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When Turkey sent Holocaust refugees to their deaths — and let nationalism grow unchecked

Serenade for Nadia: A Novel
By Zülfü Livaneli, translated by Brendan Feely
Other Press, 417 pages, $17.99

Desperate refugees embarking on treacherous sea voyages. Unscrupulous guides making fortunes from humanitarian crises. Leaky boats destined for disaster. Governments colluding to evade responsibility.

These sound like details from the humanitarian crises of the last few years. But they’re also elements of a story that played out in the early 1940s as Jews scrambled to escape Nazi-era Europe by any means possible.

One particularly dangerous corridor out of the continent was the Black Sea, which refugees illegally crossed in accident-prone boats manned by profiteers, hoping to find safety in Turkey or mandatory Palestine. In 1941, the Struma, a cattle barge with the capacity for 150 passengers, left the Romanian port city of Constanza with almost 800 Jews on board. After its engine failed outside Istanbul, the ship languished in port while local authorities haggled over the fate of its cargo: Turkey had no desire to become a haven for refugees, but British diplomats wanted to prevent the ship from arriving in Palestine. Unable to reach a compromise, the Turkish government simply towed the Struma back into the Black Sea, leaving it in waters controlled by Soviet soldiers under orders to sink any neutral ships. Within hours, a submarine torpedoed the Struma, killing all but one passenger.

If you’ve never heard of the Struma disaster, you’re not alone — neither has Maya, the protagonist of “Serenade for Nadia,” a 2011 novel by bestselling Turkish author Zülfü Livaneli now appearing in English for the first time. An administrator at Istanbul University, Maya spends her days babysitting clueless visiting academics until one of them, a courtly German scholar named Maximilian, propels her into a personal and political awakening. In the early days of the Third Reich, Maximilian was among a handful of Jewish and dissident academics who fled to Turkey and found work forming the fledgling Republic’s university system. While he subsequently made his career in America, as an elderly man he’s returned to Istanbul in order to pay homage to his wife Nadia, who fled Germany separately from him and perished on the Struma.

Maximilian’s interest in an episode that Turkey would rather not remember — the country first commemorated the Struma disaster in 2015, four years after the novel was published — draws the ire of the Turkish secret police. Yet despite the danger, Maya becomes more and more invested in her role as Maximilian’s guide and protector, taking his quest on as her own even though doing so threatens her career and subjects her to police harassment.

She does so in part because Maximilian’s story recalls her own family’s victimization at the hands of the Turkish government. While Maya was raised as a proud Turkish citizen, she’s grappling with her paternal grandmother’s deathbed confession that she is a survivor of the Armenian Genocide; she only lived through the massacre, which claimed her family’s lives, because a Muslim family hid her. (An additional burden: Maya is the only member of her family to know this startling history.) On the other hand, as the novel progresses, Maya learns that men belonging to her maternal grandmother’s Turkic tribe fought alongside the Germans during World War II in auxiliary units known as the Tatar Legions. After the war the Turkish government, eager to ally itself with the Soviet Union, shipped the soldiers, as well as women and children who had not actively collaborated, east for summary execution. Maya’s grandmother, who lost her entire family, only avoided that fatal journey — which was, in effect, a sort of pogrom — by jumping off a loaded boxcar into a river. For Maya, honoring Nadia’s story is also about doing justice to her grandmothers, both of whom fell victim to the myth of an ethnically and politically homogeneous Turkish state. She comes to see Turkey’s sordid WWII history as part of the broader story of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which initiated a brutal period marked by several intertwined episodes of ethnic cleansing.

“Serenade for Nadia,” in a rare achievement, considers those histories side by side, as distinct but connected parts of the same story. Up until the past few years, popular wisdom held that the European nationalist energies contributing to WWII were successfully curbed in its aftermath. But in his portrayal of modern-day Turkey, Livaneli evokes a world in which unrestrained nationalism has continued to evolve, with complex and often tragic consequences. Denial of the atrocities that took place during Turkey’s formative years is so entrenched in the highest echelons of Turkish society that Maya’s brother Necdet, a successful career soldier, repudiates his paternal grandmother when Maya tells him about her heritage, alleging that Armenians “spread lies about genocide to defame Turkey.” This long-standing inability to hold the government accountable has facilitated the rise of the modern surveillance state in which the novel’s current action plays out.

Comparing the WWII-era suffering of Jews to that of ethnic minorities under the Turkish government doesn’t cheapen either story. Instead, it compellingly illustrates how the nationalist ideologies that helped fuel the Holocaust can play out when left unchecked. Livaneli uses Maya and Maximilian’s stories to argue against exceptionalizing the Holocaust. Only when considered in context with other genocides, he suggests, can it give insight into ongoing authoritarian regimes.

While “Serenade for Nadia” effectively evokes a chilling political situation, the novel slips when it tries to propose a cure. In the novel’s abrupt conclusion, Maya prepares to publish an account of Maximilian’s life. Her pesky surveillers, who objected to even Maxilimian’s presence in the country, have conveniently vanished, as have the obstacles she faced as a woman in the academic world. So, after advocating for an unsparing pursuit of historical truth throughout the novel, Livaneli abdicates it for a fairy-tale denouement. While the novel argues convincingly that the suppression of historical memory fuels nationalism, this unsatisfying ending makes clear what Livaneli seems reluctant to confess: that no one can point to any foolproof defense against it.

Irene Katz Connelly writes about culture and entertainment. You can contact her at [email protected].

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