Last Train to Istanbul

Written by Ayse Kulin
Review by Waheed Rabbani

This novel uncovers a little-known dramatic rescue through the fictional story of a Turkish family who, in 1943, are part of a group of Jewish evacuees on a special train from Paris to Istanbul. The Turkish couple – Selva, a pretty Muslim, and Rafael, a handsome Jew – meet while at university in Istanbul. Having fallen deeply in love, they marry in 1933, much against Selva’s father’s wishes. However, facing social harassment, they move to Marseilles. Only a few years later, they encounter more serious threats to their lives from Hitler when Rafael is picked up by the Gestapo.

Since Turkey remains neutral during most of WWII, it maintains its offices in Paris and Marseilles. Selva’s sister and her husband – he works for the Turkish Foreign Ministry in Ankara – and other diplomatic contacts all strive for Rafael’s release. Instrumental in those efforts is the Turkish Consul in Marseilles. With assistance from the underground resistance, a plan is established to have a special train transport Turkish Jews to Istanbul. Forged papers are prepared for non-Turkish Jews, enabling them to also join this group.

Back in 1492, Beyazid II, the eighth Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, had issued an invitation to the 250,000 Jews being expelled from Spain to come to his country. Nearly 450 years later, Turkish diplomats during WWII took great personal risks to rescue some 15,000 Turkish and about 20,000 East European Jews from the Holocaust.

Kulin, a bestselling Turkish author, has penned this brilliant novel using the techniques of historical fiction. Her narrative with numerous characters and a number of subplots is handled deftly. Although in parts the English translation and the use of far too many clichés will make readers smile, the story is compelling up to the end and deserves a film adaptation. Highly recommended.