In this transcript of his speech, Mehmet Ülkümen discusses the ideas and beliefs that motivate his father, the Turkish diplomat Selahattin Ülkümen, who saved the lives of 40-50 Jews on the Island of Rhodes at the end of World War II. Mehmet’s mother died after giving birth to him. She was fatally injured in a German air raid on the Ülkümen residence.
Thank you. Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends:
And the lord asked: “Where is my dear brother?” And Cain answered, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Am I my brother’s keeper? This is a question that has plagued humanity since the beginning of time. Yet, perhaps there was no greater moment in history to ask and answer that question than during World War II, when in a quest for religious and racial purity, more than 10 million people—Jews and others—were sent to their deaths. Men, women, children young and old—murdered simply because of their faith and their ethnicity. The river of death destroyed homes, villages, and nations. Yet much of mankind simply stood by and watched these suffering people being swallowed up by the waters of hatred and cruelty.
My father Selahattin Ulkumen and my mother Mihrinissa were witnesses to part of this great tragedy unfolding before their eyes on the island of Rhodes toward the end of World War II. They saw the betrayal of God, the treachery of man, and the fall of humanity. They also saw how man could kill his own neighbor simply because he was different. They also realized how it was possible for people to close their eyes to the truth because of their own hatred, cowardice, or simply their indifference.
My father could not simply stand by and watch; he did not close his eyes, nor did he acquiesce in the hatred or indifference which existed. Instead, with my mother’s continuous support, he stood up, not as a hero, not as a diplomat, not as a Muslim, nor a Turk, but rather as a man, answering God’s call to protect his brother, a call that would later claim the life of the dearest person to him, my mother.
I was of course deeply marked by my father’s decision, both as a child and as a young adult. I believe that the choice which my father made at great risk to himself, his family, and his future career was the right choice, and ultimately as we shall see, led to the loss of my mother, barely 28 years old at the time, but also of my grandmother: the two women who would have otherwise been an indispensable part of my life.
With time, these feelings of deep loss were attenuated, not because I had grown older and a little grayer, but because I realized with growing certainty that my father could not have taken any other decision. For him, it was not just the right thing, but the only possible thing he could do. He always used to say: “We Muslims are like Jews. We share the same father and the same God. We also share the same belief, which as we know is deeply rooted in Jewish teaching, that he who saves a single life saves a whole world.” And it was this belief that compelled him to save dozens of Jews in Rhodes during World War II.
On this island, there was a kahal kadosh, meaning holy community, which had existed since 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain. Rhodes was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912, when it was taken over by Italy. In 1940, the Germans were allowed by their allies, the Italians, to use the island as a southern base of operations for their killing machine. Hitler’s final solution did not exclude any of the islands in the Aegean. In 1943 my father was assigned to Rhodes as Turkish consul general and one year later, on 18 July 1944, the Gestapo ordered the islands entire Jewish population, some 2,000 people, to gather at SS headquarters to register for what was termed temporary transportation, but what was in reality, and everyone knew this, the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Gestapo men were sent back to the Jewish homes to make sure that the women and children had not failed to bring all their jewelry and money. The entire kahal, except those who could be saved, were later loaded into wooden box cars and deported by trains to the death camps in Poland.1
- 1 : Mehmet Ülkümen, “Muslim Hero Saved Jews in Holocaust,” Speech, Geneva, Switzerland, January 27, 2006. Geneva Non-Governmental Gathering for First Annual UN International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. Accessed May 30, 2013.