A Rescuer in Rhodes: Selahattin Ülkümen

The excerpt from the documentary film The Rescuers introduces the viewer to the events that led to the Nazi decision to murder the small Jewish community living on the island of Rhodes and the efforts by the Turkish ambassador to the island, Selahattin Ülkümen, to rescue some of them. The clip features the story of Selahattin Ülkümen himself (told by his son, Mehmet) and the story of Bernie and Elliot Turiel, two brothers who were rescued by Ülkümen. It focuses on Ülkümen’s decision to protect Jews who held (real or invented) Turkish citizenship. It also shows the risks many rescuers faced.  Indeed, Ülkümen suffered grave losses: the Nazis bombed his house, fatally wounding his pregnant wife. As a result of that tragedy, Ülkümen’s mother-in-law took her own life. The son, Mehmet, was saved by doctors after his mother’s injury. Mehmet and the Turiel sons, Bernie and Elliot, are the main voices in this film excerpt.

Guiding Questions

  1. What moral obligations do humans owe to one another?
  2. What influences the way individuals, groups, and nations define their universe of obligation?
  3. What role does religion play in our moral decisions?

Historical Background


Map of Greece and Turkey.

The large, sun-soaked island of Rhodes is located among other islands close to contemporary Turkey, though it is traditionally regarded as part of Greece. Its location, on the border between the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean—only 500 miles from ancient Judea, where the Israelites (later, Jews) lived during antiquity—made it an easy target of emigration for Jews seeking economic opportunities or shelter from persecution. Indeed, records of a Jewish presence on the island of Rhodes date back to the first century BCE.

This ancient community established deep roots in this area. From the time of the Ottoman Empire (if not before) Jews established themselves as merchants, small businessmen, and craftsmen, giving them a prominent place in the local marketplace of goods and ideas.

Jewish businesses during the 1930s in Rhodes.

The Greek island of Rhodes fell under Italian rule in 1917, when during the course of World War I, Italy won the island from the crumbling Ottoman Empire. During the first years of World War II, Italy—a German ally—shared control of Rhodes with the Nazi government. As early as 1938, the Italians enacted harsh anti-Jewish policies, which prompted an exodus of 2,000 Jews—about half the total population of prewar Rhodes.1 But then, for most of the war, the remaining Jews were left unharmed. On this beautiful island, far away from war-torn Europe, life went on peacefully, as it had for decades.

By the spring of 1943, the Italian regime of dictator Benito Mussolini had begun to crumble. Major losses on the battlefield and an increasing dependence on Hitler’s decrees and orders contributed to a growing dissatisfaction among the Italian political leadership until finally, in the summer, King Victor Emmanuel III and his supporters dismissed the fascist dictator Mussolini from office. Within a matter of weeks, the king’s government signed a capitulation agreement with the Allied Powers. Germany, however,  continued to occupy the northern part of Italy. Rhodes’s fate now hung in the balance; the Germans were retreating in this region, and the Allies were vying for control of the island. The Germans stepped in first, and with that, the fortune of the Jews took a decisive turn.

The population of just 1,700 Jews was caught unprepared in July of 1944. With all communication to and from the island cut off, they knew very little about the war or the Holocaust. This would change quickly when the Germans announced a roundup of all the Jews on the island, with the goal of shipping them by boats and trains to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were to be gassed immediately. For the first time, at the very end of the war, this peaceful community stared directly at the face of Nazism.

Selahattin Ülkümen, the Diplomat

Selahattin and his wife Mihrinisa Ülkümen.

They were not the only ones who were alarmed. When the roundups began, one diplomat, the Turkish consul Selahattin Ülkümen, was deeply distressed. Haunted by what he knew about German actions in Europe, and worried about the fate of the Turkish Jews on the island, he decided to protect the ones he could. Since Turkey had signed a neutrality agreement with Germany, Ülkümen argued to the SS commander on the island that harming any Turkish subject would violate this agreement.

When the roundups started, he cited to the Germans the agreement between the two countries and argued that the Turkish citizens among them deserved the full protection of Turkey and that they shouldn’t be detained or deported. Finally, Ülkümen announced that his government did not differentiate between Muslims, Jews, or Christians and that it viewed itself as responsible for the safety of all its citizens.

Courageously, he faced the Nazis, argued his case, and was able to secure the release of 40 to 50 Jews who had Turkish passports, or, as Sir Martin Gilbert says in the film, by prevailing “upon the German authorities to accept them as Turkish citizens because they were married to someone who had a Turkish passport.” While the majority of Rhodes’s 1,700 Jews were sent some 1,000 miles away to their death, Ülkümen was able to keep 40 to 50 Turkish Jews on the island. They were freed a month later when the Germans retreated from Rhodes.2

In the documentary The Rescuers, Elliot and Bernard (Bernie) Turiel accompany Gilbert on his trip to Rhodes. They are the sons of Daniel and Mathilde Nahum Turiel.3 Mathilde was born in 1910 in Turkey, moved to Rhodes in 1933, and kept her Turkish citizenship (in addition to an Italian citizenship she received via her husband, who was an Italian Jew).

Although it isn’t entirely clear why, German airplanes bombed his residence, fatally injuring his pregnant wife Mihrinissa and others (Turkey by then had joined the Allied Forces). Upon hearing the news of the death of Ülkümen’s wife, his mother-in-law died by suicide, and the consul was moved from the island to Greece for the remainder of the war. Ülkümen’s son, Mehmet, was saved by the doctors (see film segment).


  • 1 : “Holocaust,” Rhodes Jewish Museum, accessed May 13, 2013,
  • 2 : Mordecai Paldiel, The Righteous Among the Nations (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 498.
  • 3 : Film director’s email communication with Bernard Turiel, January 25, 2013.

Connection Questions

  1. For Ülkümen, who were the Jews of the island of Rhodes? What argument did he use when arguing for their release from the Germans?
  2. Sociologist Helen Fein defines the circle of people we are morally committed to as our “universe of obligation.” These are individuals and groups “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for [amends].”1 How did Ülkümen define his universe of obligation?
  3. Ülkümen was not the only Turkish diplomat to help the persecuted Jews. For example, Behiç Erkin helped several thousand French Jews who held Turkish citizenship survive Nazi deportation.2 Turkey at the time of the war was ruled by a secular government, but a large sector of the population was Muslim. What can we learn, if anything by knowing about the identity of the Rescuers?


  • 1 : Margot Stern Strom, Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior, (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 1994), 56.
  • 2 : As a matter of policy, the Turkish government allowed Jews who had been Turkish subjects and were living in France and other areas of Europe to reclaim their Turkish residence status (which they had surrendered previously) and thus receive the protection of Turkish neutrality. In many cases, the Germans respected this decision. This governmental attitude contributed to the inclination of Turkish diplomats to help Jews. We thank Paul Bookbinder for this and other helpful suggestions.

Related Content


Mathilde Turiel’s Testimony on Being Rescued by Selahattin Ülkümen

Mordecai Paldiel presents the testimony of Mathilde Turiel who, along with her sons Bernie and Elliot, were rescued by Selahattin Ülkümen.


Diplomats and the Choice to Rescue

Read the stories of two diplomats who chose to use their status to rescue Jews from the Nazis during World War II.


Mehmet Ülkümen's Testimony on His Father's Decision

Mehmet Ülkümen discusses the ideas and beliefs that motivate his father, the Turkish diplomat Selahattin Ülkümen, to save the lives of the Jews of Rhodes.


The Rescuers

Examine the moral dilemmas faced by five diplomats who, at great personal risk, assisted Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during the Holocaust.

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