Istanbul Intrigues » Chapter 13-Rescue from Hell
13 Rescue from Hell
The things that are happening to the poor people who live in this part of the world make one wonder what God’s intentions are.
–letter home from U.S. officer in Ankara, 1942
Throughout the war, horrible news drifted down to Istanbul from Poland and the Balkans about the genocide that was an integral, high-priority part of German strategy. Those who escaped tried desperately to reach the city. Many people during the war came to Istanbul in rickety refugee boats that sometimes fell apart or were sunk by submarines. Those more fortunate rode the train from occupied Europe through Bulgaria or even–for diplomats and businessmen or spies posing as either–on the twice-weekly plane from Vienna via Sofia.
All was not well, however, even in that safe haven where economics and xenophobia made local minority groups into scapegoats. Compared with costs in 1939, prices in Turkey doubled in 1942, tripled by 1943, and were five times higher in 1944. There were shortages of many foods as well as cigarettes, matches, and beer. Bread rations were repeatedly cut. Store-bought loaves were dark and often soggy or gluelike inside; the ingredients sometimes included ground straw or even saw-dust. Better-quality black-market goods were expensive. Sugar cost $1.35 and coffee $9 a pound. Hardships provoked bitter criticism of the government.
There were several reasons for these problems. Faced with inflation and an uncertain future, peasants hoarded food. Military call-ups reduced the number of farm workers, and shipping was delayed or diverted. The poorly maintained road and rail systems were overwhelmed. U.S.-supplied trucks stood at dockside with their tires rotting. Expensive machinery rusted, shipping cases were crushed by poor packing, and bottlenecks delayed everything.
The government, however, adopted the simple expedient of blaming merchants as “profiteers” responsible for these difficulties. To punish them and to finance military preparedness, the government ordered a new tax in December 1942–the Varlik Vergisi–to raise $360 million ($265 million of it from Istanbul). The authorities organized commissions which consisted of Finance Ministry employees and Moslem businessmen, from which there was no appeal, to determine each individual’s obligation. Those unable to pay–or whose property and household goods could not be sold for enough money–would be sentenced to hard labor. When the assessments were posted in tax offices and published in the press, they hit Istanbul like a bombshell. Due to prejudice and the opportunism of their Moslem competitors, virtually the entire burden was put on the non-Moslem minorities.
Moslem Turks traditionally preferred farming, the army, or government bureaucracy, leaving much of Istanbul’s commerce in the hands of Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. Each of these groups retained its own religion and language and fearfully avoided politics. Istanbul’s rich, distinctive culture was a blend of their traditions. Personal friendships often formed among members of the different communities. Still, many Turks were jealous of the minorities’ wealth and suspicious of the Jews and Greeks as pro-Ally and of the Armenians as friendly to the Axis or Soviets.
The new tax paralyzed business as merchants spent all their time trying to arrange payment and often went bankrupt after the government froze their bank accounts and property to prevent them from concealing or selling assets. American and British residents–and not a few Turks–were disgusted by the discrimination against the Christians and Jews. “Many of my friends here have been all but crushed,” wrote Burton Berry. “In some cases the tax demanded is considerably more than the total wealth of the tax payer.” Poor clerks and shoemakers were ordered to pay as much as they made in a year.
An American doctor wrote his son in Philadelphia that all the victims’ goods were confiscated to pay the tax. “And when I say all I mean all. They go into the homes and take their rugs, furniture, valuables of every sort….In all my years here I have never been so discouraged….I can’t see how [anyone can] say that a doorkeeper who gets $32 a month and has to support a family on that can be profiteering. Yet those poor devils were assessed at $450 apiece.” Nine policemen entered the home of a Greek woman and locked everything but her bed, dining room set, curtains, and lamps into one room to await collection. She saved her clothes only by paying baksheesh. Another woman, pleading to keep her gas range, was told she could cook with charcoal instead.
Businesses and furnishings were sold at auction to Moslems at ridiculously low prices. Store signs on Taksim Square and Istiklal Boulevard changed overnight. Walking through Istanbul, one came upon furniture being dragged from homes and loaded onto carts or trucks as the owners stood weeping.
Those who could not pay were imprisoned and then sentenced to work camps. The jails were packed with tax prisoners. In one group, noted an American visitor, “were two old men lying on the boards who were very ill, one with a bad heart and the other with a fever. It is doubtful if they ever reached their destinations alive.” Among those deported were Greek fruit dealers, a Jewish hardware man whose shop measured only 6 feet by 4 feet but whose assessment was $32,000, and an Armenian insurance broker who collapsed physically after selling all his possessions and was taken to jail from a hospital bed. Istanbul’s most prominent lawyers–fifteen Jews, nine Armenians, and eight Greeks–were taken away one freezing midnight in an open garbage truck for a trip of hundreds of miles. Thousands of people were thrown out of work as their employers were exiled or bankrupted.
Since tens of thousands of the minorities’ young men were already drafted into road-building crews, most of the families were left with no means of support. The arrests continued into the summer. Finally, groups of prisoners were assembled in the jailyard and made to stand five hours in the hot sun without food or water. The gates facing the Bosporus opened, and the men filed through. Women and children, carrying blankets and baskets of food for relatives, sobbed and shouted. The prisoners marched to the little boats that carried them across the Bosporus to the Haydarpasha railroad station. Three hours later, the train began its long trip east to the work camp.
After a day’s journey without food or water, the tired men reached the last station at 6 p.m. Finding dry branches and twigs, they built fires by the tracks. Although carts and carriages waited, the guard captain ordered them to march 20 miles to the camp. The hot sun and dust added to their thirst as they passed through eastern Anatolia’s bleak, treeless landscape. One man found a spring and the prisoners were allowed to drink. After climbing steep hills, they came into camp after sunset. “All the taxpayers lined up on the edge of the road for the evening roll call gave us a triumphal reception,” wrote an Istanbul Jewish businessman in his diary, “but I soon saw that all of them were crying and it was up to us, exhausted and miserable as we were, to comfort the others.”
A dozen men were forced to share leaky tents made to sleep only four. “You are all bad citizens and traitors,” warned the camp commandant. “If anyone gives me the slightest trouble I will cut all your throats.” About 1400 deportees, mostly middle-aged and unused to manual labor, were forced to build roads in the summer and clean snow off railroad tracks in the dead of winter.
Greek and Jewish groups in the United States complained, but the State Department would act only for victims who were U.S. citizens lest the Turks resent or Germans exploit any intervention. Hitler praised the Turkish policy. A group of disgusted Americans from the Istanbul consulate took matters into their own hands. They detailed and documented injustices for Sulzberger, the New York Times correspondent. Knowing that Turkish censorship would not let his stories out, Sulzberger showed the press-office director, Selim Sarper, that he had a Soviet visa in his passport. If Sarper blocked his articles, Sulzberger explained, he could file them from Moscow. “I doubt very much if the Russians would care whether I wrote the truth–or greatly magnify it–on this subject. In fact, they don’t care very much for Turkey these days.”
“Let’s be reasonable,” Sarper said. He promised to talk to the prime minister.
Sulzberger wrote a series of articles on the tax’s effects. He avoided censorship for his tougher pieces by sending them out of the country with travelers. U.S. public opinion was outraged, and Steinhardt hinted that aid might be cut off. Worried about American pressure, Ankara canceled the remaining unpaid taxes in September 1943.
Three months later, the prisoners faced another rainy night as the south wind blew in great gusts. Tents shook so hard they snapped loudly like laundry drying on a line. The prisoners took turns using newspapers to cover holes in the canvas. Around l0 p.m., a man was heard yelling outside, “Nichan! Nichan! We’re going to Istanbul!”
“What’s bitten you? Do you want to play a joke like that on me?”
“A messenger just arrived and brought the news to Agopian.”
“You’re making fun of me,” cried Nichan. But the man kept shouting, “Istanbul! Istanbul!”
One Jewish prisoner threw on his overcoat and went out into the rain. He crossed the camp, navigating by faint lights coming from the tents and stumbling in sticky mud that came up to his ankles. He finally found Agopian’s tent, lit by two candles tied halfway up the center pole.
He went inside. “What’s happened, comrades?” he asked.”
A messenger has brought us word from a radio broadcast. Parliament ratified a law allowing us to go home right away. A farmer heard the first evening broadcast. Everyone was skeptical, but the second program repeated it.”
“Don’t worry,” another man told him. “We’re going to Istanbul. I’ll meet you next Sunday at the Park Hotel!”
Nobody slept that evening. In the morning, the rain stopped. A young prisoner, Frangi, who served as camp secretary, promised to call from the office outside the gate to confirm the story. If it was true, he would signal with his hat. A man was posted by the wall to watch.
Suddenly, the lookout cheered: “To Istanbul! To Istanbul! Frangi threw his hat into the air!” Everyone ran to see. Frangi waved his hat up and down, back and forth. Men embraced each other and even the guards, some of whom also began to cry. An indescribable din arose as prisoners struck empty cans against the tent poles.
“Assembly! Assembly!” shouted a guard. Usually it took a half hour for the men to line up and then only after being bullied by swearing guards. This time, within five minutes all the inmates stood along the road facing the commander’s tent. The colonel’s car drove up to the gate. Hundreds of men shouted greetings. The startled officer, used to threatening prisoners, was speechless for a moment. Then he pulled himself together.
“Comrades! You’ve heard the news. In its magnanimity the government has given the order to free you. You are no longer prisoners!” Even he choked up. “From now on you are free citizens. You will now return to your homes. Be good citizens. Love this country. And may God continue to keep war away from us!”
But the suffering of Istanbul’s minorities was nothing compared to events in lands plagued by war and the Germans. The tax deportees in Turkey went to labor camps. Some kind of similar treatment–confinement, forced labor, and only mild mistreatment–was what Jews in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Greece expected at first. But in contrast to the situation in Turkey, there was no happy ending in those other countries.
News of the Nazi concentration and death camps leaked out from a variety of sources. One of the first reports was made by an escapee from Auschwitz–he had hidden under a pile of murdered prisoners’ shoes taken out for sale–who made a long, perilous journey through the Balkans in early 1943. Arriving in Istanbul, he told his story to the Zionist delegates there from Palestine and to U.S. diplomats. The small, red-haired man explained that the German deportations of Jews were a prelude to mass murder. Asked about his family, he burst into tears: they were all dead.
Even before direct communication of this dreadful news, David Ben-Gurion and the Jewish community in Palestine had begun to act. In 1941 they sent a team to Istanbul to investigate conditions in occupied Europe and to rescue as many people as possible. But most of these efforts were dependent on the support of the same British government whose anti-Semitic elements and appeasement of the Arabs so limited immigration to Palestine. Hundreds of thousands of Jews died because London’s stance barred their escape from occupied countries and their safe transport to Palestine or elsewhere.
The British government’s behavior was shameful. Early in the war, it encouraged Balkan states to block Jewish emigration and pressured the Greek, Panamanian, and Turkish governments to prohibit ships sailing under their flags from carrying Jewish refugees. A Foreign Office bureaucrat wrote, “The only hope is that all the German Jews will be stuck at the mouths of the Danube for lack of ships to take them.” When one refugee ship, the Struma, sank with the loss of 769 people because no country would accept them, British Colonial Secretary Oliver Stanley told Parliament that his government could not “be party to any measures which could undermine the existing policy regarding illegal immigration into Palestine in view of the wider issues involved.” The British even tried to prove that the Germans were behind the escape efforts. “It is a pity that we cannot find an authentic Nazi at the bottom of it,” wrote the British ambassador to Greece, since that would provide a useful excuse for turning back refugees. During the war’s first three years–when hundreds of thousands of Jews tried to escape from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, and the Nazis were willing to let them go–the British allowed only 10,000 into Palestine. The Zionist movement smuggled in another 9000.
When the ill-fated Struma arrived in Istanbul in late 1941, the Turks would not let its passengers land unless Britain guaranteed that they could proceed to Palestine. Otherwise, they would be sent back to Romania. Following London’s instructions, Knatchbull-Hugessen said they were not wanted in Palestine, but he added on his own that instead of returning the ship to German-controlled territory, “let her rather go toward [the Mediterranean]. It might be that if [the refugees] reached Palestine, they might despite their illegality receive humane treatment.” The ambassador’s decent words outraged some of his superiors. A Colonial Office official in London wrote that the Turks were discouraging the refugee ships “and then the Ambassador goes and spoils the whole effect on absurdly misjudged humanitarian grounds.” Another bemoaned the waste of “a heaven-sent opportunity” to return the refugees to Romania. Colonial Secretary Lord Moyne complained that if these people escaped it would have the “deplorable effect [of] encouraging further Jews to embark.” While Prime Minister Winston Churchill was more willing to save refugees’ lives, he often did not act to control what he himself characterized as “the usual anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic channel which it is customary for British [official] to follow.” As late as June 1944 a senior Foreign Office official warned against “letting the Germans flood the Middle East with Jews in order to embarrass us. There is fortunately not much sign of it yet.”
But Zionist leaders like Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann knew they had to fight alongside Britain as this offered the only chance of defeating Hitler. Thousands of Zionists volunteered for service with the British forces, while Arab leaders were secretly or openly allying with the Nazis. In exchange for this help, the Zionists wanted British aid in rescuing Jews from Europe. Their advanced post was the Istanbul “delegation” led by Jewish Agency representative Chaim Barlas. His younger colleagues, known collectively as “the boys,” had the mission of circumventing officialdom.
The murderous regulations blocking the escape of refugees were hard to cope with through either proper channels or circumlocution. States would not let Jews leave or pass through unless they had exit permits, transit visas, and guaranteed destinations. The Turks permitted few refugees to enter their country and none to remain. The prerequisite for admission was an entrance certificate for Palestine, which the strict British quota on Jewish immigration made difficult to obtain and slow to come. Thus, along with the official Aliya (immigration) movement, the delegation set up “Aliya Bet,” a parallel structure for “illegal” immigration.
Beginning in late 1942, about twenty young Jews, including Yehuda Pomerantz, Menahem Bader, Akiva Levinsky, Teddy Kollek, and Ehud Avriel, came from Palestine to Turkey for rescue, immigration, and intelligence work. Istanbul’s location and neutrality made it the ideal advanced base for reaching into occupied Europe. Istanbul, Kollek said, provided “a narrow crack in an otherwise impenetrable wall.”
Except for Barlas, all these men lacked official standing and thus were vulnerable to harassment or expulsion by the Emniyet. As cover, Pomerantz was nominally a timber buyer, Kollek a hazelnut merchant, and Avriel a journalist. Of course, Emniyet officials knew exactly what was going on; and after the war they showed Levinsky two thick books of reports and photographs about his activities. But the delegation was protected by its alliance with British intelligence. Major Arthur Whittall, another member of that ubiquitous Anglo-Istanbul family, served as the British liaison man. Flashing a whimsical smile, he explained: “We shall help you get the sources. Do your best to get us their information.”
If an “illegal” refugee ship arrived, the delegation’s Greek agent would come to the man in charge of receiving the passengers and announce: “Police says arms on board. Had to stop and search.” The proper response was “How much?” Using an expression in Ladino, the Hebrew-Spanish language of Turkish Jews, the agent would reply, “Todos comen,” meaning “Everybody eats.” The Turkish official would then specify the size of his grocery bill and, in exchange, would look the other way as the refugees disembarked.
Members of the delegation also met refugees arriving on the trains from Bulgaria. The agents made valuable contacts on the station platform while waiting alongside police and customs officials. Often one of the terrified escapees would hide and make his own way to the delegation’s office. But everyone had to have an entry stamp to get an exit permit. In such cases, Simon Brod was called upon to make arrangements through the magic of “Todos comen.” Brod was a Turkish Jewish merchant who had been impoverished by the tax but who refused to be paid for his services. He would list his expenses on cigarette packs which he would then throw away while chain-smoking through the day.
Brod was a little man with a chubby, rosy face crowned with silver hair. Avriel describes his eyes as being “like the heads of steel-blue pins that darted around to take in every new situation; they could be angelic one moment and scornful the next.” Always the first to find out what was going on and the last to give up, he was particularly adept at smoothing relations between the delegation and the Turkish authorities.
Levinsky recounts a typical example of harassment. He lived with a Jewish family who had to sleep on the floor, since all their beds had been confiscated. They were all asleep with the lights off, late one night, when the front doorbell rang. Two policemen stood outside. “There is light,” they said. A blackout violation was a misdemeanor; three meant deportation. Levinsky called Brod, and the next day someone appeared at the family’s door to accept the policemen’s “tip.” No offense appeared on the records.
At first, the delegation worked out of Istanbul’s Continental Hotel, but there were too many prying eyes around. It soon moved into three centers: a five-room apartment called “the Palestine Office,” Barlas’s headquarters, and a center for unaccompanied child refugees. The Jews from Palestine and local volunteers–speaking fourteen languages among them–worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There was a huge amount of paperwork, and the corridors were always full of people. Everyone awaited travel documents or news of relatives; each day’s mail call was taken for what it was: a matter of life or death.
Some of the delegation’s activities centered on Turkish Jews. After the tax oppression, many of the younger people wanted to leave the country .Levinsky taught Hebrew to small classes that produced teachers for groups eventually totaling 800 students, and he gave lectures preparing those who were leaving for Palestine.
The situation in Europe, Barlas wrote Jerusalem, was truly devastating. “If I use the word ‘desperate’ it is not enough to express the cruelty and the torture and above all the risk of being shot as a dog to which are exposed all our poor brethren in Romania” and the other occupied countries. Nothing in history had ever equaled “the killing of Jews by ten thousands and their transportation without food and water, their exile in this part of the year without permitting them to take with them their own winter garments.” Those Jews still in Bucharest were fired from their jobs, dispossessed of their businesses, and placed under humiliating restrictions. “The cries [of] S.O.S. for immediate help [are] pouring from Romania and it is heartbreaking to know that you are not able to help.”
Beginning in September 1942, the Zionist delegation in Turkey launched its rescue effort by sending thousands of letters through the post and by courier into Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Czechoslovakia to establish contacts with the Jews there. To show these people that they were not forgotten, Kollek later commented, was almost as important as the actual work of rescue. Prewar mailing lists of Zionist and other Jewish organizations and publications were scoured for names and addresses. Letters requesting information were phrased so that, to the censor, they would seem to have been written by the recipients’ relatives. Thousands of responses told heartbreaking stories of roundups and deportations to concentration camps from which no one ever returned. Using simple codes so that their letters would pass censorship, the respondents begged for food parcels and passports. Hebrew words were transliterated into the Roman alphabet to disguise their news–“escape,” for example, was indicated by “tiyul,” meaning “a trip.” If fifty people in a city were said to have attended a wedding or party of some long-dead Zionist leader or Jewish cultural figure, it meant that 50,000 had been murdered there.
After contacts were made, attempts to send aid followed. Couriers smuggled funds in the form of diamonds, gold coins, or local currency into the occupied lands to sustain the impoverished Jews. Some Turkish and Latin American diplomats helped, though only for a large fee. The Polish underground’s couriers and the parcels sent home by Polish engineers working in Turkey were used to reach Poland. Contact with Greece was done through the British caïque shuttles.
All the information obtained was shared with the British. The Zionists also provided them with a number of other services. For example, Kollek rang up Bucharest on the telephone every other day to get the weather report as guidance for Allied planes. He also obtained information on bombing damage and the names of captured fliers.
Because of the urgency and difficulty of reaching Hungary, the delegation had to use experienced smugglers and known double agents as couriers. These included Gyorgy, who claimed his own involvement might “whitewash part of my soul.” In fact, he gave information to the Germans, but at least he also delivered the mail, money, and immigration documents which otherwise would not have gone through.
In the Zionist efforts to rescue Jews, the Germans were often not the greatest obstacle. Refugees could obtain exit permits from their own country only after they received visas from each state they had to cross. These states, in turn, required evidence that Turkey would admit them. But the Turks would not give an applicant an entrance visa unless there was proof that the British would allow the person into Palestine. All this paperwork had to be pried from unsympathetic governments and slow-moving bureaucracies, transmitted through poor wartime communications, handled on minimal funds, and delivered to people who may have been deported or driven into hiding. To secure British cooperation, moreover, the Zionists had to persuade London that the refugees would be a prime intelligence source.
The delegation was willing to try any route that offered hope for escape. When Afghanistan’s ambassador to Turkey commented in 1942 about his country’s difficulties in recruiting technicians, doctors, and engineers, Barlas immediately proposed that Afghanistan hire Balkan Jews for these positions. Even the ambassador was unable to get the necessary transit visas.
Neutral ships could not be found to carry refugees, so the delegation tried to find its own boats. It convinced the United States and Britain to explore whether Romania would lease two large passenger liners sitting idle in Istanbul’s harbor since the war began. Bucharest refused, fearful that the ships might be lost. The Red Cross said it had no money to buy them.
Once refugees arrived in Turkey, they had to be housed and fed for weeks or months before they were put on the Taurus Express to Syria and thence to Palestine. Brod worked selflessly and endlessly to find them places to stay, clothing, food, and toys for the children. It was also hard to find funds, since the British forbade sending money from Palestine and the Turks closely controlled all currency transactions. The delegation was financed by smuggling diamonds into Istanbul in toothpaste tubes, shaving cream bottles, and hollowed bars of soap. Secret reports were sent home by similar methods. One secretary’s moral reputation was damaged because she constantly bought condoms to keep dry the papers sent in this manner. An elderly black-suited Greek man, who looked more like a country parson than Istanbul’s black-market financial wizard, was hired to turn diamonds into cash and foreign currency into Turkish pounds.
Every tiny gain was a victory. After months of pleading and pressure from the delegation, the British persuaded the Turks to grant transit visas to nine families a week beginning in Apri11943. This step allowed about 1350 people to get out of Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania between April and December. Another 312 escaped from Greece on British caïques. About 2100 people already in Turkey, including Turkish Jews, were sent on to Palestine. These estimates undercounted those rescued by “illegal” methods. Still, as Barlas commented, “The results of the immigration in numbers are in no comparison with the tragic situation of Jewry in the enemy-occupied countries, 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.”
Roncalli was one of the Jews’ sincerest allies, although he, too, made compromises. When New York’s Cardinal Spellman visited Roncalli’s house in 1943, he was shocked by something he saw in its courtyard. Spellman shouted, “Hey Giuseppe, what are you doing with a bust of Mussolini out here? This is terrible.”
“Oh,” answered Roncalli, “what we think in our heart and say with our mouth are not necessarily the same thing.”
In January 1943, Barlas asked Roncalli to relay three simple requests to the Vatican. Would the Pope ask neutral states to grant temporary asylum to Jews who managed to escape? American Jewish organizations would pay for their relief. Would the Vatican inform Berlin that the British have provided 5000 Palestine immigration certificates for use if Germany would free some Jews? And might Vatican Radio declare plainly that “rendering help to persecuted Jews is considered by the Church to be a good deed?” The answer soon came from the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Maglione: the Vatican would do none of these things, as Jewish presence in Palestine might interfere with the Holy Places. At that time, Maglione was receiving reports from Vatican emissaries that only 100,000 of 4 million Polish Jews were still at liberty and that “it is said that hundreds of people are sometimes locked up in trucks where they die under the effects of gas.”
Roncalli forwarded messages to the Vatican; sent personal appeals to colleagues in occupied countries; and asked his old friend, Bulgaria’s King Boris, to let Jews emigrate. There were some–usually temporary–successes. Rabbi Isaac Hertzog, chief rabbi of Palestine, wrote Barlas in December 1943: “All Italian Jews [are] in extreme danger [and] about to be sent to concentration camps. Please contact His Eminence the Papal Nuncio in Turkey [in] view [of] his cabling urgent petition to his Holiness the Pope [to] use [his] influence [to] save our brethren.” Roncalli did as requested, and the deportations of Italian Jews stopped for a while. A similar appeal had some effect in Slovakia. More often, however, the Vatican did nothing, local prelates failed to act or were openly pro-Nazi, or satellite regimes and German authorities ignored the pleas.
Even those motivated by greed had to be flattered as well as paid before they would help. Barlas wrote the venal Turkish ambassador to Romania in September 1943: “I know that it is thanks to your benevolence that many [Romanian Jews] have been saved….Allow me, Excellency, to express to you, in the name of the Jewish Agency, our profound gratitude for this aid. I take this occasion to call your attention to the frightful situation of the Jewish population [of 150,000] deported….It would be an act of humanity on your part to use your influence with the members of the Romanian government on behalf of these unfortunates, so that they might be authorized to return to their homes. A certain number of Jewish children…have received authorization to enter Palestine….It would be highly desirable that the Romanian government implements the promises it made toward facilitating their emigration.”
There was barely time to mourn one tragedy while trying to avoid new ones. In September 1943, Barlas wrote Sokolnicki, Poland’s ambassador to Turkey, that he had finally obtained transit visas for 380 Polish Jews. “I must communicate that unhappily these immigrants cannot use these transit rights because of recent acts of terror and massacres in Poland in which the majority of the Jewish population located there has perished.” There were, however, 542 refugees from Poland who had come through the U.S.S.R. and were now stranded in Tehran because they could not get transit visas to cross Iraq on the way to Palestine. The British embassy in Tehran had already confirmed their Palestine immigration certificates. Would the ambassador ask if they could instead come through Turkey? This effort succeeded.
Such bright spots were rare. Pomerantz’s roommate returned to their apartment one day to find everything in disorder and Pomerantz himself collapsed on a bed, exhausted from crying. Nearby lay a letter from Poland that Pomerantz had dropped on the floor. Avriel picked it up and read the note just delivered by a courier. It was dated July 17, 1943, and began with a long list of extinguished communities and death camps. “In…Warsaw, Lublin, Czenstochau and Cracow,” it continued, “there are no Jews left. They were gassed mostly in Treblinka. This is a notorious camp, where not only Jews from Poland but also from Belgium, Holland, and other Western countries have died.
“The most beautiful chapter in our struggle was the uprising in Warsaw….There were terrible battles in the ghetto. To our sorrow only about 800 of the enemy fell. The result: all the Jews and the ghetto utterly annihilated.
“There seem to be no more Jews in the [land] once called Poland, except for about 30,000 in three forced-labor camps. In a few weeks they, too, will be gone.” The same conditions prevailed throughout the Ukraine.
“In the near future the district from which we write to you will also be ‘Judenrein.’ When you receive this letter, none of us will be alive….Our hope to reach Palestine will unfortunately never be realized….We greet you warmly. Aranka, Hershl, Zvi, Koziak, Shlomo.”
Again and again, the delegation’s efforts were foiled not so much by the Nazis themselves but by other regimes’ bureaucratic timidity or criminality. This frustration was expressed in a November 1943 letter by one of its members, Kalman Rosenblatt, who sought “to rouse, perhaps at the last moment, the conscience of the free world and to induce them to act….Above all my lines are addressed to [the British] government….All evidence coming from beyond the Nazi wall is proving that the foe has decided to pay the cost of his retreat and defeat with Jewish blood. In Berlin a new attack is being prepared against those few countries where Jews have still remained….On the eve of those developments we are obliged to save the maximum of our brethren–the last European Jews. It is at the moment permitted to leave Hungary and Romania, and Bulgaria does allow the transit through her territory….The key rests with Great Britain. It is in her power to increase the number of transit visas through Turkey a hundred-fold.”
If the British would immediately make available several years’ quota of Palestine immigration certificates, Rosenblatt continued, “there would be a possibility to rescue now tens of thousands of Jews who are in a terrible impending danger.” If the British gave certificates, the Turks would provide transit visas. There was no time left for London’s bureaucratic delays. Lives were being lost every day. Since the British claimed that some refugees might be German spies, they could organize “detention camps” in Palestine “to examine the people more thoroughly.” It would be easy to move 30,000 people. “Even youths of military age are able to leave Hungary and Romania…two of them arrived here today from Hungary. But our heart is full of pain–for hundreds of thousands will be left behind….Why should Great Britain and U.S.A. not hear our cry of agony–now at the last moment.”
By refusing to admit refugees, the Allied countries “did not save from death the Jews of Holland and Belgium, France and now, Italy, Denmark and Poland.” The refugees could be sent to Mauritius, Cyprus, or anywhere they would be safe.” All symptoms are showing that [the Germans] want to make an end to all Jews in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria….After the complete destruction of Polish Jewry (woe to myself and woe to all of us–that I simply put down on a sheet of paper this sentence and my hand does not wither away)–perhaps we shall still awake, for all that, the conscience of the world and shall rescue those who remain.” These and other pleas had little effect on the Allied governments.
American diplomats were constantly faced with individual appeals as well. In the summer of 1943, a Jewish couple came to the U.S. consulate in Istanbul. “Could you give us a visa? We aren’t interested in going to the United States,” they explained, “but we must get out of Turkey.” A stuffy young official who shared the office passed his colleague a note: “You can’t give a visa to these people. They could become a public charge.” Ignoring the advice, the consul provided a temporary visitors’ visa. “We will never forget that you saved our lives,” they wrote their benefactor from safety. Years later, he reminisced, “This is the kind of thing that makes one’s life worth living.” Many State Department officials were less helpful at a time when each visa saved a family’s life. Strict U. S. immigration limits were not even temporarily bent to admit refugees.
The British were reluctant to help in rescue efforts even when they were combined with intelligence missions. The Zionists begged to be allowed to send saboteurs behind Nazi lines. “We ascertained,” went one such request, “that there are still in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary organized Zionist cells which would be able and willing to receive and give shelter to ‘envoys’ sent by us” to gather intelligence, organize resistance, rescue downed Allied fliers, and operate radios. But Britain rejected this plea, and the first such agents only reached Hungary in June 1944.
Meanwhile, the delegation found the ideal front man for its own shipping line. He was Yanaki Pandelis, nicknamed “the fat one,” a charming Greek Oxford graduate, promoter, and confidence man living in Bucharest. His junior partner, an Italian ex-naval officer, looked like Peter Lorre and was known to the illegal immigration agents as “the gnome.” They combined efficiency and reliability with the deviousness needed to get the job done.
The plan to create a Zionist rescue fleet was given a boost in August 1943 when Whittall met with Simon Brod and with delegation members Avriel and Dani Shind to read them a message from London. The dozens of pleas and pressures had at last brought results: the British government had finally decided that any Jews reaching Turkey would be admitted to Palestine. The catch, however, was that this policy must remain a secret. Ignorant of this development, the Turkish government was still reluctant to admit refugees. Avriel thought the decision just “half a message of redemption.”
Pandelis bought a Bucharest travel agency, whose business had understandably declined, and moved in Zionist youth group members to organize passengers for the Maritza and another ship, the Milka. Local officials were bribed to accept the idea that these people were “tourists” taking excursions to neutral Istanbul. Pandelis telephoned Istanbul to announce the Milka’s departure. The delegation’s members nervously followed the ship’s progress on a large map, constantly worrying about an attack by German ships or submarines. Each time the phone rang, everyone froze. Barlas rushed to Ankara to ask the Turks to admit the refugees. The foreign minister relented only when the British embassy committed itself to allow the 240 passengers into Palestine.
When the ship arrived in Istanbul, Avriel, Brod, and Whittall met it at its mooring. A police officer let Whittall stamp the passenger list with an official seal transforming it magically into a collective visa. Then, whistle blowing joyously, the Milka headed down the Bosporus to the Haydarpasha railroad station’s dock, which was only a short distance from the train waiting to take the refugees to Palestine.
Whittall smiled. His work with the Jews had made him sympathetic to their plight. These people would not be his intelligence sources, he said, “but never mind, it was a privilege to have set the seal to their deliverance.” Brod ordered breakfast. Raising a glass of red wine, he proposed a toast: “To the safe arrival of all the boats to come!” Everyone–Haganah members, British intelligence men, and Turkish policemen–joined in. Then, Avriel, Brod, and Whittall raced to the railroad station to watch their wards board five special passenger cars carrying the miraculous sign “Reserved for passengers to Palestine.”
Most of these refugees were women or elderly people, each carrying the one suitcase permitted. “We are saved! We are saved!” one told an OSS man. “We don’t know how to thank you enough. We are now praying for all the Jews who have remained there. They are running the greatest dangers. Nobody can realize the atrocities we have suffered.”
“When did you leave Hungary?”
“About a month ago. Friends who had come from Budapest told us that the number of German soldiers was rapidly increasing. The behavior of the pro-German Hungarians was becoming more and more intolerable. I had already taken the decision to leave, so my papers were ready. One cannot say they were all in order, but I managed to get through.”
“What do they think about the Germans in Hungary?”
“Everyone is sure the German army will be unable to hold out. But…the Germans are sure that they will manage to make a compromise peace with the Anglo-Saxons against the Soviets. The Hungarian people also believe this and it incites them to continue to fight against the Russians.” The Germans harassed the refugees until the last moment, when they reached the Turkish frontier. “I heard a German soldier say: ‘You think you are making your escape, but we will catch you nonetheless.’ ”
Tragically, the remaining British and Turkish barriers and U.S. passivity were not overcome until after the Germans occupied Hungary. Only on May 19, 1944, did London at last allow Barlas a free hand in granting visas. Each of them was like a lifesaver tossed onto the sea. “I have the honor to approach you on behalf of ,” read these forms, “who has been granted permission for entry into Palestine…. I shall be very grateful if you will be so kind as to inform the British Embassy.” One ship brought 150 Jews, including 120 orphans, from Bucharest to Istanbul. The Milka arrived in Turkish waters with 272 more people, mostly escapees, who were sent on to Palestine.
A concerted campaign of threats against Germany’s allies was also tardy. The U.S. War Refugee Board’s representative in Istanbul, Ira Hirschmann, cabled Washington in February 1944: “Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria are most anxious to whitewash themselves in the eyes of the Allies….We must exploit this anxiety at once.” He warned those countries’ envoys to Turkey that their leaders would be held responsible as war criminals unless they ended persecution of the Jews. But by this time, their regimes were reduced to total dependence on Berlin. Hirschmann’s own trip to Istanbul had been delayed by the anti-Semitic State Department official Breckinridge Long.
Similarly, Ankara stalled on permitting privately owned Turkish ships to carry refugees from Romania or Bulgaria to Istanbul. They complained that no boats could be spared or put in danger of being sunk. Ships might be chartered only if the Germans guaranteed their safe passage, which, of course, Berlin refused. When the United States promised to replace any boats lost, the Turks objected in June 1944 that they might be held responsible if refugees died in transit. Steinhardt replied that the Jews’ situation was so desperate they would prefer “to run the risk of attempting a passage without safe conduct rather than to be left to the tender mercies of the Nazis.”
British opposition to the Zionists’ long-standing plea to parachute Jewish agents into Hungary to organize resistance and guide people to safety ended only in March 1944, when a trio was dropped near the Yugoslav-Hungarian border. While the Zionists were preparing to cross, they heard the news about the German invasion of Hungary. One of the parachutists, 22-year-old Hannah Senesh, burst into tears. “We are too late,” she sobbed, “we are too late.” She was right. Nevertheless, she still continued her mission. Crossing into Hungary, she was captured by the Germans; she gave her life in trying to save Hungarian Jews.
The Horthy regime in Hungary had, for three years, resisted Berlin’s demand to send Jews to the death camps. When the Germans took over in 1944, they quickly remedied this delay. Between April and July, 400,000 Jews from provincial towns were sent to extermination camps in Poland. Trains streamed toward Auschwitz unchecked, since the Allied air forces would not bomb the tracks. It was too low a priority, the U.S. War Department said, though planes were available for such a mission. About 300,000 people were murdered within the first seven weeks. New pits had to be dug in which to burn the bodies.
The lack of transport to Istanbul, reported the Red Cross, and the impossibility of getting exit visas from Hungary were “virtually insurmountable” barriers to rescue. In July the Germans began to deport the remnants of Budapest’s 350,000 Jews, both Hungarians and refugees from other countries. Frantic messages came from the Jews in Budapest: “The only rescue possibility is: 1) to give warning about reprisals against Germans interned in allied countries, 2) to grant foreign citizenship to Hungarian Jews.” The U. S. embassy in Turkey suggested the massive distribution of visas, since “holders of such documents may enjoy immunity from deportation or may actually succeed in leaving Hungary thereby.” The collaborationist Romanian leaders, knowing their country would soon be in Allied hands, let Jewish refugees cross from Hungary and organize an underground railroad. But the Jews saved numbered in the hundreds, while those killed were in the hundreds of thousands. By August, there were few Jews left in Hungary.
Denied the use of neutral boats, the delegation had to charter dangerously dilapidated Romanian and Bulgarian vessels that might be confiscated by the Axis. In May, the Maritza foundered while sailing empty back to Romania; the Milka was detained by the German authorities in Bulgaria.
New ships had to be found to replace them as the Nazi extermination campaign reached top speed. Pandelis’s assistant came to Istanbul and advertised himself as a shipping magnate interested in hiring boats at generous rates. Flooded with offers, he chose one Greek and four Turkish ships. Between January and August 1944, 2672 refugees were brought by sea and 408 by land to Istanbul. Some of those taken by train through Hungary and Romania passed cars that carried other Jews to concentration camps.
Tragedy still spoiled minor triumphs. A Soviet patrol boat sank one of Pandelis’s ships just 40 miles north of Istanbul. The captain and crew immediately took the lifeboat; all but five of the passengers, including ninety-six children, drowned.
Nevertheless, the pace of rescue accelerated. During a three-week period near year’s end, 1200 Romanian and Bulgarian refugees were granted visas and moved across Turkey by railroad. Eight hundred more were saved from Greece in the summer of 1944. A Jewish official meeting a group in Haifa reported: “All the people lack weight and strength. Signs of great suffering in the past are visible on their faces….[Many needed] hospital treatment. All suffer from undernourishment.”
If the Romanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, British, and Turkish governments had acted differently in 1942 or 1943, over a million Jews might have been saved. It is estimated that the Haganah saved 55,000 Jews during the war, most of them directly through Istanbul. Hundreds of thousands of others, particularly in Bulgaria and Romania, survived thanks to the Zionist movement’s aid and demands for Allied and Vatican pressure on the Balkan regimes. But at best this figure equaled only one-twentieth of the number of those who perished in Europe.
The Bulgarians did not permit the deportation of their “own” Jews to death camps–though they were expropriated and sent to slave labor camps–but had no such compunctions toward allowing the murder of over 11,000 Jews in Bulgarian-occupied Yugoslavia and Greece. While King Boris and other Bulgarian leaders protested against the killing of Bulgarian Jews, they also acceded to German demands to prevent Jews’ emigration or free passage for Jews to safe haven in Turkey. In Romania, where local anti-Semitism was more powerful, 380,000 of 765,000 Jews were murdered. In Hungary, about 560,000 of 750,000 died. There were more victims in Slovakia, Greece, and Yugoslavia. All these countries were accessible to Istanbul even in 1944, and most of their Jews could have escaped if not for the obstruction of a half-dozen governments. Despite the efforts of Roncalli and some others, the Vatican had done little. In some areas, particularly Slovakia and Croatia, Catholic prelates supported the genocide; in other places, most notably Hungary, the church was mainly interested in helping converts. Even in Roncalli’s own Istanbul parishes, two Italian Catholic priests organized Fascist meetings.
Dani Shind, one of the delegation’s key organizers of rescue efforts, explained the lesson learned in Istanbul. Referring to the happy day when the Milka came into port, he wrote: “Our feelings were mixed: we were overjoyed by the arrival of the ship, yet fearful of what lay ahead and thoroughly disgusted with our ‘well-wishers’ who had left the remnant of our people to fend for themselves. We shall never forget the proud entry of the ship filled with Jews saved by the efforts of Jews after our ‘sympathizers’ had announced that all possible steps had been taken to advance the rescue effort. Let the Milka bear witness to the sin of neglect on the part of the enlightened world. We have often met with setbacks, but our work has not been in vain after all.”
The Holocaust was created by the German Nazis, but it was implemented with collaboration by some states and passive acquiescence by others. These events were clear from Istanbul, as was the lesson that Jews had to act on their own through their own nationalist movement–and eventually their own state.
But Istanbul was also the scene for another drama: the downfall of German intelligence.