A New Film on Atatürk’s Jewish Refugee Professors

NOV. 9 2016

By the 1930s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president, was deeply involved in his project of modernizing and Westernizing his country, a project that included reforming the universities. When he found out that Jews were leaving Germany to escape Nazi persecution, he began recruiting German Jewish professors. Their fate is the subject of a new German-language film, Haymatloz, whose title is a play on the Yiddish word meaning “homeless.” Heike Mund writes:

The film highlights a chapter of German-Turkish history that has largely been forgotten, telling the stories of five German emigrants who worked as professors at Turkish academies, universities, ministries, and in public office. In Turkey, they weren’t labeled as Jews, but rather regarded as Germans. They taught generations of Turkish students. . . . Istanbul University [alone] hired 30 Jewish professors in the 1933-34 winter semester.

[In the film], Jewish emigrants’ children reminisce about their childhoods, about growing up in Istanbul or in Ankara, and about what awaited them in postwar Germany, where the Jewish returnees were anything but welcome and where no one spoke about the fate of the German Jews.

Haymatloz is a beautiful film, directed with a great sense of timing and power of images, and with a strong political focus toward the end. The film’s protagonists are concerned about a country where, step by step, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is undoing Atatürk’s achievements and Turkey’s social progress.