Back during World Book Week, I came across Last Train to Istanbul and was taken by its striking cover. I know I shouldn’t judge books based on how they look, but I can’t help it. I’ve blogged before about this, but pretty covers have yet to fail me. Maybe there really is something about how judging a book by its cover, but in a good way?
Last Train to Istanbul looked great, but it was so much more than I ever imagined. I love the silhouette of the train with an image of Paris, all surrounded by the lush red pattern that screams Turkey. So I figured the train would be leaving Paris and heading to Istanbul.
What drew me in from the start was the true story it was based upon. I could picture the characters actually doing many of the things author Ayse Kulin wrote in the story. I also loved how so many characters put their lives on the line to do the right thing and save people from the Nazis. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose, yet they still went out on a limb for people they didn’t know or had no other connection to other than being fellow residents of Paris or fellow Europeans. In many ways, we’re back to 1933–or have never left it–and I wonder if people today would have the heart to do what some in the diplomatic corps and resistance did back then. I hope we never have to find out.
The premise of the story is that a Muslim woman named Selva from a prominent Turkish family marries–against the will of her family–a Jewish man named Rafo from a prominent medical family in Istanbul. His family is against the marriage, too. So the couple decides to move to Paris, where they can live together in peace.
Selva’s sister, Sabiha, is married to a Turkish diplomat named Macit. Even though Sabiha’s family stopped talking to Selva after she married Rafo, the sisters both miss each other terribly. And when Sabiha realizes that the Jews in France are doomed after the Vichy government takes over, she will do anything she can to get her sister back. Macit himself works hard to get the Turks in France back to Turkey since their country remains neutral during the war. Because of this neutrality, Turkey is allowed to send a train to Paris to bring their citizens in France back to Istanbul.
What follows is a daring escape and what really made my pulse race is how the Turkish government went out of its way to bring non-Turkish Jews to Istanbul so they could save them from the camps. The train escape itself was like something from a movie (although it really happened, so it was even more daring) and I often had to put the book down just to catch my breath.
I’m so glad I found this book. It’s been translated into over 25 languages and I can see why. I didn’t know much about Turkey’s role in WWII and how it was a safe haven for people of all religions. That has completely changed now and it’s really tragic. We need more places like that in the world, but unfortunately many other countries that have traditionally allowed immigrants are now shutting themselves off, too.