Istanbul since 1933 – Rescue with Reservations

For many refugees in the 1930s, the metropolis on the Bosporus became an important, if often forgotten, city of transit and refuge. As a connection point to the Asian continent, Istanbul played a special role for many Jews on their way to the British Mandate territory of Palestine. However, the increasing pressure on those persecuted by National Socialists to emigrate also clashed with the nationalist self-interest of the still young Republic of Turkey, which welcomed and even encouraged the immigration of part of the expelled intellectual elite to support its modernization program. This synergy transformed Istanbul into a rescue center – albeit for many with reservations. Today, this chapter of refugee migration is seen partly as a stellar moment of humanitarian reception policy, partly as a decisive phase of the Turkish nationalist modernization program, partly as an encroachment with orientalist and colonial motives, but above all not remembered at all. If so, it is primarily equated with representatives of the German elite. But refugee migration can by no means be limited to this elite. The refugee community was ethnically heterogeneous and represented all social classes. This text is an abridged version of a longer version that can be found under the chapters on Istanbul since 1933.

With the founding of the İstanbul Üniversitesi in 1933 as part of the Kemalist modernization program, the Turkish government began to search for and recruit experts. 11Klaus Kreiser, 2014: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Bpb (11.08.2014). https://www.bpb.de/internationales/europa/tuerkei/184970/atatuerk (16.09.2021). A total of about 1000 exiled scientists and their families came to Turkey from National Socialist Germany, who had been dismissed from their jobs by the “Law on the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” of April 7, 1933. They were supported in this by the interdenominational and anti-racist self-help organization “Notgemeinschaft deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland” (Emergency Association of German Scientists Abroad), which was founded in 1933 and from 1933 onwards focused on mediating to Turkey. 22P. Schwartz (ed. and introduced by Helge Peukert), 1995: Notgemeinschaft. Zur Emigration deutscher Wissenschaftler nach 1933 in die Türkei, Marburg.

Istanbul as a metropolis of immigration and a city of refuge

As a multicultural metropolis, political center, and economic and intellectual hub, Istanbul has always been a destination and transit point for the migration of a wide variety of groups and individuals. Thus, after the October Revolution of 1917, many Russian-speaking emigrants had come to the city and some of them remained there until the 1930s. In addition to Jewish refugees and recruits, however, “politically” marked Catholics and Protestants as well as liberals, social democrats and communists also settled in Istanbul after 1933, forming a separate community of emigrants alongside the already existing German community of so-called “Reich Germans,” diplomats, missionaries, conservatives, National Socialists and economic migrants. Thus, expelled new immigrants, who were forced or voluntary members of the anti-Hitler movement, had to “work side by side with Nazi scholars” and live alongside Turkish colleagues at the university.

The new German community self-deprecatingly referred to itself as “Colony B.” This was done to distinguish themselves from “Colony A” of the so-called “Reich Germans,” who often harbored Nazi sympathies and were openly antisemitic. The German exiles not only blended into the urban space, but also helped shape it: Those who had been brought in to “modernize” Turkish urban planning and architecture, in particular, left architectural traces in these functions that help shape the city’s image to this day. They included, above all, representatives of the New Building movement such as Bruno Taut (1880-1938), Martin Wagner (1885-1957) and Franz Hillinger (1895-1973).

But of course, it was not only officially recruited scientific personnel who emigrated to Istanbul. (German-speaking) men, women and children of different classes and strata also came on horseback, by ship, train, canoe, bicycle – or they crossed the Turkish border on foot. 33Fritz Neumark, 1980: Zuflucht am Bosporus. Deutsche Gelehrte, Politiker und Künstler in der Emigration 1933-1953, Verlag Josef Knecht, Frankfurt am Main, p. 23-27; Corry Guttstadt, 2008: Die Türkei, die Juden und der Holocaust, Association A: Berlin, Hamburg, p. 220; Sabine Mangold-Will, 2014: Deutsche in der Türkei, 1933-1945. Bpb (05.09.2014). https://www.bpb.de/internationales/europa/tuerkei/184978/deutsche-im-exil-tuerkei (16.09.2021). The recruited professors also brought their families and their research assistants with them, whose living and working conditions were different from those of the professors and – especially in the case of the latter – often less secure.

Privileges and their dark sides

The exclusively male, German-speaking so-called emigrant professors at Istanbul University were able to start a secure life in Istanbul and formed a group of “pampered” elite emigrants with employment contracts that guaranteed them a fixed income and thus also a – at least “temporary – right of residence, which they could perpetuate by accepting Turkish citizenship. This intellectual elite often tried to continue their “German” life in a kind of parallel world.

Understandably, many found their exile difficult and burdensome, but while exiles in Paris, for example, thought they would find themselves in the much-vaunted capital of Western civilization, or fleeing Yiddishists imagined themselves in Vilnius in the myth-enshrouded “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” the widespread attitude toward Istanbul testifies to deep-seated feelings of cultural superiority and Orientalist stereotypes: The very recognition they received as members of the intellectual, “Western” elite and the logics of European leadership behind the Turkish program confirmed many professors in this perception of themselves and others. However, it also caused resentment and ill will among the colleagues, because the Turkish staff was paid less or even dismissed. See the article by Liselotte Diekmann in this archive for more details. 44Liselotte Dieckmann: Akademische Emigranten in der Türkei, In: Egon Schwartz/Matthias Wegner (eds.) 1964: Verbannung. Aufzeichnungen deutscher Schriftsteller im Exil. Hamburg: Christian Wegner Verlag, pp. 122-126.

Support Networks

Within Istanbul’s German-speaking community life, support systems for a wide variety of social groups were established in the 1930s. The Emigrant Aid Committee of the Jewish Community in Istanbul is a prominent example here. But it was often individuals who helped the new arrivals find job opportunities, housing, and often necessary psychological support.

For example, the wives of emigrant professors often offered support in solidarity, in addition to the obligatory housework and care work. For the newly arrived (married) women, there were central contact persons in Istanbul who helped with the introduction to everyday life in Istanbul and employed emigrant women with sewing or other household chores. 55Anne Dietrich, 1998: Deutschsein in Istanbul. Nationalization and Orientation in the German-Speaking Community from 1843 to 1956. Opladen: Leske and Budrich, p. 257.

While support networks, as in Paris and Vilnius, are expressions of migrant resistance, they also point to the flip side of refugee migration: economic and legal insecurity, which only intensified as Turkish migration policies radicalized.

The house of the Kosswigs, in the background collection. Private collection, courtesy of Burcu Dogramaci.

Exacerbation of precariousness from 1938 onward

Restrictive regulations, which required only Turkish candidates for many professions, forced many refugees to stay illegally. People who (forcibly) evaded the formalities had to reckon with constant arrest and expulsion. For all those who did not receive a permanent employment contract were practically permanently threatened with unemployment and thus deportation. 66Anne Dietrich, 1998: Deutschsein in Istanbul. Nationalization and Orientation in the German-Speaking Community from 1843 to 1956. Opladen: Leske and Budrich, p. 263.

The situation of the unprivileged worsened from 1938 onwards when a marking obligation was enacted in passports of Jews. 77Anne Dietrich, 1998: Deutschsein in Istanbul. Nationalization and Orientation in the German-Speaking Community from 1843 to 1956. Opladen: Leske and Budrich, p. 307. From now on, emigrants living in Turkey had to prove that they were not Jewish. Only “specialists” could receive an exemption to stay in Turkey according to Article 3 of the secret decree. Thus, many emigrant professors were largely spared. But that the admission of German and Austrian persecutees in Turkey was always vacant now became more than obvious. 88Corry Guttstadt, 2008: Turkey, the Jews and the Holocaust, Association A: Berlin, Hamburg, p. 231-32.

With Secret Decree No. 2/9498, the Turkish government also prohibited “foreign Jews who are subject to restrictions in their home countries” from entering Turkey. From that point on, Jewish fugitives carrying the Nazi-stamped “J” in their passports could be intercepted at the border and turned away. A notorious no-man’s land was created in which many refugees wandered for days until they eventually managed to cross the border and found (temporary) refuge on the Bosporus. 99Anne Dietrich, 1998: Deutschsein in Istanbul. Nationalization and Orientation in the German-Speaking Community from 1843 to 1956. Opladen: Leske and Budrich, p. 283.

While, among other things, the low career opportunities for women gave reason to leave Turkey independently, the situation was further aggravated in 1941, when the majority of Jewish emigrants lost their German citizenship: “A not inconsiderable number of them were expelled from the country on mostly flimsy charges (…)”. 1010Fritz Neumark quoted from Anne Dietrich, 1998: Deutschsein in Istanbul. Nationalization and Orientation in the German-Speaking Community from 1843 to 1956. Opladen: Leske and Budrich, p. 308. When the second five-year contracts for foreign scholars expired in 1943, a large group was again expelled from the country by scholars who had become stateless in the meantime. 1111Corry Guttstadt 2008: Turkey, the Jews and the Holocaust, Association A: Berlin, p. 233; Anne Dietrich, 1998: Deutschsein in Istanbul. Nationalization and Orientation in the German-Speaking Community from 1843 to 1956. Opladen: Leske and Budrich, p. 307.

With the termination of Turkish neutrality and the official declaration of war in the fall of 1944, all diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany were severed. A completely new time began for all German and Austrian nationals. Either they allowed themselves to be transported back to the “Third Reich” or they were interned together with the Jewish and political refugees who remained in the country in three places in Anatolia: Çorum, Yozgat, and Kirsehir.

The more fortunate had already turned their backs on Istanbul by this time, mostly to make a new start in the United States, Palestine, or Russia. In fact, the worsening migration policy had a particular impact on the duration of the period of refuge in Istanbul. Some of the Nazi refugees stayed forever in the country that offered them protection from persecution and new opportunities; for others, Turkey was only a stopover. Some lost their residence status, others were deported, especially after the war began. There were also deaths due to illness or old age, as occurred, for example, for the architect Bruno Taut, or (attempted) suicides.

The majority of those who had waited out the end of the war in Turkey in one of the three internment camps to which they were resettled after Turkey later took sides against Germany in the war, mostly went back to Germany or Austria after 1945. Some, like Erich Auerbach, only then migrated further to the USA. 1212Anne Dietrich, 1998: Deutschsein in Istanbul. Nationalization and Orientation in the German-Speaking Community from 1843 to 1956. Opladen: Leske and Budrich, p. 261.

Istanbul transfer port: uncertain transit to Palestine

Turkey, like the overwhelming majority of states around the world, did not allow unimpeded immigration of Jews and also allowed transit through the country only under conditions. Nevertheless, Turkey became a major transit country to Palestine even before the war began. Seemingly independent of the homogeneously diverse, German-Jewish elite refugees, Jewish aid organizations worked for Jewish refugee groups from Eastern and Southern/Eastern Europe, who increasingly sought to escape an imminent or existing German occupation – also via Istanbul and from here increasingly to Palestine.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC or Joint for short) in Istanbul worked, among other things, to support Jews stranded here from Romania, where many Polish Jews were also trying to continue their journey, Bulgaria, Hungary, the Balkans, Ukraine or Italy, and, if possible, to smuggle them on to Palestine. 1313Linda G. Levi, 2020: “Family Searching and Tracing Services of JDC in the Second World War Era,” in Levi, Linda G.; Panek, Isabel; Borggräfe, Henning; Höschler, Christian (eds.): Tracing and Documenting Nazi Victims, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, p. 59-94, here: 69.

The escape route to Palestine usually led across the Black Sea, the Bosphorus dividing Istanbul, across the Sea of Marmara to the Mediterranean. At first, the “refugee business” flourished for the captains of the Black Sea ships. The start of the war made this immensely difficult, as the Turkish government refused to allow any more refugee ships to pass through the Bosporus or enter its ports. The Turkish side feared an “onslaught” of refugees who might decide to stay, thus triggering a “refugee crisis.” 1414JDC Archives, NY_AR3344_1047_2of2-1052_1of2_00658. The Struma disaster must not go unmentioned here: On February 24, 1942, a Soviet submarine sank the ship MV Struma with nearly 800 Jewish refugees on board. It had arrived in Istanbul from Constanţa, Romania, to continue its journey to the British Mandate of Palestine. Turkish authorities towed the Struma back out through the Bosphorus to the coast of Şile in northern Istanbul, where disaster struck shortly thereafter.

Nonetheless, refugees continued to make their way towards Istanbul on small unsafe boats. This was extremely dangerous, as it is today.

Traugott Fuchs, Istanbul before 1945, from index charcoal drawings, 05 © Hermann Fuchs.

In February 1941, at the urging of the Joint 1515JDC Archives, NY_AR3344_1047_2of2-1052_1of2_00658. and others, the Turkish National Assembly had passed a transit law that allowed Jewish aid organizations to smuggle Jews through Turkey if they had entry permits for Palestine or other countries.

Historian Stanford J. Shaw estimated the number at probably too modest 4,400 persons who were passed through the country in 1941 under the control of the Turkish police, en route from Constanza via Istanbul, but without being granted prolonged residence. The War Refugee Board, with the help of Ira Hischberg, built and secured rescue routes through Turkey.” 1616Kurt R. Großmann, 1969: Emigration. Die Geschichte der Hitler-Flüchtlinge 1933-1945, Frankfurt a.M., p. 288.

In this context, Istanbul, along with Geneva, is cited as one of the largest rescue centers during World War II and even shortly after 1945. 1717Cf. Stanford J. Shaw, 1993: Turkey and the Holocaust: Turkey’s Role in Rescuing Turkish and European Jewry from Nazi Persecution, p. 1.

The longer version of this paper can be found among the chapter texts on Istanbul since 1933.

 

    Footnotes

  • 1Klaus Kreiser, 2014: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Bpb (11.08.2014). https://www.bpb.de/internationales/europa/tuerkei/184970/atatuerk (16.09.2021).
  • 2P. Schwartz (ed. and introduced by Helge Peukert), 1995: Notgemeinschaft. Zur Emigration deutscher Wissenschaftler nach 1933 in die Türkei, Marburg.
  • 3Fritz Neumark, 1980: Zuflucht am Bosporus. Deutsche Gelehrte, Politiker und Künstler in der Emigration 1933-1953, Verlag Josef Knecht, Frankfurt am Main, p. 23-27; Corry Guttstadt, 2008: Die Türkei, die Juden und der Holocaust, Association A: Berlin, Hamburg, p. 220; Sabine Mangold-Will, 2014: Deutsche in der Türkei, 1933-1945. Bpb (05.09.2014). https://www.bpb.de/internationales/europa/tuerkei/184978/deutsche-im-exil-tuerkei (16.09.2021).
  • 4Liselotte Dieckmann: Akademische Emigranten in der Türkei, In: Egon Schwartz/Matthias Wegner (eds.) 1964: Verbannung. Aufzeichnungen deutscher Schriftsteller im Exil. Hamburg: Christian Wegner Verlag, pp. 122-126.
  • 5Anne Dietrich, 1998: Deutschsein in Istanbul. Nationalization and Orientation in the German-Speaking Community from 1843 to 1956. Opladen: Leske and Budrich, p. 257.
  • 6Anne Dietrich, 1998: Deutschsein in Istanbul. Nationalization and Orientation in the German-Speaking Community from 1843 to 1956. Opladen: Leske and Budrich, p. 263.
  • 7Anne Dietrich, 1998: Deutschsein in Istanbul. Nationalization and Orientation in the German-Speaking Community from 1843 to 1956. Opladen: Leske and Budrich, p. 307.
  • 8Corry Guttstadt, 2008: Turkey, the Jews and the Holocaust, Association A: Berlin, Hamburg, p. 231-32.
  • 9Anne Dietrich, 1998: Deutschsein in Istanbul. Nationalization and Orientation in the German-Speaking Community from 1843 to 1956. Opladen: Leske and Budrich, p. 283.
  • 10Fritz Neumark quoted from Anne Dietrich, 1998: Deutschsein in Istanbul. Nationalization and Orientation in the German-Speaking Community from 1843 to 1956. Opladen: Leske and Budrich, p. 308.
  • 11Corry Guttstadt 2008: Turkey, the Jews and the Holocaust, Association A: Berlin, p. 233; Anne Dietrich, 1998: Deutschsein in Istanbul. Nationalization and Orientation in the German-Speaking Community from 1843 to 1956. Opladen: Leske and Budrich, p. 307.
  • 12Anne Dietrich, 1998: Deutschsein in Istanbul. Nationalization and Orientation in the German-Speaking Community from 1843 to 1956. Opladen: Leske and Budrich, p. 261.
  • 13Linda G. Levi, 2020: “Family Searching and Tracing Services of JDC in the Second World War Era,” in Levi, Linda G.; Panek, Isabel; Borggräfe, Henning; Höschler, Christian (eds.): Tracing and Documenting Nazi Victims, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, p. 59-94, here: 69.
  • 14JDC Archives, NY_AR3344_1047_2of2-1052_1of2_00658.
  • 15JDC Archives, NY_AR3344_1047_2of2-1052_1of2_00658.
  • 16Kurt R. Großmann, 1969: Emigration. Die Geschichte der Hitler-Flüchtlinge 1933-1945, Frankfurt a.M., p. 288.
  • 17Cf. Stanford J. Shaw, 1993: Turkey and the Holocaust: Turkey’s Role in Rescuing Turkish and European Jewry from Nazi Persecution, p. 1.

Films 2

Chapters 4