Tag Archive for: Febriary 1942

Why Turkey’s Jews Left following WWII

Turkey, the Jews and the Holoacuast coverHarold  Rhode, whom we interviewed in the December 2013 edition  of the New English Review (NER), has an  review of a new book in Sephardic  Horizons about Turkish treatment of its once numerous Jewish population; 100,000 at the start of WWII now less than 15,000.  The book is Turkey, the Jews, and the Holocaust by Corry Gutstadt, originally published in German in 2008 and reissued in an English translation by Cambridge University Press in 2013.  Rhode spent nearly three decades, as a Turkish and Islamic Affairs expert in the US Office of the Secretary of Defense before his retirement in 2010.

Coincidentally, in our interview with Michel Gurfinkiel, to be published in the forthcoming February 2014 edition of the NER, he spoke of the migration of Turkish Jews following WWII.  They migrated to Israel and France prompted by their mistreatment by the xenophobic Turkish wartime regime.

Struma Ferry in Istanbul harbor 1942

Ill-fated Romanian ferry Struma in Istanbul harbor 1942

One horrific defining moment was the refusal of the Turkish government in 1942 to permit transit of 769 passengers aboard the Romanian ferry, the Struma. Its engines had failed and the vessel was anchored in Istanbul harbor for 71 days, overloaded with desperate Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust.  The British Consul in Istanbul had refused to issue visas for entry of these Romanian Jews to transit to Palestine, because of the draconian immigration restrictions of the 1939 White Paper.  On February 23, 1942  the Struma was  ordered by Turkish authorities towed out into the Black Sea and  tragically sunk the following day  by a Soviet submarine with loss of all aboard save for two survivors. They were a woman, Mrs. Medea Solomonowitz recuperating from a miscarriage in Or-Haim Jewish hospital in Balat, Istanbul and David Stollar.

About the time of the Struma incident, the neutral Turkish regime had implemented Varl?k Vergisi  literally, a capital tax, on the properties, assets and businesses on all non-Muslim minority Turkish citizens;  Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Jews.  While, the official goal was to fund Turkey’s defense during WWII, in reality it was to punish these minorities. Consider it a secular form of Islamic jizya to extort wealth.  Not unlike the horrific labor camps of the Nazi ally Horthy Regency in Hungary, Turkey implemented a forced draft of non-Turkish minorities to work in labor camps in Thrace, European Turkey, and in Anatolia.  Many labor camp inmates, Jews among them, died as a result of mistreatment.  The punishing ‘capital tax’ ended in 1944 after objections were raised by the British government. As Rhode relates in his review, the wartime Turkish government supplied chromium to the Nazi war effort, not unlike iron ore supplied from neutral Sweden, only to have the British buy up and store stockpiles in Turkey.  Hapless Turkish Jewish citizens caught in Nazi occupied Europe ended incarcerated and lost their lives in concentration and death camps.  A limited number of Jews in Salonika in occupied Greece, which once a majority Jewish population, were virtually extinguished in Nazi death camps. A small contingent received Spanish birth certificates and Visas from the wartime Franco government.  Wealthy Turkish Jewish citizens had sent funds aboard for safekeeping to establish bolt holes in France and Switzerland. Many poorer Turkish Jews left for Israel after its founding in 1948.  The 15,000 Turkish Jews who remain now are split between the elderly and those who have become Turkified and intermarried with Muslims.  Young Jews see no future in Turkey have left for Israel, Europe and the US.

Note these excerpts from Rhode’s review of Turkey, the Jews, and the Holocaust.

Despite Ataturk, non-Muslims remained outside the Turkish mainstream in that new country.   Though Ataturk and his followers tried to make the word ‘Turk’ mean any citizen of Turkey, it quickly became the accepted term for any Muslim citizen of Turkey, regardless of ethnicity. Any Muslim, no matter how short a time his ancestors or he himself lived in Turkey, was a Turk. The new term ‘Turk’ became, in essence, a synonym for the old word ‘Muslim’.

But what about the other non-Muslim citizens of that country? Very quickly, the term ‘Turk Vatandasi’, [i.e., Turkish citizen] became the phrase by which non-Muslims were politely known. Non-Muslims, many of whose ancestors had lived in modern Turkey for millennia, were, in effect, still outsiders. Despite Ataturk’s wishes, Turks still divided their world into two groups: Muslims and non-Muslims.


Those Muslim Turks who opposed Ataturk’s reforms often referred to him using the polite term ‘Salonikli’ (one whose origins were from today’s Greek city Thessaloniki – the pre-World War I population of which had a Jewish majority) or less politely ‘Dönme‘ (meaning turncoat). What these terms really mean is someone whose ancestors had been Jewish, but outwardly followed the Jewish false messiah Shabbatai Tvsi who, in the 1660s, converted to Islam. Those Jewish followers who remained loyal to Shabbatai Tsvi thereafter married among themselves and outwardly lived as Muslims, but had their own unique prayers, some of which were of Jewish origin. A large contingent of these people had lived in Salonika. So labeling Ataturk either as Salonikli or Dönme was an insult. The inference was that he wasn’t a real Muslim, and therefore not a real Turk. He, according to many of Ataturk’s opponents was an outsider of Jewish origin, who took over and, because he wasn’t a real Turk, tried to separate Turkey from its Islamic identity.


During the 1950s, the UK was looking to leave Cyprus, which had a large Greek Christian majority, and a Turkish Muslim minority. There was a Greek group which favored union (called Enosis) with (Christian) Greece. The Arab world, by and large, backed the Greeks against the UK and the Turks. One could understand why anti-Greek fervor was strong in Turkey. But anti-Jewish fervor rose as well.


Why did this happen? Simply because in the Turkish (Muslim) mind, all non-Muslims were one group. As such, they believed that all non-Muslims work together against the Muslims. This principle is so deeply ingrained in Turkish culture–whether or not a Turkish Muslim is religious–that the Greek problem in Cyprus was understand not in terms of Greeks vs. Turks, but, on a much deeper level, as a battle between the Turks (i.e., the Muslims), and the Greeks (i.e., the non-Muslims). ….In this context, it is obvious why Jews in Turkey would suffer as a result of Greek-Turkish troubles in Cyprus, which, from a Western point of view, sounds absurd.


EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.