Presentation of the official delegation of Turkey at the Vilnius Forum
Aly Nazim Belger, Ambassador to Turkey
3-5 October 2000
Turkey sent an official delegation led by Aly Nazim Belger to the Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Assets who gave the presentation set out below.
All countries present at the Forum agreed the Final Declaration.
Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to join the previous speakers in expressing my admiration and gratitude to the Government of Lithuania and to my friend Emanuelis Zingeris for this excellent organisation and warm hospitality.
Turkey is interested in this Forum mostly because Jewish Culture has had tangible influence on Turkish Culture and secondly because Turkey is a founding member of the Council of Europe.
Turkish-Jewish common life and friendship have a long historical background, which go back to more than ten centuries. History records mention the first Turkish-Jewish contacts as taking place prior to the founding of the Ottoman Empire and as early as the 10th century, when first interactions took place between Jewish Communities and early Turkish Principalities of the Near-East and Seljuk Empire. With the arrival of Turks from Central Asia to the Near East and to Anatolia, Jews first sought refuge under their authorities against the existing Christian States in the region, which considered them heretic and persecuted them. However two historical events provided the major cornerstones of the relationship between Turks and Jews today.
The first one is the initiative of the Ottoman Empire to save the Jews from the atrocities committed against them during the period of the Catholic Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula. The safe haven provided to them resulted in a mass exodus of Sefardic Jews to territories under Ottoman rule. These people brought with them their culture, which contributed a great deal to the colourful life in the Empire. The other important turning point in the history of Turkish Jewry is the second wave of exodus, this time of Ashkenazi Jews, into the modern Turkish Republic before and during the Second World War. This time, not only from Nazi Germany, but also from other countries of Europe, mainly from the Balkans and the Soviet Union. While some of these Jews eventually moved to the State of Israel after its creation, a number of them opted to remain in Turkey.
The profound sufferings of the Turkish People at the First World War, and the war ensuing it, which was conducted against the occupiers in Anatolia, urged the Turkish Government to remain neutral during most of the Second World War. This decision paved the way for an opportune situation enabling Turkey to continue to help the Jews.
Professor Stanford Shaw, eminent academician on Turkish history, informs of Turkey's support to Jews during this period in the following words:
"Turkish neutrality put Turkey into a unique position where it was able to provide major assistance to Jews who were being persecuted, imprisoned and exterminated during the Holocaust. Turkey provided major assistance to European Jews in two principal ways, by getting diplomats to intervene on their behalf in Berlin and other Nazi-occupied countries where it continued to maintain diplomatic representation, and secondly by allowing Istanbul to be used by the Jewish Agency and by other Jewish organisations set up to assist and rescue East European Jews".
Professor Shaw also points out that, because it was one of the few neutral countries remaining in Europe during the war, Turkey was able to maintain diplomatic representation in Germany as well as in most of the countries occupied by Germany, and as a result Turkish diplomats and consuls were able to assist Jews in those countries against Nazi persecution using their status to intervene on behalf of them. They assisted Turkish Jews abroad by keeping their citizenship record up to date and informing the authorities that they were Turkish citizens whenever it was necessary. This assistance was also extended to non-Turkish citizen Jews wishing to flee to Turkey, most of the time, by issuing them on the spot Turkish travel documents.
It can be understood that, while remaining neutral, Turkey did not remain indifferent in the face of the atrocities committed against Jews, but actively participated in their evacuation out of danger. Turkish and Jewish records are witnesses of dramatic stories of Turkish diplomats, who, in many occasions went beyond their duties and status, assisting Jews while putting their own selves and their own family in danger.
As to the Holocaust assets, since the beginning of the recent international initiatives on the matter, Turkey reacted swiftly to all the information requests and conducted many researches in archives both at home and abroad. In this context, a special advisory group was formed under the chairmanship of a Minister of State to organise the related work.
Turkey, herself also victim of cultural assets looting, would only be more than happy with the restitution of cultural property and other riches to their owners and is welcoming every initiative in this direction. Should this principle be applied properly, each side has much more to gain than it may possible give away.
In the framework of the Washington Principles and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Resolutions, we have renewed our research work in the Turkish State Archives once again.
To this date, the results of the research in the Turkish archives show that documents and communications related to matters on Jewish affairs were about requests of those wishing to come to Turkey. Moreover, no documents on looted cultural properties were found in the State archives.
So far, there was only one request made on looted cultural property, and this is about two paintings found in the building of Turkish Embassy in Paris. The Turkish Embassy, with the consent of the French Government, first rented the said building, Hotel Lamballe, together with the goods inside it in 1946 and later bought it. Following the request made in 1999 by the Executive Director of the World Jewish Congress, Mr. Elan Steiberg, and as it eventually turned out that the two paintings, which were in the building even before its rental by the Embassy, were indeed looted Jewish assets, they were handed over to the competent French authority, "L'Administrateur du Mobilier National" immediately.
The Turkish national legislation and other international agreements in which Turkey takes part not only favour but encourage the return of stolen cultural properties to their rightful owners. Hence, Turkey will continue to fully provide its co-operation on the matter.
Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Cultural Assets Website, accessed 27 November 2002. The website no longer exists (20 July 2007).