German film festival provides fresh perspective on WWII

For the second week of a three-part Neuland / New Territories: German & Austrian Film Festival, last Monday Images Cinema turned to a documentary to explore one the many legacies of the Holocaust rarely considered in conventional historical narratives. In this case, Haymatloz, directed by Turkish-born German filmmaker Eren Önsöz, examines the multi-generational stories of German-Jewish professors who found asylum and raised their families in the young nation-state of Turkey. In doing so, the documentary takes a fascinating look at the evolving intersections of culture from the immediacy of diaspora to the present day.

The film looks at historical footage of interviews with the children of the elite academics who were welcomed by Turkey and employed by its universities while being denied asylum elsewhere. As members of the second generation return to the country of their childhood, they reflect on what it means to be Turkish, German and Jewish, as well as on their parents’ impact on the history of Turkey.

That impact is significant. Invited by the president of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, to take part in his program of university reform at the same time as the Nazi rise to power forced them to leave Germany, the parents of the film’s five subjects played an integral role in shaping the academic institutions that contributed to a broad “Westernization” and secularization of Turkey in the state’s formative years.

Regardless of the historical magnitude of their families’ lives, Önsöz’s interview subjects are just as remarkable for their accounts of their individual experiences growing up in Turkey, where they were simultaneously foreign and, for the most part, accepted. Their contentment with their childhoods, however, does not seem to spill over into the current Turkish political requirement. Many of them expressed concern over the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the perceived receding of democratic and secular norms. (The film was released in 2016 before Erdogan’s April 2017 controversial referendum to amend the Constitution and switch from a parliamentary to a presidential system, narrowly passed over objections of voting legitimacies.)

Their concern was not limited to Turkey, either, as the five saw Erdogan’s plays to authoritarianism as representative of a wider backslide of democracy. These fears look more prescient by the day, as the resurgence of far-right politics in Europe has now culminated in the far-right AfD becoming the third largest party in the German Bundestag, less than a century after the Nazis first took power.

The ominous backdrop of contemporary politics aside, the journalistic value of recording retrospective accounts from second-generation Jewish exiles is evident throughout the film, especially since Turkey was a vital place of refuge but is so rarely acknowledged in popular histories of World War II in any context. The backdrop of a return trip to Turkey after many years abroad further enhances the quality of the interviews, allowing for the full range of nostalgia and sensory memory to come to life for the subjects who spent their unique formative years in Ankara or Istanbul.

Haymatloz is a Turkish title derived from a German term for homelessness, heimatlos, a choice that provides a sobering check on the positivity the film’s interviews have to offer. The fact that Turkey was in many ways a place associated with happiness for the families who grew up in and shaped the country cannot change the fact that those families were exiled. The opportunity extended by Ataturk, the figure they lionize, was ultimately monumental because of the horrific consequences of staying behind. Having survived through the reign of Nazism, lived through post-war reconstruction in a state that is a unique bridge between Europe and Asia and lived long enough to perhaps see the world allow Nazis to rise again, the five German-Jewish Turks of Haymatloz give audiences a multidimensional and much-needed new perspective on remembering the consequences of Nazism and the history that has unfolded since.

‘Haymatloz,’ shown on Monday at Images, highlights the lives of WWII refugees in Turkey. Photo courtesy of theculturetip.com