İsmail Necdet Kent (1911-2002) was a Turkish diplomat who risked his life to save Jews during World War II.
He was posted as Consul General to Marseilles between 1941 and 1944, gave Turkish citizenship to dozens of Turkish Jews living in France who did not have proper identity papers to save them from deportation to the Nazi gas chambers.
On one occasion in 1943, Kent rushed to the Saint Charles train station in Marseilles and boarded a train bound for the Auschwitz concentration camp after Nazi guards refused to let some 70 Jews with Turkish citizenship disembark. After more than an hour on the train, the guards let Kent and the Jews leave.
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. “The one single memory of that evening which will never be erased from my mind was the inscription which I saw on one of the wagons: ‘This wagon may be loaded with 20 heads of cattle and 500 kilograms of grass.’” Overcome with 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.
In his own words: “The Gestapo commander at the station, having heard of my presence, approached me and angrily asked me what I was doing there. I forced myself to civilly say that these people were Turkish citizens, that there had been a mistake, which must be immediately corrected. The Gestapo commander answered that he was merely following orders and that these people were not Turks or anything of the sort, but just plain Jews.
“Realizing that my threats were in vain, I suddenly turned to [my assistant] Sidi Iscan and said, ‘Come on, let’s go; we, too, are getting on this train.’And, pushing aside the soldier who tried to stop me, I entered one of the wagons.. Now it was the Gestapo officer’s turn to do the begging. I didn’t respond to anything that was said, and the train began to move in sight of the Gestapo officer.
“[At the next station when the train stopped] a few German officers got on the wagon and said that there had been a mistake, that the train had left Marseilles without giving me a chance to get off, that those responsible would be punished, that I could return to Marseilles with the special [Mercedes they had placed] at my disposal. I explained to them that there was no question of a mistake, that more than 80 Turkish citizens had been loaded onto these animal wagons because they were Jews, and that I was a representative of a government that rejected such treatment. The officers, promising that all manner of wrongdoing would be corrected, asked if everyone in the wagon was Turkish. A crowd of women, men and children had surrounded us watching, motionless as stone, this play dealing with their lives. Probably due to the orders received from their superiors, as much as to my own uncompromising stance, all of us got off the train together. A little later, the Germans left us alone.
“I cannot forget those embraces around our necks and hands. The inner peace I felt when I reached my bed towards morning that day is one that I have not savored much since then.”
In later years, retiring as ambassador, Ambassador Kent said, “What I have done is what I should have done. I knew I had to act.”
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. “When I saw the emptiness in the commanders eyes, I realize that he did not understand what I am saying. And I said that I will accept to be examined by their medical staff.”
In 2001, Kent and two other diplomats, Namik Kemal Yolga and Selahattin Ulkumen, were honoured with Turkey’s Supreme Service Medal as well as a special medal from Israel for rescuing Jews during the Holocaust.
Kent died in Istanbul in 2002, at the age of 91. Dozens of mourners attended his funeral, including officials from the Israeli consulate, Istanbul’s Deputy Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleve and leaders of the Turkish Jewish community.
Necdet Kent is father of Muhtar Kent, since 2008 President and Chief Operating Officer of the North Asia, Eurasia and Middle East Group of The Coca Cola Company.
Other Turkish Diplomats who Rescued Jews During World War II
- Minister of Foreign Affairs- Numan Menemencioðlu 1942-1944
- Ambassador- Behiç Erkin 1940-1943 Vichy
- Ambassador- Saffet Arýkan 1942-1944 Berlin
- Consul General - Ýnayetullah Cemal Özkaya 1940-1945 Athens
- Consul General- Burhan Iþýn 1942-1946 Varna
- Consul General- Ýrfan Sabitakça 1939-1943 Prague
- Consul General- Pertev Þevki Kantemiz 1939-1942 Budapest
- Consul General- Abdülahat Birden 1942-1944 Budapest
- Consul General- Fuat Aktan 1937-1942 Kostence (Bulgaria)
- Consul General- Ragýp Rauf Arman 1942-1945 Kostence (Bulgaria)
- Consul General- Kudret Erbey 1938-1942 Hamburg
- Consul General- Galip Evren 1942-1944 Hamburg
- Consul General- Cevdet Dülger 1939-1942 Paris
- Consul General- Namýk Kemal Yolga 1942 Paris
- Consul General- Fikret Þefik Özdoðancý 1942-1945 Paris
- Consul General- Bedii Arbel 1940-1943 Marseille
- Consul General- Mehmet Fuat Carým 1943-1945 Marseille
- Deputy Consul General- Necdet Kent 1942-1945 Marseille
Sources: Wikipedia; The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation ; Lefkovits, Edgar, “The consul who halted the death train,” The Jerusalem Post (September 21, 2000); Remarks by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washington, DC (March 13, 2002).