Book Title: Last Train to Istanbul
Author: Ayse Kulin
Translated from Turkish by: John W. Baker
Stories of the second World War hold a very special place in the hearts of most bibliophiles. These are stories of heartbreak, of atrocities and of cruelty beyond imagination and also stories of friendship and love and bravery beyond reason.
If like me, WWII stories fascinate you, then The Last Train to Istanbul is a must read. Each time I stumble upon a book like this I realise just how many countries and how many lives were part of the War.
I had no idea Turkey was home to so many jews. Way back in 1492 Don Ferdinand, the King of Spain, commanded all Jews to leave the country (giving up all their material possessions) because they were considered non-believers. The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey at that time, Beyazid II made them welcome in his country and that’s how a large number of them made it their home.
That’s just a side-story of course. But isn’t it interesting? The history of the Jews is so full of struggle. It’s amazing how they manage to pick themselves, and by sheer acumen, rise up again and again.
Getting on with the story..
The Last Train to Istanbul tells the story of two sisters Sabiha and Selva, daughters of a well-to-do Pasa in the Turkish Government. While Sabiha falls in love and marries a diplomat Macit, Selva falls for a Jew, Rafael Alfandari. The Jews had lived for centuries in Turkey, but marriages between the two communities were not accepted. In order to get away from parental disapproval Selva and Rafael move to Paris which is already home to a thriving community of Turkish Jews. When War arrives in France and the Nazis take over, Jewish families are no longer safe.
The Turkish government, then negotiates a safe passage for its people from Paris to Turkey, to get as many of them as possible on that last train to Istanbul. In doing so it saves not just Turkish Jews but as many people as it possible could.
What I loved
Most of the WWII stories I’ve read have had to do with the lives of ordinary people – how they hid from the Nazis or survived the concentration camps. I had little idea of what went on in the diplomatic circles. The Last Train to Istanbul gives a glimpse of talks and negotiations across the table through Macit’s eyes, who is a high-ranking diplomat.
What a delicate line it must have been for neutral counties to tread! In the end of course no one remained neutral but there were countries like Turkey that only wanted to save their people Jews or not, without giving in either to all-powerful Germany or to Britain and Russia; countries which did not have a big enough army yet did not want to the compromise their freedom.
The political intrigue is wrapped up with Sabiha and Selava’s individual stories and that made it more interesting.
I loved the early bits in the book about life in Turkey. Come to think of it, Turkey is a rather unique country positioned as it is between Asia and Europe. It mixes up a variety of cultures to come up with something quite its own.
The book also tells stories of people like David, a carefree young man who steps out for an evening with his friends only to be rounded up by the Nazis and sent to camp. There’s Siegfried a brilliant scientist who disguises himself to escape the Germans and there’s Ferit an active member of the secret service that helps the Jews.
What could have been better
Sabiha suffers from depression and there’s a whole episode with her psychologist that I thought was completely irrelevant to the story.
Also, the final train journey turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. While I did understand the danger the people were in as they passed through Germany from right under the noses of the Nazis, much of it was built up without help from the author, simply because I had so much WWII background. The book itself threw up few surprises and the climax was not developed at all leaving me disappointed.
Yet, I will say, this is a book that should be read.
Last Thought: A must read for behind-the-scenes intrigue that goes on between world leaders during war.
To buy the book click the image below.
Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you buy the book on Amazon through this link, I will get a referral fee, at no additional cost to you.