Holocaust Survivor Says Turkish Muslim Saved His, Other Jews' Lives
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 23, 2002 As a child on the island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea, Bernard Turiel remembers listening to his parents and their friends talk about Jews being executed in concentration camps in Germany and Europe.
Turiel remembers the horror stories about Jewish people's skin being made into lampshades and their bones being used to make soap. "These kinds of discussions left a fear and horrid impression on all of us," he said.
Turiel survived the Holocaust, he said, thanks to Turks on Rhodes and because he and his family were Turkish citizens. During "Honoring the Turkish Rescuers," a special program held recently at Washington's Lincoln Theater, he talked about his World War II childhood experiences and how a Muslim saved his family and many others.
Rhodes today is Greek. From 1912 until 1945, however, the Aegean island, just off the southwestern coast of Turkey, was an Italian possession.
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini joined Germany in the war in 1940 and invited his ally to garrison troops in Italy and its possessions, including Rhodes, Turiel said.
He said the island in the 1920s and 30s had a flourishing Jewish community of about 5,500 Jews out of a population of about 35,000. Although many Jews fled in the 1930s, those who remained on Rhodes were harassed by the Italian administration but relatively safe until Mussolini was deposed in July 1943 and Italy's provisional government declared an armistice with the Allies.
The Germans used the confusion to overwhelm their one-time allies and seize control the Italians' "empire" in September 1943, he added.
"When the Germans took over, the adult males were asked to report to the headquarters offices," Turiel said. "That created great concern as to what was going to happen." The men were told to register and go home. This created a sense of relief, but also one of false security.
When the Germans began rounding up Rhodes' Jewish community in July 1944, the men reported to the German headquarters again, Turiel said, but this time they were immediately incarcerated. Turiel and his father and brother were among the incarcerated. Two days after being detained, the men were standing in line waiting for transport to the continent and a concentration camp, Turiel recalled.
Enter 30-year-old Turkish Consul Selahattin Ulkumen, who approached the German general in charge and demanded that all Turkish subjects be released. He went further, demanding the spouses of Turkish citizens be released, invoking Turkish law that anyone married to a Turk is a Turk. The Germans assented.
Ulkumen was playing a dangerous game. He bluffed the Germans -- there was no such law.
"He was fully aware of the dangers for the Jewish community in Europe and made a valiant effort to save as many Jews as possible, including non-Turkish citizens," Turiel said. "He told my mother to go home and that our father would be released. My brother and I had acquired Turkish citizenship and had dual citizenship."
Ulkumen's bold personal action is credited with saving 42 families. But his bluff didn't go unanswered. The Germans bombed his home in retaliation. His wife, nine months' pregnant, was seriously injured and died of her wounds while giving birth to the couple's son, Mehmet.
Turiel said 643 of Rhodes' Jews were deported to Auschwitz; all but 151 were exterminated or died in the labor camps.
Ulkumen left Rhodes in August 1944 when Turkey ended diplomatic relations with Germany.
Again, Jewish men were ordered to report to German authorities, Turiel noted. Only a handful still lived on the island. Turiel said the island was isolated, and the Germans by this time seemed more concerned about survival than victory.
"They permitted us to eventually leave the island in January 1945," said Turiel, a lawyer, who worked for the Federal Trade Commission from 1959 to 1966. He's now an attorney in private practice in northern New Jersey.
The Turiels left Rhodes for Turkey in January 1945 and emigrated to the United States in July 1946. Turiel's father joined his two brothers in their import-export business.
Turiel told the Lincoln Theater audience that Ulkumen was a man of great determination, courage and compassion. On June 11, 1988, the Anti-Defamation League presented Ulkumen its fourth annual "Courage to Care" award.
"He was brought to New York for the presentation and we were reunited with him," Turiel noted. "My mother maintained correspondence with him over the years."
In June 1990, Ulkumen was installed on the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles at the Yad Vashem in Israel. "What used to be known as the Righteous Christians has been changed to the Righteous Gentiles because Mr. Ulkumen was the first non-Christian to receive the award. He is a Muslim," Turiel noted.
"Mr. Ulkumen will always be remembered as a courageous, compassionate and righteous person," Turiel said. "Today, he's frail and living in an old age home in Turkey."
Turiel said he and his family and other Holocaust survivors are extremely fortunate to have come to the United States.
"We're grateful to live in this wonderful country where our forefathers had the great forbearance to think of the great democratic country and the need for a Bill of Rights," he said. "The Bill of Rights has provided the type of government and style of life that we enjoy and cherish. We never take it for granted. Having experienced our lives in Europe, we're most grateful to be in such a wonderful country as the United States."