For much of history, Turks and Jews have gotten along well. During the Holocaust, Turkey did more to save Jewish lives than the United States or Great Britain. One of these heroic Turks was Selahattin Ülkümen, a diplomat serving on the Greek island of Rhodes.
Previously controlled by Italy, Rhodes was occupied by the German army in 1943. Approximately 2000 Jews lived on the island, many of them from Turkey, Greece and Italy. In 1944, the Gestapo ordered all the Jews of Rhodes to report for “temporary relocation” – in fact, they were headed for Auschwitz. Upon hearing the news, Selahattin immediately rushed to the German commanding officer, and informed him that since Turkey was officially neutral, the Jews who were Turkish citizens must be released.
The Nazi officer refused, insisting that under Nazi law all Jews were Jews and had to be sent to concentration camps. Selahattin retorted that under Turkish law, all citizens were equal and Jews were not treated differently than Christians or Muslims. Selahattin threatened the German officer that if he didn’t release the Jewish Turks, and their extended families, Turkey would cause an international incident. After much tension, 50 Jewish Turks were finally released. Despite continuing harassment from the Nazi authorities, all 50 of them survived the war, due entirely to the bold efforts of Selahattin.
Selahattin paid a high price for his bravery. In retaliation for his refusal to cooperate with the Nazi authorities, the Germans bombed the Turkish consulate on Rhodes. Selahattin’s pregnant wife Mihrinissa was killed in the blast, along with two other consular employees.
After the war, Selahattin returned to Turkey. In 1989, he was honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israeli Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem, and in 1990 Israel issued a postage stamp in his honor. Selahattin died in Istanbul in 2003, at age 89.
For risking his life to save endangered Jews, and paying a tremendous personal price, we honor Selahattin Ülkümen as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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