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November 30, 2015 / 18 Kislev, 5776
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Before The Deluge: The Jews Of Turkey (Part Two)


The stories in this column are translations by Mr. Nollet from Die Juden In Der Welt (The Jews in the World) by Mark Wischnitzer, a long out-of-print book published more than seven decades ago in Germany. The book examines Jewish communities, one country at a time, as they existed in 1935 – a time before the Nazis began their extermination campaign against the Jews and before there was a state of Israel.

The Jews Of Turkey
(Part Two)

The French traveler Nicolay, who in 1551 accompanied Jews exiled from France to Constantinople, depicted the life, activities, trade and traffic, culture, and the social setting of the Jews in the following manner:

“Particularly astonishing is the immense number of resident Jews in Turkey and Greece, and particularly in Constantinople. Their number is continually on the rise, which is attributable to the fact that they almost everywhere are operating trade and goods and money, so that different kinds of products from all lands and peoples are brought either by land or sea and are promoted here. One can safely say that the traffic in trade and finance throughout the Levant currently, in great part, can be found in Jewish hands. In Constantinople, the biggest commercial zones with the most variety of goods in filled-up warehouses belong to Jews.

“Also with them one can encounter, and not seldom, artisans and skilled workers who were recently Marranos who fled from Spain and Portugal. They manufacture for the Turks the most varied of war armaments that have yet been discovered and developed, for example, cannons, arquebuses [Translator’s Note: an early, primitive musket], powder, munitions, etc. In the same manner, there are Jews here who have built publishing plants, which were heretofore unknown among the Turks, that print books in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Hebrew. Related to this is the fact that Jews know many languages, so that many are happy to employ them as translators.”

Another Frenchman reported in a travel book that appeared in Paris in 1555 about Spanish Jews who worked in mines not far from Salonika alongside Jews from Hungary who arrived earlier, and who were called “aleman” [Germans]. He ascertained that the Jews built the main force behind all the commercial traffic, and that the Turkish government esteemed Jewish financial acumen.

The court physician Moses Hamon, whose father also had been a personal physician to the Turkish court, accompanied Sultan Suleiman II [Suleiman the Magnificent] on his military expeditions. Joseph of Naxos placed his entire worldwide connections at the disposal of Sultan Selim II, and worked for Turkey’s benefit. A relative of the duke of Naxos, and his successor in the diplomatic service to the Turkish court, was Don Salomo Abenjaex, who was also known as Chevalier Alvaro Mendez. Spain had exhausted Turkish neutrality against England, and Mendez thwarted their intentions by seizing Spanish warships in Italian waters and in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and rendered them harmless.

The discovery of America led to a shift of the trade with the Orient to the waters of the New World and caused a gradual decline in the Turkish economy (since previously it had all flowed to Europe through Constantinople). The Jews shared in the fate of this hospitable land.

In the 17th century Jews looking to escape [what had become a] hopeless reality were drawn to the false messiah Shabtai Zvi. The masses sank into superstition and ignorance.

In 1927 the current state of Turkey undertook a census for the first time, and in the European portion of Turkey counted about 55,000 Jews, about 4.7% of the total population. Mostly they lived in Istanbul – 46,700 – and in Edirne [formerly Adrianopolis] – 5,700. The reduction of the Jewish population can be seen from the 1908 estimate of the Jewish population. At that time, Constantinople [the name was changed to Istanbul at the end of WWI] had about 60,000 Jews and Edirne 25,000.

The masses of Jews busied themselves with shipping, piloting and captaining boats, freight hauling, small artisanship, and fishing. In the European quarter of Istanbul and in the suburb of Pera, the middle and upper classes predominated, occupying themselves as lawyers, doctors, and merchants.

The Peace Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 guaranteed Jews minority rights. The new Turkish republic promoted the assimilation of all into the state. Turkification of minorities was systematically carried out. Turkish became the official language of instruction in all the minority schools.

About the Author: Ezra James Nollet is a retired U.S. government chemist living in Poland where he is officer of the local synagogue in Legnica. Before the Deluge appears the last week of each month.

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