top of page

Sephardic Horizons: Turkey, the Jews, and the Holocaust By Corry Guttstadt

The first long study on the Jews in Turkey was written by the late American scholar Stanford Shaw---born Stanley Shapiro, a well known Ottoman scholar, who eventually married a Turkish Muslim woman. Though clearly versed in the sources, he produced what was essentially a whitewash of the 'wonderful' Jewish life in modern Turkey. Shaw's is more fantasy than truth.

The present book takes a much more sobering approach. This superb book , Turkey, the Jews, and the Holocaust, by Corry Guttstadt, gives the details of why Jewish life, unlike what the above-mentioned Stanford Shaw claims, was so precarious, even after, and especially so, after the secular Turkish Republic was founded. The author is thoroughly grounded in the Turkish sources, and has done research in fifty archives in eleven countries. She presents a very detailed analysis of how pre-Holocaust Turkey was so difficult for the Jews, how the Turkish government did almost nothing to help its Jewish citizens living in Nazi-occupied Europe, and how it used the precarious situation of the Jews in the world to pass extremely restrictive laws to impoverish its own Jewish citizens during World War II. The few examples where Turkish consuls in Europe helped Jews -- so often touted by modern Turkish diplomats and public relations firms -- were the exception, not the rule.

To be sure, the Jews had high hopes regarding Ataturk's new secular Republic of Turkey. Ataturk's goal was to change the traditional approach to identity, founding his republic on the Western idea that all citizens of the Republic of Turkey would be equal. Ataturk did his best to separate the republic founded on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire from its Muslim past. Loyalty under the Ottomans was based on religion, and the State promulgated Sunni Islam as its raison d'être. Ataturk tried to impose the Western concept of loyalty to the geographic/territorial entity -- i.e., Turkey. Religious identity, the basis of the Ottoman Empire, was not supposed to be important. All its peoples were to be called Turks. They were, irrespective of ethnicity or religion, supposed to be equal citizens of his new republic. They were to be equal before the law.

This was a tall order. Is it humanly possible to so markedly change the way people look at themselves and others so quickly? Despite Ataturk's valiant efforts, this book demonstrates that the answer is a resounding 'no'.

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 become 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. The basic building block of the modern Turkish identity was still Islam. In the Turkish mind, the non-Muslims in Turkey were basically lumped into one group, irrespective of the obvious differences between Turkish Jews, and the myriad of Christian groups, each of whom saw itself as a separate and distinct entity.

Turkey, during the early years of the republic, did its best to linguistically 'Turkify' all of its citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation. In practice, that meant that the Turkish government suppressed non-Turkish cultures, mainly Kurdish, Greek, and Sephardic languages and cultures. This policy was not directed specifically against the Jews but, in practice, it meant that the government attempted to deracinate and eradicate the Sephardic Jewish culture which had been the dominant Jewish culture since the 1492 immigration of Spanish Jewry and Portuguese Jewry thereafter.

Try as they might, Jews remained outsiders in Turkish society. A great Turkish Jewish scholar , Avram Galante, who wrote many books on the history of the Jews of the Ottoman Empire, and in modern Turkey, advocated the cultural turkification of the Jews who resided in the new republic. One of his major books was Vatandaş Türkçe Konuş! [Citizen: Speak Turkish!] encouraging Sephardim to abandon Ladino, the centuries-old Spanish dialect they had continually spoken since most arrived from Spain in the 1490s.

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.

Two other important incidents illustrate the problematic position the Jews and other non-Muslims faced in the modern Turkish Republic. After the Turkish war of liberation in the early 1920s, the Greek and Turkish leaders decided to exchange populations, in order to lessen the possibility of Greek-Turkish tensions in the future. With minor modifications, Greeks residing in Turkey were to be sent to Greece, and Turks residing in Greece were to be sent to Turkey. But who really was transferred from one country to the other? 'Greek' was defined as a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. Many members of that church, especially in Central Anatolia, were ethnic Turks whose ancestors had migrated to Anatolia almost 900 years earlier. For various reasons, they became Christians. In Greece, some of the descendents of the ancient Greeks -- Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, etc, -- had over the years converted to Islam. For population transfer purposes, as Muslims, they were defined as Turks. So what actually happened was that ethnic Turkish Christians were transferred to Greece, while ethnically Greek Muslims were transferred to Turkey. So much for the Western territorial concepts of loyalty and identity.

Another story is even more interesting from a Jewish point of view. 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. To the Western mind, this seems odd because the Arabs were clearly the enemy of the Jews and the Jewish state at that time. And since the Arabs supported the Greeks, it would seem reasonable--again in Western terms--that some pro-Jewish sentiment would have been expressed among Turks . But the opposite was, in fact, what happened. Anti-Semitic incidents in Turkey--most notably in Istanbul--which brought fear into the hearts of the Jews of Turkey, rose substantially.

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 engrained 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). And, according to the classic Muslim dictum, “al-Kufr Millatun Wahida,”[i.e., Unbelief is one nation] a hadith [tradition] attributed to the Muslim prophet Muhammad, all non-Muslims are allied against the 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.

The above is the context in which we must understand how Turkey related to its Jews, even after the founding of the secular Turkish Republic. Guttstadt's book does this exceedingly well. Try as so many Jews did to blend in to the new Turkish reality, the Turks (i.e., the Muslims) looked on the Jews with deep suspicion, and gradually made Jewish life in Turkey more and more difficult. To be sure, there were Turkish diplomats here and there who helped individual Jews, originally from Turkey and living in Europe during the Nazi rise to power, to avoid extermination. But sadly, these were the exceptions, not the rule. Most Jews wishing to flee to Turkey, the land of their birth and whose passport many still held, were not helped by Turkish diplomats, and were left to their disastrous fate. The author describes numerous incidents which prove this claim. Moreover, the Turks, who had influence in Berlin, could have intervened on behalf of their 'fellow' Jewish Turkish citizens, but chose not to do so, or were directed by their government in Ankara not to do so. Again, the author cites numerous incidents to support her claim.

Among these incidents are attempts by Jews born in Turkey to renew their Turkish passports. Following instructions from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Turkish diplomats in Europe made it next to impossible for these Jews to renew their Turkish documents. For example, when some Jewish citizens of Turkey presented Ottoman documents to prove their places of birth and citizenship, etc., Turkish diplomats claimed that these must first be researched, and translated into modern Turkish, in order to prove their validity. But these processes were so long and detailed that they were next to impossible to do. That left Turkish Jewish citizens hanging over the abyss. Many, consequently, were eventually shipped off to Nazi extermination camps as a result.

Moreover, given Turkey's public claims after the war about its having rescued Turkish Jews, imagine the author's surprising discovery, at a kibbutz library, of a list of 105 Turkish Jews found in Bergen-Belsen after the Allied liberation of that camp in March, 1945. Jews with other citizenships, e.g. Spanish, had been previously freed due to the intervention of more proactive governments.

Furthermore, the author examines the anti-religious minority laws enacted during the 1930s and 1940s, which effectively made life for Jews more and more difficult. The author lists many periodicals and newspapers published during that time period which contained anti-Semitic diatribes explaining to their readers why the Jews could never be trusted and that their loyalty to the new Turkish Republic, was, to put it mildly, suspect. Given the political situation at that time, there was almost nothing the Jews could do to ameliorate their situation.

To add insult to injury, the Turkish government enacted an anti-religious minority law called the Varlik Vergisi (a wealth tax ) directed at non-Muslims, and which required Jews and other non-Muslims to pay huge taxes on property they owned. Many of the Jews could not afford to pay these taxes and were therefore shipped off to labor prisons in eastern Turkey. Clearly, the Turkish government knew then that there was nothing the Jews could do to prevent the enforcement of these laws, and that the Turks did not have to worry about European countries, then almost exclusively under Nazi control, raising their voices against these anti-Jewish laws.

It is not surprising that Jews living in Turkey felt extremely threatened. Many gave their children Turkish names, instead of the traditional Jewish names they had been using, so that their children might be able to hide behind a supposed Turkish Muslim identity in time of need.

In fact, Turkey declared itself neutral during World War II, but in many ways helped the Nazis. For example, Turkey had some of the most extensive chromium deposits which were essential to the Nazi war effort. Despite their declared neutrality, the Turks were selling this needed commodity to the Nazis, though they told the British otherwise. Eventually, the British, at great expense to themselves, agreed to buy and stockpile Turkey's chromium in Turkey, even though the British had their own ample supplies.

About six weeks before the end of the war, Turkey declared war on Germany, so that, as the Turkish saying goes, "They would be invited to the victors' feast as an honored guest, and not be an item on the dinner menu."

Given the precarious situation of the Jews, from the founding of the Turkish Republic until the end of World War II, it is not surprising that when, in 1948, the State of Israel was declared, most Turkish Jews chose to immigrate to Israel.

The book shows why, as long as Jews know their place in Turkey, they hope they can survive. But their situation is precarious. This is clear simply by examining how the young Jews of Turkey act. Most go abroad to study, and seek their future elsewhere. They overwhelmingly realize that they have no future in Turkey, and end up living in the US, Israel, and elsewhere.

All in all, this superbly and dispassionately well-researched book must become the standard reference for anyone looking to understand the precarious situation of the Jews from the establishment of the Turkish Republic, until the end of World War II. Moreover, it forms the basis for what happened to Turkish Jewry after World War II.

The now less than 20,000 strong Jewish community of Turkey is dwindling. If trends continue as they are now, then in the coming decades, we should expect that almost no Jews will remain in that country. Interestingly, it will have been under the secular Turkish Republic that so many Jews in Turkey decided to make their future elsewhere. Though they understood their place as political and social inferiors in the Ottoman Empire, they were resigned to their fate. But in today's world, there are other opportunities to be free elsewhere--most notably in the vibrant and future-oriented State of Israel and in the US. It is no wonder that Turkey's Jews seek to emigrate to places such as these, which allow them to pursue their dreams.

We are therefore most likely witnessing the final decades of this ancient community, once numbering more than 100,000.

Recent Posts

See All

Jewish Policy Center: Is Central Asia Up for Grabs?

Are China, Russia, and Turkey locked in a battle for control over Central Asia, historic Turkestan? Are there prospects for one – or any combination of two against the other – to win? How much should


bottom of page