Introduction to Rescue of Jews in Turkey
Turkey remained neutral until the end of World War II.
Turkish leaders, like their Ottoman predecessors, maintained a liberal attitude toward allowing Jewish refugees to enter the country. As a result, Turkey was a safe haven for thousands of European Jews fleeing the Nazis and their allies. In addition, Turkey became the headquarters for numerous rescue operations headed by Zionist and US organizations.
In the 1930s, Turkish officials allowed Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria to enter the country. An estimated 1,000 refugees, most of them Jews, were allowed into the country. They were employed as professionals by numerous Turkish institutions. These early refugees contributed to Turkish business, medicine, the arts, and academic pursuits. Other Jewish refugees were allowed to enter Turkey if they could show that they had proper documentation to travel to British Palestine or other destinations. Beginning in April 1943, the Turks granted transit visas to numerous Jewish families. Between April and December 1943, approximately 1,300 Hungarian, Bulgarian and Romanian Jews entered the country. An additional 312 entered Turkey leaving from Greece. At this time, approximately 2,000 Jews were allowed to transfer to Palestine.
These immigration schemes were organized by representatives of the Jewish Agency for Palestine (Yishuv). Twenty delegates from Palestine were sent to see what could be done to facilitate rescue and immigration to Palestine. The delegation was headed by Chaim Barlas. The initiative for these operations came from David Ben-Gurion, leader of the Jewish Agency.
Barlas was also later able to help 542 Polish Jews enter Turkey from Teheran. This was due to the efforts of the Polish ambassador stationed in Anakra.
The Yishuv representatives chartered a number of boats to take refugees from Europe to Turkey. After May 1944, British authorities gave the Yishuv permission to grant visas to Palestine. Between January and August 1944, approximately 3,000 Jewish refugees came to Istanbul as a waystation on the way to Palestine.
By the end of 1944, 1,200 Jews were given visas and arrived in Turkey. An additional 800 Jews were rescued from Greece.
Of this limited rescue success, Barlas said: "the results...in numbers are in no comparison with the tragic situation...but taking into consideration the almost unsurmountable difficulties, I may say that it is a miracle that even this small number has escaped from the hell" (Laqueur, 2001, p. 642).
The US War Refugee Board was created in 1944 after the disclosure that the US State Department had been impeding and even blocking the rescue of Jewish victims of the Nazis. The War Refugee Board set up an office in Turkey to try to aid Jewish refugees. This effort was led by American Ira Hirschmann. Hirschmann worked closely with the US embassy in Ankara, which was led by Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt. Steinhardt, who was Jewish, encouraged and worked closely with rescue efforts on behalf of beleaguered Jews in Eastern Europe.
Barlas, Hirschmann and Steinhardt made contact with Papal Nuncio Monsignor Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. They requested that Roncalli issue Vatican documents that would grant asylum to Jews in Nazi-occupied territories. Roncalli indicated that his papers would be approved by the British authorities and would allow the recipients to transfer to Palestine. Roncalli also suggested that he could issue baptismal certificates to Jews, as these documents would provide the Jews protection from deportation. Roncalli became Pope John XXIII, being elected to Pope in 1958. In 2016, he was designated a saint by the Catholic Church.
Turkey was also an important listening post for the Yishuv representatives and for the representatives of the War Refugee Board. Reports of the murder of millions of Jews were smuggled to officials who then released the information.
There were a number of Turkish diplomats stationed throughout Europe who aided and rescued Jews from their posts. The most famous of them is Consul General Selahattin Ulkumen. Ulkumen was stationed on the island of Rhodes and protected a number of Jewish families from deportation. For this, the Germans bombed his consulate and fatally injured his wife.
Ulkumen was declared Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, for his actions. He is the only Turkish diplomat so honored. Monsignor Roncalli has yet to be honored by the State of Israel for his rescue activities on behalf of Jews.
Survival of Jews in Turkey
Jews of Turkey – 56,000. Several thousand Jewish refugees were permitted entry to Turkey during the war, many from Germany. In April 1943, the Turks granted transit visas to 1,350 Jews from Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, and 300 to Greek Jews to travel through Turkey on the way to Palestine. An additional 2,100 Jews in Turkey also traveled to Palestine. The Turkish government allowed several Jewish rescue and relief agencies to operate in the country. This included the Jewish Agency for Palestine (Yishuv). It organized clandestine immigration to Palestine. The Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency in Turkey, of the Joint Rescue Committee, brought in 5,080 Jews from German occupied territories. Agents of the American War Refugee Board (RWB) also operated in Turkey. 1 Turkish citizen has been honored for rescuing Jews.
 Gutman, 1990; Benz, in Laqueur, 2001, The Holocaust Encyclopedia, s.v. “Death Toll,” p. 141
 Rubin, in Laqueur, 2001, The Holocaust Encyclopedia, s.v. “Turkey,” pp. 641-643
 Ofer, in Gutman, 1990, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, “Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency in Turkey,” pp. 1259-1262
 Note: Turkish Consul Selahattin Ülkümen save 40 Jews from deportation from the German occupied island of Rhodes. Bender & Weiss, 2007, The Encyclopedia of the Righteous among the Nations: Europe (Part I) and Other Countries, s.v., “Turkey,” p. 528
Updated November 5, 2017