In this essay, Matt Hanson explores how contemporary Turkish writers like Moris Farhi, Zulfu Livaneli, and Ayse Kulin continue to grapple with Turkey's complex relationship to Jewish refugees—and its own Jewish citizens—before and during the Holocaust.
Among recent works of literature by and about Turkish Jewry, there is one classic that, like a recurring dream, consistently appears in the novels and essays of intellectuals and writers who either venture through their history or testify to their minority struggle firsthand.
This book was written not by a Turk but by literary critic Erich Auerbach, a Berliner by birth who arrived in Istanbul from Germany as a Jewish refugee in 1936. His peerless scholarship would ask the right questions concerning literature’s debt to truth and history, which in literary terms is an attribute of realism. Drawing mainly from memory, Auerbach critiqued the breadth of Western literature from wartime Istanbul, where primary research libraries were inaccessible. His verdict, proposed in his magnum opus, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, concluded that literary works should be treated essentially as historical artifacts, testaments of subjectivity revealing their author’s relationship to the world.
Auerbach stressed, however, that literature should not be mistaken for the historical record. Edward Said clarified as much in his introduction to the fiftieth anniversary edition of the 1953 English translation of Auerbach’s classic. Unraveling Auerbach’s philological romance with Giambattista Vico and Dante, Said noted that his study of the latter Italian polymath was his most exciting work, adding:
Moreover, the relationship between the reader-critic and the text is transformed from a one-way interrogation of the historical text by an altogether alien mind at a much later time, into a sympathetic dialogue of two spirits across ages and cultures who are able to communicate with each other as friendly, respectful spirits trying to understand each other.
While founding the academic discipline of comparative literature, Auerbach presented a perennial intellectual model through which to appreciate works of literature as a kind of mythology of free expression, distinct from the rational science of historiography.
Auerbach’s enduring influence on Turkish literature can be seen clearly in the work of Turkish-Jewish novelist Moris “Musa” Farhi, for whom Auerbach’s asylum and productivity in Istanbul represented the best qualities of humanism exhibited by the early Turkish Republic. In his own work, Farhi embodied the multicultural, humanist principles of creative literature as a measure of personal and social freedom. His fiction, while at times approximating fantasy, was inextricably bound with human rights advocacy. He was vice president of PEN International from 2001 to his death on March 5, 2019.
Farhi’s prose is steeped in his beginnings as a writer of political thrillers, most significantly The Last of Days, which came out in 1983 and is consistently hailed for presaging 9/11 and the Islamic State. Although Farhi’s final novel, My End is My Beginning, was published posthumously in March, most readers remember his critical triumph, Young Turk, released in English in 2004. Its stories revolve around an escape plot hatched by a team of youth to save their Jewish friend’s family from Nazi persecution in Thessaloniki by bringing them to safety in Turkey. Young Turk is especially moving as an adaptation of Farhi’s mother’s family history in Thessaloniki, where her relatives were murdered by the Nazis.
Toward the end of Young Turk, Farhi mentions Auerbach as part of the outmigration of German-Jewish academics who found refuge in Turkey following the passage of the Nuremberg Laws. It is one of the rote points often made by Turkish writers, including Ayse Kulin and Zülfü Livaneli, whose Holocaust novels grossly neglect the historical record concerning Turkey’s marred relationship to Jews during the Nazi era.
“Since the 1980s, Turkey has increasingly politicized its participation in Holocaust remembrance ceremonies around the world.”
More than seventy years after the original publication of Mimesis, Auerbach’s tome remains an important touchstone in Turkish literature. His work serves as a symbolic tie that binds the fictive friendship of Maya Duran and Maximillian Wagner in Serenade for Nadia, a novel by author and musician Zülfü Livaneli. Published by Other Press in February, it is the Turkish author’s latest novel to be translated into English.
Livaneli’s novel lionizes Auerbach as an intellectual giant who would have been admired by real-life professors resembling Wagner. The fictional professor tells Duran, a young administrative assistant at Istanbul University: “Well, as briefly as possible, Erich Auerbach and his colleague Leo Spitzer tried to methodize the notion of Weltliteratur or world literature. This was something Goethe had talked about, the notion of understanding literature as a product of human culture in general rather than of a specific culture.”
By the novel’s end, Wagner gifts Duran a copy of Mimesis, a token of his platonic love but also a device that Livaneli uses to emphasize the contribution of exiled German Jews to the establishment of modern academia in the early Turkish Republic.
The references to Auerbach are not the only way Serenade for Nadia positions Turkey’s diplomatic relationship to Jews since World War II. Serenade for Nadia is about Wagner’s return to Istanbul as an elderly man, and the story is poignant for his mournful remembrance of his Jewish wife and the Struma disaster. In 1942, Turkey refused to port a Romanian vessel named the Struma, which carried 767 Jewish refugees hoping to reach Palestine. After languishing for months in the Bosporus, the vessel was forced by Turkish authorities to return back up the Black Sea, where a Soviet torpedo killed all but one of the people on board.
The Struma disaster has become a Holocaust awareness cause célèbre in Turkey, embraced by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and cultural figureheads. Since the 1980s, Turkey has increasingly politicized its participation in Holocaust remembrance ceremonies around the world. It is the pivot of an effective diplomatic ploy to earn the sympathy of Western nations, particularly the United States, while reinforcing denial of the Armenian Genocide.
From literature to music and film, Turkish cultural productions like Serenade for Nadia consistently portray Turkey as a neutral, even benevolent society welcoming Jewish refugees like Auerbach. Even if he is tough on Turkey’s complicity in the murder of nearly 800 innocent Jews on the Struma, Livaneli does not novelize the extent of Turkish anti-Semitism during World War II.
Turkey largely refused to accept German-Jewish scholars affected by Nazism, a fact easily demonstrated by the negative answer to Albert Einstein’s 1933 letter to Atatürk, the Turkish president at the time. But more, as is proven by the scholarship of Corry Guttstadt and others, Turkey would not even repatriate its own Turkish-Jewish citizens waylaid in Europe, mostly in Nazi-occupied France.
Turkish Jewry in France during the rise of Nazism is the basis for Last Train to Istanbul, a novel by Ayşe Kulin. Her book tells the story of an intermarriage, between Selva, the daughter of an elite Muslim pasha in Istanbul, and Rafo, a Jewish doctor descended from a long line of palace physicians to Ottoman sultans. Their decision to resettle in Paris was common among Turkish Jews in the wake of imperial dissolution and economic uncertainty in Turkey after World War I.
It is well documented by contemporary historians like Guttstadt, the author of Turkey, Jews and the Holocaust, and her Turkish colleagues I. Izzet Bahar and İlker Aytürk, that Turkey left thousands of its citizens of Jewish extraction under Nazi rule in France.
While certain diplomats took risks to save Jews in Europe, notably Selahattin Ülkümen, the only Turkish citizen recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, they were the exceptions to the rule. Anti-Semitism was rife in the young Turkish Republic, careful not to harbor alleged enemies of Nazi Germany to preserve its neutrality. Moreover, the central government in Ankara would adopt Aryanism as a policy to screen out hopeful Jewish immigrants.
Kulin conducted substantial research for Last Train to Istanbul, writing accurately about the problems that Turkish Jews faced in Vichy France as they tried to restore their Turkish citizenship. Yet she also makes the all-too-common mistake of narrating an unbroken line between the initial welcome of the Ottoman Empire to Sephardic Jews in 1492 and the treatment that Jews received in the early years of the Turkish Republic. From the Thrace Pogrom of 1934 to the infamous Wealth Tax of 1942, Jews endured both popular and state discrimination in Turkey.
Halfway through her novel, Kulin dramatizes a passing complication to show that Turkish diplomacy was not always willing to rescue Jews in Nazi Europe. Tarik, a handsome Turkish diplomat, sits at a fancy restaurant with Margot, a Hungarian émigré in Paris. Kulin’s fiction deepens when the conversation turns to Turkey aiding not only Jews but anyone threatened by Nazism.
Margot compliments Tarik, asking how it is that Turkey is alone in Europe in helping Jews. Their meeting turns sour when she asks for help for her family. She pleads: “How long does it take to get a passport!” His thoughts run wild, accusing her of being either the police or a spy.
“Farhi does not fall prey to politicized interpretations of Turkish and Jewish affairs during the Holocaust.”
In contrast with Serenade for Nadia, Last Train to Istanbul, and his own early novel Young Turk, Moris Farhi’s final book, My End Is My Beginning, takes a different approach to the representation of Turkish Jewry. Though it has nowhere near the consolidated prose of mid-career craft that characterizes the books mentioned above, My End Is My Beginning, in its star-crossed idealism, rings true as both an expression and representation of Turkish Jewry.
By projecting a distinctly imaginative creative vision, integrating his bent to metaphysics and a broad perspective on multicultural identity and global affairs as concerns human rights, Farhi does not fall prey to politicized interpretations of Turkish and Jewish affairs during the Holocaust, for example, or to the specifics of his cultural milieu in conflict with contemporary historiography.
My End is My Beginning is centered on the romance of Oric and Belkis, who embark on human rights missions around the globe. They are guided by a class of secular martyrs, immortal beings called “Leviathans” whose leader is a thinly veiled portrait of the assassinated Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.
A Jewish tinker who shares his name with Farhi’s father finds Belkis at a bus stop and adopts her. Years later, when Oric meets her, he asks if the adoption makes her Jewish. She responds: “I’m with outsiders. Strangers, others—the maligned, ostracized, persecuted.” Their son, Childe Asher, bears the name of Farhi’s childhood friend Asher Mayer, who helped launch his arts career in London.
The direct translation of “tikkun olam” (“repair of the world”), perhaps the best-known humanitarian phrase in Hebrew, appears frequently throughout the novel. It is the rallying cry of what Farhi intended as his last book, written months before his passing (his best friend, literary critic Anthony Rudolf, argues that it remains unfinished).
Stylized as a sort of magical neorealism, My End is My Beginning includes reportage on global human rights atrocities, reinforced by Farhi’s advocacy work at PEN International for nearly two decades. And through his characters, whose personalities and convictions mirror those of his friends and colleagues, Farhi expresses distinct Turkish-Jewish cultural values, which are clear in the answer that Belkis gives to Oric about her potential Jewish heritage.
Where Serenade for Nadia, Last Train to Istanbul, and Young Turk are overly proud in light of recent historical research and the politics of Holocaust reconciliation in Turkey, My End is My Beginning clearly delineates fiction from life. In certain passages, Farhi breaks from Turkish propaganda, which argues that the Holocaust was unparalleled and by that logic eschews recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
“Today anybody can be scapegoated as a ‘Jew,’” Farhi writes, giving words to a fictive messianic Rabbi. “Genocide is the morality play of our times. Terror is staged as extravaganza. People are as expendable as ammunition.”
Auerbach, in his opening chapter of Mimesis, distinguishes Homer’s work, of a class of fiction that does not demand faith, from the Bible, which does. The enduring and fixed singularity of modern novels, too, he writes, separates them from works of history and religion. Soon after emigrating to Istanbul in 1936, the year after Farhi was born, Auerbach wrote: “This is precisely the value of fiction, that it allows us to suspend truth and belief for the fascination of a good yarn, and does not need to be faithful to either in order to enchant us. By that measure, it is with fiction that we may draw the line where our minds wander into fantasy and imagination, so as to further define the borders to history and religion.”