By Vic Alhadeff
The Sydney Morning Herald
25 January, 2020
Mihrinissa Ulkumen was heavily pregnant when bombs crashed through her roof. Petite and dark-haired, she sustained critical injuries, putting both her own life and that of her unborn son in grave danger.
It was the summer of 1944 and Mihrinissa’s husband was Selahattin Ulkumen, the 30-year-old Turkish Consul-General on Rhodes Island and a practising Muslim. The Gestapo had arrived days earlier and issued orders for all Jewish males over the age of 16 to present themselves at the former headquarters of the Italian Air Force with their identity cards – ostensibly to register for “temporary transportation to a small island nearby”.
The following morning, SS officers seized the documents and instructed the community president to summon all wives and daughters – failing which the men would be shot – and to bring their jewellery, personal items and enough food for a few days.
Aware of the Nazis’ liquidation of Jewish communities across Europe, Ulkumen intuitively understood that their objective was to also annihilate the Jewish community of Rhodes. He was aware too that 42 of the Jews of Rhodes had Turkish origins, and he resolved to do what he could to save them.
“I went to the commander and asked him to release the Turkish citizens,” he recounted later. “The commander said Germany needed manpower. But I knew their purpose – to kill them in the gas chambers. I objected. Turkish law didn’t differentiate between whether a citizen was Jewish, Christian or Muslim. I said it would cause an international incident.”
Days later, 1673 Jews were marched to the Rhodes docks – German soldiers assaulting them with rifle butts as they walked, while alsatians snapped at their heels – and crammed them into three disused cargo vessels. The ships sailed to the mainland Greek port of Piraeus, picking up 100 Jews from Kos en route, while seven people died on board from heat and lack of food.
Then, packed into cattle-wagons, they undertook a gruelling16-day train journey through Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia to their ultimate destination – the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. Within hours of arrival, 1522 were gassed – the most southern, and one of the last, Jewish communities to be destroyed in the Holocaust.
The 42 Rhodes Jews who had Turkish origins were not among them. Remarkably, Ulkumen had saved them by prevailing on the German commander, General Ulrich Kleemann, and issuing them with life-saving Turkish passports. Five of those 42 were Alhadeffs – members of my family.
Ulkumen paid a heavy price for his courage. German aircraft bombed the Turkish Consulate as a reprisal and a week later Mihrinissa succumbed to her injuries, as did two of the consular staff. Her baby survived, but Mihrinissa’s mother took her own life upon learning of her daughter’s death.
“I didn’t know the Jews of Rhodes,” Ulkumen said after the war. “I had Jewish friends at university, but didn’t differentiate whether they were Jews or Muslims. I only had humanitarian feelings for every human being.”
A unique exhibition is due to open at NSW Parliament House in which 34 diplomats from 21 countries will be honoured for collectively saving 200,000 Jews during the Holocaust. Titled Beyond Duty, it comprises a collection of photographs of most of the diplomats – Ulkumen among them – whose humanitarianism has earned them the recognition of being declared Righteous Among The Nations by Israel’s Holocaust authority, Yad Vashem (Ulkumen was so honoured in 1989).
A project of NSW Parliamentary Friends of Israel, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and the Embassy of Israel, the range of nationalities of diplomats being honoured and the lengths to which each went to save fellow human beings from being murdered are inspirational. Faced with threats of death, they knowingly put themselves in harm’s way, refusing to be intimidated by, or silent in the face of, the genocide they were witnessing.
While most nations and world leaders looked the other way during one of history’s darkest chapters, there were remarkable individuals who confronted the evil and did what they could, even flagrantly disobeying their own governments in some cases. The exhibition recognises the extraordinary courage of ordinary people.
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. Beyond Duty will be staged in the Fountain Court, NSW Parliament House, from February 3-28.