Friday, May 1, 2020

Last Train to Istanbul

I was late for the train (pun intended) in reading this 2013 historical novel about Turkish and non-Turkish Jews escaping Hitler's grasp. It takes place from 1941 through 1943. The story is based on the real life efforts of Turkish diplomats to save Jews from death.

The publisher's summary of the plots is as follows:

"As the daughter of one of Turkey's last Ottoman pashas, Selva could win the heart of any man in Ankara. Yet the spirited young beauty only has eyes for Rafael Alfandari, the handsome Jewish son of an esteemed court physician. In defiance of their families, they marry, fleeing to Paris to build a new life.  
But when the Nazi's invade France and begin rounding up Jews, the exiled lovers will learn that nothing - not war, not politics, not even religion - can break the bonds of family. For after they learn that Selva is but one of their fellow citizens trapped in France, a handful of brave Turkish diplomats hatch a plan to spirit the Alfarandis and hundreds of innocents, many of whom are Jewish, to safety. Together, they must traverse a war-torn continent, crossing enemy lines and risking everything in a desperate bid for freedom."

The story has a lot of tension.  There is the tension between Selva and her father, who refuses to forgive his Muslim daughter for marrying a Jew. However, the tension concerning the advancing Nazis into France is what drove most of the plot.  While the beginning of the story was interesting, it took me awhile to get into it.  Once Selva and Rafael decided they must flee France and return to Istanbul, the plot action ratcheted up and I could not stop reading until I finished the book. All of the Turks who were on the train fleeing Hitler were tense each moment that they were on the train. Those who were Jewish were additionally tense. They not only had to fear seeing Germn soldiers when pulling into each station on the way home, they also had to fear the German soldiers who were on board conducting random inspections of each passenger's papers. Any raised eyebrow, glance or wrong accent could give them away.

The story was educational. I had never before heard about the Turks saving Jews during WWII. The author made history come alive with her captivating writing. It did not seem like I was reading a history lesson but, in fact, I was. I also liked that the setting was inside Turkey. There are few historical fiction books that take place there and it was enjoyable to read about a new (to me) country. Another interesting feature was to see how the Jews viewed the advancement of the German army throughout Europe each time it happened. Each advancement was viewed a little differently and they could only guess whether or not they were in extreme danger and needed to flee. This is a viewpoint that I had never even thought about before reading this novel.

The Last Train to Istanbul is must reading not only for historical fiction fans but also for young adults. I think it would be beneficial for younger readers to see how Europeans felt when the German army began to take over their continent.  5 out of 5 stars!


  1. Oh yes... The Turks were actually quite good during WWII. And in fact, Turkey has historically been very good to their very small Jewish community. They also were pro-Israel until only recently, with their latest leader, who has become a dictator. Shame, that.

  2. This sounds really interesting. I must confess I don't know much at all about the Turkish experience during WWII. WWI, yes. WWII, no.