(Editors Note: We are re-posting this article which was originally published on January 27, International Holocaust Memorial Day to honor Yom Ha Shoah, the Holocaust Memorial Day here in Israel which occurs from April 7 to April 8)
January 27 was International Holocaust Memorial Day. On this day, 68 years ago, the Allied Forces liberated the Auschwitz Death Camp. Although Israel commemorates her Holocaust Memorial Day on a date memorializing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the United Nations has chosen for the International Holocaust Memorial Day to fall on Auschwitz Liberation Day.
According to Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a former Chief Rabbi of Israel “In my opinion, the date set by the UN as the International Holocaust Memorial Day should be used to commemorate the righteous of other nations, who worked to save Jews in spite of the terrible dangers involved. There is no more appropriate a day than this to deliberate upon the personalities of those stars which shone brightly in the darkest night, people such as Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania; Roul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat in Hungary; Oscar Schindler, the German industrialist in Poland, and many others whose names are not known well enough.” Some of those names are of Muslims who selflessly risked their lives to save Jews and International Holocaust Memorial Day is a significant day to honor those people.
Today’s news is filled with stories of conflict, many of them focused on Israel and its Jewish and Muslim population. Within the history of the Holocaust, there are many under-reported stories of Muslims who bravely saved Jewish lives and it is important to tell these stories. According to the American scholar Arnold Reisman, Turkey actually did more to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust than the United States and the United Kingdom. In sum, Turkey saved around 15,000 Turkish Jews who were living in France, 20,000 Eastern European Jews, and an additional 190 prominent Jewish scholars who found safe haven in Turkey. Turkish Counsels in Greece and France fought hard to save Jewish lives at enormous risk. For instance, on the island of Rhodes, Turkish Consul Selahattin Ülkümen pressured the Nazis into sparing the 50 Jews of Rhodes who possessed Turkish citizenship. Later on, he was imprisoned by the Nazis after his consulate was bombed and his pregnant wife was murdered by the Nazis.
The Turkish Consul of Marseilles, Necdet Cant, showed similar bravery. When he heard that Turkish Jews who were living in France were rounded up by the Nazis, he personally went to the train station and demanded the release of all Jews who were Turkish citizens. According to Arnold Reisman, “When the guards refused to comply, he got into the wagon with them. A German officer ordered him to get off but Kent refused to leave unless they let his Turkish citizens off as well. Angrily, the officer said no, you can go with them and closed the door. After three hours of extreme cold and filth, the train arrived at the next station. Obviously realizing a possibly explosive international incident had to be quickly diffused, the German officer who opened the door to the wagon apologized profusely and allowed Kent to leave and take all the people in the wagon with him, never looking at papers, never checking to see if they were Turkish citizens or not.” He saved 80 Jewish lives.
Interestingly, Turkey was not the only Muslim country whose diplomats actively worked to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust at enormous risk. Abdol-Hossein Sardari, who was in charge of the Iranian mission in Paris, saved 2,000 Iranian Jews that were living in France during the Nazis occupation, despite the fact that it put his career and life on the line; he continued to fight to save Jewish lives even after Iran was overrun by Allied Forces and he was ordered home by his superiors. He used his own personal inheritance money to finance the rescue of Iranian Jews after he was stripped of his diplomatic immunity and pay. Unfortunately, Abdol-Hossein Sardari never received any recognition during his lifetime and died in exile in London in 1981, after his Ambassador’s pension and Iranian properties were lost during the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
The Talmud states, “Whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved the entire world.” These stories from the Holocaust, illustrate that when people, regardless of their race or religion, value human life, the greatest in them can come out, and they are compass to guide the actions of this and future generations.
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