commemorate the millions who have lost their lives during the Holocaust.” Remarkable as well was the speech of Umut Uzer (Istanbul Technical University), one of the persons in charge of the organization, who not only recalled the role of Turkish diplomacy who saved of thousand Jews during the Second World War, but also advocated the criminalization of the Holocaust denial in Turkey.

On January 26, namely the day before this event, Mr. Çiçek had attended the Forum “Let My People Live” organized by European Parliament, Czech Parliament and European Jewish Congress in Prague. Mr. Çiçek was the only speaker of a Parliament coming from a country inhabited by a Muslim majority. It also must be noted that the minister of Foreign Affairs himself was in Auschwitz for the international ceremony.

One month after these events, Turkey commemorated for the first time the tragedy of the Struma, a ship torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in February 1941. 768 Jewish refugees were killed by this Soviet attack. Some words of comment are necessary. During the Second World War, Turkey not only made efforts to protect, and eventually to repatriate, thousands Jews of Turkish ascent, or merely married to persons of Turkish ascent, but also allowed and even helped Jewish refugees from the Balkans to pass through its territory to what was, at that time, called the Palestine. This de facto permission became a formal, legal guarantee as early as February 1941; during the whole war, at least 18,783, if not until 100,000 Jews saved their life this way. Afraid of a possible new Arab revolt that could rise as a result of this immigration, the British government fought the joint Zionist and Turkish efforts and the Struma affair was the most dramatic consequences of this policy. According to the Montreux agreement (1936) regulating the travels the Turkish straits, a ship must have a destination to be allowed to pass through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, but the British mandatory authorities repeatedly denied the right of the Struma to arrive in the territory they administrated. The eventual result was this tragedy. The two Jewish survivors stayed in Turkey during the rest of the war, because the British authorities did not want them even after the catastrophe (see Stanford Jay Shaw, Turkey and the Holocaust, New York-London: New York University Press/MacMillan Press, 1993, pp. 46-304 and more particularly pp. 281-286 on the Sruma affair; and Joseph B. Schechtman, The Mufti and the Fuehrer, New York-London: Thomas Yoseloff, 1965, p. 154).

Beyond this sad event and the salvation of many more Jews who joined Eretz Israel in spite of the British opposition and thanks to Ankara, the relation between the Turkish history and the Shoah has a very specific, and rather unique dimension: The welcoming of more than one hundred scholars, artists, engineers and architects, from Germany and Austria, in the universities of Istanbul and Ankara, as early as 1933. Most of them were Jews, because, until 1945-46, in the main U.S. universities, there was a non-written agreement, between the professors and the biggest students’ associations, preventing the hiring any Jew as a full time professor—at the very best, a converted could be tolerated. No such thing would have been imaginable in Turkey, Jews having been well represented in the political and intellectual life during the Young Turks decade (1908-1918) as well as during the Kemalist years (1923-1950) and later (see, in particular, Jacob Landau, Tekinalp, Turkish Patriot, Istanbul, 1984; and Stanford Jay Shaw, The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic, New York-London: New York University Press, 1992). On the contrary, the arrival of these specialists, among the most noted ones in the world, greatly accelerated the modernization of Turkey decided by Atatürk (in addition to the book of Stanford Jay Shaw, see Fritz Neumark, Zuflucht am Bosporus, Frankfurt-am-Main: Knecht, 1980; and Arnold Reisman, Turkey’s Modernization. Refugees from Nazism and Atatürk’s Vision, Washington: New Academia Publishing, 2006).

The University of Istanbul, reformed coincidentally in 1933, “had some claim to be the best in the world” at the end of 1930s (Norman Stone, Turkey. A Short History, London: Thames & Hudson, 2010, p. 11) Except Israel itself, of course, I do not know any country where the Jewish contribution to scientific and technical progress during the 20th century was more remarkable than Turkey. It helps to understand even better the involvement of the Turkish academia in the commemoration of the Shoah.

Since tendentious writers have considerably exaggerated and misrepresented the marginal (and repressed) anti-Semitic publications in Turkey during the 1930s and 1940s (a checking in the books of Feroz Ahmad and Stanford Jay Shaw is sufficient to understand how unreliable these authors are), I would like to finish by giving an example of use of half-truths. If you speak about anti-Jewish prejudices in Turkey during the 1930s, one of the most cited names will be Nihal Atsiz, the ideologue of the secular, pan-Turanist far right (1905-1975). This is true, but this is only a part of the truth. Indeed, after 1945, Atsiz became one the staunchest—if not the staunchest— Turkish admirer of Jews, because he had discovered Zionism. Pariah before the Second World War, the Jew became in the thought of Atsiz the best example to be given to the Turks.

“The Jews are working to retake the land they had lost 2,000 years ago, to re-create, as a living language, Hebrew that existed in the books only, and doing so, they are models for the world.” (“Kizil Elma,” 1947).

Only in Turkey.

About the Author
Maxime Gauin has a master in History from Paris-I-Sorbonne University. He is currently a PhD candidate at the Middle East Technical University department and a researcher at the Center for Eurasian Studies (both are located in Ankara). He has published articles in peer-review journals (including the European Journal of International Law) as well as in Turkish newspapers (for instance Hürriyet Daily News, Cumhuriyet and Daily Sabah).
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