Necdet Kent, a Turkish diplomat who risked his life to save Jews during World War II in a little-known chapter of Holocaust history, has died. He was 91.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said Kent died Friday in Istanbul. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Kent was the Turkish consul general in the French port city of Marseille from 1941 to 1944.
One evening in 1943, he was alerted by a Jewish worker at the consulate that 80 Turkish Jews living in Marseille had been rounded up and packed into cattle cars bound for Germany and certain death.
He rushed to Marseille's St. Charles train station, where he found a wagon crammed with Jews, moaning and sobbing, piled one on top of another.
"To this day," he told the Jerusalem Post a few years ago, "I remember the inscription on the wagon: 'This wagon may be loaded with 20 head of cattle and 500 kilograms of grass.' "
The Gestapo commander at the station approached him angrily and asked why he was there. Kent replied that the Jews were Turkish citizens and must be released, but the commander dismissed him, saying that they were "not Turks or anything of the sort, but just plain Jews."
Ignoring the Nazi officer and a soldier attempting to block his passage, Kent boarded the train.
At the next station, he was met by German officers who apologized that the train had left Marseille before letting him disembark. They told him they had a car ready to take him back.
"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," Kent recalled.
The Germans were dumbfounded by his courageous stand. They asked if everyone on the train was Turkish. Hearing no exceptions, they let everyone off the train.
The Jews, who were sent to Istanbul for the duration of the war, flung their arms around Kent in gratitude.
"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."
Kent was one of several Turkish officials who helped to rescue Jews in Nazi-occupied France. Turkish diplomats protested French government orders that Jews wear a yellow star and helped many Turkish Jews travel safely to Turkey. Historians have credited Turkey, which was a neutral country, with saving the lives of 20,000 Jews during the war.
After World War II, Kent served at Turkey's consulate in New York and was ambassador to Thailand, New Delhi, Sweden and Poland.
In 2001, he and two other diplomats, Namik Kemal Yolga and Selahattin Ulkumen, were honored with Turkey's Supreme Service Medal, as well as a special medal from Israel for rescuing Jews during the Holocaust.
"I admire and respect and thank you to no end for what you did to save our Jewish brothers at the darkest moment in history," Uri Bar-Ner, then Israel's ambassador to Turkey, said at the ceremony.
There was no immediate information on survivors.
Kent's funeral was scheduled for Sept. 23.