Film Review: Turkish Passport, 2011.
Directed by Burak Arliel
91 minutes. In Turkish, English and French.
Reviewed by Corry Guttstadt. Translated by Rosine Nussenblatt
Since its release for the Cannes film-festival in 2011 the film Turkish Passport has been shown in France, Germany. Israel and the US in several venues.
The production of the film Turkish Passport has been financed partly by the Turkish government. It aims at reinforcing the Turkish official line, which states that Turkey generously saved thousands of Jews during World War II. This is not corroborated by historical facts, as this review will show.
The assertion is not only false and completely exaggerated, but it is also used to placate the criticism of Turkey's restrictive policy toward Jews living in Turkey during World War II,1 toward Jewish refugees and also the restrictions toward its Jewish citizens living abroad.
This version of history is also continuously used to negate the existence of anti-Semitism in Turkey and to require the Turkish Jewish community to show its appreciation for the 'generosity' of the Turkish State.
To this day, Turkey has not taken any measure to find out the fate of her Jewish citizens who lived in Europe during the Shoah. Turkey has not acknowledged its policy of refusing entry to Jewish refugees, nor has it acknowledged the nationalist expropriation measures taken against its Jewish and Armenian citizens during World War II. The Shoah, however, and even the fate of Turkish Jews, are topics that are regularly used and banalized for political propaganda, and more particularly to deny the Armenian genocide.
First of all, let us start with a few words on the seriousness of the film, its lack of structure and concepts:
The succession of facts and events are presented without any logical coherence; they appear mixed by chance. There is no chronological order or structure. It is only too apparent that the documentary's authors do not have much of a general background knowledge of the unfolding of the Shoah in France and that they did not try to acquire such a knowledge by reading about it.
One telling example of the ignorance of the movie's authors regarding their subject is their presentation of Selahattin Ulkümen, who is the most well-known Turkish rescuer of Jews and the only one to have been recognized by Yad Vashem. During World War II, he was Consul of Turkey on the island of Rhodes. Anyone having a minimal knowledge of the subject knows this. In the documentary, Ulkümen is, however, introduced as the Turkish consul in the French city of Lille... and one can speculate that someone must have told the authors, in French, that this individual had been consul "dans l'île," meaning in the island, for them to understand "Lille." It should be added that there was no Turkish consulate at Lille and during the German occupation Lille was cut off from France and incorporated by the Germans into the Military Administration of Belgium and Northern France.
The film is a pseudo-documentary. For some time, there has been an abusive practice of filming pseudo-documentary films or 'documentary fictions' in which historical events are reconstituted to suggest to the audience that these events actually happened like this. This is not unique to the film Turkish Passport.
Here are examples of other historical inaccuracies:
- In this documentary, the prisoners in the French Drancy prisoner camp wore stripped uniforms as in the German concentration camps;
- The uniforms of the German soldiers in the French Compiègne prisoner camp (the camp was under the supervision of the German army) are SS uniforms:
- The pictures often do not correspond to the scenes they should illustrate. For example, one can see a picture of the Arenc seaport for a scene that takes place in Compiègne, etc.
The main themes of the documentary and their veracity:
1.) The main event in the documentary is the repatriation of Turkish Jews from France during the Shoah, repatriation that saved their lives. By the choice of particular witnesses who belong almost entirely to a certain group of Turkish Jews and the very long scenes of their train journey that make up the last third of the documentary, this repatriation becomes the main subject of the film. At first, the film was supposed to be named 'özgürlük treni' - the freedom train. The film gives the impression that the repatriation was initiated and mounted by the Turkish authorities as a rescue operation.
2.) The film contends that Turkish consuls gave identity papers to former Turkish Jews, who did not have Turkish citizenship any longer, in order to place them under consular protection.
3.) The film also takes for granted that Turkish consuls were much engaged in saving the lives of Turkish Jews by having them liberated from the camps, or even by actively preventing their deportation as in the case of Necdet Kent in Marseille that we will discuss later.
The three aforementioned postulates distort the actual historical facts:
1)On the first question, the repatriation:
As a matter of fact on March 1943, 114 Turkish Jews, and in the Spring of 1944, another 414 individuals of the same origin, making a grand total of 528 individuals, were repatriated to Turkey, escaping thus Nazi persecution in France. To use this fact as a Turkish rescue operation turns upside down the historical facts.
The decisive factor was, in reality, that:
- the Ankara government had ordered its consulate not to organize return trips for Turkish citizens of the Jewish faith, to refuse their repatriation! An explicit directive to this effect was given at the beginning of 1943, and even on January 1944 for all Turkish Jews living in the 'Zone Sud'. 2
- Turkish Jews, unlike Muslims, were obliged to request an authorization to return, a request submitted to a special commission within the Interior Ministry in Ankara, before having their return to their homeland approved!
- Starting in October 1942, the German authorities had urged Turkey as well as other neutral or allied nations to repatriate 'their' Jews living under Nazi rule, announcing that if they did not, otherwise these Jews would share the fate of all the other Jews. With respect to Turkey, the Germans thought that there were about 3,550 to 5,000 Turkish Jews in the Paris agglomeration and vicinity alone, or in the German occupied Northern zone .. RESPIt is not clear what the figures, given by the Germans, refer to. In one document they refer to the number of Turkish Jews in Paris and vicinity, in another they refer to the number of Turkish Jews in the Northern Zone.
This ultimatum given to repatriate Jews was neither a magnanimous act nor an act of courtesy on the part of Germany, but reflected a foreign policy motive. The main objective of the Germans was to make Europe 'Judenfrei'. For these Turkish Jews, who during the winter of 1942-1943 were still often unware that most of the deportations led to death, this repatriation did not necessarily mean their rescue, it also meant a forced expatriation The countries that had been asked by Germany to "repatriate" their Jews, countries whose number varied from nine to eleven, reacted differently to the ultimatum. In the end, even some states that had anti-Semitic legislation, such as Hungary and Romania, repatriated some of "their" Jews from France.
Turkey is the state that refused the longest to bring back its own Jews, according to the voluminous correspondence available in various archives and the numerous letters, solicitations and requests from Turkish Jews. During the winter of 1943-1944, many Jewish international organizations, from the World Jewish Congress to the Jewish Agency, as well as the Sephardic communities of Latin America, appealed to Turkish authorities to approve the repatriation of a larger number of Turkish Jews.
- To prevent the return of its Jewish citizens, and as the Turkish authorities had explicitly announced to the Germans, the government of Ankara took away the nationality of numerous Turkish Jews living in Europe!
- During the processing of requests of repatriation, the Ankara government refused in several instances the right to return to Jews who had already received the authorization to depart for Turkey by the Nazis.
- The film gives the impression that it was the Turkish consuls who organized the convoys and who had also given to their Jewish protégés the trip's tickets, as is usually the case during evacuation orders. This is also false: the train journeys were organized by the Germans, the trip expenses were paid by the individuals themselves or, for about half of them, they were paid by Jewish organizations such as UGIF (Jewish representative organization, set up by the Vichy government on German demand) or the Amelot Committee (a Jewish relief organization, named after its location in rue Amelot in Paris).
To summarize, one has to note that Turkey refused the return to their home country to most of its Jewish citizens living in Europe under Nazi control, including those who were registered in its consulates.
2) Allegation that consulates gave identity papers to Jews in order to protect them:
Files and documents of the period clearly show that Turkey did not "willingly give Turkish identity papers" to Jews whose documents had expired.
To the contrary, there is only one verified case where a consul gave identity papers to Jews who had had Turkish nationality. It was Monsieur Routier, honorary Turkish consul and French national, based in Lyon. This action provoked an inquiry against Routier by Turkish ambassador Behiç Erkin, who, however, kept him at his post in exchange for the promise never to do this again.
- During the German occupation, from 1940 to 1944, Turkey deprived several thousands of Jews living in France of their Turkish nationality, thus depriving them of protection. The arbitrary nature of these deprivations meant to prevent the return of Jews is corroborated by an examination of the motivations justifying such acts. Non-participation in the war of liberation, i.e. the Greco-Turkish war after World War I, was used as a motive to deprive Jews of their nationality, even for women or individuals who, at the time of the war, were babies. There is not one example of loss of nationality by Muslim Turks. Another reason often given was "not showing up at the consulate." Because of the war many of these individuals could not reach a consulate since most of the consulates were closed and there were anti-Jewish measures enacted by the Nazis or the French government that prevented free movement of Jews.
- It is necessary at this juncture to mention, in order to counteract a common misconception, that 'Turkish Jews' who lived in France and in other Western countries were not people whose families had already left under the Ottoman Empire and before the birth of the Turkish State who would only have remembered their Turkish origin when faced with danger. To the contrary, the majority of those Jews had left their country in the 1920s and 1930s, often because Turkish nationalism did not give breathing room to minorities.
- Regarding the film itself, the allegation that one of the Turkish diplomats succeeded in getting a certain number of blank passports that permitted him to save Jews, is absurd. Consulates always have a supply of 'blank passports' since one of their tasks it to issue passports to their fellow citizens living abroad if need be. This was especially true for Turkey, to the extent that the law obliged Turkish citizens living outside of Turkey for more than six months to deposit their passport at a Turkish consulate. The consulates gave them in return a "certificate of nationality" and it was only by filing a request in case of a return to Turkey or a departure to another country that the passport was given back or a new passport issued.
3) Rescue of people in internment camps to save them from deportation:
- Yes, several Turkish consuls intervened in numerous cases – sometimes several times – when Turkish Jews were arrested by Germans or by collaborators, and obtained their freedom in a certain number of cases. Such actions are documented for 89 individuals in France for the 1941 to 1944. Some of those consuls intervened, very much engaged and persevering when Germans had not responded to their first intervention. This deserves to be remembered, these actions having saved the lives of these Jews.
It is necessary to mention, however, after a thorough analysis of the files in various countries and after having looked at the files of witnesses, that this established fact must be understood within certain limits.
- Such interventions to free individuals who had been arrested were for the most part for Jews who had friendly relations or business dealings with the respective consuls. It was the case in Italy for the family of Alberto Behar, who had offered the use of his villa to consul Ertok and was rescued by the intervention of this consul. In Vienna, Austria, the same might be said for Bertold Löwenstein – who, moreover, though having abandoned his Turkish nationality, had acted as art dealer for the consul Ozdoganci who consequently protected Löwenstein and prevented his deportation. Most of the Jews who benefited from interventions on the part of the consulates based in France were also businessmen who had left their enterprises to be managed by people working for the consulate or by non-Jews recommended by the consulates in order to protect them from the theft of their property know as 'aryanisation'.
- When you ask witnesses today whose family members benefited from such interventions on the part of a Turkish consul, it is often the case that such interventions were not without motive. In certain cases, women had to pay 'in kind', with their bodies, to rescue their husbands. On this account, Turkey is certainly not unique.
- Starting in the summer of 1943, when Aloïs Brunner had taken over the direction of the Drancy camp and after the expiration of the first ultimatum to repatriate in the fall of 1943, foreign Jews were freed –including when their consulate had intervened – only under the condition that they leave France and return to their country of origin. The margin of action of the consuls was much limited since the government in Ankara refused then to take measures of repatriation. Some Turkish Jews spent a year in Drancy before the Turkish authorities allowed them to be repatriated to Turkey.
- When one examines testimonies of individuals living in Turkey, one must take into consideration that because they live in Turkey, they are under enormous pressure to 'show their gratefulness' to Turkey . . . . Archival documents give evidence that two of the witnesses who relate that they were freed because of the intervention of Turkish consuls warned by their relatives – and thus that "they owe their survival to Turkey" were actually freed for other reasons. according to the documents. In the case of one of the witnesses, L.R.R., he owed his freedom to the camp doctor's report who had judged him not fit to be detained; the liberation of the other witness, A.S., was part of a general liberation of all citizens of neutral countries.
4) Necdet Kent
One of the main sequences of the film shows an alleged action by Necdet Kent, the Turkish vice consul in Marseille at the time. Necdet Kent already played an important role in the film Desperate Hours and in Stanford Shaw's book Turkey and the Holocaust as well as in hundreds of Turkish publications. It is alleged, and the documentary Turkish Passport shows once more, that Kent, in spite of protestations from the Marseille Gestapo, boarded a deportation transport heading for the extermination camps with 80 Jewish Turks on board. After a while, in the film the train arrives near Arles; the Germans then, according to the film, let him off the train with the 80 Turkish Jews, thus saving their lives.
Necdet Kent himself had already told this story at length in the film Desperate Hours. In spite of extensive research done by Yad Vashem, by the Turkish consul working in Marseille during the 1980s, by the author and many other individuals, neither proof, nor any witness, has been found until today to verify this story.
Kent's heroic narrative is not credible for several reasons:
- No train heading to the extermination camps left directly from Marseille as implied in the film Turkish Passport. This is true for the train that left Arenc on January 24, 1943 as well as for the following deportation trains, leaving from Fréjus; they were bringing the arrested Jews first to the transit camps of Compiègne and Drancy.
- Turkish diplomats in France intervened several times in order to free nine Turkish Jews, who had been arrested during the roundup of Jews in Marseille and deported to Compiègne. Eight of these nine Jews were finally released only months later after several interventions by the Turkish authorities. One of them was deported and murdered despite these efforts. If Kent's story were true, why would the ambassador have needed to ask for the freedom of individuals, who would already have been freed by Kent?
- Serge Klarsfeld as well as the Amicale des Déportés d'Auschwitz et des camps de Haute Silésie in Marseille have meticulously reconstituted the events during and after the roundup of Jews in Marseille and published their findings. In the 1993 volume published by the Amicale, one found several testimonies of individuals, including several of Turkish Jews, who lived through the roundup. Not one of them mentions Kent's action in spite of the fact that these testimonies describe the situation in the Marseille train station and the trip to Compiègne. Elie Arditti, 19 years old then, born in Izmir, succeeded with some other Jews in escaping from the deportation transport . . . from the very train where Kent pretends to have freed passengers.
- The whole story 'rests' only on the narrative of the hero Necdet Kent. His account is, however, highly unreliable. For example, Kent interviewed in the film Desperate Hours, and also speaking in front of the "500-yil-vakfi" [Quincentennial Foundation] in Istanbul, pretends that he ran to the Saint-Charles train station in Marseille, where the deportation train would have been ready to depart. The only train to have deported Jews directly from Marseilles after the roundup is the one that left early in the morning of January 24, 1943 for Compiègne. It left from the Arenc freight train station, and not from the monumental Saint-Charles train station in downtown Marseille. Dozens of years later, it is impossible to confuse the magnificent and monumental Saint-Charles train station with the shabby Arenc train station.
All this begs to show that Kent's heroic action is just completely unfounded.
It is particularly revolting to see that, starting with the nomination of his son Muhtar Kent as head of the Coca Cola Company, subsidiaries of this company work to have his father recognized a 'Righteous among the Nations'. An imaginary rescue of Jews as a publicity tool . . . .
What is missing from the film, and is not shown to the public, is the fate of all those Turkish Jews who became Shoah victims or who survived the torture and the ill treatment of deportation, but who have been marked for life. It is the same for all those individuals who were obliged to hide in order to survive under conditions that were often humiliating and degrading.
The film's authors have intentionally refused to interview survivors or descendants of victims in spite of offers to do so by descendants of Turkish Jews living in France.
This glaring lack of research and scientific consultation is also telling because it is precisely Heath W. Lowry who is the only researcher to have been interviewed in the film. Lowry is a Turkologist with a questionable reputation in the scientific international circles because he is well known for his close cooperation with the state authorities of Turkey. He is not only one of the most forceful deniers of the Armenian genocide, but he has also actively helped Turkish representatives in the US in their attempts to dismiss scientists who do not deny the existence of the Armenian genocide, from important positions in research and in the universities.
Since I am not a film producer, or a film critic, but a historian, I did not go into the technical quality of the documentary film,, but I found Turkish Passport technically quite lacking… annoying with its frequent repetitions.
Corry Guttstadt is a scholar of the Holocaust based in Berlin, and author of the forthcoming Turkey, the Jews and the Holocaust (Cambridge, 2013)
Rosine Nussenblatt, the translator, was the editor for many years of the English-language edition of La Lettre Sépharade.
1. During WW2, Turkey imposed a special tax on minorities – the Jews and the Armenians. If these individuals could not pay the tax, they were sent to labor camps.
2. Designates the part of France to the south of the demarcation line formerly known as the Free Zone. The Germans had stopped their advance into France in 1940 at the Armistice of Compiègne. The Germans crossed the line of demarcation on November 11, 1942.