Contributed by Roz Kohen Drohobyczer
I was born 11 years after Ataturk's death, in 1949 in Turkiye. His influence to this day remains meaningful, strong and nostalgic for the Jewish Community, just as it is for millions of citizens in my home country. I was raised in a typical middle class Jewish household in a Jewish neighborhood of Istanbul.
As far as I can remember, my parents spoke lovingly and positively, of Ataturk on every occasion: when politics went wrong " if Ataturk saw that happening. if Ataturk was around that would not have happened.. , Ataturk loved the Jews.", and even " some say Ataturk was Jewish.", were comments often heard. This later comment often came from the desire that my folks had, that someone like Ataturk, should have been one of their own, since they identified so much with his reforms.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in his later years.
My parents always mentioned how Ataturk honored certain successful Jews and bestowed upon them degrees of scientists. Two of those names I recall are Sami Gunzberg and Jak Namer. Sami Gunzberg was bestowed the degree of a dentist and had served Ataturk as his personal dentist and Jak Namer was given the degree of an Astrologer.
Mom and dad also spoke of Ataturk as they spoke of a close friend. My father often reminded my mother of the day the two were swimming on the Florya beach where Ataturk had a small summer cabin. While the two were playfully swimming in the Marmara Sea, they had pushed away Ataturk's little rowboat and only noticed it was him when he smiled back at them and waived his hand. Our Hero was not only a leader, in all that he represented but he was modest and loved his people and enjoyed being among them.
We had picture albums of aunts and uncles and pictures taken on Ataturk's funeral. That day my mother recalls: "I cried for both of my fathers that I lost on the same year. My Mom and Dad had walked by his catafalque with the rest of the citizens of the country, who had come to say good-bye to the beloved leader.
In general I would say their attitude was a mixture of awe and love. Jews became equal citizens with the reforms that Ataturk brought, just as women did. As the whole country regained a new identity with more pride in themselves, so did the Jews. They became part of the revolution and were eager to accept the novelties. Basically, the turn to westernized values, probably felt closer to the Jews that to many other Turkish citizens. During the Ottoman period obviously Moslem women and men dressed more conservatively than Jewish ones. After the reforms everyone dressed more modern and Jewish population enjoyed this freedom. The novelties and progress Ataturk saw as the tools to progress were in harmony with the Jewish culture and gave Jews equal opportunities to advance. The new generation of Turkish Jews benefited greatly from the educational reforms.
Sephardic Jews in Turkey became part of a wider circle of professions, social life, politics and arts. They also regained identity by acquiring their Jewish surnames, a reform that was put in effect for all Turkish citizens. My parents' generation was given the opportunity to learn Turkish in educational institutions established by Ataturk. Yet Ataturk always admired people who spoke foreign languages and encouraged people to learn more than one language.
In the context of the historical events of the years 1915-1938 when Ataturks' influence took shape and his reforms were applied, while Jews were adjusting to those positive changes, let us not forget that many of the civilized countries were caught between the two World Wars. Jews in Europe were experiencing the holocaust, racism at its worse, poverty and prejudice.
That is why the Sephardim of Turkiye and the first generation of Ataturk's Republic have enjoyed and benefited from all the reforms and the westernization of the country and appreciate the Father he has been to them.