Refugees of the Bosphorus 

Istanbul, 1944: A Bloomingdale’s executive and a future Pope teamed with Jewish intelligence agents to save hundreds of Eastern European Jews. 

MG08 machine gun on the minaret of the Ayasofya Museum in 1941.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Excerpted from Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King. Out now from W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

In the blustery February of 1944, a raven-haired Bloomingdale’s executive found himself in an unlikely place: at a luxury hotel in Istanbul, surrounded by German soldiers and Japanese diplomats. Ira Hirschmann was new to Turkey—a neutral state for most of the Second World War—and if circumstances had been different, he might have passed his time negotiating a deal for cloth shipments to New York’s Garment District.

But Hirschmann spent most days in the Turkish city as a detail man: leasing rust-bucket cargo ships, re-outfitting them for passengers, and interceding with harbormasters. Before he retired to dinner at Istanbul’s Park Hotel, he finished each day at the office by burning his working papers. What few of the other guests would have known was that Hirschmann was at the leading edge of one of the single largest efforts to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. It was a project that would eventually involve Jewish secret agents, U.S. government officials, and a future pope—and a Muslim country’s role as a conduit for Jews seeking to escape Nazi-dominated Europe.

As a young man, Hirschmann had been on the road to a solid career as a ne’er-do-well. His father, a Jewish clothier, had immigrated to Baltimore from Latvia, and the household was filled with ambition and the expectation of success. But the younger Hirschmann dropped out of Johns Hopkins University before moving to New York to seek more excitement. He soon fell into the circle of Jewish philanthropic and business organizations there. Through social gatherings sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee—often known as “the Joint,” one of the major philanthropic organizations for American Jews—he happened to meet the owner of Newark’s most successful department store, Bamberger’s. Hirschmann parlayed the contact into a job as a low-level copywriter in the store’s advertising department. From there, his career skyrocketed. Identified as an up-and-comer in the retail world, he ended up as vice president in charge of marketing at Bloomingdale’s.

As one of the new lords of advertising in the 1930s, Hirschmann’s primary job was to know people: to solicit the wealthy and divine the hearts and minds of everyone else. After 1941, as news of the deportation and mass killing of Jews reached the United States, Hirschmann joined other philanthropists in finding ways to assist the survivors. Entire communities had been destroyed by the Nazis in Poland and Ukraine. In Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, large-scale deportations of Jews had not yet taken place, but these Axis states were under increasing pressure to fall in line with the Final Solution and surrender their Jewish residents.

Geographically, Turkey was the obvious route out, since it was located only a short sail from Romanian ports on the Black Sea and shared a land border with Bulgaria. Its political neutrality offered relative freedom of movement, provided that any rescue effort did not push activities too far into the open and create a public relations problem for the Turkish government, led by President Ismet Inonu.* But the trip could be treacherous, and the Turkish government was wary of allowing unfettered immigration. In early 1942, the Turks had turned away an entire shipload of Jewish refugees. That ship, the Struma, was soon torpedoed by a Soviet submarine on the Black Sea, killing all but one of the nearly 800 people on board.

The Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe—a group formed in New York in the summer of 1943 to put pressure on the U.S. government to deal with the Jewish refugee problem—had floated the idea of sending someone to Turkey to investigate the possibility of further emigration via Istanbul. Hirschmann volunteered. In the middle of his preparations, however, he was awakened by an early morning telephone call. On the other end of the line was Oscar S. Cox, a confidant of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“The president has just signed the order,” he said.

Hirschmann knew instantly what he meant. Cox had recently shown Hirschmann the text of Roosevelt’s order creating a body called the War Refugee Board, composed of the secretaries of state, war, and the treasury. The board’s task would be to take immediate action to rescue from the Nazis as many members of persecuted minorities as possible.

There was at last to be a U.S. government body whose sole mission was to relieve the plight of civilian victims of war. Hirschmann was to have not just an informal role representing Jewish philanthropists. He was to be the State Department’s special attaché for Turkey and the Middle East, Cox continued. Hirschmann arrived in Ankara, the Turkish capital, on Valentine’s Day 1944.

Hirschmann knew that Turkey would be, at best, only a pass-through for refugees. The Turkish government was unlikely to allow them to remain there—just as Western governments had placed their own restrictions on Jewish immigration, even in wartime. Instead, the destination was to be Palestine.

The British—who controlled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate—had agreed to allow a precise quota of Jewish immigrants to come to Palestine, but the number had been persistently under-filled for a simple bureaucratic reason. Being legally admitted to mandate Palestine required an exit permit from a Nazi-allied country, plus a transit visa via a neutral state, plus an immigration certificate from British mandate authorities. Even if transport could be arranged by philanthropic organizations, papers were still the one thing that only governments could supply.

In the middle of February, as the icy winter winds roared down Ankara’s wide avenues, it gradually dawned on Hirschmann that the person who would be key to his efforts was not in a governmental role at all—and not even in Ankara. He was 200 miles away in Turkey’s second city, the old Ottoman capital of Istanbul, and he was a Catholic priest, the spiritual leader of the group still referred to today as Turkey’s “Latins” or, more commonly, Levantines.

Monsignor Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli had been the pope’s representative, or apostolic delegate, in Turkey since 1934. He had a fondness for the local culture and had studied Turkish, although the peculiarities of the language made him think of the project as a form of penance, he said. The real challenges of his job were less cultural than political. “My work in Turkey is not easy,” Roncalli wrote candidly in his journal. “The political situation does not allow me to do much.”

In the arcana of diplomatic and ecclesiastical procedure, an apostolic delegate’s role was delicate. He had no diplomatic standing and, unlike the higher office of papal nuncio, could not speak on behalf of the Vatican. His bishopric was based in Istanbul, where most of Turkey’s Roman Catholic community resided, but that location also kept him at some remove from the diplomatic intrigues—and political power—in Ankara.

He was also caught between his own church and the reality of suffering he could see in the faces of some of the few Jewish refugees who were managing to escape to Turkey. The pope he served, Pius XII, had chosen to observe a calculated neutrality in the war, even when it became clear that Jewish communities were being destroyed throughout Europe. His staunch opposition to communism pushed him away from an open endorsement of the Allied cause, which would have placed him effectively in the same camp as Joseph Stalin. His concern for protecting Rome and Vatican City from Hitler’s wrath also caused him to speak cautiously when addressing the issue of German atrocities.

Once he had checked into the Park Hotel in Istanbul, Hirschmann called on Roncalli to discuss the new crisis brewing in the spring of 1944. Axis-aligned countries such as Hungary and Romania had already enacted harshly discriminatory anti-Jewish laws, but these governments were also surprisingly patriotic about their own Jews. They resisted German pressure to load local Jews onto trains for deportation to Nazi-run killing centers abroad.

In Hungary that situation began to change in the months after Hirschmann arrived in Turkey. As German troops retreated from the Soviet Union after the defeat at Stalingrad, plans were drawn up for the full-scale invasion of Hungary—a way of scotching Hungary’s possible exit from the Axis and creating a buffer against an Allied advance through Southeastern Europe. In the process, the Nazis would be able to realize a goal that the uncooperative Hungarian government had blocked since the beginning of the war: the large-scale deportation and murder of Hungary’s substantial Jewish community, some 725,000 people.

In March, Wehrmacht troops crossed the Hungarian border, accompanied by SS and Gestapo units. Jewish property was confiscated, Jewish families were forced into a string of ghettoes, and then beginning in May, trainloads of Jewish citizens were assembled for transport to Auschwitz–Birkenau—a phased campaign personally overseen by Adolf Eichmann, the senior SS commander in Budapest.

Through his channels of communication with church officials on the ground, Roncalli learned that Jews who had not yet been deported might be allowed to exit Hungary. What they required was immigration certificates for Palestine, certificates that could only be obtained in Istanbul. But if the threatened Jews could not come to Turkey to receive the certificates, the only possible solution was to take the certificates to them—inside a Nazi-occupied country that had, by mid-1944, already deported more than 400,000 Jews to labor and death camps.

That was where Hirschmann came to rely on Roncalli. In a series of exchanges that summer, the War Refugee Board—working alongside the Jewish Agency, a network of underground agents tied to the Jewish authorities in Palestine—made arrangements to transfer packets of immigration certificates to Roncalli, who then forwarded them via church networks to Jewish communities in Hungary. Jewish Agency representatives scoured Istanbul for people who might supply the names and addresses of friends or family members. Others took to copying any recognizably Jewish name from the Budapest phone directory.

The entire effort could seem abstract—a matter of lists, timetables, and telegrams—until a ship or train that Hirschmann had organized actually arrived in Istanbul. In early July 1944, the Kazbek sailed down the Bosphorus with 758 people on board, many of them rescued from Romanian-occupied areas of Soviet Ukraine. The ship was rated for only three hundred passengers, and Hirschmann recalled seeing people hanging from the rigging as the ship pulled into port.

The refugees were disembarked, carrying bundles and small packages of belongings. Turkish police escorted them to second- and third-class carriages waiting at Haydarpasha train station. As with all transports, the Joint had provided food and water for the three-day journey toward Syria, typically hundreds of loaves of bread, thousands of cucumbers and tomatoes, and plenty of packages of cigarettes, even when many of these items were strictly rationed in Istanbul.

Suddenly, one of the refugees, a woman, ran down the quay, breaking windows and shouting, before being restrained. She had been this way the entire journey, someone told Hirschmann, ever since her mother and three children were shot before her eyes. Other Jews who had been living in Istanbul crowded into the station, hoping to make contact with someone who might know the whereabouts of relatives. In some instances, Jewish Agency officials were allowed to come into the carriages and bring back news about a specific family. “As expected, it was very bad,” one of the inquirers later wrote to the agency. The train finally pulled out after sundown, and Hirschmann watched as the early evening lights came up across the city. The refugees were on their way to Palestine.

Ships and trains were now arriving with greater ease and regularity than ever before. But the journey was still dangerous. Later that summer, on Aug. 3, 1944, a convoy of three ships—the Morina, Bulbul, and Mefkure—left the Romanian port of Constanta, each crammed beyond capacity with 300 refugees bound for Istanbul. By the second day at sea, the Mefkure and Bulbul had fallen out of sight of the faster Morina, with the Mefkure falling even farther behind because of engine trouble.

Around 12:30 a.m. on Aug. 5, the Mefkure came under strafing fire, perhaps from a Soviet submarine repeating the scenario that had doomed the Struma more than two years earlier. Large-caliber bullets ripped into the ship’s wooden hull. Fire quickly spread on deck. The Turkish captain and four crewmembers escaped in the only available lifeboat.

A few dozen passengers jumped into the sea, where they were targeted by the submarine’s machine gunner. The rest, asleep in the hold when the attack started, went down with the burning ship, which finally sank about a half hour after the gunfire began. Five passengers managed to survive by clinging to a piece of debris and, four hours later, drifted on the sea’s currents to within sight of the Bulbul. The remainder of the 320 refugees were shot or drowned.

By the time the Mefkure sank, Allied powers had landed in Normandy and, on the eastern front, the Soviet Union was continuing its largest offensive of the war. The Red Army had already liberated the first in a string of Nazi death camps. Rumors that Turkey was planning to declare war on Germany were rife. The Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara were empty, with only a few boats bobbing in the current. Turkish authorities had ordered naval and civilian vessels removed offshore, for fear that the Germans would launch a preemptive attack.

At the Park Hotel, the Germans ate in silence, and newspapermen hovered in the lobby to cover Germany’s shifting fortunes. Rooms were going for half price as Germans crowded the check-out desk with their children and suitcases in tow, seeking to leave as soon as possible before Turkey’s neutrality ran out. In mid-August the Turkish foreign ministry declared that it was severing relations with Germany. It formally joined the Allied cause several months later, in February 1945.

After the war, people continued to filter through Istanbul toward Palestine, but the flotillas, special trains, and desperate paper chase began to slow as the immediate danger to the surviving refugees lessened. The vessels that had carried them became part of the epic of forced exodus from wartime Europe. In all, from 1942 to 1945, a total of 13,101 Jews went via Turkey to Palestine and other destinations. More than one-quarter of all the Jews who made it to Palestine during the World War II passed through Istanbul to get there. “The results of the immigration in numbers are in no comparison with the tragic situation of Jewry in the enemy-occupied countries,” reported Chaim Barlas, the Jewish Agency’s Istanbul representative and an associate of both Hirschmann and Roncalli, “but … I may say that it is a miracle that even this small number has escaped from … hell.”

Barlas eventually returned to Palestine, where he became head of the immigration department for the entire Jewish Agency, soon to become the new government of the State of Israel. Hirschmann left the Park Hotel, returned to New York, and took up his vice president’s title at Bloomingdale’s. He had only been in Turkey for about six months, but the experience shaped the rest of his life in public service. When the United Nations was created, he became one of its key administrators dealing with the plight of refugees.

Roncalli left in 1944 as well. He was first transferred to France as papal nuncio. It was a post that called for a combination of tact and decisiveness, since one of his most difficult tasks was dealing with the fate of Catholic priests who had collaborated with the Germans during the war. For his services, Pius XII eventually raised him to the rank of cardinal, but this was more a recognition of his piety and long experience in the field than a statement of his power within the ecclesiastical hierarchy. He had been abroad for a very long time, with little inside knowledge of the workings of Rome and the networks of power that would allow him to become a major voice of reform among the princes of the church. It was therefore a stunning surprise when, upon the death of the pope in 1958, his fellow cardinals raised him even higher. He soon took the name John XXIII.

Excerpted from Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul Charles King. Copyright © 2014 by Charles King. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

*Correction, Sept. 25, 2014: This book excerpt incorrectly asserted that Kemal Ataturk was still president of Turkey in 1944. He died in 1938 and was replaced by Ismet Inonu. (Return.)