Behiç Erkin was a Turkish diplomat in France who saved more than 5000 Jews from Nazi persecution.
Born as Hakki Behic in Constantinople 1876, Behiç was a close friend of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Republic of Turkey. Behiç was a leader of the Turkish War of Independence. After Turkey’s 1934 Law on Family Names was passed, he changed his name to Erkin, which means “free man” and was suggested by Ataturk in honor of Behiç's ability to make good decisions and withstand the pressure of others.
In 1939, the Turkish President selected Behiç Erkin to be ambassador to France. Behiç arrived in Paris and started his new job only three weeks before the start of World War II. After the Germans invaded Paris and the government moved to Vichy, the Turkish embassy also moved from Paris to Vichy.
Behiç was concerned about the 5000+ Turkish Jews in Paris, who were now in immediate danger of arrest. Behiç insisted on keeping a small consulate open in Paris, with five employees, in order to protect the city’s Turkish Jews. He was determined to help any Jew with a Turkish connection, however distant.
Once the Germans occupied Paris, they required all Jewish-owned businesses to be identified with large signs. Behiç’s staff provided the Jews with even bigger signs of Turkish nationality to post next to the other ones. Knowing this wouldn’t provide much protection, Behiç appointed trustees to oversee businesses owned by Turkish Jews, to prevent bankruptcy and looting. He provided Jews with Turkish passports and other official documents such as papers saying that all their assets belonged to Turkey and could not be confiscated.
As more and more Parisian Jews were deported to concentration camps, Behiç held high-level talks with Germany’s Consul General in Vichy. He was able to convince the Germans to postpone multiple times the final date by which Turkish Jews had to be evacuated. These extra months gave Behiç time to arrange for a train, decorated with the crescent and star of the Turkish flag, to carry Turkish Jews to safety. Because of Behiç’s planning and security apparatus, the large group of Jews was able to leave France safely, and arrived in Edirne, Turkey eleven days later. Behiç arranged several more train trips, and didn’t turn anybody away for not being Turkish. Many of the Jews he saved had little or no Turkish connection.
It is estimated that Behiç saved upwards of 5000 Turkish Jews. The exact number will probably never be known.
For bravely saving Turkish Jews after the Germans occupied Paris, we honor Behiç Erkin as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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