on the death of a righteous muslim

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    On the Death of a Righteous Muslim
    S. Alfassa
    10 June 2003

    This past Shabbat Shavout, Selahattin Ulkumen, a Muslim gentleman and true hasid umot ha´olam - righteous gentile who was pious among the nations - died in Istanbul. Ulkumen was a Turkish diplomat who saved more than 200 Jewish souls from being murdered at Auschwitz near the end of WWII. Born in 1911 on the Turkish mainland, by the age of 30, Ulkumen would become Turkish Consul at Rhodos, a small historic island off the coast of Turkey. On the island existed a kahal kadosh (holy community) since at least 1492 when the Jews were expelled from Spain. The island community thrived until the early 20th century, when economic conditions and mandatory conscription in the army resulted in many Jews fleeing to other countries, such as France and the United States.

    Today, the island is part of Greece; however, until 1912, when it was taken by the Italians, it was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Italians improved the infrastructure greatly, including plumbing, roads and schools. For this reason, many of the Jews on Rhodos were fairly content under the Italian regime, considering themselves Italian-Jews, though their parents and grandparents were Turkish-Jews. Along with Mussolini and the Italian improvements, however, came the Germans, who, in 1940, were allowed to use the island as a southern base of operations for their killing machine.

    In 1938, anti-Jewish laws were published on the island in the newspapers. These laws included the banning of ritual slaughter. New laws also stated that Jews who arrived on the island after 1919 must leave. Though there was an extension and later hold on this expulsion, many Jews still fled, fearing the worst was to come, many relocating to both Tangier and Eretz Israel. Germany´s "final solution" did not bypass any of the islands of the Aegean. When the Germans ordered the deportations to begin, the then-30-year-old Turkish Consul invoked a (fictitious) Turkish ‘law’. Ulkumen demanded all Turkish subjects be released, and told the Germans that, according to Turkish law, anyone married to a Turk is a Turk. The Germans capitulated.

    In one of his last media interviews, Ulkumen reflected: "I went to the commander, General von Kleeman, and asked him to release 42 Turkish citizens, who were Jewish by religion. Where a Turk was married, for example, to an Italian, I said for humanitarian reasons that the whole family was Turkish. I succeeded in saving 42 persons. Not all of them were Turkish. I don´t know how many were not Turks. If I could, I would have saved more Jews, but it was beyond my competence. The 42 were released, but the other Jews were conducted to Auschwitz."

    On the eve of Pesach, 1944, allied planes attempting to bomb a German shipping port at Rhodos accidentally bombed the Jewish quarter, killing some residents. A few months later, on July 18, 1944, the Germans initiated the deportation of thousands of Jews on both the islands of Rhodos and Kos. All Jewish men were ordered to assemble at the former Italian air force headquarters. Two men were sent back to the old city to make sure the women and children did not forget to bring all of their jewelry and money. The entire kahal was later loaded in wooden box cars and deported by trains to Poland. The people were beaten severely and tortured on the long journey, many of these island Jews died of starvation.

    In reprisal for his having helped the Jews, two German airplanes bombed the Turkish Consulate office, injuring Ulkumen´s pregnant wife who died after childbirth from injuries suffered in the attack.

    The history of the relationship between the Jewish people and the Turkish people is an old one. It is well known that the Turks opened their arms to the 15th century Jewish refugees fleeing Spain during the Catholic Inquisition, but it is less known that while the British were halting the movement of Jewish refugees into Eretz Israel, the Turkish republic allowed its Jewish citizens to emigrate there freely.

    The Turkish government took a stand to support the Jews of their Empire when slanderous blood libel accusations, originating in Damascus, reached Rhodos in 1840. After intervention by the Jewish humanitarian Moses Montefiore in Constantinople, Sultan Abd Al-Majid made it clear that Jews did not use blood in their ceremonies, and that anyone who said that they did was committing libel. The result of the Sultan´s declaration was that persecutions by Arabs of the Jews in Rhodos, Damascus, as well as all other parts of the Turkish dominions, were immediately diminished or ceased.

    The blood libel claim is an old one, saying that Jews use the blood of non-Jews to make matzah for Pesach. In modern times, this claim has recently surfaced in the context of the Arab campaign against Israel. Egyptian television broadcast the blood libel claim as if it was truth, the Syrian Minister of Defense published a book stating the blood libel accusations were true, and in an ongoing campaign against the Jewish people, the Saudi Arabians continue to perpetuate this inciting myth through their newspapers.

    This is an Arabic-Muslim phenomena. When these same claims arose in the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan was educated on the matters, and he put a stop to them. The Arabs could take a lesson from the Turkish people in humbleness, diplomacy, maturity and good will. Instead of screaming jihad and blood libels, the Turkish people have propagated measures to implement their adage, “Peace at Home, Peace in the World.” What a saying. In 5,763 years since the creation (according to traditional sources), is there anything more we as Jews have wanted ourselves?

    The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel records over 41 countries with over 100 righteous gentiles who helped save near 20,000 souls during the war years. Of all the righteous gentiles listed, only one, Ulkumen the Turkish Consul, is Muslim. Since the founding of the Ottoman Empire, many accounts can be documented of Turkish Muslims, not Arab Muslims, providing sanctuary and assistance to the Jews.

    May the memory of Selahattin Ulkumen, peace be unto him, be a ray of bright light in this current world of darkness, brought about in the past by the Nazis and continued today by the Arabs.
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