From his essay on the rescue of 40-50 Jews on the Greek island of Rhodes by the Turkish diplomat, Selahattin Ülkümen, Mordecai Paldiel presents the testimony of Mathilde Turiel in support of giving Ülkümen the title of Righteous Among the Nations. Turiel and her sons Bernie and Elliot, were rescued by Ülkümen and were featured in the film.
Mathilde Turiel was among those who survived. Born in Izmir, Turkey, 1910, she had lived on Rhodes since 1933 and had kept her Turkish citizenship in addition to the Italian citizenship that she had received as a result of her marriage to an Italian Jew. Under Italian rule, life went on peacefully. In Turiel’s words:
The Jews of Rhodes were unaware of what was happening to the Jewish population of the rest of Europe and did not know what was going to happen to them. We had no news because all communications were cut off; radios had been confiscated.” . . . [On] July 18, the Germans struck. Orders went out that all Jewish men were to present themselves at Gestapo headquarters on the following day, to be followed the next day by their wives and children. “We were warned that if we did not do so, our husbands would be killed,” Mrs. Turiel emphasized in her deposition. As she was on her way with her two children and about to enter German headquarters, she ran into the Turkish consul-general at the door. “This was the first time I had ever seen him. He told me who he was and that I should not go in. He instructed me to wait a few blocks away while he went in to try to release my husband and save us from imprisonment. The other women and children had already entered headquarters. We were the last.
Her husband later related to her how, inside German headquarters, he overheard Ülkümen telling the Germans to release all the Turkish citizens and their families. To spread his protective wing over as many as possible, Ülkümen added 25 to 30 names to his list in addition to the 15 certified Turkish nationals. These others had allowed their Turkish citizenship to lapse, but Ülkümen considered them also worthy of his protection. The Gestapo officers at first objected, then bowed to Ulkumen's demand and allowed the 40 to 45 Jews on his list (including Turiel’s family) to leave and go to the Turkish Consulate in order to obtain the documents that would confirm their Turkish nationality. However, since such documents could not be provided for everyone, Ülkümen argued before the Germans that under Turkish law spouses of Turkish citizens were also under the jurisdiction of Turkey, irrespective of their own citizenship, and he insisted that all the non-Turkish spouses be set free.
This somewhat heated debate took place as close to 1,700 Jews were being boarded on ships on their way to the Greek mainland, from where they were to continue on a long train trip to Auschwitz. The 40 to 50 Jews freed at Ülkümen’s insistence were placed under house arrest for a while. A month later, due to the continuing deterioration of the military situation, German troops were withdrawn from Rhodes and Ülkümen’s protected Jews breathed freely again.1
- 1 : Mordecai Paldiel, The Righteous Among the Nations, 496.