Einstein’s letter to Ataturk’s Turkey

A letter written by Albert Einstein to Kemal Ataturk, Founder of the Republic of Turkey. It would have mutually beneficial effects — saving the lives of countless Jewish physicians and other scientists, while revolutionizing higher education in Turkey.

 

Einstein's letter to Ataturk represents an intersection in the lives of two of the most extraordinary figures of the 20th century: Einstein, Time Magazine's "Individual of the 20th Century," and Ataturk, highest scoring leader of the 20th Century, according to the ranking in Arnold Ludwig's book, "King of the Mountain."

A video prepared by Çankaya University in Ankara gives the historical background to the letter. According to the narrative (in Turkish) in 1949 Einstein meets a young foreign student, Münir Ülgür, at Princeton. When he learns that Ülgür is a student from Turkey, he shows visible excitement, “Do you know,” he says, “…your nation produced the greatest leader of the century!” Einstein then goes on to reminisce about having received an invitation from Ataturk in the early 1930s, “… to come and teach in one of our universities. However, as fate would have it,” he continues, “…it was not to be.”

Münir Ülgür in his later years in Turkey.

[Note. In the early 1930s Einstein, already an international celebrity, was serving as a visiting scholar at Oxford’s Christ Church, while also trying to wade through a stack of permanent job offers. He had finally narrowed his choices down to three, Oxford, Caltech and Princeton University (Princeton, it seems, was his first choice, “… they were the first  to accept relativity.”) when a brand new institution emerges to lure him. Abraham Flexner, who had earlier made Johns Hopkins into a premier medical institution — first by introducing basic research into medicine in accord with the German model, and second, by accepting women into the program — had a new idea. He approached the Bamberger Family (of department store fame) to fund a new scientific ‘think tank’ in Princeton, New Jersey. The institution, the Institute for Advanced Study, would allow scholars to engage in pure mathematics and theoretical physics research (no laboratories), to collaborate with each other, without being burdened by teaching students. Then at the Bamberger Family’s insistence, Flexner would journey to England and convince Einstein to join the faculty of the Institute as one of his first faculty recruits. Einstein would serve as the nucleus around which other great scientists and mathematicians, many of them European Jews, would revolve.]

Banner reading, "Boycott Jewish Capital" (1933). Holocaust Museum.

Meanwhile, in the late 1920s and early 30s, most of the world was immersed in the Great Depression. Germany, embittered by the suffocating terms imposed on it by the victorious allies, must have seen the future as especially hopeless, akin to a visitation by a medieval plague. Just when things could not seem more bleak, in 1933 Paul von Hindenburg, President of the Weimar Republic, made a disastrous decision. He appointed as the Chancellor of the Republic, Adolph Hitler, the head of the socialist, ultra-nationalist Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (Nazi Party). The climate of Antisemitism, percolating for years, suddenly erupted violently under the Nazis. Unemployed young men, clad in brown shirts, became the Nazi’s Stoßtruppen (“shock troops” or storm troopers), hunting for Jews in their murderous rampage. Systematically painted as unpatriotic, Jews were the first to be laid off from their jobs.

Sami M. Günzberg, a Jewish Turkish dentist, was attending an International Conference in Paris of the Union for the Protection of the Well-Being of the Jewish Population (OSE). It was there that he would meet Albert Einstein, the Honorary President of the organization, and together hatch a plan.  Einstein would write a letter to the Prime Minister, Ismet Inönü, “… I beg to apply to your Excellency to allow forty professors and medical doctors from Germany to continue their scientific and medical work in Turkey. The above mentioned cannot practice further in Germany on account of the laws… in granting this request your Government will not only perform an act of high humanity, but it will bring profit to your own country.” Einstein’s letter is dated September 17, 1933. By September 30, Günzberg would personally translate Einstein’s letter into Turkish, and with a cover letter of his own, submit it to the Turkish Government. And although Einstein’s letter is most likely meant for Ataturk, it is sent in care of the Prime Minister, Ismet Inönü. The cover letter is signed, “Dis Tabibi (Dentist), Sami Günzberg, Beyoglu, Istiklal Caddesi, No. 356.”

Inönü’s handwritten message at the bottom of the letter reads, “Their salaries will be unaffordable for us.” He rejects the offer. Above the words, “Your Excellency,” appears the rectangular stamp: “Office of the Prime Minister,” replete with a star and crescent. A handwritten note, “Maarif Vekaletine” (to the Education Ministry) is seen just above the date “9-10-933” (October 9, 1933). But when Ataturk hears about the letter from Einstein, he convenes a meeting with the principles, presumably the Prime Minister, the Minister of Education and Dr. Günzberg, and Einstein’s offer is accepted. The invitation is then extended to the German Jewish scientists, and the reform of higher education is underway, catalyzed by Einstein’s letter.

According to another source, Death on the High Sea: the Untold Story of the Struma, it was originally Atatürk’s idea to offer asylum to German Jewish scientists. The authors, Franz and Collins write, “Ataturk had set an ambitious course for modernizing his country along European lines. He had banned the traditional fez, ordering his countrymen to wear fedoras instead. He had changed to a Latin alphabet, introduced modern dancing and European music, and moved the Capital to Ankara… As it happened Atatürk had considerable problems with his teeth, and his dentist was Sami Günzberg. In their many lengthy sessions, Günzberg had spoken with Atatürk about the plight of Germany’s Jews under Hitler. Turkey’s leader had an idea: He could offer asylum to some of the most gifted Jews, they would help him transform his country into a modern state.”

The book cover of Rifat N. Bali's book, “The Master Dentist of the Seraglio and the Republic”, showing a rare portrait of Sami Günzberg.

Reminiscent of an early-day Billy Graham, the evangelist who was welcomed into the White House by 11 Democratic and Republican Presidents, from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush, Dr. Günzberg was the dentist of the Ottoman Court, treating Sultans Abdulhamid II and Vahideddin. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, he would become the dentist of the leaders of the Republic of Turkey. He treated Ataturk, who even had a dental chair installed in Dolmabahçe Palace. He lived on to treat successive Presidents Inönü and Bayar into the 1950s.

It is Atatürk’s hand that is seen in the manner in which history unfolded for the Jews in Turkey during the next few decades. His driving principles, science and reason over superstition and dogma, and diligence and merit over ethnicity and religion, fueled his secular Republic. It would be German and Austrian Jewish physicians, scientists, archaeologist, linguists who would prepare the next generation of Turkish scholars, just as it had been Armenian builders, with reputation for good construction, that had been hired to build  Ankara, the new Capital of Turkey.

In a book by Rifat N. Bali, “Sarayin ve Cumhuriyetin Discibasisi, Sami Günzberg” (“The Master Dentist of the Seraglio and the Republic,” Kitabevi, 2007 ) Günzberg is described as “Dentist, confidante of Sultans and founders of the Turkish Republic, unofficial diplomat, the acting representative of the heirs of Sultan Abdulhamid II… and a conduit for assistance to Jewish refugees from the Nazi genocide in Europe.” The author adds, “Sami Günzberg had resolved never to write his memoirs. Accordingly, it is only with painstaking research in various Turkish and international archives that the author succeeded in piecing together the life and work of the man known to so many in Turkey as simply “Disçibasi Sami Bey” (“Sami Bey, the dentist”).

Not just the forty that Einstein requested, but many scores of German and Austrian Jewish scientists, their families, and their assistants, moved to Turkey. For the next 10-15 years the medical schools, and science and technology departments, especially in Istanbul flourished. By the 1950s many of these scientists immigrated to the newly created State of Israel, and to the United States. They staffed the medical schools of Hopkins and Harvard, Columbia and Chicago. And they came to the physics departments of Princeton and Einstein’s Institute for Advanced Study.

A diptych showing the celebrated cardiac surgeon and TV personality, Dr. Mehmet Oz, and his father, Dr. Mustafa Oz.

I met a number of exceptionally skilled Turkish physicians over the years who all spoke with pride of the world class medical education they had received at the University of Istanbul in the mid-40s. Dr. Mehmet Oz, born in Cleveland in 1960,  is a Turkish American cardiac surgeon and television personality. In an interview on PBS, Dr. Oz, recounts his own father’s experience: before coming to Cleveland from Turkey in the 50s, the senior Dr. Oz had received world class training in medicine in those heady days. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/facesofamerica/profiles/dr-mehmet-oz/4/

SHADES OF THE DISTANT PAST

The foregoing story is somewhat evocative of a development four-and-a half centuries earlier. The Ottoman Empire had always been a polyglot, multiracial country, with wide religious tolerance. The Empire’s footprint at its peak resembled that of Rome at its peak, including Anatolia, the Middle East, the Balkans, North Africa, and lands ringing the northern coast of the Black Sea. In the 16th century the Mediterranean was referred to as the “Ottoman Lake.” In 1492, Spain, fresh from expelling the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, made it clear to the Jews they were no longer welcome, “…convert or leave!” The resulting Jewish exodus led in two directions — east to the Ottoman Empire and northeast to Eastern Europe. In the Ottoman Empire the tradition of family names would not come until Ataturk’s Republic. But in Eastern Europe last names already existed, and the newly arriving immigrants had to pay for their last names. A prevailing practice, however, created restrictions on the names. The wealthy families took names, such as “Diamond”, “Ruby”, “Gold”, “Goldman”, “Goldstine”, “Silver”, “Silverstein”, … in descending order according to cost. Others simply adopted the names of towns and cities they lived in, Irvin Berlin, Lynda Paris… Families of modest means had to settle for more mundane names, such as “Einstein”… [This is an explanation I once heard from the Israeli philosopher of physics, Max Jammer (1915-2010).]

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to a number of groups and individual friends who inspired this article.

• Hon. Oktay Eksi, Member of Parliament from Istanbul, and a former legendary journalist in Turkey (“Walter Cronkite of Turkey”) who gave a superb keynote speech at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC on the occasion of the May 19, 2012, Ataturk’s birthday, and the National Youth and Sports Day.

• Hon. Steven Cohen (Dem. Tennessee) who read an extraordinarily generous message about Kemal Ataturk into the Congressional Record for May 19, 2012.

• Davut Okutçu, Executive Board Member of the Turkish-American Business Council, who provided additional insight into the final resolution of Einstein’s letter.

• Mesut Ilgin, Economist, Istanbul, who first brought Einstein’s letter to my attention in 2010.

• Izzet Keribar, Photographer extraordinaire, Istanbul, who shared his experience with me as a Jew living in Istanbul, and gave me the two volume collection of photos, Synagogues of Turkey.

• Roy Weinstock, Professor of Psychology, and my consultant on all things Judaic.

• Members of ARKADASLAR, former Members of the Peace Corps who were stationed in Turkey.

Recommended Links

• Video (in Turkish) “Einstein’in Atatürk’e Mektubu” (Einstein’s Letter to Atatürk): http://www.cankaya.edu.tr/duyuru/einstein.php

• Arnold Reisman, Turkey’s Modernization: Refugees from Nazism and Atatürk’s Vision (New Academia Publishing, 2006). Most authoritative of all sources.

• Dr. Mehmet Oz, Faces of America Series, Interview of Mehmet Oz by Henry Louis Gates. An endearing 5-minute video, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/facesofamerica/profiles/dr-mehmet-oz/4/

• Roz Kohen Drohobyczer, “Ataturk’s influence on “Jewish” life in Turkiye, A Personal view.” http://www.sephardicstudies.org/ataturkrz.html

• Rifat Bali, “Sarayin ve Cumhuriyetin Discibasisi, Sami Günzberg” (“The Master Dentist of the Seraglio and the Republic,” Kitabevi, 2007) http://www.rifatbali.com/en/genel_yazilar/kitaplar/sarayin_ve_cumhuriyetin_discibasisi_sami_gunzberg.html

Death on the Black Sea, Story of the Struma, a converted cattle barge carrying refugees from Eastern Europe to Turkey and Palestine, sinks off the Black Sea Coast of Istanbul, on the early morning of Feb. 24, 1942… after striking a mine (in English).: http://books.google.com/books?id=1WMBiRMDb80C&pg=PA136&lpg=PA136&dq=%22sami+gunzberg%22+dentist&source=bl&ots=zXP1xVy_L_&sig=rjmgLxoi6qtQitBpkvjs4wrfa-c&hl=en&sa=X&ei=KP-6T7DkN4qC8ATkks2rCg&sqi=2&ved=0CF8Q6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=ataturknazi%20persecution%20sami%20gunzberg%22%20dentist&f=false

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Meet the Author
Bulent Atalay, a scientist, artist and author, has been described by NPR, PBS and the Washington Post as a “Modern Renaissance Man.” He is the author of two successful books on the intersection of art, science and mathematics, with Leonardo, the pre-eminent Renaissance man, serving as the foil. His best selling book, "Math and the Mona Lisa," (Smithsonian Books, 2004) has appeared in 13 languages. Professor Atalay's academic background is in theoretical physics. He travels around the world lecturing at academic institutions and on cruise ships on the "A-subjects," art, archaeology, astrophysics, atomic physics and Ataturk, confessing that he knows much less about the "B-subjects," business, banking, biology and botany... He is the President of the Ataturk Society of America (ASA), dedicated to promoting Ataturk's ideals of science and reason over dogma and superstition, of a secular state with full equality of genders. For more details click on Bulent Atalay