Selahattin Ülkümen – A Muslim at Yad Vashem

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | June 6, 2014 0

Yad Vashem

We sometimes forget how diverse much of the world was before the 20th Century – How in many parts of Europe, Middle East, India and Africa Christians, Muslims, Copts, Jews, Farsi, Armenians and others lived together, often intermarried, and traded. So in Prague we had a unique Judaeo / Christian culture and a Germanic / Czech literature exemplified by Frank Kafka, in Morocco we had the Jewish areas, the “Mellah” under the protection of the King and a city like Essaourira which was half Jewish and Muslim and which to this day is painted in the Jewish colours of blue and white. And on the Island of Rhodes we had a Jewish Community which had been there since Roman times and made up a third of the population of the town and spoke “Ladino”, the language of the Sephardim, the Jews from Spain and Portugal who had been welcomed by the Ottomans as “People of the Book” after their expulsion from Iberia.

Then in the 20th Century much changed. There have been genocides in history, the 8 million South American indigenous people’s estimated to have perished in silver mines in Bolivia and in the 20th Century and before WWII writers such as Winston Churchill used the terms to describe the destruction by the dying Ottoman Empire of the Armenian population of Turkey, as well as the attempted destruction of the Greek and Assyrian populations, a process observed by a joint Germano-Austrian military mission. Smaller events occurred, often unnoticed by an indifferent world. By 1923 the Muslim population of Crete which had a similar ethnic makeup to Cyprus was extinguished along with its unique Greek speaking Cretan Turk culture by the last of compulsory population exchanges. In German South-West Africa under the Kaiser the native African people who fought against colonisation experienced the first German Death Camps. The father of one Hermann Göring was the colonial Governor at the time. But what makes the Nazi Holocaust of Jews and others in Germany and 21 occupied and allied countries unique is the scale, the premeditation and the sheer cold ruthlessness and cruelty in implementing the policy for a “Final Solution” agreed at the Wanesee Conference in 1942.

Bimah from a synagogue on Rhodes

The “Final Solution” failed, but not by too much – historians and others can speculate what could have happened if, with the vagaries of war, Germany had not been cast back at El Alamein and had conquered Palestine or if the war had continued for a year longer allowing the 6 Death Camps to continue their deadly work. As it was of the Jews in Europe at 1939 two thirds of them had been murdered by the racist Nazi state and its fellow travelers by 1945.


The Final Solution failed and at Yad Vashem both the Martyrs and the Heroes of the Shoah are commemorated. On a hill at Har Hazikaron, the Mount of Remembrance, just outside Jerusalem, Yad Vashem is a vast, sprawling complex of tree-studded walkways leading to museums, exhibits, archives, monuments, sculptures, and memorials. Yad means “hand” but also “memorial”, while shem means “name”. The name of the museum derives from a Biblical verse:

“And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (Yad Vashem) that shall not be cut off“.

Plaque commemorating the holocaust victims from Rhodes

Jewish schoolgirls Rhodes 1930’s

Since its inception, Yad Vashem has been entrusted with documenting the history of the Jewish people during the Holocaust period, preserving the memory and story of each of the six million victims, and imparting the legacy of the Holocaust for generations to come through its archives, library, school, museums and recognition of the Righteous Among the Nations.

The last monument (in fact 2,000 trees planted to commemorate those who helped Jews) also demonstrates the power of diversity. What used to be known as the Righteous Christians has been changed to the Righteous Gentiles because a Muslim, Selahattin Ülkümen, was the first non-Christian to receive the award. In June 1990, Ülkümen was installed on the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles at the Yad Vashem Memorial in Israel. The Avenue also contains a further nod to diversity for installed here is the only member of the Nazi Party commemorated at Yad Vashem along with his wife Emilie, Oskar Schindler.

See; Jewish Krakow

Identification portrait of Selahatin Ülkümen,Turkish Consul-General in Rhodes.

On Rhodes, Jewish descendants of refugees from the Spanish Inquisition had prospered during 390 years of Ottoman rule, and then under Italian occupation. But following Mussolini’s removal from power in 1943, the Nazis took over the island, which, at that time, had a Jewish population of some 1,700. On July 19 1944, the Gestapo ordered all of the island’s Jews to report for “temporary transportation to a small island nearby”, but in fact to take them to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Alexander Angel a young Jewish boy on Rhodes wearing the Star of David in 1943. Jews on Rhodes were not required to wear the yellow star and he is wearing it as an innocent gesture of pride. He was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944

Ülkümen, the 30-year-old Turkish Consul General, approached the German commander, General von Kleeman, telling him that Turkey was neutral in the war and demanding that all Jewish Turks on Rhodes, including their spouses, whether Jewish or not, should be released at once. But, as Ülkümen later remembered: “The German commander said that, according to Nazi laws, all Jews are Jews and had to go to concentration camps. I objected. I said that, under Turkish law, there is no difference between whether a citizen was Jewish, Christian or Muslim. . . I said that I would advise my government if he didn’t release the Jewish Turks and that it would cause an international incident. Then he agreed.” Ülkümen was playing a dangerous game. He bluffed the Germans — there was no such law. Ülkümen’s action saved the lives of 42 Jewish families. The rest of the Jews on the island were deported to Greece and from there to Auschwitz.

German Army occupying Kos Town in September 1943

The Jewish community of Rhodes goes back to the 1st century CE. In 1480, the Jews actively defended the walled city against the Turks. At its peak in the 1920s, the Jewish community was one-third of the total population. The community was mostly wiped out in the Holocaust. Kahal Shalom, established in 1557, is the oldest synagogue in Greece. It is still standing in the Jewish quarter of the Old Town of Rhodes. It has been renovated with the help of foreign donors but very few Jews live year-round in Rhodes today, and services are not held on a regular basis. This synagogue is maintained basically as a memorial to the 1800 Jews from Rhodes and Kos deported to the concentration camps from here, with plaques in French (the language of educated Ottoman period Jews in the Aegean). There’s a museum in the back with photos of the Jewish community and its life on Rhodes and also in its widespread Diaspora in both the United States and in Africa. The museum was set up by a Los Angeles attorney of Jewish Rhodian descent.

Rhodes Town

The Platia ton Evreon Martyron /Square of the Jewish Martyrs was named to honour the large Jewish community of Rhodes almost completely wiped out by the Nazis during the summer of 1944. A 1929 Italian tourist guide so described the Jewish quarter of Rhodes: “Beyond the Admiralty we enter the Jewish quarter where the atmosphere is so different from that of the Muslim quarter: the latter is very silent with family life going on behind closed doors, the Jewish quarter is happily noisy with children screaming and the open doors allow to see women doing their chores in rooms and courtyards.”

That is now all gone; On July 19, 1944 the island’s 1700 Jewish inhabitants were rounded up by the Gestapo and sent to extermination camps, of whom only some 151 survived.

President of the Jewish Community laying a wreath to the victims of  the Holocaust at La Juderia

The “Square of the Martyred Jews” (known in Greek as “Martyron Evreon”), is located in the heart of the former Jewish Quarter of Rhodes Town. The present park area of the square was originally an area of Jewish homes and small shops. However, the area was bombed during World War II, and in its place was established a small park and square. The present fountain ornamented with three seahorses replaced a previous fountain that was destroyed during World War II.

Selahattin Ülkümen 1914 – 2003

Ülkümen’s bold personal action is credited with saving 42 families. But his bluff didn’t go unanswered. In September 1943, the German army occupied the island of Rhodes and moved to close the Turkish consulate, the last remaining Turkish consulate in Axis-controlled territory. When Turkey protested, German planes bombed the building, seriously injuring Ülkümen’s wife, Mihrinisa, who later died. His wife, nine months’ pregnant, was seriously injured and died of her wounds while giving birth to the couple’s son, Mehmet.

In the end, all those on Ülkümen’s list were released, while the rest of the Island’s population of 1,700 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Among those he saved was Albert Franko, who already had been placed on a transport to Auschwitz from Piraeus. When it was determined that Franko’s wife was a Turkish citizen, Ülkümen had him taken off the train and returned to Rhodes. In August 1944, when Turkey broke diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany, Ülkümen was interned on the Greek mainland. He was released only on May 8, 1945.

Six Jewish women from Rhodes photographed in Bologna, Italy in June 1945 who survived

It will come as no surprise to those who study such things that those responsible for the War Crimes in the Dodecanese, for the deportation and extermination of the Jewish population, for the summary execution of Italian Officers and the hanging of Greek Partisans were never punished. General Ulrich Kleeman went on to lead hundreds of his troops to their deaths when his Panzergrupppen was destroyed by the Red Army at the disastrous Battle of Budapest in 1945. He died of natural causes in Germany in 1963 and his honour from Hitler of The Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross was displayed on his coffin. Selahattin Ülkümen continued in the Turkish Diplomatic service until his retirement and never sought recognition for his bravery. His actions were recognised and lauded by the Rhodian Jewish Diaspora and are a testament to our common humanity and bond.

The president of the Central Jewish Council of Greece, Moisis Constantinis (R) presents on July 24, 2008 in Rhodes an award to Mehmet Ülkümen (L), son of Selahattin Ülkümen, The Turkish Consul General on the island who in 1944 saved 42 Jewish families from being deported to Nazi concentration camps.

Selahattin Ülkümen 1914 – 2003

Remember the Shoah and respect the memory of the victims.

“in the world which will be renewed”

“בְּעָלְמָא דְהוּא עָתִיד לְאִתְחַדָּתָא”

See also;

Jewish Kos

Rhodes Town

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