The film that brought everyone together is Turkish Passport, a 2011 documentary, whose exhibition was jointly sponsored by Columbia’s Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration, and Religion, Columbia/Barnard Hillel, and the Turkish Cultural Center New York. It tells the stories of many French Jews of Turkish origin, many of whom knew no Turkish and did not think of themselves as Turkish, who were saved from concentration camps by the efforts of Turkish diplomats stationed in France. These diplomats registered Jews who could document some connection to Turkey as Turkish citizens and issued them passports, allowing them to escape occupied Europe. Often at great personal risk, some of these diplomats personally rescued Jewish ‘Turkish citizens’ by driving to camps and demanding their release or boarding concentration-camp bound trains containing Jewish ‘Turkish citizens’ to insist on their release. Hundreds of Jews were saved in this way. In 1943, eight trains left France full of these Jewish Turkish citizens and safely moved them all to Turkey, saving their lives.
Before the film began, Levent Bilgen (Consul General of Turkey in New York), Shahar Azani (Israeli Consul for Media Affairs), Mr. Zafer Akin (President of Turkish Cultural Center NY), New York State Assembly Member Steven Cymbrowitz (NYS Assembly District # 45) all gave remarks about the importance of this historical moment of courage and compassion. They all also discussed how important this film screening was to help develop intercultural understanding and respect which is very important given the current tensions between Israel and Turkey.
Mr. Azani discussed the higher moral work that ambassadors and consulates can do and should do; one might think that these Turkish diplomats were only doing their job. However, no other country’s diplomats went to such efforts to save Jews from occupied Europe during the Holocaust, save for rare exceptions such as Sweden’s envoy to Budapest, the heroic Raoul Wallenberg.
Having Turkish and Israeli diplomats together for this screening is especially remarkable given the current strained relations between those two countries. Turkey was outspoken in its opposition to the war in Gaza in 2008 – 2009. This opposition came to a hear in 2010, when a ship leaving from Turkey, the Mavi Marmara, attempted to break the naval blockade of Gaza, and was boarded by Israeli commandos. A violent confrontation followed, and eight Turkish nationals were killed. Relations spiraled downward after that, with Turkey ejecting its Israeli ambassador and restricting Israeli use of its airspace. As this event proves, then as now, some things are bigger than politics.