He Didn't Say Uncle
But Salvador Taranto lived to become one.

The Wall Street Journal, Friday, January 20, 2006

Working for a newspaper, I often feel as though I'm observing history from a ringside seat. When I visited Istanbul a few years ago, my favorite uncle, Salvador Taranto, told me the story of a direct encounter with history--an encounter in which history might easily have swallowed him up.

It was late December 1942. Salvador, my father's elder half-brother, was a 25-year-old Turkish citizen living in Marseilles, in the south of France, which the German army had occupied the month before. He was also a Jew. (When I tell people my last name, they often ask if I'm Canadian, since the English pronunciation is similar to "Toronto." In fact, Taranto is of Italian origin and is a common Jewish name in Istanbul, where my father was born and raised.)

The Nazis were not yet deporting Jews from Marseilles, but Salvador wisely decided to leave. "I wrote a letter to the Ministry of Interior [in Vichy, the occupation capital], telling that I am a Turkish citizen of Jewish religion, and, as you don't want foreigners and Jews in France, I would like to receive my exit visa."

Salvador was called to the local prefecture and asked to present his passport. He complied, though he feared it would be confiscated. But the news was good. "OK, you have an exit visa from France," a local bureaucrat told him. "But you have to leave within three or four days." There were no passenger ships to Istanbul, Salvador recalled, so the only way to get there was by rail. "The next day, I took the train--I left."

He traveled overnight to Milan and went to the Consulate of Croatia, a nominally independent fascist puppet state. There he made the mistake of saying he was Jewish. "After half an hour, they told me, 'Sorry, you cannot have a Croatian visa.' " He waited outside, and when the consul left for lunch, Salvador confronted him to demand an explanation. "I know that you are [a] Jew," the diplomat told him, "so I cannot give the visa."

Salvador proceeded to the Turkish Consulate, where he was advised to travel on. Aboard the train, a passport-control officer told him that before he even got to Croatia he would need a German visa to travel through another portion of occupied Yugoslavia. He got off in Trieste, Italy, and went to the German Consulate, where he applied the lesson he had learned in Milan. The Germans asked his religion, and he said "Musulman"--French for Muslim. They asked his parents' names. He said his mother was "Aisha," a common Turkish name, "instead of Rebecca," because, as he told me, "Rebecca is a name [that is] 100% Jew." His father's first name, Vitali, was Italian, so it didn't arouse suspicion. He got a visa, valid for 24 hours.

Then came the most unnerving part of the journey. A border guard at the Italian city of Postumia (now Postojna, Slovenia) turned him back, saying his visa was valid only at Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia), some 50 miles away. To get there before the visa expired, he had to hitch a ride on a freight train. When he crossed into German-occupied territory, a Nazi officer wearing a swastika armband was waiting to greet him.

"He told me, 'Welcome.' He brought me to a wooden house: 'You will sleep here.' " It was dinnertime, and the train onward would not come until morning. In the officers' mess, a large portrait of Hitler hung on the wall, looking down on Salvador. After a meal of soup and bread, it was on to the guesthouse. "I didn't undress, because . . . I thought they were looking at what I was doing. . . . I didn't sleep, because I was afraid." In the morning one of the Nazis summoned him when the train arrived. In an act of kindness that today is hard to fathom, the Nazi gave him "a big piece of bread" to tide him over for the trip.

Arriving in Croatia and still lacking a visa, Salvador bribed a border officer, exchanging a necktie for passage. He got through Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and Sofia, Bulgaria, without major incident. But when he reached Turkey, the border guard confiscated his passport. On arrival in Istanbul, he was arrested. His offense: dodging the draft. He joined up and served "three years and 13 days." Turkey remained neutral in the war, so he never saw combat.

Salvador stayed in Istanbul and took over the family import-export business. In 1955 he married Loretta "Lala" Margulies. Together more than 50 years, they have two daughters: Cecile, who still lives in Istanbul, and Karen, who settled in--of all places--Toronto.

Now 88, Salvador has been seriously ill of late, but his escape has already earned him more than six decades of life. When he left Marseilles in 1942, Rica Crespin--his aunt and my great-aunt--still lived there, as did her 35-year-old son, Benjamin, and his wife, Claire. On Dec. 24, 1943, almost exactly a year after Salvador's departure, Claire bore a son, Michel.

Like Salvador, the three generations of Crespins left Marseilles by rail headed east. According to family records, they departed May 20, 1944, on train No. 74. Their story, unlike Salvador's, will never be told. None of them made it out of Auschwitz alive.

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