LE COURAGE TURC
Necdet KENT : Le Consul turc qui a stoppé le train de la mort !
The consul who halted the death
By Etgar Lefkovits
JERUSALEM (September 21, 2000) - Ninety-two-year-old Necdet Kent thinks back to the evening in 1943 when, as Turkish consul-general in Marseilles, he rushed to the Saint Charles train station of the southern French port city. A Jewish worker at the consulate had alerted him that 80 Turkish Jews living in Marseilles had been loaded into cattle cars for immediate transport to certain death in Germany.
The Jews were crammed one on top of the other in the wagon, which was meant to transport cattle.
"To this day, I remember the inscription on the wagon: 'This wagon may be loaded with 20 heads of cattle and 500 kilograms of grass,' " Kent recalled yesterday during a visit to Yad Vashem.
Overcome by sorrow and anger at the sight, Kent approached the Gestapo commander at the station, and demanded that the Jews, whom he said were Turkish citizens, be released.
The official refused to comply, saying that the people were nothing but Jews.
Undeterred, and in a leap of courage and human benevolence, Kent turned to the Jewish worker from the consulate and said, "Come on, we're getting on this train, too." Pushing aside the soldier who tried to stop him, he jumped into the wagon.
The German official asked him to get off, but Kent refused.
The train started to move, but at the next station, German officers boarded and apologized to Kent for not letting him off at Marseilles; a car was waiting outside to take him back to his office. But Kent explained that the mistake was not that he was on the train - but that 80 Turkish citizens had been loaded on the train.
"As a representative of a government that rejected such treatment for religious beliefs, I could not consider leaving them there," he said.
Dumbfounded by his uncompromising stance, the Germans ultimately let everyone off the train.
"I cannot forget the embraces, the expression of gratitude in the eyes of the people we rescued," he said.
Fifty-seven years later, Kent thinks back to those moments of inner peace that he felt the morning after his action.
"What I have done is what I should have done," the former diplomat, who is in Israel for an eye operation, says matter-of-factly. "I knew I had to act."
Despite a lifelong career in the foreign service, Kent would never inform his government of what he did.
"The government never encouraged me to act, and so it was none of their business," he said, adding, "If you do not feel it yourself, you will never do it."
But Kent's heroism was not limited to this one action. In contrast to some of the other foreign consulates stationed in Marseilles, who began imitating the Nazis' disdain toward Jews, Kent issued Turkish identity documents to scores of Turkish Jews living in southern France or who had fled there and did not hold valid Turkish passports.
At one point, Kent went to Gestapo headquarters to protest against the latest abominable action that had begun in Marseilles: the stripping of males in the middle of the street to determine whether they were Jews or not. The consul-general rebuked the German commander and notified him that circumcision did not necessarily prove one's Jewishness.
"I did as much as I could in a very difficult time," Kent said yesterday after a tour of the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, escorted by the Turkish ambassador, his son and daughter-in-law, and past and present members of the French and Turkish Jewish communities.
"If I have done well, then I am proud of myself," he said.
Still, Yad Vashem has yet to confer the title of Righteous Gentile on him. The reason, according to Yad Vashem officials, is that they still need written proofs of Kent's actions by survivors.
After the war ended, Kent was stationed in London and, as he never returned to Marseilles, lost touch with the Jews he saved.
"For many years, I received a flow of letters from my co-passengers on that short but fateful train journey," said Kent. "Who knows how many of them are still alive, and how many have departed from our midst? I remember them all with kindness."
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