“Passport” Documents Courage

As tumultuous and rife with ethnic and religious conflict as the Middle East is today, in the early 1940s moral courage and conviction led largely Muslim Turkish diplomats to save hundreds of Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust. The documentary film “The Turkish Passport,” which tells the story of these Jews, had its American premiere at Sanders Theatre on November 22. The premiere highlighted a crossroads of culture, cinema, and history and brought together local Turkish residents with Harvard students.

While the premiere was primarily focused on sharing the message of the intense and emotional 91-minute film “The Turkish Passport” with the Turkish and Harvard communities, it was the event’s co-chair Burak Eskici and the film’s producer Günes Çelikcan and director Burak Arlıel who set the tone for the evening by delivering heartfelt messages—which were translated from Turkish—of global peace and solidarity in speeches preceding the movie.

As Ibrahim Artukarslan, president of the World Platform of University Students—which co-sponsored the event along with Harvard University’s Turkish Students Association—said, “There is no better university than Harvard to spread this message of solidarity though all cultures in the world. With Harvard’s [extensive] student population, [the university is] a leader in the world and will help this documentary spread its humanitarian message of peace and action throughout the entire world.”

Outside Sanders, viewers were able to engage with representatives of a dozen Turkish banks and hotel chains that were also sponsors and were then led into Sanders Theatre for the premiere. Notable audience guests, such as Çelikcan were thanked in both Turkish and English for their involvement.  Meric Erik, a Turkish Boston resident who heard about this event though the Turkish Cultural Center in Boston, said that both she and her husband “are interested in the film and excited about the concept of Turkish solidarity”.

“The Turkish Passport” documents the little-known story of Turkish diplomats who risked their lives to provide Turkish passports to Jewish Turkish citizens in Nazi-occupied France. With a quick test of a couple of phrases in Turkish, Jews with descendants from Turkey would be given Turkish papers and were ultimately saved from the Nazi concentration camps. “The Turkish Passport” is a documentary containing hundreds of interviews from the French-Turkish Jews who made their way to Turkey in a10-day journey by train through war-torn Europe. However, it went beyond the scope of a traditional documentary by intertwining performances of professional actors and actresses with real-life interviews. The movie, presented in a mix of German, French, and Turkish with English subtitles, stressed the intensity of the natural dialects and maintained emotional authenticity that might have been lost in a translated version. In the end of the film, when the Jewish survivors finally found a safe haven in Muslim Turkey, the message stressed by the filmmakers became apparent; as Artukarslan said before the movie screened, “We can prove that even this terrible war and eventually the Cold War can have a happy ending.”

According to Eskici, the movie represents a move by domestic and foreign Turkish affiliated associations to foster peace in the Middle East as tensions have grown in recent years. The movie world-premiered as Turkey’s international entry in the 64th Cannes Film Festival and was selected for the “Show Case” in the Lucerne film festival.

Hundreds of people gathered in the lobby of Sanders Theatre to see copies of mandates from the leaders of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic confirming the history of religious tolerance in the country for non-Muslim denominations. Eskici said, “The event, both the reception and showing of the movie, provide a story that is a ray of light within this deep darkness, a ray of light that is of tolerance and heroism, showing that when people stand up against injustice, good things can come of it.”