The victims of the Holocaust were officially going to be commemorated in Turkey – as they would be in many other countries. This was huge. And it would happen in Ankara, the heart of Turkey!
We already had a Yom HaShoah, a Holocaust memorial day. The UN’s Holocaust International Remembrance Day was first commemorated in Turkey five years ago at Neve Shalom Synagogue. Last year, the commemoration was held for the first time outside Jewish institutions, at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. This year it would be held at Bilkent University in Ankara. This year was also important because the Speaker of Parliament, Cemil Çiçek, would be attending the ceremony. It would be the first time that such a high ranking official did so.
Everything was perfect. Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, attended the ceremonies held at Auschwitz in Poland with 100 Holocaust survivors and world leaders. The atmosphere of the Jewish delegation in Ankara could be described as 170 people full of optimism, hope, and pride.
Our first stop was Anıtkabir. We visited the mausoleum of Anıtkabir with a military ceremony to pay our respects and gratitude towards Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic; we stood in one minute’s silent tribute to him. I waited for the National Anthem of Turkey to be played, but it didn’t happen. Our Chief Rabbi made a speech at the entrance of the museum and signed the Special Book before we visited the museum.
Our next stop was the Ankara Synagogue. They told us that the neighborhood surrounding the synagogue was not very welcoming for Jews, and that we should be organized in groups and move quickly. This is when I realized that there were high security precautions around our buses, and police officers were everywhere.
You have to see the beauty of the Ankara Synagogue. Even the cheap fluorescent lighting and old heating stoves could not ruin the splendor of the ceilings and chandeliers. The President of the Ankara Jewish community, Can Özgön, told me that the roof is in need of an urgent repair. And I learned another devastating fact: the Ankara Jewish community has no more than 30 members today, out of 3,500 in 1948.
The ceremony held at the synagogue was very important in many ways. It was the first time in a long period that the synagogue witnessed such a crowd, and it was also a family gathering of Turkish Jews from all over the country. A photo was taken with all the presidents of the Turkish Jewish communities to capture this reunion.
When we went outside of the synagogue, I was afraid of the looks of the male-dominated crowd on the street. I realized that it was true, that we were not welcome here. I started to walk faster towards the bus. On the other hand, I was also used to this. In Istanbul every time a ceremony is held in a synagogue, there are announcements: “Don’t wait in front of the main entrance, walk away quickly once you are outside the synagogue.” It was nothing new for me.
After a lunch at Bilkent Restaurant, we visited Alberto Modiano’s photo exhibit, “The Symbols of the Holocaust.” I noticed many army members were present, and I found out that this was the first time they attended such a ceremony. The President of Bilkent University, Abdullah Atalar, Dr. Umut Uzer from Istanbul Technical University, and the President of the Turkish delegation for IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance), Ambassador Ertan Tezgör, all expressed the importance of education in the fight against anti-Semitism during their speeches.
The President of the Turkish Jewish Community, Ishak Ibrahimzadeh, said that the best answer to the Holocaust, and all the other pains that humanity has been through, was to ensure that our children do not experience that. And he added, “We should walk together hand in hand, in solidarity, with the richness of our differences.”
The Speaker of Parliament, Cemil Çiçek, began his speech by saying that the Holocaust experience is the most concrete indication of what could happen when we lose human values. Every speech was translated into English in advance, and they were projected on the wall over the stage. During the ceremony, I was following the Power Point presentation out of curiosity just to see if there were any errors in the translation. During Çiçek’s speech, the translation suddenly stopped. He had started talking about Israel and Palestine, and how this dispute stands in front of all Middle Eastern problems as well as the problems that the other speakers had mentioned and complained about. He continued to talk about Palestinian rights, Jerusalem, Al Aqsa, Gaza attacks, and the Mavi Marmara.
Wait a minute, weren’t we at a Holocaust memorial service?
The Holocaust that occurred 70 years ago in Europe, before the creation of the State of Israel?The one where the Nazis used all their intelligence and all kinds of technology just to construct death machines and factories? The one that the world chose to ignore until the last minute? Did we not talk about this tragedy during this entire ceremony? Did we not emphasize how dangerous it was not only for the Jews, but also for humanity? And didn’t we say that we had to learn a lesson from this atrocity?
Was it necessary to emphasize the idea that everything Jewish is connected to Israel? Don’t we have 364 other days and other platforms to discuss and try to find a solution to the problems of the Middle East, Gaza, Israel, Palestine, and the Mavi Marmara incident that torpedoed Turkish-Israeli relations?
Later on, I saw the simultaneous translation in excellent English: “The rights and liberty of our Jewish citizens who are not responsible for Israeli politics, but only share the same religious affiliation, are under our protection.” Can we sincerely trust these words?
The ceremony ended with a candle lighting for the 6 million who were taken out of their daily life, separated from their loved ones, and became just a five digit number, forced to work and live in the utmost inhuman conditions, experimented on, and killed in cold blood. The words of our Chief Rabbi Haleva summarized it all: “I hope our world will not witness such brutality ever again!”
Karel Valansi Algemeiner 16 February 2015