In 1930s Germany, Jewish scientists forced to abandon their universities were welcomed in Turkey with open arms. A new documentary film sheds light on their fate.
As far as the Germans are concerned, he’s “the Turk” but for the Turks, he’s “the German,” laughs Enver Hirsch, a businessman who works in both Turkey and Germany. His father, a German Jewish migrant and lawyer, wrote Turkish legal texts that are still valid today – including the country’s trade law.
Kurt Heilbronn, a psychotherapist, also moves back and forth between Germany and Turkey. His father, founder of the Istanbul Botanical Garden, was a respected plant geneticist in Germany before the Nazis chased him out in 1933. Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of modern-day Turkey, offered him a professorship in Istanbul.
Enver Hirsch recounts many fond childhood memories
Atatürk actively pursued a sweeping university reform in the late 1920s, with the aim of turning Turkey into a modern country – no matter the cost. The German professors who fled Nazi Germany were highly welcome to help build a modern university system.
Atatürk outlawed Arabic letters, and introduced the Latin alphabet. Young Turkish students were to receive a sound education, just like their fellow students in the West. Women, who were no longer required to wear a veil, flocked to the universities, says Eren Önsöz, director of the documentary “Haymatloz.”
1933: Welcome to Turkey
The film highlights a chapter of German-Turkish history that has largely been forgotten, telling the stories of five German emigrants who worked as professors at Turkish academies, universities, ministries and in public office. In Turkey, they weren’t labeled as Jews, but rather regarded as the “Germans.” They taught generations of Turkish students.
After Hitler seized power Jewish scientists and professors were no longer allowed to hold official positions. Many fled to Switzerland, where they turned to the Emergency Association of German Science Abroad, founded in Zurich in 1933 by a German emigrant, Philipp Schwartz.
The association helped more than 2,600 persecuted academics escape, and find posts at foreign universities. Istanbul University hired 30 Jewish professors in the 1933/34 winter semester.
Silence after World War II
The families of all five of the film’s protagonists managed to flee persecution by the Nazis in 1933.
Born in Turkey, film director Eren Önzöz lives and works in Germany
Many decades later, these Jewish emigrants’ children reminisce about their childhoods, about growing up in Istanbul or in Ankara – and what awaited them in post-war Germany, where the Jewish returnees were anything but welcome, and where no one spoke about the fate of the German Jews.
Susan Ferenz-Schwartz, Egon Bagda, Kurt Heilbronn, Enver Hirsch und Elisabeth Weber-Belling say they don’t really feel at home anywhere.
“We would have ended up in Auschwitz, too,” says Susan Ferenz-Schwartz, averting her eyes. “That was the only alternative.”
She was a one-year-old toddler when her family fled to Turkey, and remembers “a great life in Istanbul, but still marked by experiencing fear coming from non-Jewish Germans in the area.”
“Haymatloz” is a beautiful film, directed with a great sense of timing and power of images, and with a strong political focus toward the end. The film’s protagonists are concerned about a country where, step by step, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is undoing Atatürk’s achievements and Turkey’s social progress.
More than ever before, he feels caught between two worlds, says Kurt Heilbronn, head of a psychological and social support center for refugees in Frankfurt: “I can’t stand to spend too much time in Germany or in Turkey, so I travel back and forth a lot,” he laughs.
Kurt Heilbronn’s father, pictures here with a group of students in Istanbul
“It’s our fate that we’re no man’s people, that we aren’t at home anywhere,” Susan Ferenz-Schwartz says wistfully. Thanks to the organization her father founded in 1933, the Emergency Association ofGerman Science Abroad, Kurt Heilbronn’s father made it safely to Turkey.
“That’s fate, that’s kismet,” Ferenz-Schwartz concludes at the end of the film.
“Haymatloz – Exile in Turkey” was released in Germany on October 27, 2016. The documentary is also in the running at the International Film Festival in Sao Paulo/Brazil, which closes on November 2, 2016.