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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Ambassador How a Turkish diplomat saved 20,000 Jews during the Holocaust.

Behic Erkin fought in both World War I and the Turkish war of independence. He was the Ottoman army's expert on railroads, and his logistical gifts proved critical during World War I, earning him five medals from the German government. The Iron Cross First Class was awarded to him personally by the German commander Liman von Sanders, and it would prove instrumental in Erkin's later effort to save Jewish lives.

Erkin was a close friend of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, who entrusted him with the transportation of troops and ammunition to the front lines during the war of independence. Atatürk's confidence in Erkin was complete. "If you agree to transport our troops to the battlefront, I assure you I will win this war," the Turkish leader said to Erkin. After the formation of the republic, Erkin served in parliament, representing Istanbul, and later as minister of transportation and development. He was appointed Turkey's ambassador to France on August 1, 1939--a month before Nazi Germany declared war on Poland.

As Vichy France increased its collaboration with the Nazis on the "Final Solution," Erkin doubled his efforts. He ordered the consul-general in Paris to issue birth certificates to Turkish expatriates living in France who had given up their citizenship before 1940. (Turkey had enacted new citizenship laws in 1935, and, if you did not register as a Turkish citizen, you were stripped of your citizenship.) Many of them lacked proper documentation to prove their ties to Turkey. In one of his orders to Paris, he said, "I do not care if they do not have the necessary papers. Teach them to recite 'I am Turkish. My relatives live on Turkish soil' and issue a birth certificate to anyone who can repeat these ten words in Turkish."

The ambassador also ordered his staff to produce a list of non-Jewish Turkish citizens living in France, looking for individuals with clean records and employment histories. On a cold winter night in February 1942, he summoned a group of people from this list and asked them to volunteer to take custody of the businesses and properties that their fellow Turkish citizens were being forced to give up and to pledge to return everything when this ordeal finally came to an end. He called them the "Turkish Custodians of the Properties of our Jewish Citizens" and presented the list of volunteers to the leadership of the Turkish Jewish community in Paris for its approval.

When World War II erupted, 330,000 Jews lived in France: 10,000 of them were Turkish citizens, and another 10,000 had previously been Turkish citizens. Erkin managed to get Turkish citizenship for the latter 10,000 Jews and then convinced both French and Nazi governments to allow them all to return to Turkey. Behic Erkin saved the lives of 20,000 innocent souls during Europe's darkest moment.


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