Besides the names of kings and the dates of battles, history also gives us new words. ‘Diaspora’, a scattering or dispersal of Jews, goes back to 5th century BCE, but it entered English dictionaries only in late 19th century. On the other hand, ‘holocaust’ was first coined in 1942, as was ‘genocide’. Do these words sum up Jewish history? Not quite.
While persecution was frequent, in 1492, Beyazid II, the eighth sultan of the Ottoman Empire, invited 2,50,000 Jews expelled from Spain to his lands. He promised that they could live and practice their faith without fear, as equal subjects. Turkish best-selling author Ayse Kulin’s novel Last Train to Istanbul, translated by John W Baker, is, at one level, about how this commitment was honoured 450 years later.
The story begins in 1941. Various European powers—Germany, Russia, Britain—are trying to draw Turkey into World War II, but it has resisted and remained neutral. Macit, an employee, of the Foreign Ministry, is involved in the fierce diplomatic negotiations when news arrives that all Jews in France are to be deported to labour camps in Germany.
Now the political becomes the personal: Macit’s wife Sabiha has a younger sister, Selva, who was the favourite child of her father, till she married Rafael, a Turkish Jew. The wedding, in defiance of both families, was followed with a decision by the couple to move to France.
Rafo and Selva’s life in Marseilles is thus a self-imposed exile. This, too, is disturbed when Rafo is picked off the street by German soldiers, but later freed through diplomatic intervention. The couple accepts the tenuous protection afforded by their Turkish passports.
With the support of French Resistance and the Turkish consulate officials, they, and many other evacuees like them, board a special train for Istanbul.
Based on the true accounts of several diplomats, who took huge personal risks to transport 15,000 Turkish and 25,000 East European Jews to safety, this is history viewed through the lens of fiction.
However, the writing is flat, borders on simplistic and meanders. Much like the train journey across a war-torn continent, it occasionally picks up speed, acquires poignancy, as well as a cinematic intensity.
A description of the Gare de l’Est: that distant, smoky smell of wet steam that fills one’s nostrils; the whiff of perfume from women passing by; the stench of sweat and garlic permeating the coarse clothes of peasants; and the acrid smell oozing from the bodies of the young soldiers. Hope and grief coexisted in this station.
At the heart of the narrative lie family and the complexity of its relationships: intense love, pride, jealousy and a sense of betrayal. Love, it seems to say, has to overcome hate. This is a novel that puts heart and humanity back into history.